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Sprite

 

 

The Anniversary

Rating: G
Disclaimer: I really am infringing on someone elses copyright, but I mean it in the best possible way.
Cat: Thank you for all you do.
This one is all G’s fault.  About a million years ago – G sent up an Anniversary challenge and this is what came of it.


 

He stayed in bed.  Pulling the covers up tight against his neck, he tried not to listen to the sounds coming from downstairs that welcomed the day.  He heard Scott shut his door and knew it wouldn't be long before Scott pushed open the door with his enthusiastic "Good Morning".  He closed his eyes tight and wished for a lock on the bedroom door.

The greeting stuck in Scott’s throat and a soft. "Johnny?" was spoken instead.

"I got a headache," Johnny mumbled.

Scott walked over quietly and perched on the edge of the bed. "Are you sick? Can I get you something?"

"No. Just go away. I'll come down when I feel better." Johnny attempted to tug the cover tighter, but with Scott sitting on them and they didn't budge.

Scott frowned and without thinking he put his hand out and laid it on Johnny's cool forehead. "You don't have a fever."

Johnny sighed and closed his eyes. "It's just a headache. I'll be down later, all right?"

Scott got up, smoothed down the brightly patterned quilt and went to the door. "You're sure you don't want anything?"

Johnny's only response was to turn over, with his back to the door and pull the covers up over his head.

Scott made his way downstairs, the frown never leaving his face.  He tried to think back over the last nine months that he and Johnny had been at Lancer and couldn't think of one time that his younger brother had stayed sick in bed. Even when the younger man was injured, they were hard pressed to keep him in bed as long as the doctor wanted.

Scott entered the living room and took a deep breath, enjoying all the smells of breakfast. It was the one meal of the day they were most likely to eat together before being called to the distant reaches of the ranch that might not bring them home before supper was over.  Murdoch would sit at the head of the table and dispense their duties before they all scattered like leaves in the wind.

But this morning was different.  Tension hung thick like the air before a storm.  In the nine months that they'd lived at the ranch Johnny had never been sick.  Banged-up and bruised, bloodied and bedraggled- but never ill, and even if he was a little under the weather it didn’t keep him in bed.

Murdoch came out of the kitchen and stood behind his chair, his hand firmly gripped the top rung in a tight fist.  "You're brother won't be joining us this morning."

"I know. He said he had a headache." Scott watched as his father released his white-knuckled grip on the top rail of the chair, and then pulled it away from the table. But he didn't maneuver his big frame onto the sturdy seat.

"It's not like him."

"I was thinking the same thing. Do you think I should send for the doctor?" Scott picked up the coffeepot and filled both his and his father’s cups.

Murdoch seemed to consider the idea carefully before shaking his head and finally sitting down. "No, we'll wait until tomorrow. See how he's feeling then."

Scott agreed reluctantly.  He admitted to himself how foolish he'd feel to have the doctor come all the way out to the ranch for something that in all likelihood be gone by the time he'd arrived.

Teresa put the last platter of food on the table and took her usual seat on Murdoch's right.  "I'll take a plate up to Johnny in a bit. See if he feels more like eating something after a little more sleep."  Her tone was light, but her smile was forced.

As they ate breakfast Murdoch gave Scott a list of chores.  Expecting to be sent out to mend the footbridge over the spring creek, Scott was a little surprised that his days chores including fixing the barn door hinge and other assorted jobs that would keep him near the main house.  But he took his list with gratitude and a smile.  It seemed he wasn't the only one worried about his brother’s behavior.

@@@

Johnny got up a little later and pulled the curtains more tightly over the window to shut out the long sliver of light that threatened to break into his darkened room and mood. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he stared down at his bare feet.  His mind flitted from one black thought to another.  It was his day.  He called it his "Day of Despair" and he swam in a pond of melancholy thinking of all the things he shouldn't have done, or done differently and examined all his past regrets

But for some reason this day wasn't going as well as it had in the past.  His stomach growled and he had to relieve himself, but he didn't want to use the chamber pot.  He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, up and down his cheek and across his eyes before heaving a big sigh and getting to his feet.  He pulled his pants on under his nightshirt and fastened only the top button.

