North Star by Ronnie

Word Count – 5,965

This story contains the death of a major character in case you prefer not to read that type of fic. There are no happy endings with death, but the human spirit somehow rises and goes on. One month ago I lost a dear friend from Pancreatic cancer at the age of 61. This story is dedicated to my friend, Rosey. She was a warrior.

There was always so much work to do to prepare for winter which was good.  Especially given the fact his wife and children had been gone for a few weeks to visit her parents in Stockton.   The lack of distraction from his four children made the upcoming date more raw than usual.  So Johnny buried himself in the ranch, understanding the why of Murdoch’s actions more than thirty years before.   Work lessened the never-ending ache of loss.

Slapping his hat against his thigh, he looked up at the blue sky of late afternoon.  Autumn was halfway gone but the breeze still mild and fresh as only October could deliver.  He could see orange and red on the hills, even as they crept up the mountainsides miles away.

It was a day like today, ten years before, when he and Scott were on their way home from San Francisco and one of the best times in Johnny’s life.  They had clapped at lively theater performances and gambled at the most exclusive emporiums, as Scott called them.  Johnny thought they looked like gilded up fancy rooms ready to take your money.  Scott told him he didn’t have the heart of a romantic.  Johnny had elbowed him in the side, informed Scott he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about as he loved women.  Scott only shook his head and proceeded to inform Johnny that romance was more than just a man and a woman’s base desires.  It was a feeling, an atmosphere, a quixotic experience.

“A what?!”

“Unsurpassed, my boy.   Victory of good over evil against the greatest of odds.   A gallant knight and fair maiden.”

“There you go.  A man and woman.  Just like I said.  Don’t matter if they’re smooching behind the barn or in a golden hall.  All comes down to the same thing.”

Scott had laughed, his smile lifting clear up to his eyes.  “You’re impossible.”

That was the way the days had been, full of laughter and fun.  And Johnny had grown to appreciate this man he called brother more than ever before.  Oh, they had been through many things since that first meeting on the stage to Mora Coya, both good and bad.  Women, con artists, thieves, murderers, almost losing their father more than once, and even each other.  But Murdoch had given them a few hundred dollars, told them to get lost for two weeks in the hills of San Francisco, then come home and get to work.  It would be a long winter.

They had found a perfect spot on their last night of camping as they made their way home.  A pretty meadow, a clear running creek, a shelter within a small circle of trees.  Scott had insisted on fishing, said he wanted a whole fish, not one riddled with bullets.  Johnny gathered dried birch tinder and branches from a dead apple tree for a fire.  A light breeze blew the smoke away and carried the smell of autumn grasses across the campsite.

“What do you think?”  Scott proudly held up three good sized perch wriggling on his stringer, a look of sheer triumph on his face.

“Good job, Boston. I knew you’d come in handy if I brought you along.”

“Just for that, little brother, you can clean them.”

“What?  I set up the campfire.”

“Ok.  I’ll clean them.  You make the biscuits and fry up the bacon.”

Scott knew damn well that Johnny couldn’t make a decent biscuit to save his life.  “You’re a sly bugger, you know that?”

“So I’ve been told more than once.”  A blond eyebrow lifted into long bangs.  “Do we get burnt biscuits or biscuits so light you have to catch them from the pan before they float away?”

“Hell.”  Johnny pushed himself up from the comfort of his bedroll and grabbed the fish.  “They’d better be flying or you’ll be having a quick bath in the creek.”

“Not a bad idea actually.  I could use a bath.”

“Shit.”

“Now that you mention it, so could you.”

“You ain’t getting me into that cold water.  You’re just lucky I’m a forgiving man and willing to overlook a con job when I see one.”

“Now, Johnny.  Mustn’t be a sore loser.”

“Get cooking, Scott.  These fish will be ready before the fryn’ pan is hot if you don’t stop gabbing.”

“Don’t worry, my boy.  Chef Scott to the rescue.”

Johnny didn’t want to encourage his brother but found it hard not to laugh out loud.  But, Scott was right.  The biscuits were better than Maria’s and there was enough food left for breakfast.

“How’d you learn to make biscuits like that?  Can’t see your old abuelo allowing you in the kitchen.”

Scott snorted.  “You’re right there.  He would have had a fit.  I learned from a cook in a regiment I was assigned to during the war.  Unfortunately, it was the only thing he could cook so we lived on biscuits and coffee strong enough to whither your liver.”

Johnny chuckled and popped another biscuit into his mouth.  After a couple hours of pleasant small talk combined with a full belly, a warm campfire and the company of his brother, Johnny relaxed and felt his eyes drooping.

“Ah, a beautiful night.  Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Ursa Major.  None so wonderous or lovely.”

“Old girlfriends, Scott?” Johnny asked, hoping Scott wasn’t warming up for a teaching lecture.

“See there, your lack of romance once again is evident.  They are constellations, brother.  For hundreds of years men have plotted their course, both by land and sea, based on the unwavering dependability of these sparkling stars.”

