WARNING - While there is no violence or bad language, this is not a happy piece. Does it require a hanky warning? I don't know, I can't tell because I've written it, but it does involve the death of a major character.
The miles pass beneath me and although I feel every bump and jolt, every movement of the powerful steed on which I sit, I see nothing and hear nothing. I am aware it’s getting dark, but that doesn’t matter. I’d ride through the night if I had to. Shortly, above my head, stars will emerge to litter the sky, sprinkled with carefree abandonment by an ethereal hand. They will be a beautiful sight, yet I will not look at them. Deep down in my heart, I know that soon they will be eclipsed by the brightest star of all. Then maybe I will look to the heavens.
For now, I keep my gaze fixed on the long road ahead. I concentrate on my breathing as if I’m breathing for two, because if I could do that, then believe me, I would.
I have the strangest feeling of déjà vu and it settles over me, swirls around me; colder than the night air could ever be. It chills my very soul to know that even though this time I will find what I seek, I am once more destined to lose him.
It was just like this, on that night. The same feeling of hopelessness and despair encases me, shrouds me. Back then I didn’t truly know just how hopeless it was. Nor could I have possibly contemplated the despair I would feel, after such a fruitless search; a maze of dead ends that I remained lost in for far too long.
But this time I do know. I know and I hate it with every fibre of my being. I want to turn around and ride out of reality, but I can’t. Sooner or later I would have to return, only then it would be over, and I would have let him down...again.
A single bright light beckons to me through the darkness and so I ride towards it, drawn like a moth to a flame. I pray that this light means something, that it represents the very thing I hope to find; my son still alive.
Sympathy greets me at the door. She has a kind face and I feel happier knowing that she has been here for him. I know instinctively by the look in her wrinkle framed eyes that she has done all she can.
“He’s a fighter,” she says.
I know this to be true.
If these precious years have taught me anything, it’s just how much of a fighter my son is. If I close my eyes, I can remember that day, many years ago, when I first got the news. I read the Pinkerton report with shaking hands, the words blurring on the page through a haze of bitter, angry tears. The baby boy who I remembered, the image that I had carried close to my heart like a photograph in my breast pocket, was destroyed that day. My son was a gunfighter.
As I enter the room, I can hear my heart pounding strongly in my chest. I relish the feeling, for all too soon it will shatter into a thousand fragments. I know this to be true too.
And then I see him. And for one moment, I see my baby boy lying in his crib, his cheeks rosy red from crying, his long dark lashes wet with tears.
With tentative steps I reach his side and sit, the creak of the wicker chair announcing my presence, if only he could hear. Suddenly gone is my baby and in his place is a man. Still my son. Only his cheeks aren’t rosy red from crying, but burnt scarlet with fever, and there are no tears glistening on those long dark lashes, just beads of sweat trickling a miserable path down his face.
This is my son. The pride in my inner voice no longer surprises me, although it would shock that man who long ago sat reading the first report. These last few years, I’ve wanted to shout my pride from the rooftops, yet I’ve never told him.
The candle on the bedside table burns bright, the single flame standing tall and proud. For some reason, I no longer take comfort from the light. Instead it mocks me with its energy, mocks me with its life, sending dark, taunting shadows to dance across the wall.
I reach for his hand and take the tanned, slim fingers in my own. They feel limp and useless. Just this small thing brings the first fought against tears to my eyes. I stare at his hands, thinking about their fluidity and grace, their speed like lightening and how they kept him alive all these years. I feel my throat constrict and I listen frantically for the sound of my heart again, because I’m not ready to go there yet. Not while he still needs me to be strong.
I look at his face and marvel at how young he still looks. With my free hand, I reach out and brush the dark, unruly hair from his forehead. It feels so soft beneath my fingertips, just like it did when he was a small child. This is such a simple, fatherly gesture, one that I have only been fortunate enough to perform a handful of times before. Always while he’s sleeping, never when he’s awake.
My fingers move from his hair and trail down his face, gliding on the sweat, grazing over the stubble that casts a shadow on his jaw.
“Johnny, I’m here Son.”
My voice squeezes past the lump in my throat. It spills into the air; loud but strong, and that pleases me. If I was to let my emotions rule me now, then the best I could hope for is a shaky whisper. If he can hear anything at all, then he would not recognise that whisper as me. He always says I bellow more than I talk.
I watch his face for a sign that he’s heard me, but there is none. His bare chest rises and falls. In the silence of the room, I can hear his breathing. I try not to listen to the rattling, or the way he draws those breaths a little too quickly.
“He’s a fighter.”
Those words seem to echo around me and I know that once again, Johnny is fighting for his life. He’s been fighting a doomed battle for days I’ve been told, but with each hour that passes, he gets weaker. Without knowing it, I squeeze his hand a little harder.