His bare feet made no sound as he padded to the door. He eased it open slowly, grateful for the rainy day last month that he'd spent oiling every creaky hinge in the house.  Looking both ways, and seeing that the coast was clear, he headed down the back stairs to the privy.

He made it back unnoticed and peered around the corner into the kitchen.  He didn't see anyone and edged a little further into the wide-open room.  He'd marveled at the size of it when he first came.  He'd seen hotels in San Antonio and Brazos that didn't have a kitchen the size of this one, but he'd come to learn that all the cooking was done here, for both the family and the hands.

This morning the kitchen smelled not only of breakfast, but stews and soups simmering on the back of the iron stove.  He could smell bread baking in the big double oven.  He inched in a little further and saw a pan of corn bread.  It was wash day and the women liked to have easy food cooking as they had so many other things to do.

He reached out a hand to break off a corner of the corn bread just as he heard a squeak on the stair.  His attention diverted, he didn't see Maria come into the kitchen from the pantry.

"Ah- mejo! What are you doing out of bed? You are sick, yes?"

"Um." Johnny stammered for a moment, unable to think of a suitable lie, but was relieved when the older woman didn't wait for one.  She gently slapped his hand away from the cornbread and with an exaggerated frown she gripped his forearm in an amazingly strong hand and steered him to a chair.

She pulled a skillet from an overhead hook and quickly began to fry a tortilla.  She slid the warm flat bread onto the counter and filled it with left over scrambled eggs, some salsa and some guacamole kept in white stone crocks.  She sprinkled a little cheese on it and rolled it up into a fat log and put it in his hands.  "Here," she gently patted his cheek as if he was one of her wayward children. "Now, if you are sick, then back to bed with you."

He wanted to let her know her thoughtfulness was appreciated, so he leaned in and kissed her cheek.  He left the warm kitchen and headed back to his room.  He was at the foot of the stairs when his father rounded the corner. Their eyes met in the cool gloom of the long hall.

"You're up," Murdoch said, stating the obvious.

"I- uh, needed the …." Johnny let the rest of the sentence go as he tried to casually shift his breakfast out of sight.

"Well, yes," Murdoch said with a hint of awkwardness. "How are you feeling?"

"Better," Johnny shrugged. "My head still hurts, but … better."

"Johnny," Murdoch started, but stopped as if he couldn't quite put into words what he wanted to say. "If you need anything."

"No, thanks." There was no hint of warmth in his eyes, he knew he should be grateful for the offer, but instead he just felt cold and alone.

They both shifted uneasily and Johnny moved to go around his father and up the stairs. "Did you love her?" he blurted out suddenly and then closed his eyes as if the answer might hurt.

Instantly Murdoch knew the "her" his son was referring to, but the question still took him by surprise.  "Yes."

Johnny mounted one step, which almost put them at eye level. "I'm sorry." Unable to say more he faltered to a stop, but he wanted to say more.  But he was unsure which of his many emotions he was sorry for.

"She was…." Murdoch looked down, struggling to put his feelings into words, "magical. Beautiful and mysterious and brilliant and … She gave me you and for that I will always love her."

Johnny made an effort to close his mouth. He was stunned beyond words. His father had barely ever said a word about his mother and this disclosure was astonishing. "I…"

Murdoch was just as stunned by his own revelation and he cleared his throat to cover unexpected emotions. "You should go on up to bed. You still look a little pale."

Johnny nodded and moved up two more stairs. He started to turn and say something else, but by then, Murdoch was gone, silently shutting the hall door.

Returning to his room, Johnny threw himself on the bed.  The overlooked breakfast almost dropped from his hand before he set it on the bedside table, his hunger temporarily forgotten. His eyes burned and the lump in his throat made it hard to breathe. One more regret. He just couldn't seem to talk to the man.  Everything that came out of his mouth came out the wrong way or at the wrong time.  He gripped his pillow in his fists and beat it into submission against the mattress before collapsing onto the bed filled with anger and frustration. He pulled the quilt back up over his head and again tried to hide from the world.

Teresa brought up a tray of toast and tea and pumpkin pie but as she edged open the door she saw Johnny asleep on the bed.  His face flushed, his hair in disarray, he lay on top of the covers with the quilt clutched to his chest, but covering very little of him.  His knees were pulled up toward his chest, and he looked cold.

