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Return to California
Sun Walker entered the house the next morning. “Red Moon…John…,” he called.
“Father…Hurry,” his daughter’s frightened voice replied from the back of the house.
He entered his grandson’s room and his heart pounded fearfully but he tamped it down. The boy’s face was flushed with fever. The dark eyes that barely cracked open were vague and wandered aimlessly about the room. His breaths came in a wheezing rasp.
“He has pneumonia?” He questioned anxiously, remembering the last time as well as how many of his people died from this illness in the past.
“Yes, I think so. I need to get him to a hospital father.”
Sun Walker looked at his daughter questioningly. “No white hospital will treat the child without his father there. We will take him to Cloud Singing.”
“No…They will treat him…One will,” she insisted.
“How daughter…I have no car.”
“Joseph does…Please father, he will not refuse you.”
Sun Walker nodded. “I will find your sister and her husband.” He left Kate to continue bathing John’s face and body with cool cloths. He returned a short while later with his daughter and son in law.
Lacee stood with arms folded over her rather large chest, glaring smugly at her sister. “Do not ever forget this Red Moon,” she growled, obviously put out but enjoying the fact that her younger sister was having to grovel for help. “You and your Ó’xevé’ho’e brat owe us,” she told her as Sun Walker wrapped his grandson in a blanket and picked him up.
“I will not forget my sister…I will pay you what I owe and I will remember the price you put upon my child,” she assured her as she followed her father out.
Joseph was drunk as usual but thankfully there wasn’t much traffic on the reservation road. After a couple of misses, the old Chevy pulled up in front of the clinic in Lame Deer.
Sun Walker carried John inside. The nurse behind the desk frowned at the group. She rarely saw any of the people from the reservation and she was surprised but a moment later a ragged cough erupted from the blanket wrapped bundle in the older man’s arms.
“I need to see a doctor…My son is sick,” Kate said urgently, ready to plead if she had to and remembering all too well the reception they’d received at Dr. Smith’s as well as the one at the hospital in Sheridan. “I have some money…,” she began.
“What’s wrong with him?” The nurse asked, cutting her off.
“I think he has pneumonia…He’s had it before.”
The door opened and the doctor who’d treated John in the hospital stepped out. His hazel eyes scanned the group before settling on Kate. Recognition lit his face. “Kate Gage?” He questioned.
“Dr. Carlton…Please help me. It’s John…He is sick again but I only have a little money…,” she began to explain.
He waved her off. “Set up the treatment room,” he snapped at his nurse. She came around the counter quickly as he took the boy from his grandfather’s arms. “Follow me,” he directed as he disappeared into the room.
Lacee heaved a martyred sigh as they followed.
The doctor laid the boy on the table but it only took one look to know the boy was in trouble. “How long has he been this way?” He questioned as he tucked the stethoscope in his ears.
“Since early this morning,”
“Why didn’t you get him in here sooner?” He asked sitting the boy up to listen to his back.
“I have no car…No way to get him here and Roderick is away.”
He nodded in resignation. “Okay Kate…I’m gonna get him stabilized and then we’ll get him to a hospital.”
Kate nodded as Sean began to check his pulse. Joseph folded his arms over his chest. “I will not drive all the way to Sheridan,” he said adamantly. “Do us all a favor and let the half breed die,” he sneered drunkenly as if talking about some stray animal instead of his nephew.
Sean shot the man a shocked look that quickly turned to disgust. Sun Walker looked like he wanted to belt the man himself for his callous words.
Tears welled in Kate’s eyes. What was she going to do now? “Please Joseph,” she began to plead.
Sean cut her off. “I’ll take you myself,” he growled angrily.
Thank you Dr. Carlton,” she whispered in humiliation at her family’s attitude.
Carlton shook his head in disbelief at the others. “You can leave…I’ll see Mrs. Gage and the boy to the hospital and home.”
“I will go with my daughter,” Sun Walker announced as the others turned to leave.
“Fine, but we need to go now,” Sean replied as he fitted a small oxygen mask over the child’s face.
Lacee stopped and looked at Kate. “Do not forget what you owe.” Kate nodded as Carlton shot a disgusted look at the woman.
Sean leaned over to place the IV. John moaned softly…His small face beaded with sweat and flushed with fever. The dark eyes opened to gaze vaguely into Sean’s face. “Its okay kiddo…We’re gonna get you better,” he assured the boy as he inserted the needle.
