A Laramie Tale for Halloween
Jess’ gun seemed to find its way into his hand of it’s own volition. He pushed himself upright from the wall against which he had sagged as the waves of nausea had swept over him. He would not allow himself to consider whose ear it was, or just how it had been torn from its owner. Nor could he afford to dwell on how such damage could be done without him hearing something. He couldn’t afford to think on such things and stay sane.
Instead he pushed all conscious thought to the back of his mind and allowed his body to be driven onwards by instinct alone. The instinct to find and save those he loved, his family. He should have called out to them, yelled for Slim to come help, but none of these reactions occurred to his numbed mind. Besides, that primitive part of all of us that still saw ghosts in the darkness kept telling him it wouldn’t make any difference, he was trapped in is own private hell and there was no one to hear him cry out.
Staggering forward, heedless now of the damage he did to himself as he careened into the heavy furniture, Jess doggedly followed the trail. No longer a series of increasingly larger spots of blood, it had grown to a river of red that seemed to fill his sight and mind.
Time lost all meaning, as he moved forward, his footsteps keeping pace with the litany of recrimination that ran through his brain ‘My fault, all my fault. I have to find them. Save them. I’m responsible for this. It’s all my fault.’
Unexpectedly his foot connected with something to send it skittering across the floor. The sound snapped him out of his dark thoughts and he lowered the light to see what he had kicked.
“Oh, Good Lord, No. It can’t be!” Jess shocked voice tore through the silence and echoed back to him. There, lying at the end of the blood trail was another ear, the perfect mirror image of the first.
Jess involuntarily backed away from the grisly sight, his mind trying to deny the implications of this second grisly discovery.
Something soft hit him in the small of his back, and then moved away, only to come back and strike him softly again. Jess froze. His shocked mind was telling him he really didn’t want to see what was behind him, swinging slowly back and forth since he had backed into it. But he had to know, even if knowing confirmed his worse fears.
Slowly, gun at the ready, he turned, his eyes fixed at the level of the object that had hit him repeatedly in the small of his back. A pair of small muddy brown boots registered, then his eyes traveled upwards, taking in the dirtied up tan pants. His gaze lingered longer on the small hands still wearing the all too familiar black gloves, then moved upwards once more, finally coming to rest on the distorted but still recognizable face of the child he had come to love like a younger brother.
A steady flow of blood ran down the blue, bloated cheeks, unchecked, even in death, from the ragged remains of skin that once connected to two small ears. The small head fell limply to one side, the neck having been broken by the thick rope fastened securely around it. But the greatest horror of all was the brown eyes, so soft and loving in life, but now bulging, unblinking in death, as if accusing Jess of abandoning him to this grisly fate.
Mike’s body swung slowly to and fro, the thick rope easily supporting the child’s weight. ‘It should’vee been me. How many times have I cheated hangin?. It should’ve been me. My fault, I caused this’ came unbidden into Jess shocked mind. The accusing voice seemed to whisper through his brain, seeking his now frail sanity wherever it tried to hide.
He had to find a knife. He had to cut Mike down. Jess was too late to save the child, but he couldn’t leave him hanging there, a grotesque reminder of Jess’ own failure to protect his new family.
Of their own volition, Jess’ feet had been shuffling backwards, away from the small body that swung slowly to and fro. Suddenly they came into contact with another object. The sudden impact almost sent Jess off balance, but finally honed reflexes came into play and he spun, his gun raised and ready to face the new threat.
Jess should have been expecting to see Daisy. He should have known she would not abandon Mike willingly. She was there, sitting poised in a high-backed chair, staring directly at Jess, and Mike.
The tiny voice of logic in Jess’ mind was there again, its warning cry trying to pierce his numbed mind. Daisy was unmoving, glassy eyes staring. She made no move towards him, had obviously made no move to aide Mike. The whole thing was wrong, and Jess knew it, but didn’t want to accept it.
He moved the lamp closer, not wanting to , but needing to see the truth of it. The lamplight glinted back at him from a smooth metal surface and as he moved it closer, he saw the kitchen knife as it rested in Daisy’s lap, her fingers curled around it. Blood marred its surface, the sharp edge stained crimson.
Looking directly to the face of the older woman that had come to be a mother to him, Jess stared at the dull, lifeless eyes. The cause of her death was easily seen. Like a second mouth, a hugh slash curved upward in a crimson mockery of a smile from ear to ear across Daisy’s neck.
His mind refusing to accept what his eyes were telling him, Jess again looked into her dead eyes, and gagged as he registered the further mutilation that had been done. Daisy’s mouth was open, a door to hell, blood trailed lazily from the slack lips, flowing sluggishly from the stump that marked where her sweet tongue had once been.
His gun dropped from his nerveless fingers, and Jess staggered away from the grisly site. He turned and doubled over as his stomach heaved and spilled its contents onto the shiny floor. Immediately the mess he had made disappeared as if an invisible and uncaring hand had cleaned it.
Still, even when there was nothing more left to come, his body retched and heaved, as if it was trying to cleanse itself of the horrors of this night from Hell. Tears streamed from his eyes, forced out both by the need to release the emotions that where threatening to tear his soul apart, and the physical pain of the shock that gripped his body, causing him to retch and shake violently.
He had failed them both. He should have been there for them, protected them from the madness that had claimed their lives. Anger arose within Jess, born of his feelings of helplessness and failure. It started as a cold knot in his stomach and grew, until it was a raging fire, an all-consuming need. There was nothing he could do for them now except find their killer and make them pay with their own life.
All logic left Jess, driven out by loss and grief. He turned his back completely on the devastation that represented his family and stumbled away, back the way he had come. A sound up ahead, a soft footfall, caught his attention, and without heed for his own safety he quickened his pace, eager for vengeance and resolution of his guilt.
Once more, he found himself in the entrance room that had seemed to offer salvation such a short time ago, and now was so obviously the start of his journey into Hell. Eyes narrowed, he searched the gloom, seeking the source of the sound to know avail.
Then it came again, the creak of someone putting his or her foot on a loose stair. Jess spun, his need to tear into the killer, this destroyer of his world with his bare hands governing his every move.
Jess saw the shadowy outline of the intruder at the top of the stairs, illuminated by the glow of the lamp it carried. Whoever it was, they appeared unaware of Jess as he stood tensed almost directly opposite the foot of the stairs.
Too far gone in his grief and anger, Jess ignored the small voice of reason that kept trying to question the appearance of a grand staircase in a room that had not had such an unmistakable addition earlier.
As the figure came closer, Jess dropped to a crouch ready to take it down the moment they were close enough. Yet with every step closer the now unmistakably male figure took, a familiarity started to register in Jess shocked mind. A tiny spark of normality started to grow, and with it a sense of relief. Finally Jess’ fogged brain allowed its self to relax slightly, as he recognized the familiar outline of his best friend, Slim Sherman. A lingering voice kept telling him there was something wrong with what he was seeing, but his need for a return to a familiarity that offered security silenced his nagging doubts.
