WHN - Child of Rock and Sunlight
The characters do not belong to me and I make no profit from their use.
Thanks much to Midlandstorm (Lacy) for her beta. It is much appreciated. This is what may have occurred after Johnny, Scott and Murdoch rode away from the Sickles cabin in Chile of Rock and Sunlight.
The three men road away from the little house, and each one left a part of himself behind, but in a far different way than the other two.
Murdoch was grim, grim because he had come so close to losing one of his sons to an unwise choice. No, it was more than unwise, it was stupid. But how could his son have known the ramifications involved with that decision? He was ignorant of the danger, and that was all the more frustrating because nothing was to blame but his son’s lack of knowledge and the harsh country. The land was the land, and free of guilt. And innocent unawareness was a target you could not rage at. Thankfully his son was alive, and it would be good to shake the dust of that wretched dwelling from their boots.
Johnny was in turmoil. Not because he killed a man who came close to killing his brother, but because his brother had been so close to death. The gunman had been mere seconds away from taking Scott’s life and if Johnny hadn’t been there to remove the danger, his brother would not be riding away with them now, and leaving the miserable house behind.
Scott was not thinking about his bad decision to venture out across the desert alone, nor about the fact that death had whispered and been forestalled. He was thinking of a little boy left behind that he had learned to care for very much. He was a strange boy who needed and wanted more than a dirty little shack in the middle of a fevered, parched, miserly land that gave nothing up for free.
These were the surface feelings only. There were others that churned quietly, banging into one another, firing more than the unbearable furnace the day had become. The men were quiet as they rode away from the house and towards their own home, conversation a word here or a word there.
Scott had lost his hat days ago, and the sun was relentless. Johnny had offered him his hat to wear for a while, but Scott had stubbornly declined. Scott was the one who had decided in the first place to cross the arid country when the stage had been rescheduled. Why should his brother suffer in the sun?
By the time they stopped to camp for the night, however, Scott’s head was pounding beyond pain, to a point where he could have thrown up. All he wanted to do was lie down, close his eyes, and try to ignore his dour father and moody brother. He even wanted to forget the boy left behind in the shack with his pathetic grandmother and just think about the darkness, and the stingy comfort of the bedroll beneath his head.
Scott got down off his horse and started to undo the saddle, intending to bed the animal down for the night.
“I’ll do that Boston,” Johnny drawled softly, reaching for the reins of Scott’s horse. “Why don’t you take it easy? You look kind of washed away.”
Despite the base drum ramming in his head, Scott smiled at the remark. “Washed away, Johnny?”
“Yea, you know, something that’s been pounded on by the ocean until it’s all washed away down to a scrap of what it was.”
Appreciating the analogy, Scott didn’t argue. He was grateful to his brother for his help.
Johnny untied Scott’s bedroll and handed it to him. “That spot over there don’t look so rocky. Why not test it out for us?” Johnny smiled and led the horses away to a small trickle of water they had miraculously found dribbling over some rocks, pooling into a small puddle before it once again disappeared underground.
Scott looked towards his father who had started to gather wood for a fire. “I can do this, Scott,” Murdoch said. “I’d suggest you follow your brother’s advice.”
Scott nodded and did exactly that. He rolled the blanket into a passable pillow and lay down on the dusty, bare earth. He sighed when he closed his eyes, relief almost immediate when he no longer had to make the effort to hold his head up. He tried to clear his mind of everything but the soft background noises of horses munching on oats and scrub grass, the snap of the fire and frying bacon.
The heat had taken its toll, coupled with the previous days of walking under the unmerciful sun, running out of water, stumbling into the Sickles’ homestead that he thought offered respite, and becoming deeply entangled in the life of a small, strange boy called Andy Jack.
“Boston.” Scott opened his eyes to see his brother standing above him. “Here, put this saddle blanket under you.”
Scott really did not want to move. The white pain of his head was finally receding and he was content. “I’m okay, Johnny.”
“No, you’re not. Now put this under you and I’ll leave you alone. It’ll get cold out here soon.”
Scott didn’t move, hoping if he closed his eyes and ignored him, his brother would just go away. Johnny, however, was never that easy.
Johnny eyed his brother’s immovable form. He was inexplicably angry with him anyway, and Scott’s ability to just ignore him was irritating him more than fine dust settling on sweaty skin.
“Come on, Boston. All you gotta do is roll over and roll back. I’ll put the blanket down. Make it easy for you.”
Scott didn’t miss the tone of irritation in Johnny’s voice. Unfortunately, he was just as frayed as Johnny and not apt to jump when Johnny said roll. “I’m not a dog. I don’t roll over on command.” He didn’t open his eyes when he said the words; truly he was as tired as that dog he had just referred to.