John felt it but was too weak to respond. The dark eyes shifted to his grandfather and he squeezed back the tears that threatened to leak from his eyes, afraid his grandfather would be angry if he cried.
“Let’s go,” Sean said as he handed Sun Walker the IV bottle and scooped the boy into his arms…An hour later they were in Sheridan.
Kate paced the waiting room anxiously. Daniel’s eyes flicked between his frightened daughter and the small curtained area that hid his grandson from the eyes of his family. Finally, after a long while…The curtain was whisked aside and Sean stepped out.
“Mrs. Gage,” he said with a small smile. “He’s in pretty bad shape.”
“Is he going to die?” Sun Walker asked without a hint of emotion or hesitation. Kate’s eyes filled with tears at the cold tone, not knowing the anguish her father masked in his own heart at the thought of losing John. It was simply too ingrained in him not to let it show.
“Not if I can help it,” Sean replied to the man, equally cool before turning back to Kate. “But it will be touch and go for a while. You should have brought him in sooner but I realize that you had no car,” Sean finished, frustrated that the Indians were so limited on the reservation. The child could have died for the lack of transportation.
His tone gentled a bit. “You can stay with him if you want. I’ll take your father back to the reservation and come back.”
“Thank you Dr. Carlton.” He patted her shoulder softly.
“I would see my grandson before I go,” he said, as close to admitting worry as he was willing to let show.
Sean nodded and let them move to the child’s bed. John’s breathing was a raspy wheeze. His head tossed restlessly as fever and chills gripped his small body. “Óvohe… Náhko’e’s hénéhéno,” (Baby…Mommy’s here) she assured him, smoothing the sweat soaked sable hair from her son’s face.
“N…Náhko’e,” he wheezed out miserably…A rasping cough interrupted any more conversation.
Kate’s heart fell at the pitiful sound and she wished Roderick were here.
“I’ll be back in a while,” Sean assured her. “They’ll be in to check on him and draw some blood and then we’ll move him to pediatrics when I get back.” She nodded as they left.
Not long after they left, the door opened and a nurse bustled in. Kate’s stomach turned a small flip. It was the same rude nurse that they’d dealt with a year ago. The woman’s eyes roamed over Kate before moving to John.
It was obvious that she recognized them as well. She noted the absence of the tall, intimidating man who’d been with them the first time. Probably had grown tired of playing with the girl’s affections and left… She wasn’t surprised.
“I need to draw a blood sample and check his vitals,” she informed Kate dispassionately.
Kate didn’t like the idea of the woman touching her son but she had little choice. “Alright,” she consented.
John felt terrible. His chest hurt horribly and his throat felt raw. Just breathing was an effort. His eyes were barely open but he knew his mother was with him. He didn’t know where he was and that frightened him.
Suddenly someone else moved into his line of vision…A woman in white with a funny cap. He remembered another time when he’d been somewhere where they had dressed this way. That woman had seemed nice but she’d hurt him all the same.
This one was dressed the same way but her face didn’t hold any warmth as she lifted his arm to get a pulse. A moment later her hand descended heavily on his stomach to feel him breath. Even as sick as he was, he decided very quickly that he didn’t like her. “M…mom…my,” he whimpered in fright as the dark eyes turned toward her.
“I am here baby,” she said softly as the nurse roughly rolled the boy on his side to get a temperature. Kate wanted to tear her hair out at the rude handling and her son’s fearful moan.
“Do you have to be so rough?” She asked angrily.
“I’m not hurting him ma’am,” she snapped back.
“You are scaring him.”
“This has to be done…Can’t be helped,” she replied coldly. Who did this person think she was? Ignorant Indian, trying to tell her how to do her job…She rolled the child onto his back a moment later.
John’s eyes trickled tears and his mouth trembled…He sniffed desperately trying not to cry as she wrapped a tourniquet around his thin arm. A wail of pain exploded from his lips but was quickly interrupted by a ragged cough as the nurse inserted the needle to draw blood.
If the child hadn’t been scared enough before he was terrified now…John tried to pull away in terror but he was too weak and sick to offer much resistance. Nausea climbed its way up from his stomach and he gagged pitifully.
The nurse shoved the hard, plastic basin against his chin until he was done. She set it aside and returned to her task without a hint of compassion. John’s eyes began to grow vague. Kate saw it.