“Scott, I don’t want a lesson tonight on the skies.  I’m tired so go to sleep.”

“But you can find your way ….”

“And I have.  All of my life.  Now shush.”  Johnny would have voiced his displeasure in much stronger terms, but this was, after all, Scott, not some mish mashed yahoo too stupid to realize the next day’s fight could be his last.

“All right, all right.  If you’d rather sleep than learn about the sheer numbers that light our way ….”

“I would.”

The blanket rustled as Scott settled against his overturned saddle.   Johnny dared a peek after a few minutes and sure enough, through the flicker of the flames, Johnny saw his brother’s smile as he stared at the sky like it held the answers to all of the questions of life.

Johnny felt guilty as if he’d splashed sadness on Scott’s joy.  “It is a pretty sky, Scott.”

Scott turned to his brother, a gentle smile on his face and a spark of fire in his eyes.  “It is brother.”  He settled back against the saddle and pointed his finger towards the heaven.  “And the North Star has never been so bright.”

Grinning, Johnny drew the wool blanket around his body and closed his eyes, knowing that his brother would watch the stars until he fell asleep.

*****

Murdoch had been right.  The work had been long and hard when they returned.  Each day the men dragged themselves in from the various jobs.  A lot needed to be done before winter set in and some of the hands traveled south for warmer climes.  Murdoch paid a good wage and their full pockets would last them till they traveled north once more to Lancer come March.  Sometimes Johnny envied them that life.  Free, no commitments, no … well hell, he had a family here who cared about him.  So what did he have to complain about?

Sitting before the fire in the great room a few weeks after their return, Johnny contemplated that very thing called family.  Murdoch was reading the latest news from the state capitol, a frown deep across his forehead.  Probably some piece of law passed he didn’t agree with.  Teresa was sipping on a hot chocolate and staring into the flames.  What was she thinking, this pretty young woman?  A book was propped on Scott’s long legs, his head cradled in the cup of his hand as his eyes fought to stay open.

“You’d best get to bed Boston.  You’re already sleeping anyway.”

Scott’s head jerked up as he focused on Johnny, owl-eyed and wondering.  “I think I’ll take your advice.  I am rather in tonight.”  A slim piece of paper was inserted into the book to mark where he left off and he set the book on the end table.   “I guess I’ll finish this tomorrow night.”

“A good read is always something to relish at the end of the day, son.”

“That it is, Murdoch.”  He pushed himself up from the chair and stretched.  “Well, good night all.  It’s an early start tomorrow.”

“Just a couple more weeks and everything will settle in.  We can relax then.”  Murdoch emptied his pipe, set it in the pipe stand and smiled at Scott.

“Can one ever fully relax on a ranch?”  Scott asked with a doubtful grin edging the corner of his mouth.

“Well.  Things do slow down, but you’re right, there’s always something to do, isn’t there?”  Murdoch turned to Johnny.  “I think I’ll follow Scott to bed.  Teresa,” he said eyeing his ward.  “You’ve got an early morning as well.”

“You’re right, Murdoch.”  With a yawn proving how right Murdoch was, Teresa picked up her empty cup and placed a kiss on his cheek as she passed.

Johnny couldn’t remember everything in detail, but he recalled those few words of good night.  Just another night as far he knew and another early morning.

And the morning did come too soon.  He’d overslept.  With a curse and quick shave, Johnny had jammed his feet into his boots and slammed his bedroom door behind him as he rushed for the stairs – then stopped.  Scott’s door was edged open a few inches, which was unusual.  His brother usually made sure his door was closed, not that it ever stopped Johnny from busting in.  He’d have to be sure to tease Scott on leaving doors wide open.

As Johnny reached to close Scott’s door, he noticed a lump at the foot of the bed.  Dang, Scott was slipping even more if Mr. Tidy hadn’t made his bed that morning.  Johnny pushed the door open just to verify and was surprised to see it was more than just a lump. Scott hadn’t gotten up yet.  Oh, boy.  This was one time he had his brother.  Sleeping in when the rest of the ranch was hard at work!  Of course, there was no need to let Scott know that Johnny had just woken up a few minutes ago.  Nope, that would be a well kept secret.

He slowly slipped into the room and with small, quiet steps made his way to the bed and looked down at his sleeping brother.  He had planned to shout and scare Scott awake, but decided, nah, that would be mean.  Besides, Scott looked so peaceful Johnny even hated to wake him up.  But if he didn’t Murdoch would.  No question Scott would prefer Johnny’s pestering to Murdoch’s look of reprimand.

Johnny juggled his shoulder.  “Scott.  Hey, sleeping beauty, time to get up.”

When Scott didn’t respond, Johnny pushed harder.  “Hey.  Scott.  Wake up.”