“Murdoch, Scott won’t lay on a blanket and it’s going to get cold.”
“Scott, Johnny’s right.”
Scott almost laughed at the ludicrous situation. His little brother was tattling on him to his father as if they were children! The absurdity of the whole situation was completely farcical. But he was stubborn enough not to want to give in.
“Murdoch, he’s not moving.”
“Scott, please take the blanket. Johnny won’t let up until you do.”
Knowing Johnny indeed would not go away, Scott opened his eyes and glared up at him. His headache had returned in the form of his brother and closing his eyes and wishing him away would not work. Moaning, he lifted his head from the crude but effective pillow and started to get up. Johnny held out a hand to help him up, but Scott batted it away. Once he was up, Johnny spread the blanket out on the ground. Still scowling at his brother, Scott settled down on the blanket and put the bedroll once more under his head.
“I can’t believe this whole scenario,” Scott muttered.
“Scenario, situation, the circumstances.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I cannot believe you tattled to Murdoch like we were children.”
“Well, it will be getting cold. I should have let you freeze your butt off, ya know!”
“I know it gets cold at night in the desert, Johnny. I’ve been through one before,” Scott snapped.
“Well, if you’ve been through one before, you should have been smart enough not to try to make it through this one on your own. For a smart man, Scott, that was a stupid move.” Johnny’s temper had flared with Scott’s apparent lack of appreciation for Johnny’s solicitude, stoked by the thought of almost seeing his brother killed before his eyes.
“How was I supposed to know that my horse would break a leg, Johnny? I can’t foresee the future you know.”
“No one should go out alone in land like that unless they’ve got an extra horse and extra water,” Johnny exclaimed loudly.
“Johnny”, Murdoch said. “Scott’s tired. Maybe now isn’t the best time to talk about it.”
“I didn’t know it was that bad, Johnny,” Scott said wearily. He really was not up to arguing. He had beat himself up as it was, knowing what a stupid move he had made to try and tackle that desert on his own. He’d been warned about it before he left town by men who knew the country. He’d ignored their warnings and almost paid for it with his life, twice; once in the desert, almost dying from thirst and heat, and again at the Sickles shack when Luke Sickles had pointed that gun at him and was ready to pull the trigger. He’d thought in that frightening second that he was going to die. Then Johnny appeared from out of nowhere and killed Sickles.
Scott speculated that his father and brother were thinking the same thing, as Johnny had just so vehemently indicated. Even though his thoughts for the better part of the day had been on the boy, he was perceptive enough to pick up on his father’s stoic silence and his brother’s sullen mood. It seemed his ‘green horn’ label was still hanging heavily around his neck.
He closed his eyes once more, trying to pinch out the fierce stare from his brother. Scott heard Johnny noisily slap his bedroll on the ground a few feet from his own. The tension seemed to sizzle as much as the bacon as he felt Johnny plop his saddle down on the packed ground and settle audibly against it.
Murdoch didn’t want to get into the middle of what was going on between his sons. He was irritated enough with Scott for attempting to cross that wicked piece of country on his own, and felt any response to their bickering would result in his reacting as Johnny had; angrily towards his eldest. Scott was tired and obviously suffering from a headache and Murdoch was sympathetic to his son’s pain. He reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a small cotton packet with a drawstring. He emptied a few grains of the white powder it contained into a cup full of coffee. He stood up, stretched his back and walked over to Scott.
“Scott.” Scott barely opened his eyes to look at his father. “Son, drink this down. It’s pain medication I take along for my back. It’ll help with your head.”
Scott reached for the coffee, knowing that his head would have to follow. It was throbbing again, and he didn’t know if he could keep the coffee down. “How did you know my head hurt?” Scott asked. He had not complained about it all day.
“Stands to reason, Son. No hat for your head to keep the sun off, you’re squinting your eyes like your head is tight, and it took me quite a while to get accustomed to this sun. I was almost as light as you were years ago. This sun does not like fair skinned people.” Pausing, he turned to Johnny. “Johnny, get my bedroll and put it behind him just until he gets the coffee down.”
“I’m okay, sir. I can sit up.”
“An extra bedroll isn’t going to hurt, Scott.” Murdoch dismissed further protests by taking Scott by his shoulders, bringing him up as Johnny put the bedroll behind him, and putting him back down. “Drink it” he ordered brusquely, stepping away from his son.