She set the tray down on top of his dresser and, as quietly as possible, opened the chest at the foot of his bed.  She pulled out a large lightweight blanket and gently laid it over his shoulders.  His eyes remained closed, but she could tell he was restless and sleeping fitfully.  She closed the lid on the trunk quietly, silently wishing him well and pulled the door shut behind her.

Johnny awoke with a start.  From the way that the light no longer tried to force its way through the drawn curtains it was easily past noon.  He pushed off the blanket that covered him and sat up against the headboard.  He scrubbed his hands over his face and yawned.

He saw the tray on his dresser and realized that the blanket must have come from Teresa. "Johnny-boy, you are getting lazy. You didn't even hear her come in."  He chided himself as he got up and looked at the food on the tray.  He still wasn't hungry but he was touched by the gesture.

He looked up into the mirror over the dresser and took in his own haggard appearance.  He hadn't shaved that morning and dark stubble clung to his cheeks and neck.  For a moment he considered letting it grow.  He’d thought about it a few times in his youth, to make himself look older, but now, it didn't seem to fit his face.

Running a hand threw his hair made it stand up even more wildly.  It was hard enough to control at the best of times, and this was not the best of times.  The part in his hair was almost non-existent and the strands curled and waved in any direction they took a fancy.  He picked up his brush and made a half-hearted attempt to get the locks under control before giving up with a sigh.

Moving to the window he pulled the heavy drape back just a sliver to look out on the yard below.  His thoughts had turned back to his youth.  He remembered sitting at his mother’s feet and watching as she brushed out her heavy dark tresses. It had been curly and wild and the color seemed to change in the light - just like his.  He thought back to a time in the early months after he’d first come here.  Murdoch had said, "You have her hair, and my eyes."

He shook his head and let the drape close again.  It seemed that was the only way to talk about her – in little broken half-sentences.  The memories were too hard for either or them to think about and even harder to talk about.

Everything came back to her.  He stood in the center of his room with his thoughts whirling around him.  Every regret, every bit of trouble, every wrong deed he laid at her feet. If only she hadn't left Murdoch… if only she hadn't left him.

He closed his eyes as the sorrow seemed to well up and engulf him.  The room seemed cold again and he pulled his arms tight around his chest and wallowed in his misery.

@@@

Jelly Hoskins was not a man of convention.  He wore a cap when others wore a Stetson, he wore his suspenders on the outside and had little use for outdated manners and he spoke his mind. He was a man of determination and conviction.  He'd watched the whole day as the family pussyfooted around what he called "the cow in the garden".  No one wanted to talk about what was wrong with Johnny, and yet they couldn't seem to think about anything else, so heavy silences hung around the house.

He'd waited all morning for Johnny to come down, but to no avail.  When he couldn't wait any longer he tugged his vest down and entered the house.  It helped that Scott was in the tack room, Teresa was out back with the washing and he'd just seen the boss head down toward the forge.  He pushed open the heavy mahogany door and looked both ways.

No one was in sight, so he headed up the staircase to the second floor. He'd only been up here a few times, toting luggage for one guest or another, so this time he looked around a bit.

The upper hallway wasn't as wide as he remembered, but it had a nice red carpet running down the middle.  Lamps hung on the walls just above head height, their brass holders gleaming in the light that came from the window at the end of the hall.  He knew all the rooms on the North end were for guests, so he turned to right.

Jelly knew the room just at the top of the stairs belonged to the boss.  It was a big room with a big oak bed that had been made to order and shipped up from Mexico City.  Jelly knew that it must have cost a pretty penny to have that big bed brought here, especially back in the 40's.

Teresa's room was just beyond. What had once been a nursery had been turned into a sewing room for her and it had windows that overlooked the lawn and garden.

The two rooms on the far end of the hall were the ones that interested Jelly now.  The last two room on either end of the hall near the window.   One was Scott's, the other was the one he was focused on.  He pushed the door open without bothering to knock.

Johnny was sitting on the edge of the bed clutching a pillow to his chest and rocking slightly.  He turned at the sound of the door opening and their eyes met.