Nothing.  What the hell, the man couldn’t be that tired.  “Scott!”  Johnny took him by the shoulders and lifted his body a few inches off the bed.  Scott’s head flopped back and his arms slumped lifelessly at his sides.  A cold band tightened around his chest.  “Scott damn it.  Wake up.”

With shaky fingers, Johnny felt for a pulse in Scott’s neck.  A barely there wriggle, then gone.  He pushed harder into the flesh.  There was no movement beneath his fingers.

“Scott!!” he screamed as loud as he could, panicked at what may have happened.

He shook and shook, pushed against his chest, anything to get a response.  Johnny lowered his head, held his breath and fought against the reality.  Not Scott.  Not Scott.  Grasping his brother’s still warm fingers, Johnny noticed a slight flush remained on Scott’s cheeks.

“Please, Scott.  Wake up brother,” Johnny pleaded.  But Scott was silent, motionless, unmoving.  Johnny’s hand felt his brother’s chest for any sign of life, but there was no heart beating beneath his touch.

“Son.  Johnny?”  A puzzled Murdoch stood at the entrance to Scott’s room.  “I heard you yelling your brother’s name.”

“I can’t wake him up, Murdoch.”  He felt the tears pool and blinked them away.  Murdoch would fix this, somehow.  “He won’t wake up.”

Even after ten years, the pain of that moment was just as horrible.  Murdoch couldn’t fix it and Johnny had found himself sitting in a side chair, numb, watching as his father wrapped his arms around Scott and rocked him like a baby.  He remembered sounds of weeping in the background, and ‘it can’t be’.  The room was suffocating with people and disbelief and he focused on the lacey curtain willowing in the breeze, thinking this was all a bad dream.

But it wasn’t.  Sam thought Scott’s heart had failed.  He had no definite answer as to why other than his time in the prison camp during the war might have affected his physical health.  He was sure though that it had been peaceful.  There was no sign of pain on his face and he had most likely slipped away in his sleep.  At least some comfort could be taken from that fact.

Comfort?   When Johnny had searched for a pulse earlier, maybe that small movement under his finger had been the final beat of Scott’s heart.  Had he felt it, had Scott felt his desperation before he quit breathing?  Scott was a young man!  There would be no comfort in a peaceful death.

Somehow they’d all made it through the funeral.  He had stood in line as plastered faces of sympathy passed by.  Most were truly sorry, he knew that, but still he wanted to run away as fast and as far as a horse could take him.  But he stayed, for his father; his broken hearted father who started to die that day.

He went no more to town on a Saturday night.  When the ranch had needed supplies, Murdoch sent Frank into town for them.  His father fretted when he was late getting in from chores.  Johnny could see the worry on his face melt away when Murdoch saw him.  Afraid, the man who Johnny thought feared nothing, feared losing another son.

One evening after Scott’s passing he noticed Murdoch staring at the chair tucked in a corner near the fireplace where Scott would read.  He followed his father’s eyes and spied the book with the page marker still in place.  Like a man with a thousand pound weight on his shoulders Murdoch had walked to the side table.

 His long fingers tracked gently across the embossed leather cover.  “Scott didn’t get to finish his book.”

“No he didn’t,” Johnny replied swallowing the lump in his throat that threatened to explode.  The every-day reminders that Scott was no longer with them proved the hardest to get through.  Johnny wondered at the small things that hurt so much – Scott’s work boots sitting by the back door, yellow gloves bunched inside his hat on the hall tree, and a book never to be finished.

It seemed forever that Murdoch stood over the book.  Finally he tucked it under his arm and turned to Johnny.  “Well, son.  I think I’ll turn in.”

Johnny nodded, thankful that Teresa had already gone to bed.  He could barely keep from crying and knew she’d have broken down.  At least he could thank God for that and wondered if God ever wept over his groaning creation.

The bleakness of those months, made harder by a new spring with life and birth, were endured by rote.   Get up in the morning, tackle the mountain of jobs that needed doing, come home for supper and go to bed.  He was exhausted and found solace in that.

The days when he couldn’t go out due to the cold rain and wind were the worst.  He floundered in that big old house, trying to support his father, and avoided Scott’s room at all cost.  For Murdoch refused to change anything in it.  All was to be left as is until he said different.  Johnny couldn’t fault his father for that.  No one wanted to go through Scott’s journals, his clothes, the possessions that were dear to him.  It would be like getting rid of the last piece of his presence.  There were enough empty spaces in the hacienda that wondered at the missing; no one would vacate him from the room where he had lived.

Then he met Bethie.  On a day when no one else was available, Johnny made the trip to Green River for supplies.  He was a horse with blinders on; don’t look around, he told himself.  There was too much of Scott, his voice, his movements in the dusty streets, saloons where they’d shared a beer, a card game, or a bet on Jelly’s new girlfriend.  Everything was all right until he found himself in front of old Charley’s jail.  The lesson on guns Johnny gave his brother – the difference between a colt and a shotgun.  Scott had gone along with it, probably knew as much if not more than Johnny about guns – and people.  Then a quick hug from Johnny as his brother laughed.