As the figure reached the foot of the stairs, Jess released the breath he was holding, as the light showed him the familiar features of his one remaining anchor to sanity in this nightmare. He stepped out of the shadows into the circle of light cast by the lamp.
“Slim! Thank God, you’re alive!” Jess’ voice sounded harsh, his throat tight with emotion and roughened by his recent vomiting.
“Well of course I am, Pard. What on earth’s gotten into you? Are you ill?” Slim’s voice sounded out, offering an anchor back to normality. He looked around the room. “Say, where are Daisy and Mike?”
For one brief moment, Jess had felt he had awakened from a bad dream, that if he glanced over towards the fireplace he would see his dear family sitting there, but the bloated face of Mike swum across his vision and he blurted out, “They’re dead Slim. Murdered.”
The floodgates of emotion opened and Jess sagged back, seeking support from the wall behind him. “I f-failed them Slim. I-I should’ve been there for them. I should’ve stopped it somehow.”
“What on earth are you talking about, Jess. Is this your idea of a joke. Daisy and Mike are right behind you. They’ve just walked back into the room,” Slims voice echoed through Jess’ head, seeming to fade in and out as Jess felt his grasp on reality start to fade again.
Forcing himself upright, Jess
turned to look back the way he had come. There, a denser shadow against the
other shadows, he could make out the shape of his beloved Daisy as she held Mike
firmly by the hand and led him towards the light.
Relief flooded through Jess. Then the shock hit him hard. He reached out a shaking hand to Slim and grasped his arm firmly. He needed to feel the solid flesh, to use it as an anchor to reality. ‘What the heck is happening to me?’
“Jess, are you okay, Pard? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Slim stared hard at him. “Is your head bothering you?”
That last comment hit home. ‘Yes. That must be it. I must’ve hit my head harder than I thought last night’. Holding desperately on to that thought, Jess turned back to Slim as he replied. “Yeah. I reckon I must have rattled my brains a lot more than I thought.” But even as he said it, Jess’ inner voice was nagging at him again. Something was not quite right still, but he couldn’t clarify what it was, and he was so desperate for normalcy that he did not want to question further.
Instead he asked, “Daisy, where have you and Mike been?” Despite a deep need to embrace Daisy and Mike, he was still looking at Slim as he spoke, unable to identify what it was about his best friend that was bothering him, but aware something was odd.
Soft feminine laughter came from over his left shoulder. “Oh really Jess, If I didn’t know better I’d swear you had been fretting about us. Don’t you think we can take care of ourselves? I assure you we can.”
The reply was oddly incongruous, coming from Daisy. Before Jess could turn to her, Slim stepped in close to him, placing his hands against the wall on either side of Jess’ shoulders. “Why, Jess, I’d say you were working yourself up a storm of guilt. Typical of you isn’t it? If there is no trouble around for you to take the blame for, then you go stir up a lot of imaginary problems, just so you can chew yourself out.”
Jess stiffened. This wasn’t the Slim he knew like a brother talking. ‘Sure, Slim knows I can get a little hard on himself at times, and I know I draw trouble like a magnet a times, but he also knows I do know right and wrong, and how I feel about Daisy and Mike.’
There was no way the real Slim Sherman would say such a thing to him. ‘The real Slim Sherman. That’s it!’ Jess thought. “This isn’t real, they aren’t real. This is all in my head. It’s that darn hit on my thick skull last night. Okay, time to wake up, Harper,” Jess pinched himself hard on his forearm. It sure hurt like it was real, and yet nothing changed, Slim was still standing directly in front of him, staring at him with those dull, unblinking eyes.
Then it came to him, that one small fact that had been eating at him since Slim had come down the stairs to meet him. Jess’ lightening fast reflexes came into play as his right hand snaked out and snatched Slims’ gun from its holster. The same swift movement brought it up to point directly at Sims gut.
“Back off, Slim, I mean it!” Jess’ voice was low and deadly, its steady tone belying the fact he was shaking inside.
Slim obligingly stepped back a foot or so. “What’s this all about, Jess? Gosh darn it, if this is your idea of a joke, it isn’t funny any more.”
Ignoring him, Jess glared into the cold dull depths of the eyes of the ‘thing’ masquerading as Slim. “Your limp, Slim! Where’s it gone? You could barely take a step without that makeshift crutch when I left you. Now your steppin’ out like nothing happened. Just who, w--what,” he corrected himself, “the hell are you?”
The familiar soft drawl left Slim’s voice, to be replaced by an oily, smooth voice that held no hint of place origin at all. “Ahh! How very astute of you, Mister Harper. Or perhaps I should call you Jess. After all, you are to be our honoured dinner guest.” A slight attempt at a smile accompanied that last remark. “Yes. I do believe I will call you Jess. That will be a much more appropriate form of address, given I anticipate a long ‘friendship’ developing between us.”
The gun in Jess’ hand waved threateningly at the creature masquerading as his best friend. “Where in tarnation are Slim, and the others? What have you done with them? Tell me, or you’ll be chewing on lead.” Jess’ voice was deadly as he delivered his ultimatum. Unfortunately the effect was not what he had hoped for.
“Oh come now, Jess. You are behaving in a very ungracious manner. After all, my family and I have been ever so welcoming, allowing you shelter in our ‘humble’ abode, providing all the comforts of home.” The blonde’s head nodded briefly in the direction of the table and chaise lounge. “ Why, we have even gone to all the trouble of putting on a little entertainment for you.”
“Cut the crap! Where are they?” Jess’ voice raised an octave, raspy from fear for his friends.
“Very well. I can see there will be no reasoning with you until you know. But first allow me to introduce your hosts.” A red glow seemed to dance in the speaker’s eyes, replacing the light blue pupils that had always offered Jess reassurance and advice, even in the worse of times.
A cold dread was spreading through Jess as he anticipated the next words, but he steeled himself to listen. He had to know. Fixing those glowing eyes with his own steely gaze, he commanded, “ Get on with it.”
“Tut, tut. Why must the young be so impatient? One should take one’s time over things, savouring the delights of the changing emotions, wringing every last drop of emotion from a situation. No matter, it will be my pleasure to educate you, no matter how long it takes. In fact, from our point of view, the longer the better.” The speaker saw the taught muscle in Jess’ cheek twitch, and wisely decided I was time for an end to prevarication. It was time for the real fun to begin.
I am Isaiah Jacob Anderson. This is my house you have entered uninvited, but welcome none the less. My family was well known and respected in Salem, where they had lived for several generations.” A sharp intake of breath from Jess interrupted Isaiah. “I see you recognise the name for the despicable place that it was.”
“I heard about the Salem witch trials, but that was a couple of hundred of years ago. It was a tale to tell children to scare them on dark nights. What’s that got to do with anything?” Jess jaw ached with the tension he felt building there, a further aggravation to his mounting headache.