Jelly shook his head. Those eyes were so sad.  “Little late in the day to still be in yer night shirt, ain’t it.”

“Go away, Jelly,” Johnny grumbled, but it was half hearted.

“No, don’t think I will. Thank you very much.” With those words he came further into the room.  It was dark, the curtains were drawn tight and no lamps had been lit. Unusual, as Johnny liked to keep the curtains open all the time.

Teresa pulled them shut during the heat of the day, but they were always opened again as soon as it got dark.  Johnny had said it kept the room from being stale.  At first she’d taken affront, as if her house keeping skills were in question, but then she realized it was just another way for him to say he liked the openness.

“What’s wrong with you, boy?” Jelly asked as he sat down on the window seat.

“Just go away, Jelly.” Johnny turned so that his cheek lay on the pillow he clutched tightly.

“Are you sick?”

“Jelly.” That time the name came out as a dispirited sigh.

“Ya’ ain’t sick, are ya’?” Jelly shook his head and got to his feet, one hand balled into a fist on his hip, with the other he shook a long finger at the man before him.  “You got everybody worried you got the plague or somethin’, and there ain’t a thing wrong with you, is there?”

“I never said I had the plague.” At any other time, Johnny would have been laughing at the exaggeration, this time he barely acknowledged it.

Melancholy.  Jelly recognized the symptoms. He’d raised quite a few orphan boys and he knew just what he was seeing.  “Look at me.”

Johnny kept his head down, as if believing that if he wished hard enough Jelly would just disappear.

“Look at me, Johnny.” This time the words were spoken very softly.

When Johnny looked up he wasn’t expecting to see the compassion written on the older man’s face.  “I’m sorry, Johnny. I truly am.”

“For what?” Johnny sat up straighter, dropping the pillow to his lap.

“For all the bad things in your past. I only wished you could have been one of my boys.”

“Oh Jelly.”

The older man didn’t give him a chance to continue and cut him off with a wave of his hand.  “I guess when I gave those boys up to those homes, I knowed it was a good thing. Every last one of them is better where they are.”

“Jelly,” Johnny started, but was cut off again.

“But it made it a little, no, a lot easier, cuz I had you two boys here, to kind of take their place.  You and Scott.  I kinda made like you were what my boys would have grown up to be.” He ran one hand over his beard and then both hands up and down his suspenders. “I’ve always tried to be here for you, Johnny, and I’m here now.”

Johnny was stunned.  It was as if the breath had been knocked from him and he had no idea what to say. He always thought of Jelly as a friend, and maybe a little more.  An Uncle, someone he could talk to when him and his old man butted heads.

“I want you to tell me why you’re up here, alone, sitting in the dark.” Jelly watched the younger man’s eyes trying to judge if he was pushing just a little to far or a little to fast, but that shuttered look wasn’t there.  “Why you feeling sorry for yourself?”

That did it. Johnny rose to his feet and threw the pillow into the center of the bed.  “I don’t have to explain anything to you.”

“You do when you got this whole house pussyfooting around.”

Jelly saw the sparks that danced in those vibrant blue eyes. “I just don’t want to be around anybody today. Is that so bad?  I don’t want to smile and nod and be polite today. So I locked myself in here so I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody.”

“Didn’t work, did it?” Jelly shot back. “You got a family now, boy.  Everybody’s worried about you.  And it ain’t just Teresa and Scott and your old man.  You got me and the ranch hands and the kitchen staff, everybody.”

“I didn’t ask anybody to worry about me.” Johnny fumed.  His right hand ran down the front of his nightshirt and stopped to twist one button.

“Nope you didn’t. Don’t matter in the least.”

“One day. I only wanted one day.” Johnny muttered angrily, his hands idly tapping against his thighs.  He could feel the Conchos down the leg of his pants under the nightshirt.

“One day to do what?” Jelly moved a little closer and spoke a little softer.

Johnny turned on his heel, putting his back to the older man.

“One day to do what?” Jelly asked again with a little more force.  “Feel sorry for yourself?”

Even with his back turned Jelly could feel the anger radiating off the young man before him.  But anger was better than melancholy.