The stupid, stinking jail was still there.   Why couldn’t Scott be?  All they’d gone through to build it.  Lost lives but they built it anyway.  It needed painting every year to just keep it from rotting.  Why couldn’t they take a brush to a man and bring him back to life?

He had swallowed the moan, stumbled off the wagon and staggered down the dank alley behind the jail’s outhouse.  Sliding down the back of the walled pit he stared at the dirt and tried to breath.  Just one breath at a time.

“Are you all right?”

The soft voice startled him and he looked up at a young woman a few feet away.  Where had she come from?  He wanted to scream no, that he wasn’t all right, but her face was so kind as she extended her hand to help him.

“Mr. Lancer, isn’t it?  I’m sorry.  I don’t mean to intrude but you looked so sad.”

He shook his head, trying to collect himself in spite of the tears dripping down his face.

“My name is Elizabeth.  Elizabeth Gail but I go by Bethie.”  She had approached him as if afraid he was a wild animal ready to bolt.

“My brother,” he choked out.  “My brother.”  And he broke down, wept tears that he could not shed before.  For the loss of Scott, for the pain left behind, the future that would never be, and all the no mores: of laughter, the tease and the smiles.  How could he explain?  Scott would have had the words.  And he cried again.

Strong arms enveloped him and he accepted her warmth and her pity.

“Bethie?”  A masculine voice, wondering and worried floated in the background.

“It’s all right, papa.  It’s all right.”  And she tightened her arms as if holding back anything that could hurt him more.

It took a few moments to collect himself.  He drew away from her and wiped away the wetness from his cheeks.  “I’m sorry, ma’am.  I lost my brother a few months ago and you caught me at a bad time.  I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for.  But I am sorry for your loss.  My husband passed away three years ago so I understand.”

He looked at her and recalled who she was.  She’d moved in with her widowed father a few months before Scott died.  The brothers had passed her on the street and tipped their hats.  Scott thought she looked awfully sad.  Johnny hadn’t paid much attention truth be told.  He was focused on how he was going to best his brother at five card stud.

Her father was just as kind, offering a hand to help him up from the dirt.  “Malcolm Bendt’s the name.  Would you like to sit a spell, maybe get a cup of coffee?”

“No, sir.  I thank you but I’d best be getting back.  My father worries if I’m not home by supper time.”

Six months later they were married.  Bethie helped to fill the emptiness of his heart and lessen the guilt he felt because he was alive and Scott wasn’t.  She had asked him, ‘what would your brother want for you?’  Life.  Scott would want him to live and be happy.

 When their first child was born, even Murdoch seemed renewed.  After the fourth baby the house was full of laughter and Murdoch was chasing his grandchildren up and down the stairs of the great hacienda.  At last Murdoch had a house full of children.  They settled into a happy routine.  Still, Scott’s room remained untouched.

Shortly after the first baby Johnny and his family moved to a suite of rooms in the west wing of the hacienda.  There was plenty of space for his expanding family so Johnny rarely made a trip upstairs to his old bedroom.

After a few years Murdoch was moved downstairs not far from Johnny’s family.  The old back wound started to affect his legs and the stairs proved too much of an obstacle.  It was hard for his father to leave the bedroom he had slept in since arriving in California but there was nothing else to be done.

In looking back, Johnny thought maybe the move had been too much.  Murdoch’s memory started to fail.  He didn’t always remember where he was.  It got to the point that he couldn’t ride away from the house without someone accompanying him.  At first he was livid and ranted at being coddled in such a way.  It was humiliating, degrading and disrespectful.  Johnny took the insults, said he was sorry, but that’s the way it had to be.  In the end Murdoch grudgingly gave in.  Especially when he became lost for several hours before a hand had led him home.

The first time Murdoch asked why Scott was late for supper, Johnny wasn’t sure he had heard right.  Bethie’s soup spoon stopped halfway to her mouth and Johnny’s third child, Andrew, laughed that Uncle Scott was dead.  Johnny wished the boy had kept his mouth shut, but the six year old didn’t know any better.  Scott was just a name to the boy, not a real person.  Murdoch looked shocked, then embarrassed.

“Of course he is,” Murdoch stumbled.  “I don’t know where my mind is sometimes.”

 “But grampa, it’s on top of your head,” his youngest, Catherine, explained.

 Murdoch chuckled and looked relieved at the innocence of his young granddaughter.  “It is little one but as you get older your memory isn’t as good as it once was.”

“I’m sorry grampa.”  She was a sensitive child and loved her grampa very much.

“That’s all right.  Don’t you worry sweetheart.”

It would be a long time before Murdoch asked again but about a year ago the same question was posed.  Since then when they sat down for their evening meal, all expected the question of “why is Scott late for dinner?”

