Dark Though It Is
by  Karen Campbell


". . .with nobody listening we are saying thank you

we are saying thank you and waving

dark though it is."

W.S. Merwin



Her eyes were blue.  Not the deep blue he’d imagined but softer, quieter, more like the sky at dawn than full on day.


Johnny leaned his head against the prickly upholstery and watched out the soot-speckled window.  The train rumbled a constant movement beneath him, sifting any sleep he might have gotten right into an edgy feeling that he just couldn’t shake.  Not after he’d seen her.  He needed to sleep, God knows he needed it badly.  He hadn’t had more than a few hours shuteye since he’d been in San Francisco and that’d been three days.  There were all those sounds—wagons clattering on the cobblestones, drunken voices slurring late night curses, the faraway fog horns—sounds that dragged him from his dreams.  Or made them turn on him and that’d been worse.  He’d wanted his own bed in his own room and the cricket-droned silence he’d gotten used to back home. And, finally, he was headed home.

The colors were changing outside his window.  At first they’d been city colors—red brick, white clapboards—not just in San Francisco, but in the little towns they’d passed through heading south.  In between there were trees, tall ones and dense, and the grey-green smell of the pines. He’d breathed that in along with the cooler forest air, but that was gone when the view turned golden and the sun beat down on the grazing fields.  They were getting closer to his change of trains in San Jose and Johnny shrugged out of his jacket, crumpling it and shoving it between his head and the vibration of the window frame.  He locked his arms across his chest and hunkered sideways, trying to get comfortable and almost managing.  Sleep, just an hour’s worth, that’s all he wanted.  Just to drift away and lose his thoughts, lose all of it.  He closed his eyes, barely dimming the harshness of that sun, and he shut them tighter. It didn’t help.  Nothing helped, not the hours since he’d seen her and not the dark of his clenched eyes. 

He’d missed that in the darkness.  Her eyes were blue.

Not that he noticed when he first saw her, earlier that morning at the depot. It’d been crowded, maybe no more so than usual but awfully crowded for Johnny’s tastes.  And it was cold, a damp kind of cold that crawls under your skin.  He tried to wait it out and barely fit his rear onto the left-over edge of a hard bench, elbow to elbow with a black-suited man with pale, lumpy skin and the smell of fish seeping from him.  Three day dead fish.  Johnny huddled into his jacket, tugged his hat down across his eyes and listened for the whistle to blow for the 9:11.   The fish-man was blessedly reserved.

There were shouts and people talking and the taps of footsteps, loud on the platform planks, and the clickety of the luggage carts.  Johnny pulled his boots out of the way when he heard that sound coming.  The noises piled up on each other like the fog—nothing you could really grab hold of, just there.

The squeal got his attention, though.

Johnny peeked out from the brim of his hat to see three small boys running and weaving between the grown-up legs.  They were all of a kind—freckled little faces, curly hair and the same grey wool suits, too big by inches.  The youngest nearly tripped on his pants as he rounded a woman’s skirt, bounced off her companion’s knee and sprinted after the biggest boy.  He snatched at empty air when the older boy lunged to the side, spun and tossed something red to the out-stretched hand of the middle-sized kid.  That didn’t go over well.  The puny little one gave out a damn respectable shriek and launched himself toward what had to be his brother. For the first time all morning, the corners of Johnny’s mouth edged up. 

The something red went flying again, this time ricocheting off a post and dropping to the platform in front of Johnny.  It skittered to a stop right in front of him and Johnny bent forward, picked it up and turned it in his hand.  It was a horse, a little wooden one with a crudely carved mane and a coat of barn red paint.  Johnny lifted his eyes from the horse to the boy as he left his brothers hanging back and walked resolutely up to the bench.

“That’s mine, mister.”  He stood just at arm’s length and held his palm out flat.

Johnny held on to the toy. “Your mama know you’re rough housing around these trains?” 

“My pa’ll beat you up if you don’t gimme that.”  His fat little cheeks rounded up into his eyes as they narrowed.  “Give it.”

