Thanks to Cat and Sandy for the beta
Word count: 2,540
I watch the steam swirl around the tin cup, curl over the edge, then spirit upward like a tiny ghost to dissipate into the chilly night air. It was there and gone, just as he was. My son was born early on that cold December night with the impact of a tornado! Oh, Johnny, so tiny, so completely life-changing! You had me wrapped around that little finger of yours the second I held you in my arms! And it seemed that in no time, you were gone, ripped from my life without a trace. Stolen away. A memory.
As I watch you this night, with the bright flames of the fire that flicker between us, I can’t help but wonder what your life would have been like had your mother left you with me. The guilt I feel is overwhelming when I think of all the times I could not find you, not knowing if you were alright or safe or if you had something to eat.
It’s cold out tonight, and I top off my cup; the heat feels good on these old aching hands.
I wonder how much longer I will be able to enjoy the nights out under the stars? I can tell it’s not as easy as it used to be, but until I can’t, I’ll not admit to getting older! Maybe one of these days. But not yet. Not today!
Tonight is perfect, and there isn’t a thing I would change about it. I’m feeling something that’s been missing for over twenty-three years; it’s welling up inside and wanting to explode around me like sweet raindrops after a drought that splatter on the ground in cherished memories. Memories of the little whirlwind I held so many years ago.
And as I watch you on this night under the stars, I can’t help the pride I feel! You’ve grown into a fine man, strong, honest and complex. There are many facets to your character, utterly charming with an irresistible smile that could brighten the darkest of days, to cold calculating and deadly, all rolled into one. I had no hand in raising you; I cannot lay any claim, cannot take credit for the man you turned out to be. And that is a hurt that won’t go away.
How different your life would have been had you grown up at Lancer! No stealing for food, no fighting to stay alive, no hiring out your gun, or Rurales to lock you in their horrific prisons and stand you in front of their firing squads. And that’s just some of the things I know of your young life.
I shudder to think of the things I don’t know about you. The things you keep to yourself and refuse to share with me. But do I really want to know? The ‘what ifs’ are too many to imagine. It’s as if razor-sharp blades, set loose in my heart, are slicing it to pieces.
If I could recall those words, I would do it in a heartbeat and have a second chance to convey my thoughts, my failures… my soul. To call back our conversation of this afternoon and not see the pain I saw in your eyes. I could have spoken with more tact. Ha! More tact? Alright, I could have used some diplomacy, period. But the frustration… no, it was guilt I felt, plain and simple. It kept boiling up from within, and I couldn’t seem to stop it. I could see your eyes fill with anguish as you tried so hard to skirt the issue. Why didn’t I let it drop? But, like a fool, I pressed on.
“Murdoch, stop… please,” you whispered. “Don’t wanna talk about it. It’s done. There’s no changin’ what’s happened. Let it go.” The plea desperate, and it fills me with regret as I think back.
“Johnny, I can’t let it go. I failed you! Just like I failed Scott! You could have died, and I can’t let that go! You’re my son, and I let you down!” The words stuck in my throat; they gagged me with my inadequacy to keep my baby boy safe. What kind of father am I?
“Stop it! Don’t think about it like that!” And you turned that piercing blue stare on me, the blue of my grandmother’s eyes, the blue of Scotland. And I had to force myself to not gasp, though the hitch in my throat gave me away. Was I hearing him correctly? Was he trying to defend my failures?
“Just how am I to think about it?” I could not find another way around it, but my son, my son showed me the way.
That stare never wavered. It held me captive as I saw the emotions brew like the steaming vapors from the bubbling cauldron of life. From one end of the spectrum to the other, encompassing everything from love and hate, compassion, and mercy to hard, stubborn anger.
And those eyes overflowed with a plea for me to understand what he was trying to tell me.
“Be glad for it, ol’ man, it made me who I am, an’ it kept me alive. I’m not like Scott with all his book learnin’, but no one’s gonna cheat me, an’ no one’s gonna make me back away from a fight that I think is right. I can stand on my own two feet an’ take care of myself…,” and there, he paused, and I wondered where he would go with this.
And finally, he spoke in those soft tones. “An’ I can take care of Lancer.” And then, he gave me ‘the’ smile. “Look, Murdoch, stop blamin’ yourself for somethin’ that wasn’t your fault. Nothin’ you coulda done woulda made any difference. Mama did what she wanted when she wanted an’ thought about no one but herself. Why are you takin’ the blame for somethin’ she did?”
“Because I’m your father, Johnny, and I wasn’t able to…” and that was as far as I got before Madrid stepped in.
“Well, get over it; it’s done, an’ ya can’t change it now.” The words, though spoken softly, chilled me to my bones, I’ll admit. But just as suddenly that he arrived, Madrid was gone, and Johnny Lancer stood in his place… again, with that smile!
So, tonight, as I sit with the son who was lost for all those years, I vow to take his advice on the things he told me earlier and not dwell on what I cannot change. I will treasure what is in front of me at this moment and not waste a single second going forward. Time cannot be repeated or called back to do over. All you could do was make the most of it now, while you have it and hold it dear, keep it in your heart and never, ever let it go. And the thoughts of this young man, wise beyond his years, only served to enhance the precious, sweet memories of the time we did share together.
I can remember as if it had been yesterday the first time I held the squirming bundle in my arms, the little pink lips, perfect in shape, blew a bubble, and the tiny fingers wrapped around my thumb with a soft pressure on my skin. And I see those same fingers, now, long, tanned, and strong as they too, clutched a tin cup, as it warmed them with its heat. And, though too late, I wish I’d have been there to see that baby grow into this man sitting before me!
