Summary: No rating, but a stock of handkerchiefs or tissues may be needed. This story was inspired by a ‘true-life’ happening that I found in an old Readers Digest.
Word Count: 3300
If only it was just a nightmare. But this was all too terribly real. Murdoch sat in the hard, wooden, unforgiving chair, at his son’s bedside, oblivious to his own acute discomfort, knowing that Johnny was in terrible pain and that even if the doctor did arrive before the inevitable end, there would be nothing at all that he could do.
Johnny was dying. Dying, slowly, inexorably, before his very eyes, and had been since Scott had carried him in the previous evening and told the household what had happened.
At first Johnny had told them all not to worry, that he was going to be just fine, but as the moon had risen, so had his fever, and with the fever had come the convulsions and the dehydration, and then the delusional threshing and the pitiable cries for help, for forgiveness and for succor. But there was none. Scott, almost as frantic as his dying brother, had ridden through the night for the doctor, promising the pain-wracked younger man that he would be back before he knew it. Then as the moon gave way to the pale glimmer of dawn, Johnny had seemed to rally, even to know where he was and what had happened to him. Still insisting in a frail, frightened voice that he was going to be fine. But they both knew, father and son, that this was not so and now, as the sun began to climb into the sky, Johnny lay like a rag doll, in his fathers arms, prey to the great tremors that were tearing through his muscles, unable to lift his lashes from his parchment pale cheeks, and fighting desperately for every last, anguished breath. The end, they both knew, could not be far away and Johnny was clinging on desperately to life, waiting for the doctor who could not save him and the return of the brother he had come to know and to love almost as dearly as life itself.
“M- Murdoch?” Johnny’s voice was a mere thread now. There were no further pretences. He was fading fast and they both knew it.
“Hush,” the rancher soothed, one hand resting on his sons sweat-drenched hair, the other limp and helpless against his thigh. “I’m here. Save your strength, son.”
“D-don’t need it. T-talk to you.” It was a desperate plea.
“I’m listening.” Murdoch strove to keep his voice even.
The very faintest of smiles broke through the pain showing on Johnny’s terribly drawn face.
“Th-that’s a first.” Even now, it seemed, his sense of humor was fighting through. “Murdoch…” His chest heaved and then he was dreadfully still. So still that the rancher thought it was all over. Johnny, however, was still fighting. He had something terribly important to say and he couldn’t leave until he had said it.
“S-on.” The broken tones repeated, almost wonderingly. “I ain’t been…the…son you wanted, have I? Lo siento…” He paused again, fighting for further breath. Murdoch almost wept for his suffering—but he had to stay strong. Whilst Johnny needed him, he had to stay strong. The dying man on the bed managed to find more breath. “But…you…sure been a good f-father to me.” Almost miraculously the ravaged blue eyes opened and sought tear-blurred contact. “Te amo, papa.” He tried desperately hard to reach out a hand and Murdoch took the limp fingers hungrily in his own huge grasp.
“Te amo, Johnny.” Finally — now that it was too late — he found the words.
The white lips fluttered into a wan smile and the feeble fingers shifted. Then they stilled and went limp. A last tiny smile and a last feather of breath—and Murdoch knew that his son was gone.
The salt of tears finally stung his tired eyes, and for a long timeless while, he sat, unbelieving of the terrible, final truth, not even looking at the lifeless body in his arms that was no longer his laughing, joyous, blue-eyed boy.
It was only the thought that Scott would be riding in, with the doctor and would have to be told the dreadful news that finally dragged him to his feet and out of the room.
Reluctantly he had relinquished his hold on the empty package that was no longer his son and allowed the limp form to roll onto the bed. Almost without realizing what he was doing, he had straightened the lifeless limbs and been glad that the still form already lay with closed eyes. It would have seemed like the final betrayal to have had to have closed those blue eyes for the last time. He didn’t want to leave him here, alone, but for some reason it seemed terribly important that he was downstairs when his older — now his only son — came home.
Scott’s grief was all the more terrible because he had not been there. He came tearing into the house, mere minutes after Johnny had drawn his last faltering breath, and was driven to his knees by the news he read in his fathers face. He seemed unaware as his fathers bulk dropped beside him, not hearing the words that his father was trying to say
“I wasn’t here,” he cried “I…promised him I would be with him…and I wasn’t here.” He dashed the tears from his face and then, with a soft groan of despair, he fell into his fathers arms and wept as they clung, momentarily, together, bonded by the pain and grief of loss that only family could know.
“I m…must…” Finally Scott stumbled to his feet and helped his father to do the same. “I must s…say goodbye. Sam’s on the way,” he added in a stronger voice, as if he had just remembered something important. “Will you be alright?” His hand lingered on the older man’s arm and his eyes on his face. Murdoch looked as if he had aged a hundred years since the previous evening.
“Go and say goodbye to your brother.” Murdoch’s voice was surprisingly steady. He had lost the one son, but this one—the one that had always seemed to strong and reliable and just a little aloof—this one needed him as well. “I’ll wait for Sam.”