“Merely background, Jess. Setting the scene, as it where.” Again that half smile lifted the corners of the pale mouth. “I ruled supreme in my family, a respected member of the town council by day. At night, I was the warlock that led the coven of the most notorious witches in Salem. Indeed, it was the power granted me by Satan in return for my sacrifices in his name that enabled me and my family to enjoy a rich life. We where indeed blessed by the Dark Lord, until the Witch Finder general came, during the witch trials”
At the memory of the start of his downfall, Isaiah’s eyes grew brighter, a festering anger feeding their fires. “It was fun at first, to see those innocents burnt at the stake for witches, screaming their innocence as the fires licked at their bodies. But then fingers started pointing in my direction. At first we thought we would be safe, untouchable behind Satan’s protection, but the forces of good broke the defences surrounding us. The coven and I had to flee in the night. Many of the lesser members of the coven perished in the flight, victims of the religious zealots.”
Unable to stop himself, Jess found himself speaking. His voice carried a bitter edge. “You seem to have survived.”
“Indeed I did , as did my two High Priestesses. It is a very true saying that the Devil takes care of his own. We escaped with most of my fortune in gold intact. We went west and with prudent investment, we managed to double our assets. Satan continued to grant us his bounty, but as people grew suspicious over the number of mutilated sacrifices that were found locally, we moved again. This last time we picked an area where life was less civilised. People came and went so frequently that no one took much notice of the comings and goings of folk. It was a good time for us. We were able to increase the frequency of our little ceremonies, and Our Master raised us up in his ranks of followers.” Isaiah’s face was aglow with fervour as he finished his little speech.
Jess recalled what Slim had said about the rich recluse that had disappeared. He couldn’t resist a token verbal resistance, futile as it may be. “Seems I recall the only place around these parts was a ruin. The family disappeared sudden like. That don’t sound like a rich reward from where I’m standing.” He desperately wanted to bring this conversation to an end. He needed to find the real Slim and the others, but instinct told him that if he was to achieve his goal, then he needed to hear Isaiah out.
Slim/Isaiah’s posture changed, he seemed to grow in stature and loom over Jess. “ The cursed Witch Hunter’s didn’t give up. They where a scourge to our kind, and though it took them years, they tracked us down. This time they burnt the house to the ground, with us in our beds. When there was nothing left but burning embers, they left as silently as they had come, and the memory of us drifted into legend.”
Isaiah threw his head back, the laugh issuing from Slim’s throat a bitter, scathing sound. “For all their righteousness, they were fools. Once again Satin saved us from the hand of God. Our bodies may have perished, but it was all part of the Dark One’s plan. He breathed new life into us, blessing us with eternal life and the power to wreck havoc amongst mortal men.”
Feeling a need to deflate this self-centred creature that had him cornered, Jess sneered his response. “ I reckon you ain’t been that well done by. I don’t recall any-one speaking about you or your havoc round these parts lately.”
Jess found Slim’s face inches from his own, the blonde’s hands locked on Jess’ shirtfront. Powerful muscles lifted him bodily upwards, his feet leaving the floor, and yet he still chose not to use his gun. Whether this was from the need to find out the truth, or the fact that whatever Isaiah claimed to be, the hands holding him belonged to someone who was Slim down to the last hair on his head. Suddenly he was flung up and away, as if he weighed nothing more than a rag doll. He hit the wall hard, his head snapping backwards to encounter the wall briefly, before his legs gave way and he slid downwards to come to a stop sitting against the same wall.
“Almost!” boomed Isaiahs voice, and the soft laughter of a woman and child joined in. “You almost succeeded in getting me to kill you. But you will not catch me out again. We have plans for you, as I said. It matters not that we are constrained by the fact that those witch hunters had trapped our spirits on earth within the confines of the land that once belonged to me. On each All Hallows Eve we are free to take the lives of those who stray into our domain. Free to play with their lives, and feed on their pain and fear. We grow stronger with each victim we claim. There will come a time when we will be completely free again”
“Sure, and my name’s Jesse James. Cut to the facts, where’s Slim and Daisy and Mike.” Jess’ head was throbbing, and he was seeing stars, but he managed to sound like he could be a real threat, should he choose to be so. As he spoke he pushed back against the wall, using it to lever himself back onto his shaky legs.
“Yes, yes, I am coming to that, after all, they are part of the entertainment we have provided for you. Let’s see,” Isaiah made a great show of looking at the two familiar figures, still partly hidden in the deeper shadows of the room. “Yes, I think we will start with Mike. That would be most appropriate.”
The smaller figure moved closer as Isaiah waved Mike forward before continuing to speak. His voice seemed to cut through Jess’ flesh like an icy knife. “ Little Mike came to you in rather tragic circumstances, did he not? Of course, you naturally took him under your wing. I know both you and Slim took him in, but he was always special to you, wasn’t he Jess? That must have been because he reminded you of your own lost family and childhood.”
“How the Hell do you know?” Jess asked, although somehow he knew he wouldn’t like the answer.
“It is easily read for those who have the will and the way to do so. You wear your heart on your sleeve, Jess, though you think you keep it hidden beneath that rugged exterior. Slim and Daisy, but especially you, Jess, all tried to protect Mike, trying to give him a safe childhood. Did you hope to assuage some of that guilt you carry with you since the fire by protecting Mike? It did not work though. Do you remember how chewed up you where when Mike got shot? You couldn’t protect him then, any more than you could save your own family. You failed him just as you failed them, Jess.”
Jess felt his gut tighten, the old feelings forcing themselves forward from where he had buried them, so long ago. He opened his mouth to speak, to protest, but no sound came out.
“It really is not polite to interrupt, Jess, and I can not abide impoliteness. I am afraid I have to insist that you remain quiet and hear me out.” Isaiah stepped back, but his hot gaze held Jess transfixed, trapped, an unwilling audience to the unfolding tale. “Mike knew that you tried to protect him from the truths of life. He asked questions, out of concern and a need to know, but you all glossed over the truth, giving him excuses, half truths to save him from the ‘pain’ of the real world.”
Turning, Isaiah looked out from Slim’s eyes, a cruel grin on his features, as he faced Mike. “It was very appropriate, don’t you think, that Daisy, possessed by Elisha, my high priestess, hacked off his ears. She made sure Mike would ‘Hear no Evil’.”
The small boy stepped forward, his eyes aglow, a close imitation of the flickering evil that could be seen haunting Slim’s eyes. “These are for you, Jess. To say thank you.”
Unable to stop himself, Jess looked down at the ‘gift’ being offered up to him in Mike’s small hands. Jess, gagged, choking on the bile that rose to his throat at the sight of the pair of blood smeared ears that lay in the open palms.
“Mike, Oh, god, Mike. Run, don’t’ let them get you. Get away now” Jess forced out through taut lips. The thing that had once been Mike grinned wickedly back at him, amused by the horror written over the face of the man before it.