“Oh no John,” she breathed worriedly as she moved to his side. The nurse removed the needle and stepped back with a worried frown as Kate wrapped her arms around the boy. What was wrong with the child?
John struggled against his mothers hold but it didn’t last long. He had no strength to fight. He quietly sank into sleep in his mother’s arms.
Kate shot a look of pure venom at the nurse. “GET OUT,” she snarled at the older woman. “Do not return.”
The fire in the young woman’s eyes warned the nurse that Roderick might well have been easier to deal with. She left quickly.
Kate stayed with John over the next few days, unwilling to leave him alone with this staff that was so obviously prejudice against her people that came in here. Dr. Carlton had promised to speak to the nurses but she wouldn’t leave John to their dubious mercies besides, it was already too late. Their appearance in the room was enough to set the child shaking in terror.
Thankfully under Dr. Carlton’s care, John began to get better and she was grateful but she also had other worries…This would be a serious setback to their finances once again and how often would John have to go through this? She hoped the warm California climate would be better for him.
After a week, John was well enough for Carlton to send him home. “I wanted to thank you for everything Dr. Carlton,” she said as she lifted her son in her arms.
John’s wary dark eyes scanned over the doctor cautiously, looking for any sign that the man held a needle or any other piece of medical equipment. The look brought a chuckle from the young doctor. “Is someone coming to get you?” He questioned with a smile.
She shook her head. “No…Joseph will not drive here to get us but it is okay…We will take the bus.”
“Absolutely not,” he said aghast that her family was truly that selfish. “I’ll drive you.”
“No…No that is too much…We will be fine.”
“Look Mrs. Gage…I worked very hard to save this boy. He’s still very weak and I have no intention of letting him on a bus with a bunch of potential germ carrying strangers.”
Kate smiled. “Thank you Dr. Carlton,” she said quietly both embarrassed and grateful for the man’s kindness.
He drove them home. He handed her his card. “I know there aren’t very many phones out there on the reservation but I do know that the tribal police have them as well as Spotted Hawk. If you need me…call me…Day or night.”
She nodded as her eyes welled with tears. “Thank you Dr. Carlton.” He nodded and waited until the pair disappeared inside the house.
Things returned to normal soon after John came home. There was no mention of Sun Walker’s concern for the boy’s health nor did he cut him any slack at the ranch either. “Father please…John’s still getting over being ill…,” she began to protest but her father’s face tightened in annoyance…The child needed to learn to be strong. No one would care if he was ill or not in the real world. No one would coddle the boy. They would expect him to continue on and not let it show.
John saw it the same as she did. He threw her a resigned smile. … “It is okay Náhko’e,” he said quickly, stopping the argument he knew was coming. Kate sighed, knowing exactly what he was doing and she hated it. She should be protecting her son not the other way around.
Kate watched with a sad expression as her five and half year old son trudged along behind his grandfather. His dragging feet telling her how much John didn’t want to do this even though he’d made the sacrifice for her. She prayed Roderick would return quickly.
Summer was almost over when John’s father returned home the next time. He greeted his family and after John’s usual toss in the air, held the boy close to him. “Your mom wrote to me that you were sick. John nodded his head…The long sable hair sweeping his shoulders. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here.”
“It is okay daddy. I’m better now.”
Roderick hated the resigned tone of his son’s words. As if his father’s absence was alright. He hoped his next words would change that. “Good. I’m glad you’re okay but I have a surprise for you.”
John’s eyes widened. “What is it?” He asked excitedly.
“A house in California,” he said conspiratorially. John’s eyes lit up. “But don’t tell mommy yet cuz I haven’t had a chance to finish it up yet. It needed some work but as soon as it’s ready…”
John’s face fell. “Does that mean you are going to leave us here again when you go?” He whispered forlornly.
Roderick’s heart slipped into his stomach at the woebegone expression on his son’s face. “Yes little one I am but not for much longer. I’ll come for you as soon as it’s done and I won’t be gone as long between visits this time though you’ll be in school by then,” he teased, tweaking the small nose.
“Yup…In September. Just think of all the great stuff you’ll learn and you won’t have to go to the ranch as much either.” At least that was Roderick’s hope. He didn’t mind that Sun Walker spent so much time with John and taught him some really wonderful skills but from the sound of Kate’s letters, John wasn’t always enjoying the experience and was being treated as if he were nothing more than free labor.