Four, Johnny figured, no more than that anyway.  “Your pa big, is he?” he asked, struggling to hold a laugh down.

The boy nodded. 

“You gonna stop all this running?”

He nodded again.

“Well, take it.”  Johnny held out the horse and it was gone in a second, grabbed up into the boy’s little fist, and then the boy was gone, small boots pounding down the planks with his two brothers darting after him.

Halfway down the platform, the boy had to come up short when a woman took an ill-timed step forward. For about half a second he was tangled in her skirt and he nearly went unbalanced, but she was quick to reach down and right him again and he was off, both brothers hard on his heels. The woman straightened and watched him go, then turned and gestured to a man standing between her and Johnny.  All he could see of the man was his back, but he had a good view of the woman.  She was young.  Woman enough, but young.

There were flashier ones on that platform.  He’d passed a real looker coming into the depot, a tall brunette with smoky eyes and admirable feminine attractions.  He’d eyed that woman long enough for her to notice and give him a nod for his troubles and he’d nodded right back, but this one was different.  Straight yellow hair, nothing fancy in her dress and a warm smile.  Pretty, but in an honest way.

She stood there for a long minute, looking up at her man and listening, maybe.  At least that’s what Johnny figured she was doing, smiling a little and listening to him complain about the train being late or the damn fog or whatever he had to go on about.  Every now and then Johnny would see her hands dip through the air.  There was a grace about them.  He couldn’t help but watch, slumped next to the fish-man and waiting for the travelers on the platform to walk on, out of his line-of-sight, and watching those eloquent hands move.   

A clump of bodies got in the way and when Johnny could see their spot on the platform again, the woman and her man were gone.  He swept his gaze across the crowd, looking for the yellow hair, but he couldn’t spot her and finally he gave it up and stared down the tracks instead, watching for the 9:11.  Something nudged at a memory and he hunched forward, elbows on his knees and eyes locked onto those tracks.  He clasped his hands together and the one thumb found a rough spot on the other and rubbed at it.  It’d been a long time ago.  Two years?  That was spring and this was fall.  A year and a half then.  Why was he thinking of her now? 

He shut his eyes and breathed in deep, wanting to chase the feeling away, but it washed over him, filled him, and he wasn’t on the crowded platform anymore, but there in that cabin, the touch of her warm in his hands, on his lips, and the knowing more than any words had ever been.  He sank into the sensation, caressed within it, but he couldn’t hold on, he could never hold on, and steadily it drifted away like the fog. 

He was alone again.

“Dios,” Johnny muttered and he had to move.  He grabbed up the bag at his feet and jolted up from the bench, taking four steps forward before he really focused on where he was heading.  The chug of a train came faintly from the distance and his eyes lifted toward the tracks and then to the clock above the depot office. 


If he bumped into a few shoulders pushing through the crowd, Johnny didn’t feel it.  He crossed the length of the platform and back, craning his neck over the heads of those he could and ducking around those he couldn’t, but he still couldn’t find her.  And it wasn’t her anyway—she was thousands of miles away, he knew she was—this was just a woman with the same color hair and a graceful way in her silence. This was crazy.  It wasn’t her. 

The air thickened with the smoke from the train and the wail of its brakes overwhelmed all the voices.  Like cattle, the travelers started to move, a mass of them pushing toward the tracks.  The train slowed to a stop and inside it Johnny could see bodies passing by the windows, moving to the doors, and a second later the first of the passengers were climbing down from the cars.  Several tipped their hats as they passed by those waiting and when the steps had cleared, the train started to fill again.

Jiggling the bag in his hand, Johnny stood and considered the cars, hesitating just a few seconds more, but when the steward whistled the all-aboard he headed for the car with the fewest heads bobbling around inside it.  As he mounted the steps, he could see a wide expanse of dark green wool nearly blocking the way and when he came up on it, it straightened into a huffing, brassy-haired woman.  She was trying to lift her suitcase into the rack above her seat and between her too-fat arms and the lopsided weight of her luggage, she looked on the edge of dropping it on the head of the woman just below.  Johnny could’ve sworn he heard a very breathy, very mannered “God damn it” just before he dropped his bag on the floor and held his hands up to hers.