“Mike isn’t here any more, Jess,” the voice that came from Mike’s throat was not Mike’s, but a high pitched female sound. “His soul tried to stay in control, even as the pain took him. He struggled well, for one so young, to stop me from controlling his small body, but it was doomed to fail.” Mike turned briefly to glare at ‘Slim’. “It isn’t fair. Next time I want the stronger one. I hardly got to taste the fear and the pain before he faded away and his soul escaped.” Mikes foot stamped impatiently on the wooden floor.
Mike was dead, then, and guilt renewed its attack on Jess’ spirit.
Isaiah’s next words barely registered at first, unable to penetrate his hurting soul. “Now, now, dear, sheath your claws. I am sure you will be more than satisfied before this night is out. Marsha you know it was Elisha’s choice this time.” Isaiah’s oily voice again drew Jess’ unwilling attention.
The creature that was imitating Daisy took up the tale “You will be pleased to know Daisy was made of stronger stuff, Jess. She lasted long enough to see Marsha force Mike to climb up on the stool and place the noose around his head. Her soul was screaming for me to release him, even as she saw the small legs kick and jerk as the rope choked the life from Mike’s body”.
“The flavour of her pain and horror was delicious, the protectiveness of a mother for her family, the willingness to sacrifice herself to spare them.” This time it was Marsha that spoke through Mike’s mouth. “ It was so powerful a feeling even I could sense it through Mike. It grew to a sweet crescendo of agony and despair as I forced Mike to pick up the knife, and while Elisha held her motionless, Mike’s small hand drew forth her tongue and cut it out.”
Jess stomach revolted again and he doubled up as dry heaves claimed his body. The three devil worshippers seemed to revel in his physical pain and mental despair. He tried to raise his hands to his ears, trying to stop himself from hearing the story of destruction unfolding, but it was a fruitless effort. Invisible hands held his arms pinned to his sides and forced him back against the wall, to hold him motionless there.
“Poor Daisy, even as Mike dropped her tongue into her open hands, she was still struggling to scream at him to run. As she watched him hang himself, trapped in a tiny part of her own mind, her soul was crying out to her impotent God to save you all. She was still trying to call for you, Jess, to warn you, even as I made her pick up the knife and slit her own throat. It was only then, as her life fluid bled out, that her soul finally retreated and lost its hold on this world.” Elisha moved in closer to Jess as she spoke, a wide grin showing the empty, bloodied remains of her mouth.
Unable to comprehend how someone without a tongue could speak so clearly, Jess only knew that the words where tearing at his heart, killing him as effectively as any physical injury.
“Do you know why I took her tongue, Jess?” Marsha/Mike asked, as casually as if asking what time it was.
Despair had turned to a mounting anger in Jess, a need to tear apart these gloating creatures that talked of the death of his family so casually. His hands clawed into fists, his own nails digging into his palms deeply enough to draw blood. But still the invisible bonds held him motionless. He failed to notice how the devil’s spawn surrounding him seemed to glow and preen as they fed on his anger and despair. To them it was a feast after a famine. “I--I’ll see you in Hell,” Jess spat out through clenched teeth.
“How delightful you are, Jess,” Elisha slurred from Daisy’s marred mouth. “And how perceptive . That is exactly where we will all be when the time is right.”
Carrying on as if Jess had not uttered a word, Marsha continued, “I took it for you, Jess. It was the next part in our little three-part entertainment. You see, Daisy was such a righteous woman. She never had a bad word for anyone. She was always ready to tell Mike when to behave, and to help you and Slim see the right path to take. Why, she always was quick to defend you especially, Jess. She wouldn’t tolerate any of the gossip about your past. Why, that poor woman even sullied her soul for you.”
Jess had known how protective Daisy was of him. He knew that, just as he had taken her to heart as his surrogate mother, she had reciprocated by accepting him as a surrogate son. However, that last comment stabbed at Jess’ heart more than anything else Marsha had said. Puzzlement and concern replaced anger and hatred for one brief moment in Jess’ expressive eyes. The new emotions added to the melee of ‘tastes’ that the fiends where feeding on. “W--What--?”
“Have you forgotten? Then again perhaps, you never really knew how much it cost her to lie for you.” This time it was Isaiah that took up the story again, his red eyes glowing with increasing power as he fed on Jess’ despair and grief. “You recall, I am sure, that terrible night Slim was shot and left for dead out on the prairie. It was you that helped bring in the culprit, but later, when you found out he was the only one that could take you to Slim, you broke him out of jail and helped him to escape in exchange for him telling you Slim’s where about.”
Listening to the oily voice of his tormentor, Jess found himself reliving that terrible time, feeling the despair and desperation he had felt that night. He had known Slim was badly wounded, and that it was likely to freeze that night. He had been left with no choice but to do, as he had in order to save his best friend. ‘But did I need to involve Daisy?’ He found himself asking of his own conscience.
In bringing Slim back to Daisy he had most likely saved Slim’s life, but when the sheriff arrived, searching for Jess, Daisy had lied to protect him and give him a chance to escape. Jess’ face contorted in shock, as he once more felt the pangs of guilt and self-recrimination claim him. He’d had no choice, or so he had thought at the time. Daisy had never anything about it to him at the time, or since, and yet--?
“T--there was no other way---,“ he found himself saying, and yet, under the subversive influence of Isaiah’s voice, doubting his decision even as he said it.
“From that very moment, you sealed her fate, Jess,” Elisha lied, continuing on from Isaiah. “ She was unable to forgive herself for betraying her own principles. That guilt was so pronounced in her mind when I claimed her that it was easy to decide her part in our little play. You see, Jess, Daisy had to lose her tongue. She was perfect for the role of ‘Speak no evil’.
Stepping in so close to Jess, her body pressed against him, Elisha/Daisy held up her clasped hands in front of his face. Literally spellbound, Jess was unable to look away as she opened her hands to reveal her ‘gift’. There, in the palms of Daisy’s small hands, a pink yet bloodied piece of flesh squirmed and wriggled. “ What’s the matter, Jess, don’t you like my gift to you?”
Madness clawed at Jess’ mind, threatening to take him. It would be so simple, just to let go, give in and let the guilt drag him down. Daisy and Mike where dead, and it was due entirely to him. He had sealed their fate by his unwitting actions. They would have been better off if he had never entered their lives.
Around him the three soul vampires seemed to grow, their strength increasing with every stab of guilt Jess felt, with every self-recrimination he inflicted on himself. The food they craved was in plentiful supply in this victim. It had been a long time since they had found one like this, a good man, and yet one that had killed, only to torture himself with remorse at his actions. A man that had been touched by the evil of the world and yet had fought back to save his own soul. He was a feast of emotions, and if they played this right, his soul would feed them for a long time to come, as they tortured and tore at it.