Roderick wasn’t going to allow that. John was going to have an education and his school work would have to come first.
That ranch may well be the reservations livelihood and it was all Sun Walker and some of the others cared about but that wasn’t true for John. Regardless of whether or not he continued to dream of being a fireman…John would have every opportunity to become whatever he wanted to be and not what Sun Walker was trying to force him to become.
Roderick left after three weeks but the promise that their house would be ready within a few months gave them some hope that they would soon be a family again.
John returned to his usual patterns and gritted his teeth against the slights and slurs of the others, knowing he’d soon be able to start a whole new life with his mom and dad in California. He went to the ranch each day with a different attitude…Soon he’d be going to school and then maybe things would be different…Maybe the children in town would be nicer. He had no idea what he was in for…
The rising Montana sun cast a soft glow on the heads of a group of children trudging up the dusty reservation road. It was the first day of a new school year and they had a two mile walk to meet the school bus that would carry them into Lame Deer.
John at six was the youngest and skipped along beside the older children taking in everything as he went. No plant was left unexamined, no scrounging squirrel left unwatched.
Used to being teased or alternately ignored, he was completely oblivious to the dour mood of his companions, but then other than their obvious dislike, the boy was frequently unable to sense the emotions of those around him. His Aunt Lacee called him in…in…sensi...tive.
John didn’t know what that meant, but from the tone it probably wasn’t good but then Aunt Lacee seldom had something good to say about him. He knew she hated him for being half white but
John had no idea why it should be a problem for anyone. Still it was the source of every major fight between his Mother and her family… fights that always left him confused and frightened.
He didn’t want to think about that right now… he was too excited. This would be his first time in a real school and he was looking forward to learning all the things his Dad had promised they could teach him.
He was well used to being taunted by his own people but he was unaware of the friction that existed between the children of Lame Deer and the children who lived on the Reservation… so even had he been able to read their sour mood, he wouldn’t have understood it.
In his excitement to see everything along the way, he lagged far behind the other children including his older cousin Thomas.
“John…, nenáasêstse,” (Come here), He snapped. The younger boy ran to catch up. “Névese vovόtsevévám” (Stay with me) he ordered as Thomas grabbed the smaller child’s hand, giving him a hard jerk to keep John close to him as he walked.
John bit his lip to keep from crying out in pain as he was dragged along behind Thomas. He knew if he did the others would just laugh at him anyway.
“You will not be so anxious tomorrow Néséso háahketa,” (My little Cousin), Thomas said looking down into the pain filled brown eyes gazing back questioningly.
Why would tomorrow be different, John wondered? He said nothing, but then John seldom spoke unless his Dad was home, so Thomas wasn’t surprised at the silent confused look.
The older boy sighed, slowing down a little and letting the smaller child walk beside him. He rested his hand on John’s small shoulder. He knew his little Cousin would be a target at school, more so even than the others being an Ó’xevé’ho’e.
Except for his Mom, his family on the Reservation would offer him no sympathy. They would expect him to take whatever was handed to him without complaint.
Thomas knew the people of the town wouldn’t accept him anymore than his own did. The child would be the perfect whipping post for both sides. He’d try and protect him as best he could, but he couldn’t watch him every minute. There was no help for it… John would simply have to tough it out.
Thomas shook his head… he didn’t envy John at all. He glanced down at the little face peering up at him. Long black lashes, the envy of Thomas’s sisters framed huge brown eyes that were alternately impishly expressive or when he was scared, stressed or frustrated went frighteningly blank.
Thomas shuddered as he remembered those times when John would retreat somewhere into his own mind, unable to speak at all and unwilling to allow anyone to touch him. Even his Mom Kate could only hold him by force and he stuttered horribly when he was scared. No…It wouldn’t be easy for him. His own people were afraid of those crazy attacks…How would the whites react if it happened at school?
Right now however his eyes were clear and bright as he gazed up at his at his older cousin with a questioning look through the shaggy, sable brown hair hanging in his eyes. Thomas reached out and brushed the hair from the child’s face, something he’d seen John’s parents do on a regular basis…It always seemed to soothe the little boy.
His cousin smiled up at him. He was adorable. Thomas never understood himself why his family was so hateful. It wasn’t John’s fault that his Father was white or that his Mother had gone against her family to marry him. Thomas shook his head. No wonder John always looked so confused. If he himself at thirteen couldn’t understand their attitude, how could a six year old?