“Here,” he said, “Just let me…wait…ma’am?”

She wasn’t letting go and worse, she’d leaned into him.

“Excuse me, ma’am, but if you’ll just move…”

She did, a little, but Johnny still felt uncomfortably friendly as he reached past her shoulders to shove the suitcase onto the rack and then had to take a step backward to avoid the overstuffed bosom she swung toward him.  He stooped to retrieve his bag.

“Thank you, young man.”

“It’s no trouble.”  He smiled a half-smile at her and pushed past, again brushing tighter than he wanted to.

“Have a lovely journey.”

“Yes, ma’am.” 

He searched out a spot, seeing several open seats up near the front of the car. One was just beside a man in a shallow round hat and a preacher’s collar.  Johnny headed for the other.  That one faced an expensively dressed gentleman who was already settled into his seat, head back and eyes closed, and his kind of company suited Johnny fine. 

His bag was just a satchel and barely half-filled at that, but it filled the aisle seat when he tossed it down and slid past to the window.  The upper glass was open a hand’s width and the foggy chill poured through it.  Johnny braced his palms against the glass and pushed, but at first it wouldn’t budge and he wedged his knee onto the seat, leaned into the window and pushed harder. 

The shouted name stilled the breath in his throat.

It came from outside the car, out on that platform, and his eyes jerked toward the sound.  She was there, standing not ten feet away.   A wisp of hair fell across her face, but she didn’t make any move to brush it aside.  She was quiet, so peacefully quiet, her eyes gazing up into his and her hands silent at her side.  Johnny was vaguely aware of people moving about on the platform, but she didn’t seem to notice.  The name came again, closer now, shouted in a man’s voice—her man’s voice—and still she held his eyes.

The train quivered and his balance shifted as the car slid forward.

Half-standing awkwardly at his seat, hands pressed against the cool glass, Johnny watched her as the distance grew.  She followed a few steps at first, but the train gained speed, carrying him home, carrying him away from her. The last he could see was the yellow of her hair and when that was gone, too, he left the window open to the damp air and sank down into his seat. 

He stared out through the soot.

He hadn’t known.  Her eyes were blue.




It was nightfall before he made it to the ranch.  The change of trains in San Jose had meant a two hour delay, then there was the ride to Cross Creek and hours in the saddle.  Barranca was full of sass after three days stalled in the livery and Johnny had to keep a tight rein on him those first few miles.  Johnny felt worn through and he eyed the hacienda when he rode up, judging the lantern light glowing in the windows.  Most of them were dark and he was thankful for that.  Maybe, just maybe, he could sneak in, stuff something in his belly and make it up to his bed, unseen and no questions asked.

He made it as far as the great room.

“Johnny.”  The voice was subdued and it came from the chair in front of a low fire.  The flames cast a faint, wavering glow across the big room.

“Scott…what are you doing down here in the dark?”  Johnny ripped a bite of his hastily snatched bread and chewed.  His brother leaned forward in the leather chair and he could see more of him silhouetted against the red fire. 

Scott pointed a finger to the sofa.  “Listening to him snore.”

Softly, from the sofa, his father’s voice answered.  “I do not snore.”

“Yes, sir.” 

Johnny caught his brother’s smile before Scott settled back into the chair.  “Everything go all right with the contract?” Scott asked.

“Yeah.”  Johnny cast a longing glance toward the stairs.  “Palmer scared the piss out of Johnson’s lawyer and they finally signed yesterday morning.  He’s filing the title and we can start moving the herd up there next week.” 

“Good…but it would have been a lot easier if Johnson had just stuck to the original agreement.  We could have been driving cattle already instead of going all that way to San Francisco.”  Rubbing a hand through his hair, Murdoch struggled to a more upright position.  “You look tired.”

“I am.” 

“Long trip?”

“Yeah.”  Johnny watched his father rub the sleep from his eyes, then sighed and headed for the fireplace. 