Scott brought the hot liquid up to his lips and sipped slowly. His mouth held the warm fluid before he swallowed. His father had put sugar into the coffee as well, and Scott ran his tongue slowly over his lips, lightly tasting the sweet grains, bringing them into his mouth as they melted. He was soothed by the strong, robust flavor of the brew and drank it within a few minutes. He lay back against the bedrolls and melted into their support. His arms lay on either side of his body, his long legs stretched out fully, and his hair fanned out behind his head, a blond halo against the tan of his face. He seemed to sleep, the easy rise and fall of his chest placid, his mouth soft. Whatever his father had given him, it was working. If he was in pain, he didn’t know it, and furthermore, he didn’t care.
Johnny looked at him and smiled. “Dam, Murdoch, whatever you gave him he looks sweeter than a virgin on her wedding night.”
“Johnny,” Murdoch remonstrated but laughed along with his son. “I doubt highly if your brother is a virgin and he should sleep for the rest of the night. And what would you know about virgins on their wedding night?”
Johnny shrugged. “I’ve been to a few weddings. Don’t have to be there to see how happy and beautiful some of those gals looked. You know, even if they’re not so pretty, I haven’t seen an ugly bride. Plenty of ugly grooms though.” Johnny laughed.
Murdoch harrumphed and piled a plate full of bacon and beans. He poured a cup of coffee and handed both to Johnny.
“Don’t you think Scott should have eaten something?”
“No Johnny. I think he just needed to sleep. May not have been able to hold anything down anyway. I’ve had what I call ‘sun headaches’ and they are fierce. Worse than any I’ve ever had, and that includes hangovers.” He generously filled another plate with food, grabbed a cup of coffee, and sat down next to Johnny.
“Looks like you lost your bedroll.”
“That’s okay Johnny. I’ll get it later. He won’t notice; he’s dead to the world.” After saying those last words, Murdoch grimaced, realizing how true they could have been.
Murdoch and Johnny sat silently for a few minutes as they ate their supper, each lost in their own thoughts.
Johnny was the first one to say anything, speaking so quietly Murdoch hardly heard what he said. “You know, Murdoch, it was sure, well, kind of scary seeing that gun aimed at Scott today. I thought that man would pull the trigger before I got to chance to stop him.” Johnny bowed his head, seeing Sickles with the gun in hand and pointed at his brother’s chest.
Murdoch eyed Johnny for a few moments, and then looked towards Scott. “I’m sorry Johnny.” There was a weighty silence between the two men as Murdoch tried to understand what Johnny had seen, grasping it finally, bowing his head as he realized how frantic Johnny must have been. Knowing that whatever he said would fall short, he murmured, “I’m glad you were there. We’d be hauling him home over the horse wrapped up in a bedroll instead of his riding home.” The unspeakable image that had been in his mind all day long was unburdened; the words were said, and the vision exposed.
They needed to talk about it, Johnny and him. They needed to release the fear of what might have happened; they needed one another to reassure themselves that it was okay to be scared, to be angry, even if they didn’t know who to be angry at. And they needed to do it without Scott.
Johnny flicked away the coffee grounds that were in his cup and reached into his saddlebag. He pulled out a bottle of rye, filled his cup and offered it to his father. Murdoch took the bottle and poured a healthy portion into his remaining coffee.
“Rye and coffee, Murdoch? That’s a strange mix.” Johnny’s voice was smiling and Murdoch glanced at him. He could barely make out the blue of his son’s eyes in the dimming twilight, but could see their glimmer.
“Keeps the demons off, Son.” He took his first sip. Rye was not his favorite liquor of choice, but right now it was welcome. “I’m surprised you didn’t bring Tequila instead.”
“None left or I would have.”
“Scotch would have been better.”
“Well, you pack your way and I’ll pack mine.” Johnny’s tone was easy.
Murdoch chuckled. “You have a good point.”
They allowed a few minutes to enjoy the feeling of the warmth of the rye as it settled. The night was turning cool as expected and the hot tingle of the liquor as it progressed out from their belly and into their limbs was comfortable. It was good to unwind, to relish the soundless presence of one another, and to hear the soothing in and out of Scott’s breathing.
“Would you be just as happy if Scott and I never came home, Murdoch?” The question was ventured with hesitation, as if Johnny was unsure of the answer his father would give him.
Murdoch was surprised by the words, and fully turned to look at his son. “Johnny, why would you ask me something like that?”
Johnny shrugged into the night, wondering himself why he said it. “Don’t know Murdoch. Lots of things probably changed for you, life got a bit more complicated.”
“Is that what you think Johnny, that you and your brother complicated my life, or did we just complicate yours?”
Johnny chuckled softly, sipped slowly on the rye, and tried to collect his thoughts. “Well, I sure didn’t expect a brother, that’s for sure.” He turned to look at his father in the night, not seeing his face, but knowing the expression on it. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“No” Murdoch answered without hesitation. “I would not have known what happiness truly is without you and your brother. You two may have complicated my life, but it was a good exchange. More than that, Son, you have made my life whole again. I loved two women with all of my heart, and you two have filled that emptiness I’ve felt for well over twenty years when I lost them both. There is no complication, only fulfillment.”