How Johnny answered would depend on how tired he was.  He tried to be calm and most of the time reminded his father that Scott would not be home, that he had passed some years ago.  Murdoch always seemed caught by surprise, but nodded with understanding.  And then there were times when Johnny just wasn’t ready to see the hurt in his father’s eyes when once more he was told his son was dead.

Like tonight, at supper, when it was just the two of them.  Bethie and the children would return in a couple of days from Stockton.  It was a day longer than expected but his wife wanted to spend some time with Teresa.  Since Teresa had married and moved to Stockton, they rarely saw one another.  Johnny could not begrudge his wife, or Teresa, a chance to be together for a few hours.

Murdoch had asked the inevitable question, his faded blue eyes glancing towards the big oak door as if Scott would walk through it any minute.  Johnny didn’t have the heart to be honest and wondered what the point was.

“He’ll be home soon, Murdoch.  Probably running late from the south range.”

His father smiled, pleased with the answer.  “Yes.  He’ll be home soon.”  Johnny determined that was the answer he was going to give from now on.  Let Murdoch believe that his long dead son would walk through the door, apologize for being late and sit down in the chair beside his father.  What was the harm?  In fact, Johnny could see Scott doing just that and smiled at the memory. At the same time his heart ached for the longing of his brother’s presence at their table.

When supper was over, Murdoch didn’t mention Scott.  He walked to the easy chair that he sat in every night for as long as Johnny had been at Lancer.  In times past he would have picked up a newspaper, or scanned the figures in his work journals for accuracy.  Now an old journal was always kept at hand for him to look at.  He didn’t know one from the other anymore and in a short time he was sleeping, chin bowed against his chest.

Johnny smiled, loving his father as much as he ever had.  He was crushed that this powerful man was made low by the toll of years but Johnny would make sure he was cared for until the day he died.  As his father slept Johnny’s eyes scanned the large room and stopped at the stairway.  How long had it been since he climbed those steps?  Months?  Maybe even years?  He had no reason to go up to the second floor bedrooms since Murdoch moved to the main floor.  He glanced at the sleeping man, then pushed up from the chair and walked to the bottom of the stairs.

For some reason he hesitated.  There was nothing up there for him now but memories.  But he placed his hand on the railing and climbed the steps slowly, his heart beat increasing with each step he took.  Straight down the long corridor was the door to Murdoch’s old room.  To the left was his bedroom.  To the right was Scott’s.  He hadn’t been in the room since the day Scott died.  He’d never been able to bring himself to that point.

Now as he stood before the door, he drew in a deep breath and turned the knob.  The door slowly creaked open and Johnny took a step in.  The setting sun slanted through the window and he wondered if the curtains were the same ones he had focused on as Murdoch cradled his lifeless son.  A lamp filled with oil was on a dressing table and Johnny felt for the matches that were always beside it.  He lit the lamp, held it up and was suddenly taken back to ten years before.

Nothing had been changed.  The ladies had kept the room aired and dusted.  Scott’s bed was made with the same blue comforter that had covered him all those years ago.  Johnny stared at it, remembering Scott’s still warm fingers resting upon it, unmoving.  Next to Scott’s pillow lay the book he had been reading.  The little white slip of paper marked the page where Scott left off still waiting for his return to finish the story.  ‘Oh, Murdoch’ he whispered and wanted to back out, but couldn’t.

Within the wardrobe Scott’s clothes hung neat, clean and pressed.  A hat with a droopy feather and upturned brim on one side rested on the top shelf.  Polished boots were lined up at the bottom as if they were awaiting orders for the day.

The top of the dresser held Scott’s shaving gear, a picture of his mother and one of the family taken shortly after the partnership contract had been signed.  There was also a picture of a uniformed Scott with an older man beside him.  The words ‘I photograph well’ popped into Johnny’s mind.  Indeed, the young man standing straight and tall beside his general was very elegant and handsome.

Johnny fingered the after shave bottle and chuckled at the memory of their discovery of Jelly’s haul of colognes, one that did smell like a perfumed skunk.  He pulled off the cork and sniffed, expecting the light masculine odor of Scott.  The contents had dried years ago and nothing remained, not even dust or the familiar scent of his brother.

He opened one of the drawers and work shirts were folded and ready for the day.  Another drawer revealed journals, various books and magazines.  Johnny touched them, not knowing what he expected from the old yellow sheets except maybe a feeling for Scott, the essence of who he was.  There was little dust on the top journal as he pulled it out of the drawer.  It had been well protected for ten years.

Feeling intrusive into Scott’s personal thoughts, none-the-less he needed to know what was written in the book.  The small table by the window was exactly where it had always been.   He set the lamp on it and sat down in the old wooden chair.   Scanning the view from the window, he imagined his brother contemplating it before beginning to write.  It was a peaceful and pleasant scene.  Lazy smoke drifted up from the bunkhouse chimney and lamps sparked on in the small adobe homes of families within the compound.  In the distance he could barely see the outlines of the mountains against the blaze of the descending sun.