It was a physical pain, not an emotional one, which pulled Jess’ mind back from the brink of madness. Isaiah knew how to take a mortal close to the edge, but not send them over. He had chosen this one well. Jess was strong, he would fight to the end, despite all they would inflict on him, and throughout it all they would feed on him, slowly sucking his soul dry as they ripped him apart physically and emotionally.
The sharp stab in his left arm made Jess look down, breaking the spell. Blood trickled down from the four parallel scratches that showed through the torn cloth. Isaiah raised his hands to reveal dagger like nails at the end of Slim’s fingers. To Jess’ horror, Isaiah/Slim placed the bloodied claws into his mouth, and sucked greedily on Jess’ blood.
If Jess had been any other man, his mind would have slipped into madness long before now, leaving his body an empty husk, of no use to the fiends now toying with him. But Jess was a fighter; his spirit and sense of self would not let him give in, even against impossible odds. It was this strength that added to his attraction to Isaiah and his High Priestesses.
In the past, they had claimed others in this same way, but even the most promising of them had failed to last, as either their mind escaped into madness or their bodies finally succumbed to death. Then only a failing spirit was left, and that to faltered and faded from existence in far too short a time to please Isaiah. Jess promised to so much more than that. Perhaps he would be the one whose life force would be the enough to bring them back into the physical world again, to roam the living world every day, and not just on this night of the dead.
“I see I have your attention again Jess.” It was Slim’s face that looked earnestly at Jess, but it was Isaiah’s demon spirit that glowed ever stronger in the once clear blue eyes. “ You must not let your attention wander so much. Our little play is almost over and I can assure you, the last act is the supreme climax, the perfect finale before we begin the feast.”
“I ain’t gotta do nothing, ‘cept send you all back to Hell.” Jess’ anger was back in full force. It was his protection, his shield against the pain of loss that threatened to engulf him.
“Now that is so much better. I can see I have the focus of your attention now,” Isiah gloated, basking in the energy Jess’ anger released, knowing that it would multiply a hundred fold as the final part of the drama unfolded. “ Careful, Jess, you do not want to raise me to anger.”
“ Reckon you’ve done your worse. Killing me now would be a mercy. You’ve taken my family, only thing I’ve got left is revenge!” Jess was shouting now, screaming his defiance at the devil spawn that cavorted around him.
Once more, Isaiah reached forward, his hand fastening around Jess, throat. Its touch was like a burning lance that speared his throat and stole his air. “You are mistaken, Jess. Daisy and Mike’s souls may have escaped our clutches, but Slim is still very much here. He is in a little corner of this body, shouting and smashing at the ‘walls’ I have put up around him and his physical body. He can see, hear and feel everything but he is powerless to stop me, trapped in his own body and under my control. Would you like to speak to him, Jess. A chance to say your goodbyes.”
Jess suddenly found himself released, once more able to move freely. No longer held upright by an invisible force, his knees sagged and his legs threatened to give way under him. Drawing on reserves of strength he didn’t know he had, Jess lunged forward, aiming to take Isaiah down.
His body, propelled by an anger and need for revenge like none Jess had felt before, hit Isaiah with enough force to take him down. Jess was astride Isaiah, the advantage, for a moment at least, clearly his. His right fist connected with Isaiah’s jaw. The force of the blow sent a jarring pain up his arm. It didn’t matter, nothing mattered now that he had Isaiah at his mercy.
Again and again his fists hit home, and Isaiah made no move to defend himself. Jess never stopped to question why, nor why the others just stood and watched. Jess glared at Isaiah, his steely gaze locked with Isaiah’s glowing red orbs. Then a change in the demeanour of the battered face beneath him registered on Jess. He no longer found himself looking into the fiery depths of Hell, but into the pain clouded blue eyes of his Pard.
“S—Slim?” he rasped, not daring to allow himself to hope.
“Jess! For the love of God, Jess, run. Save yourself,” Slim pleaded, desperate to get Jess to understand the danger he was in. Slim, trapped in the prison of Isaiah’s making, had been able to ‘see’ all that Isaiah had planned for his younger friend. Slim new he was doomed, that his mortal life was already forfeit, but he also knew that his immortal soul could not be touched by these devils. They had the power to take only one soul as the hour struck midnight. Slim knew beyond a doubt that the soul they wanted, craved and needed was Jess’.
“Slim!” Jess ignored the warning. Slim was back in control of his body. It wasn’t too late for him. Jess stood quickly and reached to pull Slim up after him. “We’ve got to getaway from here.”
Slim picked up the gun that Jess had dropped as he had lunged at him just seconds before. “Take this,” he shoved it into Jess’ startled grasp. Slim could feel Isaiah’s black presence writhing within his mind, and knew the warlock had released his control by choice. Isaiah was toying with Jess, and could easily snatch back Slim’s body when it suited him to do so.
Desperate to safe Jess soul, Slim tried again. “It’s too late for me. Shoot me, and while he is weakened, escape.”
Jess recoiled in horror. What was Slim suggesting that he do? He could no more shoot Slim than kill his own sister. Once more he tried to get Slim to move with him. He grabbed at the blondes arm and dragged him towards the door. Isaiah forced Slim to allow himself to be pulled along.
Reaching the door Jess pulled frantically on the handle, aware that earlier the door had refused to open. The handle turned with ease and the door swung open. Cold air hit Jess’ body as he turned to Slim and with one last look back at the two figures of Daisy and Mike he pulled Slim through after him.
Intending to find the quickest route to cover and away from this nightmare, Jess turned to look around, and found himself standing, back to the door, looking into the nightmarishly familiar living room of the house from hell. Daisy and Mike stood exactly where he had left them as he had fled, with Slim in tow, through the front door.
“It’s too late, Jess. I tried to tell you. I’m sorry. I---“ Slim’s voice petered out, his blue eyes clouded and the flickering flames grew within them until they burned bright again. “It is too late, Jess. Slim was quiet correct. If you had shot me, when I let Slim take control again, then you may have escaped. But now you are sealed within this world of my creating, and your soul is forfeit.”
What little hold Jess had managed to retain on reality fell away. He felt as though he was being smothered in a cold darkness. Tremor’s threatened to claim his body, as the icy fingers of death stroked his body. He had been so close. Slim had been there, and they had almost gotten away.
Once more that inner reserve of strength came to his rescue. If Slim had broken free from Isaiah’s control once, then he could do it again. Slim was still in there, if only Jess could find a way to release him again.
“Let him go, you bastard,” Jess steel edged voice demanded of Isaiah. To back his words, Jess again brought his gun up to point directly at Isaiah/Slim.
“It’s too late, Jess. Far too late.” Slim’s lips moved to Isaiah’s command. “and now I must insist you watch the rest of our play.”
Jess felt those unseen hands grasp his body again, holding him immobile and forcing his gun hand down. Isaiah turned away briefly to look at his companions. “Now just where where we in our little tale?” He didn’t wait for their reply, but continued on to answer himself. “ Ah, yes. There is one other member of your special little family that is still with us, and it is only fitting we look at just how you feel about him and vice versa, of course.”