“Did you meet Palmer’s wife?” Scott angled his elbow on the arm of the chair and leaned into his hand.  “Just how young is she?”

His bag made a thud as he dropped it down on the hearth.  Johnny stared into the embers and smiled a little.  Palmer’s wife.  Knobby bones and freckled skin and eyes that never left the old man’s face.   Johnny grabbed the poker and stirred the fire.  “She’s a lot younger than he is--twenty five, I figure.  I had dinner with them last night.  She’s all right.”

“It’s not just his money, then?”

“Hope not.  There’s a baby coming by Christmas.”

“Palmer didn’t say anything about that in his letters.” 

Johnny looked up at the humor in Murdoch’s voice and found him grinning.  “Yeah, well…”  Johnny crammed the last of the bread into his mouth and mumbled through the mouthful.  “Maybe he’s still gettin’ used to the idea.”

“He’s a lucky man,” Murdoch said.  “He waited a long time to find her.”

Johnny dipped his eyes and wiped his hands on his pants. “Guess so,” he softly said.  Behind him a flame crackled and he turned to watch it flare.

“How did you like the Fairmont?”

“What?” Johnny asked, still softly.

“The Fairmont,” Murdoch said.  “How did you like it?”

“Didn’t stay there.”

Murdoch’s voice rumbled.  “And why not?  Palmer was supposed to make the reservations.”

“He did.”  Johnny nodded and looked around the room.  “Why’s it so dark in here?  You ever hear of lightin’ a lamp?”

“Why didn’t you stay at the Fairmont?”

“Didn’t want to.”  Johnny reached for the oil lamp on the mantle.  There was a box of matches next to it and he slid one out, struck it against the stones and lit the wick.  He knew Murdoch was waiting for more than that as an answer, but he flicked the match flame out and replaced the glass chimney before he turned back and gave it to him.  “I figured it might be more interesting staying down near the wharf.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny could see his brother’s amused smirk, but he was watching his father.  Murdoch stared back.    

“And I suppose that was a restful stay?”

 “No,” Johnny said.  “There was a saloon right next door and a man would have to be dead to sleep through all that noise.”

“You wouldn’t have had that problem at the Fairmont.”


“I trust you kept yourself out of trouble.”

Johnny could feel his fingers twitching and he caught the quick drop of Scott’s eyes, watching them.  He stilled his hands.  “Sure.  Just those meetings, is all.  No trouble.” 

Scott gave him a small, crooked smile.  “That must mean that you didn’t run into any pretty women.”

Something rose in his chest, something thick and choking.  Johnny looked full on at his brother and let the feeling drain away before he could trust himself to speak again.   “It’s been a long day,” he finally said.  He reached for his bag and swung it up and under his arm.  “Are we working the south range tomorrow?”

“No, not yet. Cipriano and I still have the Froze Creek section of the north range to check in the morning.  It’ll go faster with you back.”

Scott’s eyes had softened, that’s all it was, just those soft eyes and the slightest gentling of his voice, but Johnny had to look away.  He stared down at the floor.  “There’s a gully up there that needs clearing.”

“Over by Dead Horse Canyon?”


“We’ll get that tomorrow afternoon.”

“All right.  Well…see you in the morning.”

The sounds of their “good nights” followed him as he made his way upstairs.  The hallway was dark, but that didn’t matter.  He counted his steps as he had then, silently, more as a memory than any conscious thought, just knowing the way.  Everything was quiet around him and quieter still when he walked through his bedroom door and clicked it closed. 

It was warm, too warm.

The heavy curtains hung to the side of the window, held back by thick cords, and the moonlight shone through the glass, making everything vaguely visible.  Johnny could see the shirt he’d left draped over the chair and the book he’d been reading, lying open and spine up on the table.  Nothing had been touched since he’d left home three days before, least of all the air.  It felt heavy and used. 

Johnny crossed to the window, slid it open and breathed in the cool night breeze.  The crickets were singing in the grass and far off, just on the edge of hearing, a coyote yipped.  Leaning into the glass, Johnny held his palms against it at first, feeling the hard comfort of it, and then folded his arms across the panes and rested his forehead on them.  He let his eyes slide shut. 