Johnny didn’t answer but one shoulder raised and lowered in a halfhearted shrug.

“I ain’t saying you didn’t have cause for it in the past,” Jelly offered kindly. “But not anymore.”  Jelly reached out one work-roughened hand, but stopped short of actually touching his friend. “You ain’t alone any more.”

He watched as the dark head drooped in defeat, shoulders slouched, as if the weight of the world rested there.  “I always hole up on this day. I ain’t fit to be around.”

“Says who? You? I been around you for awhile now, and accept you could use a shave, you ain’t so awful terrible to be around.”

A snort of amusement broke from Johnny before he could stop it. “Today,” he stopped and moved to the dresser.  His fingers toyed with a few items there, the brush, his shaving mug, and the twenty-dollar gold piece he’d kept. The one that had been in Scott’s room.

Jelly watched from where he stood in the middle of the room.  In the mirror he could see Johnny’s reflection. The features were unguarded and wistful and it tugged at his heart, so that he again wished he’d found the boy when he was younger.

But Jelly waited patiently, knowing this was not the time to push.

“Once a year I,” Johnny stammered to a stop and Jelly could see him squeeze his eyes shut.

“You take stock. Look back at you’re life, see what’s good and bad.”

The dark head only nodded.

“Which life you looking at today?”

“I don’t have two lives, Jelly. Just one. My life - good and bad. And one day a year I look at it. Is that so wrong?”

Jelly was still watching Johnny in the mirror, and he could see the pained look was back. “No, it ain’t wrong to take stock, but do you have to do it holed up in here like some rat in the walls?”

“I just thought,” Johnny turned to face Jelly and was again cut off before he could finish.

“No, you didn’t think. You just felt. If you’d a been thinkin’ you’d a thought about yer family and knowed they’d be worried about you.  Instead you was just feelin’ sorry for yourself and felt like wallowing in it.”  Jelly’s words were rough, but his tone was full of understanding.

Johnny nodded, staring down at a very interesting thumbnail.

“And just what ya’ got to feel sorry for, Johnny Lancer?”

Johnny just shrugged. He knew he was lucky. Every day he was grateful for having come here, for taking the road that led away from his former life. But it didn’t get rid of the lump of ice that was firmly lodged in his belly. “Nothin’ I guess.”

“Somethin’ or we wouldn’t be here havin’ this palaver.”

Johnny looked up again. Afraid with his next comment he’d see pity and that was the one thing he couldn’t handle right now, but the words needed saying.  “She didn’t want me.  She left me behind.”  There it was out in the open, hanging like a dust cloud in the air, and no amount of wishing would bring it back.

Jelly only nodded.  He had no idea what to say to this revelation.  There was no way to fix what had been done. He kept his gaze steady and his face impassive, but he couldn’t help clenching his jaw at the wrongs done to this boy.

Johnny was surprised to see the anger in the other man’s face and knew it was directed at him. “I know. The past is past and I should let it go.”

“Sometimes the past don’t want to go quietly, but you don’t have to dig it up and look at it.” Jelly turned and headed back to the door.  “You got a lot of friends here, John Lancer. And friends got a way of making the past look not so appealing.”

Johnny smiled. It didn’t reach his eyes, but Jelly could tell Johnny understood his meaning.

“I’m goin’ back to work now, afore the boss gets worried about me.” Jelly reached for the doorknob.

“Today’s the day,” Johnny said softly.  “Just woke up on this day, all those years ago, and she was gone.”

“Her loss,” Jelly said kindly and pulled open the door.  “You comin’?”

Johnny stood there in the middle of the floor thinking over the words Jelly had said. “In a minute, I gotta shave first.”

Jelly nodded and then pulled the door shut gently.

@@@

Johnny stood still in the center of the room, his mind awash with new thoughts and ideas.  This day was nothing like the way he’d had planned.  He’d planned on a day of refection, but on his past, not his present.  As he’d told Jelly, he did think of himself as having two lives.

Johnny Madrid had died that day in Mexico facing a firing squad.  And Johnny Lancer had been reborn.  He’d inherited some of Johnny Madrid’s skills and gifts, just as he had inherited his mother’s temper and his father’s eyes.  But he wasn’t the same man, and he never would be again.