Unable to do anything to physically express his revulsion for the creatures now masquerading as his family, Jess had to content himself by focusing all his anger and hatred into one baleful glare that he cast at Isaiah. He wanted to let go, to simply let his mind fade away, but he could not, would not, give these creatures that satisfaction. So, instead, he held onto his anger and brandished it like a flaming shield in front of him. Little did he suspect that this was one of the emotions that fed the fiends.
“You think on Slim like the older brother you lost to that fire that took your family. Oh, I know that at first the two of you didn’t see eye to eye. Slim was far to law abiding and civilised for you and your wild free ways. It certainly will not surprise you to know that Slim had exactly the opposite view of you. He had a bother to raise and a ranch to run, he couldn’t run the risk of the disruption to his ordered life that a drifter like you would mean. And yet, he did offer you a job, and stood by you through the early difficulties you had when it came to putting down roots. Do you know why he did that Jess?” Isaiah sounded and looked for all the world like a farther teaching his errant son a lesson in life. In fact he was portraying Slim in the older brother and mentor role he had often displayed to Jess when he had thought his younger friend was behaving a little to irresponsibly. Only the Hell fires flickering in the depths of his eyes denied the image he was portraying.
Jess felt the pain of loss stab through his heart as, unbidden; he recalled the many times Slim had brought him back into line with sound advice and the guiding hand of a good friend. Slim had always been able to see the good in Jess, and had repeatedly helped Jess himself to acknowledge the part of him that both wanted and needed a home and a family again.
“I can see by your eyes Jess that you remember how good he was to you. Oh, he didn’t always get it right. In those early days, his reluctance to see any harm in people he thought represented lawful society cost you both dearly. Your innocent friend was hung for murderer, because of Slims believe in the integrity of his friends. He almost got you hung to, when he helped that crooked sheriff take you back to face false charges.” Isaiah enjoyed the discomfort he could feel building in his victims, but his two companions were more aware of the passage of time.
“Hurry up, it must be complete before the witching hour,” Marsha spat out as Elisha vigorously nodded her agreement.
“There is plenty of time yet. Don’t worry. I just want to make sure Jess understands all the finer implications of Slims relationship to him,” came Isaiah’s silky reply.
“I understand, all right,” Jess voice carried a wealth of pain and hurt. “Slim’s a fine man. The best friend and partner a man could ever have. He wasn’t responsible for those things!”
“I do understand, really I do. After all he did change as he grew to know you more. You definitely had an influence on him, Jess, although some may not think it was for the best. He helped you to defy the army and aide your brother in law to escape. That sat very heavy on his conscience, you know, going against all his good honest principles for your sake. Because of you he got into all sorts of trouble. Poor Slim, he tried so hard to life his life by the good book, he gave anyone a chance to prove themselves, trying so hard to see the good in people, even someone with a reputation like yours.”
Knuckles white with strain, Jess had a death grip on the gun in his hand. His shoulders strained as he struggled to break free of the invisible bonds that held him motionless and burned his flesh. Nothing mattered now but to kill the thing that called itself Isaiah
“Do it now, Isaiah,” commanded Elisha, “He is ripe for the picking, now.”
Twin sickly sweet smiles formed on Daisy and Mikes marred features, every fibre of their beings focused on the emotional feast that was about to be served up.
Isaiah partially released his control on Slim one last time.
Sensing there would be no second chance, Slim’s spirit leapt from its prison, “Run, Jess, run. They want your soul. Escape or you’ll be damned for eternity!”
Then Isaiah took control of Slims hands. Jess could see Slims spirit still burning bright in the now clear blue eyes. He saw the beads of sweat form on Slim’s brow as he struggled to prevent his own hands rising to his face. Then the hands covered Slim’s expressive blue eyes, and an agony filled scream filled the air, as the fingers, controlled by Isaiah, slowly and inexplicably clawed the eyes out of their sockets.
Jess almost blacked out, his world filled with kindly blue eyes, that swirled and changed to pools of blood. A claw raked his cheek and brought his mind back to the present.
Controlled by the beings around him, he was unable to shut his eyes or turn away as Isaiah offered up the third and final part of their entertainment. Jess looked, mute with shock, at two bloodied eyes that had once meant home and family to him.
“It is rather fitting, don’t you think, that Slim should represent ‘See no Evil’.” Isaiah looked at Jess from empty, bloodied holes, and yet, it seemed to Jess, the fires of hell still danced there.
“Nooooo!” Whether by the force of his own hatred driven will, or by Isaiah’s design, Jess found he could move again. On instinct alone, his gun hand came up and his finger squeezed the trigger reflexively. Six unerringly accurate shots slammed into Slims still beating heart, as Jess legs gave way and he crumpled to the ground, sobs shaking his body.
“The play is complete now, Jess. Slim is dead by your own hand, and by the act of murdering your best friend, you have given your still living self into our hands, body and soul.” Isaiah gloated, his plan now completed and his appetite about to be fully sated.
Jess looked up to see the three bodies of his dead friends crumple to the floor, discarded like broken toys. Blood red smoke rose from the bodies to coalesce into three solid shapes. Grotesque, misshapen bodies that had once been human advanced on Jess, unnaturally long teeth barred in grimace of hunger, dagger like claws raised ready to tear at his flesh and his soul.
Knowing now there was to be no escape for him, he was damned to Hell anyway, Jess pushed himself upright, determined to meet his fate head on, as he always had in life. There was no more time for regret or grieving for his lost family. They would take him, he knew that of a certainty, but he would make them pay. Their victory would cost them dearly.
They where on him then, biting, clawing and tearing, rending his flesh into bloodied strips. Jess fought bravely, lashing out at them, trying to inflict some lasting damage to make them pay for what they had done. His fist connected hard with Isaiah’s jaw, momentarily sending the Warlock backwards. The respite was brief, then Isaiah was on him once again, and Jess was falling back under their combined weight.
The solid wall behind him melted away and Jess fell, still fighting, downwards into the open maw of Hell itself, and into the hungry hands of its denizens, his soul damned for all eternity.
He seemed to fall forever, his body wracked by pain from the damage inflicted by the ravenous fiends, seared by the fires of Hell that burned around them. His soul bled pain and remorse as grief and hatred vied for dominance in his heart. But most unbearable of all was the guilt.
The tiny part of his mind that was still clinging to the reality of his family and home, kept trying to tell him that the ideas the fiends had planted in his mind were false. But it was failing miserably and fading fast as Jess’ mind succumbed to the soul-destroying weight of guilt that had been heaped upon it.