It was there--third drawer down in the bird’s-eye-maple bureau, underneath a red shirt or maybe the blue one with the white flowers.  It’d had spidery creases in it that first day, lined by his fist as he’d clenched it, too tight, too desperate, but those wrinkles were long gone, smoothed by the weight of everything he’d piled on top.  The paper was folded by thirds, with her writing hidden to the inside, only a few words, but ones he’d read again and again—only he hadn’t known, there’d been no way of knowing, not then, not when he was kneeling in the dirt of the road, watching that wagon take her away.  They were words, just words. He’d wanted more and he’d wished….damn, how he’d wished!

Johnny swung away from the window and the carpet buried the sound of his footsteps as he walked wearily to his bed.  He dropped to his quilt, flat out and arms spread, and stared up into the milky darkness of his ceiling.  It was long minutes before he even remembered that he hadn’t undressed, hadn’t even thought of it. His boots were still on his feet and they were dangling over the edge of the mattress. Teresa would give him hell for it he figured, but he curled to his side, pulling his booted-feet up onto the bed and tucking his bent arm under his head, and he determinedly closed his eyes.  The tepid air settled like a blanket around him and the night sounds moved through the house.

First Murdoch found his way to bed, his steps echoing through the hall.  He coughed before his door closed, but that’s all Johnny could hear.  The doors were thick.  Scott came next, his softer clumps pausing just outside Johnny’s bedroom.  Johnny took four slow breaths before his brother moved on and just afterward he heard Scott’s latch tick closed.  It had to have been half an hour later when Johnny heard the faint sounds of his father’s snores.   He listened for them, losing them in the silence for a while and then grabbing hold again. It was long past midnight when they’d quieted into nothing.

He gave it up.  Just moving was a relief and he did, trying not to make any noise and passing through the empty bedroom, through the darkened house and out through the French doors onto the veranda.  The moon hung low and almost full and Johnny could see his way clearly to the waist-high stucco wall.  It made a border between the house and the ranch and he stopped there, not knowing what came next.  He braced against the wall, hung his head and, once more, let his eyes droop closed.

The voice behind him was hushed.

“Want some company?” 

Johnny ducked his head to the side, looking back past his shoulder to watch his brother stroll across the veranda.  Scott was dressed, mostly, but his shirt hung unbuttoned and he had something dark tucked under one arm.  The moonlight glinted from the glasses dangling from his other hand.

“Thought you went to bed.”  Johnny twisted around and leaned back against the wall. 

“I did…and so did you.”

“Didn’t take.”  Scott held his hand out and Johnny reached to pull one of the glasses from his fingers.  “What’cha got?” Johnny asked.

Scott tugged the bottle from his arm and held it up for inspection.  “Scotch, brother—Murdoch’s best.  If you don’t tell, I won’t.”

“He ain’t gonna notice half his new bottle gone?”

“Half?”  Scott held the bottle slightly tipped and Johnny stuck his glass under the neck.  The liquor made a quiet gurgling noise as it poured out.  “I wasn’t really that thirsty, but as long as it’s too hot to sleep, I’ve always believed in taking advantage of the available resources.”

“The old man ain’t gonna like it.”

Scott lifted his glass toward the moon, raising the bottle too, and poured a good measure of the scotch.  The meager light shone through it and gave the drink a seductive glow.  “Maybe just one, then.  What do you say, Johnny—one toast to your success in San Francisco?” 

Johnny kept his glass low and clenched between his hands and all he did was stare down at it.  Scott had to reach out to tap their drinks together and the bottom of his glass brushed Johnny’s finger as it clinked the rim.

”Cheers,” Scott said, and after a few seconds Johnny drank with him, downing half the scotch in a single hungry gulp.

Scott settled back against the stucco.  “Did Johnson take it hard?”

“Nah.  It was that boy of his, Jed was pushing him to fight it.  I think all Johnson wanted was to get outta that town and back to his cattle.”