The stairs were not long enough—and at the same time, there were too many of them.
Scott had met death before, had lost good friends to the ravages of battle, and sickness and utter desperation. But this was his first experience of a family death—and he was not at all sure that he could actually believe it. Johnny, who could brighten the very world he lived it with his extraordinary zest for life, simply could not be gone from that world. Not now. Not yet. They had had so little time together. How could fate be so cruel as to separate them so soon? He paused at the door of his brother’s bedroom, remembering. Johnny had once told him that he would like to die in his bed, at home, but that he didn’t think he would get his wish. He had had that, at least. Just too soon. Too damn soon.
His hands shaking, Scott opened the door and paused on the threshold. The bed seemed far too tidy to be his brother’s. Johnny slept almost as actively as he lived and his bed always looked as if a hurricane had swept it. But now it was neat and tidy, the blankets smooth under the lifeless hump that had been, until so very recently John Edward Lancer. Scott allowed the tears to well and then to fall. He had to weep for this life cut so unjustly short.
Slowly he stepped across to the bed. Johnny’s gun belt, hanging in its customary place, on the bed head, caught his attention and he shook his head. Everyone — even Johnny himself — had, in their heart of hearts, expected this gun to be the death of him.
Who could have thought that Johnny would die like this, from the bite of a snake?
“I’m so sorry, little brother.” He hadn’t realized he had spoken aloud until his own words made him jump. He reached a hand for the cold metal of the gun. He had seen the speed with which that gun had reacted to the snake, but it seemed that not even Johnny Madrid was faster than a striking rattler. Johnny’s bullet had indeed taken the snakes head, but too late. Too late. The snake had struck and retreated before the bullet had found its mark.
Scott stood at the window with Johnny’s gun in his hand, the wonderful view of the mountains that his brother had loved so blurred by tears.
Time seemed to have ceased to have any meaning as he stood there, his back to the truth, not wanting to turn and look, and acknowledge that his beloved brother was no longer with him. Perhaps, if he did not look, did not acknowledge, it might not be true. If he stood there, in his brother’s bedroom, for enough time, Johnny would wake up and would challenge his presence there. Wouldn’t he?
Damn—damn—damn! It wasn’t meant to be like this. They had not known of the other’s existence for far too long, and having come together, they had been feeling their way to a comfortable and comforting relationship. A true and loving friendship, the like of which he, at least, had never known before. A comradeship unequalled even by those formed by the terrors and horrors of the battlefield.
Cut short by the bite of a damn snake. Unbelievable!
Scott’s fingers gripped at the gun in his hand and it took more strength of mind that he thought he possessed not to slam the thing against the glass, to shatter it. Make a noise that would awaken his brother from his final sleep. But it wouldn’t do any good. Had Johnny been awakeable, he would have come alert the moment Scott’s fingers had touched the gun.
He fingered away the scalding tears that were blistering the corners of his eyes and, with a sigh that was almost a groan, at last turned about, back to dreadful reality.
“Do you want this?” he asked softly, hefting the weapon that had, sometimes, seemed to have been an extension of his brother’s right hand. Johnny had always felt safe with his gun at his side or in his hand. Did he need it now, on his last lonely journey?
Scott stepped to the bedside and slipped the cold blue-grey metal under the lifeless fingers and used his own to curl them around the butt. A useless, pointless gesture he was sure, but one he thought that his brother would appreciate. Wherever Johnny had gone, Scott was sure that he would feel more secure with his gun in his hand.
“Adios, mi hermano,” he murmured and dropped a hand against the stilled heart. If he could have given his own over, then he would gladly have done so. It was, in fact, he who should be lying there, he who should have taken the snake bite—but Johnny had shoved him aside, putting himself in the line of fire. Damn him! Taken upon himself the bite of the serpent and the subsequent terrible, cruel, lingering death.
The noise of the arrival of the doctor’s buggy as it crunched over the stones outside drew some of his attention and he heard his father’s heavy footsteps across the veranda below him. Too late, Sam, he thought sadly. This time the doctor was too late.
He could hear Murdoch speaking — not the exact words he was saying — but he heard Sam’s sharp exclamation of shock and protest. Then the two men were heading back into the house. Sam would, of course, have to come up here and do — and do what?
Scott had no idea what doctors did in times like these. Pronounce Johnny dead? There was no need for that. It didn’t need a doctor to know that the still figure on the bed was gone forever.
With a sigh that was almost a moan, Scott straightened his shoulders and turned for the door. Better go back down. Let the doctor come and do what ever there was to be done. Go back down to his grief-stricken father who had just borne the unbearable. The death of his son. The son he had loved and lost. The son he had searched for and found — the son he had now, heart-wrenchingly, lost again.
Better go down. Murdoch was going to need him. Wasn’t he?
His hand was on the handle when the thud came. The thud of the gun that he had pressed into Johnny’s hand, falling to the floor.