Johnny drew his eyes back to the journal, rubbed his thumb across the cover and then opened it to the last page that contained writing.  It was dated the final night of Scott’s life.

‘I am exhausted so this will be a short entry.  I don’t know why I am so tired.  Previous years at Lancer never affected me as such.  I’m assuming those exhilarating days with Johnny in San Francisco have something to do with it.  However, I would not trade that time for anything.  My brother can be maddening at times but I don’t believe I’ve ever felt so close to anyone in my life.  I contemplate that the freeness of women to say ‘I love you,’ definitely has its advantages.  I fear if I said that to my brother he would be totally embarrassed, as would I.  So I’ll spare both of us that very awkward situation.  But I do love him and my father.  Both good men even if they are a little stubborn and irascible.  So, off to bed as there is another full day tomorrow.  Much needs to be done before the cold rains and winds of winter arrive.  At least we don’t deal with the feet of snow that Boston receives, although I do miss the sparkle and frost of new snow.   But this world, these people, I am fulfilled and more alive than I have ever felt.’

The words blurred through the tears. “God, Scott, I love you,” he whispered to the empty room.  Lifting his gaze once more to the view through the window, the reds of the setting sun almost hurt.  Even after all these years, his brother’s death could bring him to his knees.

He settled the journal back in the drawer and took a long look around the room, knowing he’d never step foot in it again.   His children could remove the clothes and even the journals when he was gone, but like Murdoch, he never would be able to.  Blowing out the lamp, he put it in the same place it had sat since the day Scott moved in.  He stood in the hallway, glanced once more at the little writing desk and imagined a bent form with hay-colored hair spilling into his eyes scrupulously writing down his thoughts of the day.  Then Johnny softly closed the door.

Murdoch was still sleeping when he came downstairs.  The sun had fully set and the only light in the room was from the fireplace.  A small lamp was near his father’s chair and he lit it so Murdoch wouldn’t be confused if he woke up.  Johnny opened the French doors and stepped onto the veranda.

It was a beautiful October evening.  The hands had piled dead apple branches not too far from the house and set them on fire.  The wind was just right and blew the smoke away but carried the scent of the apple trees across the patio.  The night was like the one shared with Scott ten years before and he almost expected his brother to come out of the darkness, smiling and holding up three nice perch for their supper.

“He never said goodbye.”

Johnny jumped at his father’s voice.  Murdoch stood framed in the doorway, the flame from the fireplace forming a hallo behind him.

 “No, sir.  He didn’t.”

“He shouldn’t have gone without goodbye.”

“He didn’t know.  He didn’t mean to go.”

“No.”  Murdoch bowed his head, the moon highlighting the silver strands of his hair.  His big hands clutched the worn knob of his cane.  The knuckles were swollen, arthritic from years of hard labor.  “I miss him so much,” he whispered.  A drop of liquid trailed across the wrinkled top of his hand.

Oh God.  Oh God.   Johnny stopped breathing, and closed his eyes.  How could he comfort this kind old man?  How could he stop his pain, sooth his broken heart?  But Johnny knew nothing would heal that old heart, not in this world.  His grandchildren may bring him delight and pleasure, but his dead son would always be a sad, lingering shadow.

“I’m sorry papa.”

“I know, son.  I know.”  He scuffed a hand across his lined cheeks.

“Bethie and the children will be home in a couple of days.”

As hoped, a huge smile came to his father’s face.   “Yes.  The children.  It will be good to see them.”

“You go to bed, Murdoch.  I’ll be in soon.”

“Yes, son, do that. It’s getting rather chilly.” He pointed a shaky finger at Johnny as if in reprimand.  “But as soon as that brother of yours gets home we’ll scold him for making us worry.”

And just like that he was in his other world and Johnny wouldn’t take it from him.  For in that world Scott still lived, maybe even talked to the old man.  If it made his father happy, let him believe in it.

Johnny watched his father make his way back into the house with slow, bent steps.  Maria, the ever loyal Maria, was there to greet him.  She spoke to him in Spanish and Johnny knew she would settle him, get him to bed and make sure he was all right before she left for her own room.

A perfect breeze once more carried the smell of autumn grasses and sweet smoky apple trees.  Johnny looked up into the clear skies at the constellations of Cassiopeia, Andromeda, and Ursa Major.   He wondered if Scott would be surprised that he cared enough to learn their names and placements, and decided he would be only pleased.  Scott would look his way and Johnny could see his eyes through the firelight and relish the gentle smile on his brother’s face.  What more precious gift could life hold?

In the black evening sky the shining beautiful North Star sparkled as it had for hundreds upon hundreds of centuries.  But it had never been so bright as on the night they shared their last campfire together those many years ago.