His very presence in their lives had led Slim, Daisy and Mike to their ultimate doom. Jess was guilty of surviving the fire that had decimated his birth family. The life he had led afterwards, in his need to seek revenge, had cut a path of destruction through the lives of anyone that crossed his path. In his need to live life by his own unique code, he had disregarded the needs of others. All this, so insidiously planted in his mind by Isaiah and his Priestesses, ate away at him. No matter that it wasn’t true, that is was in fact an evilly twisted version of his life, the soul destroying guilt was achieving its purpose, releasing emotions that fed the demons in the reality that was his world now.
In his inner eye Jess saw the faces of his families, old and new, surround him, their silent mouths open in accusation, their eyes burning as they stared at him condemning him for his part in their deaths.
“I’m sorry Mike. I--I didn’t know,” he sobbed out, his voice raspy. “F--forgive me, Daisy, I didn’t meant to make you lie.”
Slim’s face moved in closer, filling his field of vision, his mouth moving, uttering damning accusations that Jess’ could not hear. “God forgive me Slim,” he begged. “ It would’ve been better if I had never been born! I—I’m sorry, Slim. Sorry, so sorry---”
Suddenly his head snapped backwards, startling him from the black mire of guilt that had almost swallowed him. There was a pressure on his shoulders, and he tried to move away. He was held, trapped unable to move his arms freely. He felt his head and shoulders being tossed around, shaken as if he where a rag doll in the hands of a frustrated child.
“Jess!! Jess? What the devil are you talking about,” a voice demanded to know.
Violent colours flashed across Jess’ vision, pain raged behind his eyes and tremors gripped his body as he struggled against the demonic restraints that had him trapped. And yet that insistent voice called to him, forcing him to focus through the pain and grief.
“Take it easy. Stop struggling and I’ll help you get free!” The voice carried a tone that demanded attention, a voice Jess was drawn to despite the painful memories of happier times it brought to the forefront of his mind. It carried a promise of comfort and offered safety.
‘I know that voice. I must get to it somehow.’ Jess’ senses started to come into focus and he struggled harder to reach the sanctuary offered by the familiar tones.
“Easy now. Calm down, your making it worse, goldurn it!” This time the voice held a hint of irritation.
Another voice, more uncertain and a lot younger jarred at his awakening mind. “What’s wrong with Jess, Slim? Is he alright?”
Suddenly Jess’ eyes snapped open and his eyes darted anxiously around him, as his befuddled mind sought to clarify just where in hell he was. ‘Hell! He’d been in Hell. The demons had murdered his family and claimed his soul’
A blurry face swam into Jess’ line of sight. He squinted hard at it, willing it to stop moving long enough for him to put a name to it. Obligingly it came into focus and Jess found himself staring into the concerned face of his best friend, Slim Sherman.
“S—Slim?” his voice sounded strange, choked, even to himself.
“At last.” Slim released his grip on Jess and stood back, taking with him the twisted sheet that had been wrapped around the struggling Jess, threatening to choke him. “Are you back with us for real this time Jess?”
“Huh? Slim, you—you’re alive?” Jess was staring hard at Slim, revelling in the caring emotion that played in the intact, emotive blue eyes. Eyes that he had last seen, torn and bloodied, in a demon’s hands.
“Well of course I am, Pard. Though you ought to know, the way your fist connected with my jaw a minute ago.” Slim rubbed ruefully at his bruised jaw.
Jess raised his fist and looked at his bruised knuckles, bewilderment written over his expressive features. “I did that?” he asked. He was still having trouble recognising he was in his own bed, in the room he shared with Slim. His consciousness was still divided between two realities.
“You sure did, Jess. Slim said you’ve been kinda restless all night, but you got real noisy right now, shouting and fighting with the bed clothes like they was your worst enemy” Mike’s young voice was high pitched with worry for his hero. He knew Slim had let Jess lie in since he had obviously had a bad night. But these last few minutes had scared the young boy. Jess had been really violent, shouting and screaming out some really strange things. Why, even Daisy had said that maybe Jess was concussed and Slim should ride for the Doctor.
The young voice instantly drew Jess’ attention, and he turned quickly towards it, causing the room to swim out of focus momentarily again. As the room settled he found himself looking at a very concerned Mike. Hesitantly, Jess brought his hands up to clasp Mikes face between them, assuring himself that Mikes unmarred features were real. A slow smile spread across Jess’ pale face. “Mike? Hey, Tiger, how are you?”
Before Mike could answer, Slim interrupted, grasping Jess’ left arm and turning it towards him.
Jess, his survival instincts still in play, went to snatch his arm back, but Slim held it firmly. “Say, Jess, what have you been doing to yourself? Those are real nasty scratches.” Slim stared hard at his friend. “ You must have done it while you were fighting those bed sheets. Say,”Slim reached forward and gently turned Jess’ face slightly to the side, “Looks like you caught your cheek too.”
Gingerly Jess touched his fingertips to his face, and they came away bloody. “I--I don’t k---”.
Ignoring him, Slim called for re-enforcements. “Daisy, I think maybe we could use some help in here. Best bring the first aid box, Jess has a few scratches that need tending.”
Jess was about to protest, but Daisy appeared as if by magic, at his side. She smiled gently down at him. “You had us worried Jess, I think that hit on the head did more damage than any of us thought. How are you feeling?” As she talked she gently cleaned the scratches. “They don’t look too bad. They don’t need a dressing.”
At Daisy’s mention of his accident the previous night, other memories fell into place. He recalled the planned trip, and then he recalled the nightmare it had led them to.
“Slim, what day is it?” he asked, desperation in his voice.
“What?” That was the last question Slim had been expecting.
But Jess, persisted. “Humor me, Slim, What day is it?”
Shrugging his shoulders, Slim replied, “It’s Saturday, Jess.”
“No, Slim, I mean it. What DAY is it?” Jess insisted.
“Alright, don’t get yourself all riled up. It’s October the thirty first. Why?”
“Huh? Nothing, it ain’t important, Pard. Look, weren’t we supposed to be going on a tri-?”
Slim glanced at Daisy before replying, and she responded by a slight shake of her head. Turning back to Jess, Slim started to respond, “ Look, Jess, about that trip, I don’t think--”
This time it was Jess’ turn to interrupt. “I don’t feel up to it. Do you mind if we leave it for another day?”
It was difficult to know who was the most taken aback by Jess’ response. Mike had been warned that the picnic and fishing trip was off. Both Daisy and Slim though had expected to have a fight on their hands when they broke the news to Jess. They certainly hadn’t expected that it would be Jess himself that called it off. For a second they were both left speechless.
Daisy was the first to recover. She placed her hand on Jess’ forehead, anxiously searching for any sign of a fever. “You don’t feel hot,” she muttered, verbalising her concerns, “ But still? Slim, maybe you should go for the Doctor.”
Jess gave his best ‘little boy’ grin as he wriggled away from under her hand. “ There’s no need for that. Can’t a guy simply admit to a headache, without you having him down with triple pneumonia?” He tried to sound annoyed, but after his recent experience, he was enjoying the security of having his family fuss over him.
