What If . . . ?
by Margaret P
The original version of this story was written for the Lancer Writer’s website for the August 2013 Challenge: Heat and Dust. A big thank you goes to Shelley for beta-ing this revised version.
I stand on a hillside, dust beneath my feet; the back of my neck burning under a Mexican sun. There are men in front of me—Rurales and their prisoners. One by one shackled convicts face a 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 butts a familiar face to his feet with his rifle, shoving him forward. Johnny—it’s Johnny standing there in front of the firing squad.
“No, stop—don’t do it!” No one hears me. Why does no one hear me? “Stop! Please stop.”
The performers of this Shakespearean tragedy play on. I am a helpless spectator, unable even to show my 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 is killed, his body shredded by bullets and dropping. I try to catch him, but I am paralysed, bound by an invisible force. Dust rises as he falls, settling in a fine film over his face, blanketing his part-open lips and blue, empty eyes. I taste tears, and the sun beats down without mercy.
They drag him through the dirt, 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?
I stand in a prison yard. Rurales unload bodies into a central pit. The corpses are incinerated—the Pinkerton report said. If their agent did not arrive in time… no body to bury in Lancer soil. The spirit of my son would be lost and homeless forever.
The blazing sun sears me.
Flushed, perspiring, an officer lights a torch and bends to the funeral pyre. The sweet sickly smell of kerosene burns my nostrils. White, fat-laden smoke hovers low above the ground and creeps across the dusty yard, wrapping itself about my legs and seeping into surrounding cells as fire destroys all evidence of what were once men—what was once my son. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes … I can do nothing. I stand, silent witness to what might have been if my Pinkerton agent had been just a few minutes late. But it didn’t happen, it didn’t. Wake up, WAKE UP!
I break free. Sweat trickles from my brow as if I have been sleeping in the heat of summer not 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 gritty and my head pounds. My hands grip the stand. Deep breaths calm me. It was just a dream, a bad dream. It was not real. It did not happen.
“Damn!” Why am I having this nightmare again? It’s been months. Things are different, more settled. It’s not like it was. There are moments—but the danger of losing Johnny has lessened. We’re getting along. So why?
Shaking my head free of the image of my son’s lifeless face, up-turned on the pyre, I pour whiskey from the decanter on the bedside table and step out through the French doors to the courtyard beyond. It isn’t late. From the night sky and noises, only nearing midnight, no more.
Movement—through the leafy arches I see him sitting outside his room, leaning forward, strong hands caressing a glass like my own.
I emerge from the shadows and join my son. “You’re up late. Can’t sleep?”
“Nope, thinkin’.” The wicker chair creaks as Johnny leans back, gazing up towards distant stars. “Today’s a special day.”
Johnny sips at his tequila and looks down into the clear liquid, a crooked smile on his lips. “No, don’t s’pose you’d know it.”
“Tell me then.”
He is lost in thought. Amber reflections in my own glass rebuke me. Have I overstepped the unseen line between us?
“Last year on this day I faced a firing squad—the one your Pink rescued me from.” His voice is soft, almost a whisper. The lump forming in my chest evaporates. How is it possible—our thoughts so close? His eyes turn towards me, but I continue to study my drink, fearing mine might scare him back into silence. “I was just thinkin’, what if I hadn’t got away? What if I had escaped but not come to Lancer?”
“Does no good to think ‘what if’. ‘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.”
My smile acknowledges the truth of his words—if he only knew why I’m up so late.
“You can’t change what is past even if you want to. Thank God for your narrow escape and the decision you made—I do.” We both glance up, then self-consciously away. “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 with genuine affection.
But I am an awkward fool. I hide my pleasure behind another taste of Glen Ord. “No, just a man who has wasted a lot of sleepless nights on ‘What ifs’—just hoping my son can 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, Johnny. Sleep well.”