“I take it he wasn’t the only one.”

Johnny smiled first, just a small one, and then he snorted softly.  “Nope.  How’d you stand Boston, anyhow?  Anywhere you go in those big cities there’s somebody in your way.”

“You should get a cane.”

Raising a brow and looking up to find his brother’s night-darkened face, Johnny asked, “Why’s that?’

“Then you can just poke at them and make the people move.”

The smile widened.  “That what your grandfather taught you?”

“No, he has people to do the poking.”

“I bet he does.”

“You think I’m joking.”

“No…”  Johnny shook his head slowly.  “No, I don’t.”

In the easy quiet that followed, Johnny could hear his brother swallowing long sips of his scotch.  Johnny just held onto his, feeling the watery weight of it swirl in his glass when he turned again and settled his forearms on the rough stucco of the wall.  He leaned as he had before, letting the wall hold him, and he gazed up at the sky. 

The stars were everywhere.  He’d forgotten them in San Francisco, the fog had been so thick, but here they were crowded into the sky, too many of them almost.  They found each other in the blackness, making fat arcs of milky white and scattering off to fill the voids above the trees and the bunkhouses and the barns.  Maybe it was the scotch talking, Johnny figured, working at him already with that one big swig, but it felt right—like maybe the morning might never come and he’d stay here in the darkness instead, with those stars overhead and his brother sipping Murdoch’s good scotch and the crickets singing God knows what to the night.

Scott’s question broke the silence.

“You missed some great apple pie, you know.”

“How’s that?”

“The Fairmont.”  Scott turned toward him and rested his elbow on the wall. “The dining room there has this deep dish apple pie that they make with caramel on top and a wedge of hard cheddar.  Murdoch had it every night when we were there last spring.”

“Guess Murdoch wasn’t very happy I changed hotels.”

“He’ll get over it.  So is that why you’re out here in the middle of the night?”

There.  He knew it’d been coming since he saw his brother walk across that veranda and there was the question.  Even in the dark, Johnny could feel a slow, concealing smile slide across his lips.  “Just couldn’t sleep is all.”

“Too warm in the house?”

“I guess.”

Scott looked down into his drink and—after a long and patient wait—emptied it in one big swallow.  “It wouldn’t have anything to do with that pretty girl?” he asked.

“What girl?”

“So which was she?  Blonde or brunette?”

Johnny breathed in deep.  He wasn’t ready; he didn’t know how to sort it out in his own head, let alone make any sense of it to Scott.  “I never said there was any woman.”

“And you didn’t say there wasn’t.  So who is she?”

He tried to hold it in, wasn’t sure exactly how the name did slip out, but he’d said it before he could catch himself and then it was done.  “Mattie,” Johnny said.  “I saw Mattie.”

“That’s great, Johnny…”  Scott seemed to be fumbling for the words, rushing them out.  “How is she, where is she?  Is she living in San Francisco now?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, why did she leave that school she went east for?”

“I don’t know.”

“She must have said something, or signed something, or…you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I know.”  Johnny swigged the scotch and it burned a warm path down his throat.  “I saw her is all, we didn’t talk.  The train was pulling out and she was just standing there.”

“But you’re sure it was Mattie?”

“I’m sure.”


“Trust me, Scott…it was Mattie.”

“You have to go back, Johnny.  Maybe there’s a school there now, maybe that’s why she’s in San Francisco.  You have to find her.”

“Why?  She knows where I am, I’ve been here the whole time.”

“But you have to try, don’t you?”

“No, no I don’t.  She had a man with her and I don’t think…well, like I said, she knows where I am.”

“I’m sorry, Johnny.”

It wasn’t right.  Scott’s voice had turned all low and velvety and Johnny knew he didn’t understand.  He rubbed his thumb against the smooth glass and grimaced.  “Is that what you think, Scott…that I’m out here feeling sorry for myself?”

“Nobody could blame you if you were.”