There are so many questions I have and answers I need, but this is not the time. The opportunities I have had, the opportunities I could have created; I let them all pass by. I should have taken a leaf out of Johnny’s book and been a fighter. I really don’t know where he gets it from.
But maybe it’s not too late for me to change. Maybe I can replicate some of my son’s courage, and so I talk to him. I tell him how much I admire his compassion, his spirit and just how enormously proud I am of the man he has beaten all odds to become. I tell him what I’ve known for a long time; that when I said that I loved my ground more than anything God ever created, I have never been more wrong.
“I love you, Johnny. You and Scott, more than anything.”
I bow my head as the thought of my elder son brings new heaviness to my heart. I know that Scott wants to be here now and although he is on his way, I wonder if he will make it. I can hear those breaths; shorter and quicker and I close my eyes in prayer, only to hope it has been answered when I feel the slight pressure from Johnny’s fingers as they curl around my own.
When I raise my head, my eyes are met by his, and the beauty of them takes my breath away. They remind me of the bluest sea, sometimes calm and tranquil, other times stormy and raging. Never have I met anyone who can communicate so much with eyes alone.
The sea is calm today, but there is a ripple on the surface, an undercurrent of determination. Most of all, I see that he has heard me and I am grateful.
Johnny turns his head on the pillow and the ripples deepen with the effort it takes. He tries to move his lips, but they’re too dry, and I switch my gaze to the table, reaching for the glass of water, seizing it like a trophy.
I ignore the glow of the candle, still burning bright like it has all the time in the world, and gently lift his head and let him drink. He only takes enough to moisten his lips.
Lowering his head back to the pillow, I squeeze his hand again. I see his lips move, his tongue darting across them briefly.
His words meet my ears as the faintest of whispers, but I hear their meaning loud and clear.
“I’m here now, Johnny. I’m here.”
Johnny nods and his eyelids flicker, but he’s still fighting. My son is a fighter.
As his breathing becomes shallower, I see the struggle on his face. His dark brows knit together. The ripple of determination in his eyes begins to fade and I know he’s in pain, but Johnny bites down on his lip and continues fighting.
I immediately lean across to the candle and try to blow out the flame, but it stubbornly refuses to go out. I’m just preparing to unleash a stronger breath when Johnny speaks again,
I nod my head, knowing it must do, because Johnny never admits he’s hurting. Fresh tears form in my eyes and spill down my cheeks. I’m not ashamed.
Reaching out to the table, I wring out the cloth in the bowl of cool water and bring it to his brow. This soothes him somewhat, although I see the grimace of pain he hides behind his mask.
I should be angry with that mask, because he is the cause of this, the reason my handsome son is lying in this bed, in a strangers house, dying. I’m not angry though. How can I be when they are one? I spent too long trying to separate them, loving one, but not the other, overlooking the fact that they are one soul, a fusion of two lives, two worlds. Ultimately, my son.
His eyelids flicker again, the lashes quiver and I see exhaustion wash over him. An internal battle rages inside me, but I know what I have to do. Casting the already warm cloth aside, I gently stroke my fingers once more through his dark hair.
“Johnny. You’re going home, Son. You’re going back to Lancer.”
I watch a small smile grace his lips and my breaking heart is compromised by a brief, explicit moment of joy. For my son has a home; a place where he is finally happy and his smile tells me this is so.
“Can you see it, Johnny? Those beautiful rolling hills, as far as the eye can see. All the space, all those colours; greens and golds…”
Johnny nods again and my heart skips a beat as I see his chest rise not so high, fall not so low.
Then to my surprise, he speaks. “Mama’s there.”
I must look confused for a moment. Then I realise.
He’s looking at me hesitantly, blue eyes so sleepy, yet searching my face for signs of disapproval, and I understand. He doesn’t want to betray me for her. He doesn’t want to leave me again.
I drink in those eyes; let them peer into my soul which I bare willingly, as the tears still run down my face. I taste their saltiness in my mouth. I waited so long to get my son back from Maria that now I fight back the urge to scream out loud that she can’t have him, she can’t take him from me again.
But Johnny is very tired and he’s fought so long and hard, that I speak before I’ve even made a conscious decision to do so.
“Go to her, Son. It’s okay.”
Johnny smiles, a ghost of a smile, and those blue orbs close for the last time. His fingers go limp in my hand. I get to my feet, lean over him and lower my lips to his forehead. As I plant a kiss there, I hear him sigh his final breath.
Then there is only silence.
For some reason that I will take great comfort from later; the tall, mocking flame of the candle suddenly wavers crazily for a few moments as if it’s struggling to stay alight against some unseen force. I watch the flame stubbornly tilt and whither, before suddenly, it’s extinguished and I am left in the dark.
Yes. My son is a fighter.