The love I felt for the unborn baby compounded thousands of times over when he finally arrived. I could not believe it possible, and it filled my eyes with tears only to have them release in a flood. Then the little one stopped his crying and opened those sapphire pools to look with a drowsy gaze upon me as he relaxed in his Papi’s protective arms, my arms. And at that moment, I knew a love like no other.
I swore I would keep him safe and nurture him into adulthood to be a good and honorable man, but he made it there without me.
He was so strong! And he grew so fast! Once he found his feet, he never walked but ran, making it a challenge to keep up! I had such dreams for us, my sons, and me!
It’s chilly tonight, and I’m glad Johnny is content with the coffee instead of the tequila that, I know, is in his saddlebags. I study his face, his dark complexion contrasting with the blue of his eyes, and it’s not difficult to know why many of the local maidens in the valley are competing for his attention. As he reached for the coffee pot, a tangle of his long, dark hair fell across his forehead, and once again, more memories came to mind, triggered by this simple action.
Johnny was born with the thickest, softest hair that I’d ever seen! It was long at birth and felt like down and silky to the touch. And as he grew, he developed glossy curls that bobbed in the breeze. And another picture of this man as a baby burst into my brain.
Maria settled Johnny on a blanket in the grass. A few toys were scattered about but forgotten as he played with the new puppy, giggling in sheer delight when it licked at his tiny pink toes. The gentle breeze ruffled the soft curls, much like the waves of long, sweet grass. And the father in me chuckled at the cherished reminiscence.
As he got bigger, he was my shadow. It was the three of us: my son, me, and Chico, the puppy. I stopped at the small garden one day and plucked a rose, deep red in color, Maria’s favorite. Removing the thorns, I bent to hand the rose to Johnny as he scrambled along at his Papi’s side.
“Johnny, give this to your Mama. She’ll like this, a gift to her from you!” And in my mind can see, once more, as little Johnny took the beautiful flower and ran as fast as his legs would get him there. He reached up to offer the gift, and if it was possible, Maria’s face blossomed, more beautiful than before, at the simple but treasured offering.
She swept Johnny up into her arms to hug him close, and she spun around, making Johnny giggle with delight. One arm under his diapered bottom, the other across his shoulders with her hand at the back of his head, her long and slender fingers tangled in the silken mass of soft, thick curls. And the scene still plays in my mind as treasured now as the day it happened; I remembered my heart filled with love for the two of you, and… my heart shattered when you left.
From under lowered lashes, I can study my son, now a grown man. The way he moves, his actions, even relaxed and dozing by the warmth of the fire. There is an aura around the young man that is complex. So many facets make up this man, from utterly charming with an irresistible smile that could brighten the darkest of days to cold, calculating, and deadly, all rolled into one.
I find myself desperate to control the hitch in my throat that threatens to expose me as I focus on Johnny’s lean face, now covered with a day’s growth of beard. The glow of the fire makes his eyes bright, and I can see the mischief of the toddler still hiding there. My son is now grown, no longer the little whirlwind racing about with a puppy at his heels.
Another memory from the past envelopes me as I think of Johnny stumbling in fatigue one night to climb into my lap. He fought the sleep that tugged at him, and I felt the boy snuggle into my chest. I wrapped my arms around him and remembered gently rubbing my calloused thumb lightly over the velvety skin of Johnny’s cheek. Soon those jewel-like eyes closed, and he slept as only babies can. Safe in his Papi’s arms.
Barranca whinnied, breaking the train of long-ago memories, and brought me back to this night. This special night. Johnny rose from his place beside the fire and went to the horses. There is grace and purpose as he walks, and I watch the care he bestows on the palomino. He was born with a love for animals; the attraction had always been there, from little tyke on. Johnny was obsessed with them then, and apparently, hadn’t changed. How many times did my heart drop to my feet when he was found standing in the middle of the corral as the horses seemed to nuzzle him as his laugh, sweet as notes from a flute, floated in the air?
And once I had put Johnny into the saddle in front of me, well, that was all the boy wanted to do. “Ride, Papi! Ride!” I cannot hold back the ear-to-ear smile as I remember the laughter that bubbled from deep within the boy, coming from the tips of his little toes, as he urged me to go faster. Always faster!
And even as a grown man, I marvel at the pace that Johnny can coax from his beloved Barranca. They move as one at incredible speeds as if the steed sprouted wings to fly and defy the odds. As I watch them galloping, wild and reckless, it fills me with incredible pride! And, though I work to push the fear aside, I marvel at the grace and control as Johnny and Barranca race the wind! My heart thunders in my chest as I witness the spirited man and beast melded together in a spectacular sight! Although he learned without my influence, I could not be more proud of the man he has become. His benevolence and principles fill me to overflowing with joy. Both of my sons are credits to the Lancer name.
Discovering nothing was wrong, other than Barranca wanting attention, Johnny took his time with the animal. His soft murmurings reach my ears, calming, soothing, and I am amazed to watch the horse respond. Then, settling again by the fire, ‘that’ smile crept across his face. He can feel my eyes still on him, and he couldn’t hold back.
“Whatcha lookin’ at so hard, ol’ man? Ya been watchin’ me all night…” Johnny turned to me; the brilliant, sparkling sapphire blue reflected the flames of the fire.
I hesitate a moment before I answer, struggling to control, once more, as those eyes trigger an avalanche of sweet memories.
“Oh, Johnny, I’m just enjoying this night and thinking of things past. Past but precious things,” I tell him with a sigh.
“Yeah?” he said with ‘that’ smile still in place. “What kinda ‘past things’?”
And I can’t help my chuckle when I look into those devilish eyes of his, the eyes that now hold the mischievous twinkle of the little whirlwind that I remember from long ago.
“The most precious memories I have. Those of my blue-eyed baby boy!”
Written January 2020
Edited March 2021
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