If he had been willing before to offer Johnny his own heart beat, he could not have done so now because his heart, too, seemed to stop beating. Then, in an instant, it was working again, hammering so hard that he thought it was trying to beat its way out of his very breast.
He had pressed Johnny’s fingers quite firmly around the gun — and the hand and the gun had been lying squarely on the patchwork quilt. There was only one way that it could possibly have fallen to the floor and that was if Johnny’s hand and arm and fingers had moved — and dead men do not move!
“Oh God — Oh God — Oh God.” Scott turned, wide-eyed and disbelieving and saw the impossible. Johnny’s arm was moved, his hand, with the fingers now opened, flopped over the edge of the bed. The gun which had been lying fair and square on the bed was now on the floor.
‘SAM!’ It was almost a scream. ‘SAM—get up here. NOW!’
Perhaps they ought not to have been crowding him as they were but they were — all of them — a couple of hours later in Johnny’s bedroom, all of them still slightly disbelieving of the miracle that had brought Johnny back to them from the dead.
Sam was coaxing spoonfuls of warm sugar water down Johnny’s throat, with alarmingly little resistance from his patient, and Murdoch was hovering anxiously at the other side of the bed, scarcely able to tear his gaze from the son that had been taken away and then so miraculously been restored to him.
Scott kept out of the way, at the window for now, half-turned so that he could keep an eye on the activity around his brother’s bed but not interfering with what was going on there.
He saw Johnny turn his head away from the doctor’s ministrations and watched, from the corner of his eye as his brother, with the grim determination that seemed to characterize so very much of what he did, tried to push himself more upright against the stack of pillows at his back. Murdoch’s strong hand was there, almost at once, to help him and for a very brief moment, Scott thought that he felt a sharp stab of jealousy at the look the pair exchanged then. He must have shifted himself, or even made a sound, because Murdoch raised and turned his head to him — and the feeling, if it had ever been there, was gone.
The doctor, too, seemed satisfied with the way things were going. He set aside the cup and spoon and felt again for Johnny’s pulse, nodding slightly, in that disconcerting fashion that doctors seemed to have, and then a small smile lightened his face.
It was going to take a while but he was fairly sure that, whatever may have happened to his patient before he got to him, now he should make a good recovery.
“She wouldn’t let me past.” Johnny’s head drooped and he pushed a hand through his already disheveled hair, his voice plaintive and child-like. “She s-said I had to stay with you.” He lifted his face again to his father’s intense gaze. “That y-you needed me.” He seemed content with the little nod of the head that his father gave him and smiled a little.
“She?” Scott, at the window, half turned, puzzled and intrigued by his brother’s statement.
Johnny nodded to him, acknowledging his presence and his question. “Mi Madre—Mama,” he said simply. “She…she pushed me.” He raised his own still shaky hand, palm outwards, against Murdoch’s chest and demonstrated what he meant. “I could see the most beautiful place, over her shoulder — nearly as beautiful as Lancer,” he added, almost wistfully. “It was so peaceful. I wasn’t in any pain and I wasn’t afraid.” For a moment, he regretted that he had left that moment behind, then he smiled and shook his head decisively.
This was a better place to be, despite the cramps that were still coursing through his muscles, despite the fact that it hurt to breathe and that it was an effort to speak. But he had to tell them what had happened so he ignored the doctor’s attempts to silence him and went on doggedly. “There was a…a curtain of light in front of me. I had to pass through it to get to that place — and she pushed me back.” Once again he demonstrated. ‘It h…hurt — Oh God…how it hurt.” He gasped for breath on the memory. “I didn’t want to c…come back to all that p…pain — but she wouldn’t let me pass.” Again he had to pause to gather his still fragile resources. “I thought that maybe I had come to the wr…wrong place.” His voice faltered again. “That she was gonna push me down into H…Hell. But that wasn’t it.” He paused again, panting a little, his head moving slowly from side to side in honest bewilderment. “She was pushing me back here.” He gave his father another shy glance. “Back to you.”
“Sam?” Murdoch turned wonderingly to the doctor.
“Rattlesnake venom paralyses the nervous system. And of course it attacks the respiratory system,” Jenkins said slowly, “and that, eventually, causes the heart to stop beating — but I don’t know of anything, other than a miracle, that can reverse those processes.” He was packing his bag, one eye on his task and the other on his patient, almost as if he expected Johnny to vanish before his very eyes. “But one thing I DO know is that this young man of yours should make a complete recovery. Perhaps it really was a miracle.” The doctor’s face was a study of confusion. “I certainly can’t give you a medical explanation.”
He had put all his paraphernalia back into his bag and was fastening the buckles. “But we could do with yet another miracle.” He gave Johnny a stern but affectionate glower as he straightened up.
All three Lancers turned incredulous blue eyes to him and he chuckled as he saw for once, in a way, a real three-way family likeness.
“You…” the doctor pointed a meaningful finger at Johnny, “doing exactly as your friendly neighborhood medico,” he turned the finger to point to himself, “says, for at least a week.”
And the room that had been filled with so much sorrow now rang with laughter.