November, 2021

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43 thoughts on “North Star by Ronnie

    1. Tanya – it is a love story. And sad but it was what I was feeling. Thanks so much. I appreciate your letting me know.

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  1. Oh Ronnie, I almost skipped this as I was afraid it was Scott. You did a wonderful job expressing that deep sadness that never is quite assuaged. Sorry about the loss of your friend and thank you for this.

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    1. Susan, thank you for reading even if you didn’t want to. For me the loss of Scott would be the greatest pain, as I felt for my friend. Life continues but there is always a yearning for loved ones who have died, regardless the length of time. Thanks again.

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  2. Beautiful and sad story. I had just finished reading Soldier’s Heart again, when I saw this new story. North Star could almost be a sequel to Soldier’s Heart. As usual, you did a great job..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Charity. Death fics have never been my favorite – I want the characters to live on and on and never grow old. But it was a way of expressing my sadness over the loss of my friend. Thank you for reading. I appreciate it.

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  3. I normally don’t read stories that feature the death of a major character but, I love your writing so
    I persevered. Oh boy did I cry. This was so emotional and beautiful.
    Thank you for sharing this and i am sorry for your loss.
    Cheryl

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    1. Cheryl. Thanks so much for reading. I’m not a fan of death fics myself but my friends death lead me down that road. Your kind words are so appreciated. Thanks so much. Ronnie

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This was beautiful and it made my cry. This year has been a year of loss for me ,.. family and friend both taken too young… both just like Scott in this story. Age 45 and 46 … too young. This story touched me deeply.

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    1. Hi char. I recall that you lost a couple of loved ones this year. Yes, they were way too young. I’m sorry. Thank you for reading. I’m sorry this made you cry. When my friend died this story just came out. Thank you.

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  5. Your grief at the loss of your friend has created a moving tribute for all of our lost loved ones. Thank you for sharing this, Ronnie. It can’t have been easy for you. Every comment above mentions tears; I, too, am crying. Your beautiful writing is greatly appreciated.

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    1. Hi Terri. In the world of Lancer, Scott would have been my greatest loss. Real life contains more sorrow and loss than a story of fiction although I am grateful it can be expressed. Thanks so much for your kind words. I hope you are well.

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  6. Heartbreaking as it was, still a beautiful and touching story of a love between brothers that not even death could break.

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  7. Ronnie,

    Just a beautiful story. One that reflects on love, loss and what it teaches us all about life. I am usually not one for Lancer death fiction – however, I have always liked reading your writing and somehow knew it would be treated with the utmost loving care.

    I think it also makes a difference what type of death fic is being written. Somehow if it’s is written as the normal process of living – it is easier for me to finish the story. Although Scott’s death was sudden and he was too young – an accident or a horrendous murder (which is entirely probable during those times) would make me stop reading.

    You quickly moved the family on from the initial grieving process, which as we all know never truly ends. You brought new life and hope by marrying our Johnny to a wonderful woman who understood his grief as no one else could. And your portrayal of Murdoch was absolutely heart breaking. Somehow I knew that Johnny would end up in Scott’s room viewing his journals.

    I am sorry for your loss – Pancreatic Cancer is a devastating diagnosis. When my father died, Lancer fiction was for me a way to express some of the deepest grief. And while I wasn’t brave enough to end a Lancer life on my first fictional outing – the couple of chapters at the end certainly helped the grieving process.

    Keep writing Ronnie – we all really enjoy your stories.

    Cathie (aka Flynnie)

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    1. Hi Cathie. I’m not one to read death fics either so understand the reluctance. But I do appreciate that you went ahead anyway. In fanfiction I want the characters to be always young and strong. Scott would have been my greatest loss in the Lancer world and allowed me an opportunity to express the loss in the death of my friend. When I heard the diagnosis of Pancreatic cancer I was devastated but she was always positive. Life does go on as it has for thousands of years, but there will always be a wound in the heart for those lost. Thanks so much for your kind words. I appreciate them very much.

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  8. Oh Ronnie what a beautiful story. Like others commented above I tend to avoid the death fics because I don’t want to think about the major characters dying, but I love your writing. So well done, realistic and caring. Loved the fact that they both said I love you regardless of the time and distance between the words, and that Johnny seemed to find some solace and closure with his reading of the journal. And my deepest sympathies on the loss of your friend. I hope that, in time, you find some peace as well, and are able to remember the good times and wonderful friendship you shared. Although I did not know her, I think she would be proud of your story.

    Take care

    Sue L

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    1. Hi Sue. I understand your reluctance to read a death fic. But thank you for reading it anyway. I appreciate your kind words about my writing. It was the death of my brother almost 14 years ago that inspired me to write my first story. Somehow it helped but I’m not sure why. Maybe an escape? I’ll always remember the wonderful friendship shared with Rosey and all whom I have lost. Life is very tenuous but so precious. Thank you very much.

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  9. Wasn’t sure I should read but glad I did, even if you made me cry. A tender love story about a family deprived of knowing each other during childhood then deprived of growing old together. A happy moment though that Murdoch knew and loved his grandchildren.