He took a deep breath and let it out slow.  He could smell the freshly watered plants outside his window.

Maybe he needed to put away this annual event.  Put it in the drawer with the other keepsakes of his past life.  He moved back to his dresser and examined his face in the mirror.

It wasn’t the same face as when he’d first come here.  The corners of his mouth twitched up at the thought that he’d “filled out” on Teresa’s good cooking.  But was more than that.  He was leaner, too.  Long hours in the sun working with stock and riding range and honed his body. He was eating better, and was working harder than he ever had.

And he wasn’t as angry as he had been before.  Part of him worried that he’d lost his edge, the other part hoped he’d never need it again.  He tried to imagine going back to that old way of life and it was worse than the self-pity of this morning. He shook his head.

No, Jelly was right. This day didn’t hold the meaning it had before.  He was done here. He didn’t feel sorry for himself like he had.  Maybe a little wistful at times for the way things were, but he never deluded himself into forgetting the hardships that went along with that past freedom.

He studied his reflection in the mirror again. Did he like what he saw there?  Most days, yes indeed.  Today, not so much. It still hurt, her betrayal, but he could see it more clearly today than he had before. Maybe she thought he’d be better off without her.

Maybe he was. “Past is past, Johnny-boy,” he said to the reflection and the reflection grinned back at him.  With a rueful smile he poured water from the pitcher and started to shave.

@@@

There was a gnawing in the pit of his stomach that had nothing to do with being hungry.  He moved down the stairs and lingered in the doorway between the hall and the great room.  The house seemed empty, except for the kitchen, so he moved out into the room.

He loved this room.  Its wall lined with books that he told himself some day he’d read.  The Grandfather clock with its brass numbers and shiny cherry wood. The big, oversized furniture, custom built to fit a man almost six and a half feet tall.  He loved the smells of the room, a mix of furniture polish and good food and pipe tobacco.

He shook his head again, wondering why he’d felt he needed that ritual.  His life was here, not secluded in a room, feeling alone and abandoned.  He smiled sheepishly at the thought that he rarely felt alone here.  Sometimes he had to seek out places to be by himself.

He turned his gaze to the far walls and looked over the strange array of paintings.  He was looking at the one of the man in the cravat wondering just who he was when the front door opened.

“Just hang on a second, Walt. I’ve got it right here.” Murdoch’s voice boomed back through the open door.  The big man stopped and they stared at each other.

Johnny smiled hesitantly, then dropped his gaze to the rug at his feet.

“You’re up. Are you feeling better?” Murdoch took one step and stopped.

“Yes, much. Thanks.” Johnny felt awkward and stammered to a stop.

Murdoch gestured over his shoulder. “I need to give a letter to Walt, he’s heading into town. I’ll just be moment.”

Johnny shrugged. “I’ll wait.” He looked as if the pattern in the rug was the most interesting he’d ever seen and started to trace it with the toe of his boot.

Murdoch watched his son for full minute before spurring himself into action, striding across the room, grabbing the letter and hurrying it out to the waiting ranch hand. “Get this posted, Walt, and send Scott up to the house, will you?”

“Sure, boss,” the man tipped his hat and rode back to the yard.

Murdoch went back into the main room.  Johnny was still standing where he’d left him. His hands clasped behind his back, turning on one foot on the polished oak floor.  “So, how are you feeling?” Murdoch clenched his jaw; knowing it was a question he’d already asked.

“Fine, thanks.” Johnny stopped moving in circles and stood still.  His head came up and a little smile played at the edges of his mouth. He rubbed a hand across his stomach. “Hungry. I think I missed both breakfast and lunch.”

“You did indeed. I’m sure there is something in the kitchen. Come on.” Murdoch turned to head back.

“Murdoch,” Johnny’s voice was low and soft.

“Yes?” Johnny’s left hand came up and scratched his right shoulder; it was a delaying tactic that Murdoch had come to recognize, so he waited.

“Long time ago, when I was just a kid,” Johnny bit his bottom lip, trying to think of just the right words.

Murdoch bit his tongue. He’d almost said, “you’re still a kid” and knew that any levity on his part would not be taken well.  This was serious talk.

