What If . . . ?
by  Margaret P

August Challenge: Heat and Dust

(Words: 979)


I am standing on a hillside. The heat from a Mexican sun beats down on the back of my neck and there is dust beneath my feet.  There are men on the hillside, Rurales and their prisoners. One by one shackled men face the firing squad. I have been here before—I have watched this scene before—wake up, man, it’s a dream! It didn’t happen like that, it didn’t happen!

No good—a guard is rifle-butting a familiar face to his feet and shoving him forward. Johnny—it’s Johnny standing there in front of the firing squad.

“No, stop—don’t do it!” I cry out but no one hears me. Why does no one hear me? “Stop, please stop!”

I am a helpless spectator. The performers in this Shakespearean tragedy do not know I am there. I can’t even show my own son how much I care. Oh God, where is that Pinkerton agent? I don’t want to see this again. Why am I seeing this again? It didn’t happen, it didn’t happen, it didn’t ….


He’s killed, shot through the heart and falling. I try to catch him as he falls to the ground, but I am paralysed, bound by some invisible force. Dust disturbed by his collapse now settles in a fine film over his face, coating his part-open lips and blue, empty eyes. My own face is wet with tears, and the heat of the sun beats down mercilessly upon us both.

They are dragging him now through the dirt and the dust, hauling his body up onto the wagon with the others. The heat is unbearable. Why is it so hot? Oh God, can this get any worse?

The scene has changed. I am standing in a prison yard. More Rurales are unloading the bodies into a central pit. That is how they get rid of the bodies the Pinkerton report said. If their agent did not get there in time, there would be no body to bring back and bury in Lancer soil. The spirit of my son would be lost and homeless forever.

The heat from the blazing sun is searing. The officer in charge lights a torch. It gives off its own heat and the sweet sickly smell of kerosene. He sets the funeral pyre alight. The smoke is acrid but white, fat laden it hovers low above the ground and creeps across the dusty yard, wrapping itself about my legs and seeping into the surrounding cells as the fire destroys all evidence of what were once men, what was once my son. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes … I can do nothing but stand there as silent witness to what might have been if my Pinkerton agent had been only a few minutes late. But it didn’t happen, it didn’t. Wake up, WAKE UP!

I finally break free, sitting up suddenly in bed, sweat pouring from my brow as if I am sleeping in the heat of summer instead of the cool of early spring. Rising quickly I splash my face with water from the wash basin. Always the same; my eyes and mouth feel like they have dust in them and my head pounds as if suffering from heatstroke. Steadying myself with both hands gripping the stand, I breathe deeply to calm myself down. It was just a dream, a bad dream. It was not real. It did not happen.

“Blast!” Why am I having this dream again? It’s been months since I last dreamt it. Things are different, more settled. I don’t feel so much in danger of losing Johnny as I did when the boy first returned. We’re getting along. So why?

Shaking my head to free myself of the image of my son’s lifeless face up-turned on the pyre, I pour myself whiskey from the decanter I keep on the bedside table and step out through the French doors to the courtyard beyond. It isn’t that late. From the night sky and noises I would guess only nearing midnight, no more. Movement catches my eye. Through the leafy arches I can see him sitting outside his room, leaning forward and caressing a glass like mine in his own strong hands.

“May I join you?” I ask emerging from the shadows. “You’re up late. Can’t sleep?”

“Nope, thinkin’,” Johnny replies leaning back in the wicker chair. “Today’s a special day.”


Johnny smiles at me and sips at his tequila, “No, don’t s’pose you’d know it.”

“Tell me then.”

“Last year on this day I faced a firing squad, the one your Pink rescued me from,” he explains softly. “I was just thinkin’, what if I hadn’t got away? What if I had just escaped but not come to Lancer?”

“Does no good to think ‘what if,’” I respond, amazed that our thoughts should have been so similarly engaged. “’What ifs’ are all regrets for what might have been or narrow escapes. Give you bad dreams.”

“Yep, but to stop thinkin’ them is easier said than done,” Johnny chuckled.

“You can’t change what is past even if you wanted too. Thank God for your narrow escape and the decision you made, and focus on now and the future. ’What ifs’ just stir up emotional heat and dust to irritate your mind.”

“I think you shoulda been a poet, old man. Who knew?” Johnny’s blue eyes laugh at me affectionately.

“No, just a man who has wasted a lot of sleepless nights on ‘What ifs’,” I reply. “Just hoping my son will learn from my mistakes.”

“Fair enough,  I’ll save my ‘What if-ing’ for what’s ahead of me— like what if I don’t get up in time to take Teresa into town to catch that early morning stage. She’ll skin me alive. I’d best get to bed—Good night Murdoch.”

“Good night, son. Sleep well.”







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