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    1. Hi Elin. Thank you for reading. This is a love story shared by family members, brother to brother, father to son. Even in the face of death we struggle and are able to find happiness most of the time through the love of others. I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment. Take care.

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      1. I lost my brother just a few weeks ago to pancreatic cancer. You captured ny thoughts and feeling on the loss of my brother. I am so sorry you lost a cherished person. The grief pain and love does not go away.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. A wonderful story, Ronnie, moving and delicately written. No pathos just well expressed feelings and realistic behaviour by the family. The description of Murdoch succumbing to dementia is so true and the response of others is real and honest, from the six year old to Johnny.
    Deep sadness flows through your words and they are a beautiful tribute to your friend and the love between you. X

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    1. Hi Pauline. It seems the older you get the more you experience the loss of family and friends. It is a helpless and lonely longing for someone who you are no longer able to share your life with. It never goes away even when decades pass. Thanks so much for your kind words. They are appreciated very much.

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  11. Typing this with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. You treated this subject so very sympathetically, those of us who have lost close friends and family know how life has to go on and how to deal with grief. I’m pleased Johnny has family that bring happiness into the hacienda.

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    1. Grief and loss, regardless the age of the loved one, can be overwhelming. But life does continue. Johnny is fortunate that he could relate to someone who experienced the same sadness. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I do appreciate it your words.

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  12. Hi Ronny. That was beautiful. I lost the man I deeply loved nearly 8 years ago but he is still very much in my thoughts (not in a weird way). He was very funny and deeply loving and supportive. Now, years later, I can think of him and smile at all his silly jokes and the friendship he gave me.

    You will always miss your friend but I hope you are eventually gifted with warm memories.

    Thank you for the moving, well written and comforting story.

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    1. Hi Heather. I’m so sorry about the loss of your husband. You must have had a lovely marriage and friend. Not all are as fortunate. Yes, I miss my strong friend. It is still hard to accept that she is gone. I’m grateful for your comments and sharing your loss. Take care.

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  13. Ronnie…I could write forever on how much ghos story meant to me. First of all it is excellently written. So touching, so true to the characters. My heart was breaking for Johnny but mostly for Murdoch. I love how you knew instinctively that Murdoch needed his “other” life. The one where Scott still lived and was on his way home.

    Beautiful just beautiful. Sad …yes, but the sadness so well done that it became beautiful.

    The second reason this story meant o much to me… well my name is Rosey, spelled exactly that way. I am 62 and the past 17 months has seen me facing numerous injuries and major illness requiring 5 surgeries. My life has changed drastically in that time…and well your forward to the story hit way close to home. But this Rosey thanks you for the writing of this beautiful piece in tribute for your Rosey. God bless yiu…and Rosey.

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    1. Rosey. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m so sorry to hear about your illness and surgeries. I cannot imagine how that has impacted your life and you continuing struggles. At 62 you are still too young to face such challenges. I truly appreciate your words. I hope and pray that you are able to cope and overcome your situation. Take care and thank you.

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  14. Wauw, it was hard to finish the story, I had to stop reading to not to cry (my favourite character was Scott from the beginning), so I read the end the next day. Your story is so well written with so much emotions, the pain for their loss, Murdoch between two worlds must be difficult for Johnny. I read once that the Indians say that the stars in the sky are the souls of our dear ones who passed away.

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    1. Caterina. Scott is my favorite character as well so he would have been my greatest loss. My friend’s death was heartbreaking just because she was so strong and positive. I appreciate your kind words very much about the emotions expressed in the story. It was a hard story to write and thank you for reading. Take care.

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  15. What a beautiful story, Ronnie! Someone told me, at my father’s funeral, that a time would come when the memories would be warm and happy, not hurtful. It’s been two years and sometimes that’s true. Other times I just break down. This story hurts so wonderfully and you capture it so well.

    SadieRose

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    1. SadieRose. A lifetime is not long enough to grieve for those you’ve lost but the pain does subside. Thank you for reading the story. It was a difficult one to write. I appreciate it very much. Take care.

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    1. Thank you Val. I think we’ve all lost someone we love so very much. Thanks so much for your kind words.

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  16. Scott was my favorite character and I was so reluctant to read this story. But I did and it was so well written. Thank you for your efforts and my condolences to you on the loss of your friend.

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    1. Hi Deborah. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. And thank you especially for expressing your condolences on the loss of my friend. Take care.

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  17. I don’t usually read death stories. This one had me in tears even though I am a Johnny fan. This was so well written and emotional. I am so sorry for the loss of your friend.

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    1. Hi Lesley. Thank you for reading even though you don’t like death fics. I want the brothers to always be young and healthy but this time it didn’thappen that way. . Thank you for your condolences on my friend’s death. I really appreciate it.

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    1. DL. Thank you for reading. I think it probably struck a cord with anyone who has lost someone they’ve loved. Take care. I appreciate your coment.

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