He thought hard, staring off into the darkness, and his gaze turned to the sky.  “Scott—you got all that fancy education, so you tell me—how many stars are up there?”  Johnny lifted his glass and stretched one finger from it, pointing up.  He could feel Scott’s eyes still looking straight at him.

“Are you changing the subject, brother?”

“That mean you don’t know?”

He stared at him awhile longer but, finally, Scott turned his face skyward, too.  “I think I missed my lessons that day.  Unofficially, though, I’d say a whole lot.”

“Yeah, that’s what I figure, too.”

“So what do we do with that number?”

Johnny contemplated his answer and, slowly, he started in.  “It’s just…sometimes…”  He sighed quietly and remembered his scotch, downing it all at once, then wiping the back of his hand across his mouth.  “Scott, have you ever wondered why things happen the way they do?  I’m not saying there ain’t been plenty of times that somebody was looking the other way…maybe busy sticking all those stars up there…but sometimes…”

It’s all he could see, all he had seen since that morning, and the words came to him as if from a cherished secret.  He couldn’t help his voice from faltering.  “Did you know Mattie’s eyes are blue?”

Scott didn’t answer for second and Johnny hung his head, waiting.  “I remember,” Scott finally said.

“Well, I didn’t know it.  Teresa told me they were, but I never saw’em.  They’re blue.”  He started to raise the glass, wanting some distraction or the taste of it, wanting something, but then it came to him that it was empty and he set it down on the stucco.  It made a jiggling thud.  “You and Murdoch must have thought I’d gone loco, runnin’ after her like that.”

“We were worried, that’s all.”

“Yeah, well…”  Johnny smiled wryly.  “You should’ve been.  You know those pastures are full of little stickers?  I got’em in my feet and it took me a week to get’em all out.  Don’t go runnin’ off without your boots, brother.”

“I’ll try not to.”

The smile faded away and he hesitated for a long, slow breath.  “I couldn’t figure why she took off.  That note, it didn’t make much sense.  I thought I knew how she felt about things, but when you can’t hear the words and you can’t see’em…”  His voice caught again and he tried again, slower this time, “…can’t see’em in her eyes…a man starts to wondering.”

“She loved you, Johnny.”

“I know, Scott…that’s what I’m trying to tell you…I know.  I saw it, this morning on that platform.  It doesn’t change the way things are—her being with that other man—but if Johnson’s kid hadn’t tried to cheat Murdoch and if the old man hadn’t wanted to teach me ‘bout all those legal dealings, then I wouldn’t have been in San Francisco.  And I’m glad I was there.”

“I’m still sorry.”  Scott reached for his shoulder and Johnny let him, relaxing under the firm squeeze and the way Scott left his hand just lying there.

“Enough to give me some more of Murdoch’s scotch?”  Johnny smiled again, a little.

“With pleasure.”

The bottle was still uncorked and all Scott had to do was pour it.  In the darkness, Johnny judged it half by sight and half by sound, moving his finger finally and dipping it into the glass, a trick he’d learned back then.  He felt the cold reach his fingertip.  “That’ll do.”

Scott secured the cork. 

“Go on to bed, brother,” Johnny said.  “I’ll be up soon as I get this down me.”

“Are you sure?”  Scott sounded anything but.

“Yeah, I’m sure.”  Johnny nodded toward the house. “Go on.”

Wedging the bottle under his arm, Scott watched him for a long moment more.  He reached out and tapped his glass against Johnny’s arm.   “Mattie should have stayed,” he softly said.

“Yeah…Good night, Scott.”

“Good night, Johnny.”

The moon was higher now, pushing the stars across the sky.  Johnny took a long draught of scotch and watched the moon, searching its dark hollows and seeing her.  He closed his eyes and willed it to come and it came, her memory, rising inside him, pouring over him—only she wasn’t there anymore, not in that cabin, but watching him through the drizzly fog and fading into the distance.  And the touch of her was real and the longing overwhelming and it stayed, this time it stayed, there within her eyes, held within her eyes, until he opened his own and, once again, he watched the moon slowly rise.

And he was grateful.



Karen “KC” Campbell  



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