“My mother just up and left one day. This day.” Johnny waited, expecting questions or accusations or anything from his father. When none came he forced himself to look up at the bigger man.

Murdoch had a faraway look in his eyes.  He looked like he wanted to say something, but he didn’t know what.

Johnny studied his father’s face.  It was as if Murdoch didn’t want to look at him. The big man kept looking down and away, until Johnny recognized when a decision had been made.

Murdoch’s head came up, his jaw tightened and he cleared his throat. “Something we have in common.”

Johnny had to smile at the thought. It was something they shared.

“I can’t tell you what day it was for me,” Murdoch said gruffly. “The days were a blur for a long time.  I followed, then I searched and then I drank for awhile.” There was a long pause when the two of them just looked at each other. “You’d think I’d remember, but I don’t.”

“It’s the day I became a man.” Johnny said softly and that regretful smile was back. “Instead of a birthday party I tend to, I don’t know.” He ended with a futile gesture.

“Reminisce?”

“I think wallow would be a better word.”

Murdoch nodded his understanding.

“I think, I’ve been so mad at you that I forgot to mad at her. No, wait.” Johnny put up his hand to stop whatever Murdoch had been about to say. “I don’t think I’m mad at her anymore either. But now I’ve got this big hole inside me where all these feeling used to be and now there’s nothing there.”

“The hole does fill, Johnny. It just takes time.”

Johnny nodded, unsure of what to say and wishing he had something to do with his hands.  He rubbed the seams of his trousers with his fingers.

Murdoch longed to do something, anything to ease the hurt he could see but he was afraid any physical affection would be rebuffed. The emotional wounds were too new, too close to the surface. But his heart soared at the thought that perhaps his son wasn’t angry with him anymore.

Neither of them had noticed Scott, who now stood quietly at the French Doors.  He watched the two of them, standing six feet apart, unsure of what to say or do with each other.  He’d heard the story and now knew the reason for Johnny’s absence this morning. Hell, he’d done it himself, once or twice since the war. He was just relieved it wasn’t some illness laying his brother low.

“Well, there he is,” Scott teased in a low voice. “Lazarus raised from the dead.”

Johnny recognized the tone in his brother’s voice and smiled before he raised his head. “Miss me, brother?”

“Miss you?” Scott sounded shocked. “I’ve never done so much work in one day as I have today. Why, I was just wondering if you wouldn’t mind taking off another day or two and maybe I’d get caught up around here.”

“Oh, yeah?” Johnny queried. “So, you won’t mind if I got to town?”

“Town? Now wait a minute.” Scott had moved fully into the room, coming to lean against the back of the couch.  Always a tricky maneuver to make sure it didn’t slide on the highly polished surface and make you look foolish.

“No, no, you said you didn’t need me,” Johnny teased back, grinning from ear to ear.  Scott liked this grin, it was the one that made his brother’s eyes dance.

“You know that is what you said, Scott.” Murdoch joined in on the teasing. “Maybe Johnny and I should both head into town, leave you here to get caught up on all those chores.”

“Now hold on just a minute,” Scott stammered, smiling.

Teresa chose that moment to enter the room. “You’re up? How do you feel?”

“Much better, thanks.”

“And hungry.” Murdoch added, lightly. “We were just about to head into the kitchen to see what we could rustle up.”

“I thought we were just heading to town?” Johnny looked at Scott out of the corner of his eye.

“No, the kitchen. Maybe you’re delirious.” Scott’s tone turned serious. “Maybe he shouldn’t be up yet, Murdoch? If he can’t tell the kitchen from town, there may be something seriously wrong with him.”

“Nothing some of that Chili and cornbread won’t cure.” Murdoch led the way back to the kitchen, but Teresa stepped in front of Johnny, stopping him from following.

“Johnny?” she inquired, tilting her head up so she could look directly at him.  “Are you really okay?”

“Teresa-honey,” he grinned, looking down into her trusting brown eyes. “I’m the best I’ve been in a really long time.”

She grinned back at him and, taking his arm, led him to the kitchen. There was still a cow in the garden, but it was a much smaller cow than it had been this morning.

 

~ end ~
Jan-Dec 2002
Tory (Sprite) Fischer

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