“In your case, Jess, it’s darn near a miracle that you will admit to feeling off, let alone actually allow it to slow you down. That’s what’s worrying us,” Slim enjoined
Jess let the import of Slim’s words sink in before replying.” Maybe it is a little miraculous at that.” Then his face lit up with a heart-warming smile as he continued. “Let’s just say I have recently had a lesson in what’s important, and missing a day’s fishing comes pretty low on the list.”
Feeling a little uneasy at this suddenly emotionally charged conversation, Slim tried to lighten it a little.” Does that apply to the fried chicken Daisy had prepared for the picnic, to?”
“Hey, I didn’t say that. We can eat it for supper can’t we, Daisy?” Jess appealed, looking once more like a little boy denied his favourite treat.
“But Slim,” Mike said, without thinking, “You know Aunt Daisy has already said that we could have it at dinner, since the rain stopped our day out”
“Rain, it’s been raining?” Jess inquired. “Then we weren’t going any place no how. Why didn’t you say so?”
“I was about to, Jess, when you took the wind right out of my sails. It’s been storming all night.” Slim informed him. “One of the reasons we were getting worried about you was the fact that while the storm roused the rest of the house, you kept on sleeping right through it. You kept tossing and turning, shouting out some strange things, but you didn’t rouse, not even once.”
Jess opened his mouth to speak again, his mind flooded with the still very real memories of another storm that had led to terror, but before he could find the right words to voice his concerns, Daisy interrupted them all.
“Well now, since it seems you are all right, apart from a bad headache, perhaps I can tempt you all to some breakfast. Slim, I’ll put yours and Mike’s on the table. Jess, you stay put in bed. I will fix you a tray.” Noticing Jess’ open mouth, she thought he was going to give her his usual argument and continued, “Jess, I will not give in on this. You have been in a bad way all night, and I think you need to rest properly. Do you feel like eating?” she asked, still somewhat concerned for her middle ‘son’
Once more, surprising everyone by giving in without an argument, Jess nodded. “That will be just fine, Daisy. Come to thibk of it, I feel like I haven’t eaten in days.”
“Now that sounds like the Jess we know and love,” Slim laughed.
Moving away ,Daisy called Mike to follow her. “Well come on now, young man, I think you can help me by setting the table. Oh, and have you washed those hands?”
“Awww, Aunt Daisy, I’ve washed them so often that pretty soon they’re gonna be washed away,” the young boy protested, but stood up and followed her dutifully none the less.
“Guess you’re learning not to argue with Daisy, huh, Tiger?” Jess said as he gave Slim a knowing look.
“I know that already, Jess. I’ve been watching you and Slim. You both argue with Aunt Daisy, and you never win anyway, and you always end up with more chores to do than what she asked you to do in the first place.” Mike skipped away to dodge ahead of a laughing Daisy.
“I think we’ve just been insulted, Pard,” Slim laughed, then his laughter stopped as he saw the forlorn look that momentarily crossed Jess face.
Without warning, the pain of the loss and guilt Jess had felt during the strange night hours, had come back to haunt him. “Daisy, Thank you,” Jess called out suddenly.
Daisy stopped in the doorway and turned to face Jess, unsure as to what he was thanking her for. “Well, you’re welcome Jess, but I haven’t brought your breakfast yet. That is what you meant isn’t it?” she asked, puzzled by his odd behaviour.
Embarrassed, Jess hesitated before continuing, “Well, yes. I mean, no, not exactly.” Then, biting the bullet, he plunged on. “I mean, really Thank You, for everything.”
Puzzlement was quickly replaced by the soft glow of love. “Oh, Jess. You are welcome. Surely you know how much you all mean to me. You are my family and I would die to protect you all.”
Those words hit home hard to Jess. “Don’t say that Daisy.”
“Why not. It’s true. You would do the same for any of us. That’s what real families willingly do for each other. You would do, in fact have done, as much for us.” Then Daisy gave him a final loving smile and followed Mike into the kitchen. She wanted to know more from Jess about why he was acting so strangely, and suspected it was due to the bad night he had apparently had. But she also knew Jess, and had learned early on that he was a deeply private person. He would tell her only when he felt ready to, if ever.
Jess watched Daisy’s retreating back and thought about what she had just said. Suddenly Jess felt as if a great weight was lifted from his heart. Daisy was right. They where family, and when they took risks and made sacrifices for each other, it was done with love. It would be terrible if Daisy, Mike or Slim felt guilty every time one of them made a sacrifice to ensure the others were safe. He would hate to think that, Just as they would hate to think that was how he felt.
Those fiends that had peopled his dream world had been right about one thing. He had been feeling guilty, albeit unknowingly, and in the context of his family it was a useless, wasted emotion. An emotion he was determined he would no longer allow to govern how he felt about his new family. Jess was finally able to put down the burden of guilt he had carried since the death of his true family all those years ago and move beyond its boundaries. Family and friends meant accepting that sometimes-bad things happened and it was not your fault. It meant being able to express how you felt and put aside guilt about actions taken in their defence when there was no other choice.
“Jess? Hey, Pard. is there anyone home?” Slim’s amused voice interrupted Jess’ reverie as Slim tapped Jess’ shoulder.
“Huh?” Jess looked up, momentarily lost in his thoughts. “Oh, sorry Slim. What were you saying?”
“I thought you’d drifted off again. Look, Jess, the storm was really bad last night, and the weather ain’t fit for anyone to be out in today. I think we’ll have that day off anyway, but it’ll have to be indoors. You take it easy and get a bit more sleep. The way you were tossing and turning you didn’t get much rest. You where cussing and fighting with that blanket like the devil was after you.” Slim’s voice held genuine concern for his best friend.
For one brief second, Jess felt a chill grip his body, and he was back in the nightmare that had been his world just a few minutes ago. He blinked rapidly and pushed back the dark thoughts as he focused on Slim’s gentle smile. “ I reckon you could say he was, but not anymore. All right, Slim, but I ain’t staying in bed all day.” Jess’ body felt like he really had spent the night in a life and death struggle, and a few hours of proper sleep sounded mighty tempting right now.
Slim was still having trouble adjusting to this new, compliant Jess, but he wasn’t about to risk him having a change of heart. He stood up and moved away. Just before he shut the door behind him, he turned to see Jess snuggling back down beneath the blankets. “Don’t worry, there’s plenty of work to be done when the weather improves. I’ll be sure to save you your share. For a start you can help me clear that old tree out back by the barn. It almost scared the horses into a stampede last night when lightening hit it and set it on fire. It put on a show bright enough wake the dead, but darned if you didn’t sleep right through it.”
When the normal quick-witted response was not forth coming from Jess, Slim looked more closely at him, and was pleased to see his Pard was already asleep. This time Jess had a peaceful smile on his face as his subconscious mind drifted into dreams of family picnics and fishing with not a demon in sight.
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