Johnny was unable to talk. He felt tears come to his eyes at his father’s words. He knew if he spoke, his voice would betray how much his father’s statement moved him.
“You didn’t answer my question, Johnny. Did we complicate your life?”
Taking a deep breath, Johnny answered that question. “Old Man, yes, you sure did. You and Scott, Teresa, Jelly, Cip, Maria, I can go on and on and on.”
“Was it easier before? Before you came to Lancer? Do we make you happy, Johnny? Do we give you anything?”
Johnny let out a sigh. “Let me put it this way. When I saw that muzzle pointed at Scott’s chest, I thought if he died, life would be grey and ugly. What would be the point if that light was taken away from me?”
There was silence, and then Murdoch spoke. “You know before we found Scott’s horse, I could smell it. I could smell death and I thought it was your brother. Johnny, I was scared, more scared than I’ve ever been in my life. I didn’t know what I’d do if it were him. I was so relieved, Son, so thankful that it wasn’t him.” Murdoch stopped, remembering how frightened he had been. “But you know something, even if it had been Scott, I wouldn’t trade the knowing, the loving; even with all of the pain of loss, I have gained so much more than what would have been taken away from me.”
Johnny didn’t know what to say to his father. There was so much going through his mind. Johnny had changed so much, in part due to his father, but mostly because of his brother. The barriers that he had erected had been slowly, but patiently picked at by Scott. Scott was the one who refused to let him go when Johnny just wanted to ride out. Scott was the one who placated, talked, soothed, appeased, cajoled, and calmed when he was confused as to what he wanted to do. When Johnny was angry Scott bore on, smoothly side stepping Johnny’s passionate rage, ignoring the heat of his brother’s frustration, and cooling the fire of his confusion with a word. Scott ignored much, and looked beyond the surface. He had found Johnny worth the effort.
“Yea, old Boston can sure get under your skin, can’t he?” Johnny said simply.
Murdoch laughed at the understatement. “Yes he can, Son, but he’s not the only one.”
Acknowledging silently to himself what his father stated, Johnny said, “Murdoch, know what scared me the most? I’ve seen lots of men die, and most of them deserving it, but once they’re dead, you can’t bring ‘em back. Who they were, what they wanted, how mean their stupid little schemes were. But Scott, he’s worth something, Murdoch. He’s worth more than bleeding and dying cause the likes of Sickles can do it.”
And there it was; the injustice that a man like Luke Sickles, who was an outlaw that didn’t care about anyone or anything except himself, could take the life of someone who did care, and who would give back much more than he would take.
Johnny scrubbed his hand fitfully through his hair. He clenched his fists and wanted to hit something, so he smacked his clenched hands together over and over again. Then he heard the word, “John”. He looked over towards his father and stopped. Murdoch’s profile was framed in the firelight, but otherwise he was invisible in the black desert night.
“He’s alive, Son.”
Johnny was still. “Yes, Sir, he is alive.”
They listened to the desert. The escaping heat of the day seemed to hiss to the summit of the sky, and kept time to the insect’s chirping their need for a mate. Lizards scrambled across the sand, trying to capture the chanting bugs, and patient snakes lay in wait to strike the hungry lizards, and thus appease their own hunger. The seemingly lifeless land came alive at night, and Johnny took comfort in this great force that demanded survival.
“I suppose Scott will want to come back to help that kid.”
“I suppose he will, Son. You know your brother.”
“Yea. But this time, I’m coming along.”
Murdoch gazed up at the canopy of the stars. “Clouds are moving in. Might not be so hot tomorrow.”
Johnny looked up as well, noting a dark band of thunderheads coming up in the east, moving slowly. “Yes, Sir, might be a bit cooler tomorrow.”
“We should be home by tomorrow night, Son. It will be good to get home.”
“Yea, Old Man,” he said affectionately, “it will be good to be home.”
Johnny got up and wrapped himself in one of the horse blankets. He picked up his own bedroll and spread it out on the ground for his father. “Horse blanket will do me fine, Murdoch. I’m used to horse hair.”
Murdoch smiled. “Thank you, Son.”
Johnny took one of the horse blankets and laid it across his brother. “Rest easy, Boston.” Johnny brought his hand up to his brother’s forehead, and brushed away dust that had settled in Scott’s bangs.
Murdoch watched. He closed his eyes, and offered a silent thank you.
Both men exhausted, they lay against their overturned saddles, and nestled into the earthy smell of leather and horses.
Indeed, it would be good to get home.
Comments may be directed to email@example.com