The orange morning sun climbed higher lightening the road. The early hour didn’t seem to bother the children. Most had been up before the sun to do chores around the house anyway. They would return after school to do homework and then most would go to the Reservation ranch to help work it. John, even as small as he was would be expected to do the same.
Thomas kept the boy close until they arrived at school. He saw him safely into line at the entrance where the younger children held their classes. “After school you wait for me right here John, understand?” John nodded solemnly. He watched Thomas walk away to find his own classroom with a look of fear in his dark eyes.
This was Kimberly Ford’s first year as a Teacher in Lame Deer. She stood gazing out over the children, noticing one in particular. He was slightly smaller than the others. She saw an older boy, a brother perhaps giving him instructions. The boys were obviously from the Reservation just outside of Lame Deer. The little one looked awfully frightened and her heart went out to him...he looked so lost. She headed in his direction.
John stood silently watching his older cousin walk away…his heart pounded fearfully…He’d never been alone anywhere…ever. A gentle hand touched his shoulder and he looked up into a pair of soft blue eyes and the prettiest face he’d ever seen…well next to his Mom of course. The woman was young…maybe even younger than his Mother who was twenty six.
She smiled down in to the frightened brown eyes as she squatted next to him, “What’s your name?” She asked gently.
“J…John, he stammered.
“Oh! I thought you were with the Reservation children.”
He nodded hard, his hair bouncing into his eyes with the motion… “I am,” He said enthusiastically, forgetting to be nervous.
“Oh…So where did you get the last name of Gage?”
“From my Dad…”
She smiled in amusement…half Indian she surmised correctly. “Well Mr. John Gage, how about you and I go inside with the others and get the class started?”
“Kay…,” He agreed as he threw her a charming crooked grin. She took his hand and led him inside.
“Is it okay if I call you Johnny?” No one ever called him that but he liked it. The little boy nodded with a grin.
Thomas turned to check on John in time to see him disappear inside holding the hand of the pretty blonde Teacher. Leave it to his little cousin to charm the lady…he definitely had a way with women, he smiled as he thought of Little Fox and her love for the little boy.
John entered the classroom. His eyes widened in wonder at the many pictures and posters decorating the walls. John had seen movies with his Mom and Dad. Listened to the popular music of the day on the radio as his parents danced in the living room but everything in this room was aimed at someone his age with vivid colors and pictures designed to catch a child’s eye.
The other children watched him curiously. Their walls at home were the same… bright and colorful, covered in rock and roll posters and pictures of popular cartoon characters, so they couldn’t understand this child’s fascination with the room.
For most of these children…this was their first up close encounter with someone from the Reservation. Several giggled drawing his attention away from the room and towards them, his brow furrowed in a frown. He didn’t know what he’d done but he seemed to know the snickering was aimed at him.
“Hey Tonto…?” One boy called out... “Ain’t ya ever seen pictures before?” The others laughed.
John didn’t know who Tonto was but the boy seemed to be talking to him. “My names John, not Tonto,” he said shyly. The others laughed again at John’s naïve response.
The Teacher turned to the others, “That’ll be enough of that.” The tone was stern and brooked no argument. The children grew quite under her no nonsense look. She once again took John’s hand and led him to a seat. “Here you are Johnny,” She said as she smiled at the little boy...He smiled uncertainly back at her.
Growing up in a home where fighting and arguments between his Mom and her family were normal, he was adept at sensing the hostile undercurrents that flowed around him even though he didn’t understand them. He felt it from the other children and he wondered what he’d done wrong.
John’s morning progressed from bad to worse. While Miss Ford was greatly impressed by the fact that John could already read not only in his Native language but in English as well…The others resented her beaming praise as he counted in both languages as well.
“Well your Mommy and Daddy certainly have worked hard with you,” she said pleased at the obvious intelligence of this child. This boy might just change the preconceived bigotry she’d been bombarded with in this town since she’d arrived in early summer.
The people of Lame Deer wrote the Indians off as being ignorant. She’d seen nothing ignorant about them. They were an intelligent, hard working and honest group of people. They simply held to different customs and had a different set of priorities and prefered to be left alone by the whites.
John soaked up everything like a sponge…his intelligent dark eyes taking in every word. She beamed at his ability to completely submerge himself in whatever she was discussing, pleasing Miss Ford, but leaving several of the other children fuming in annoyance.
Jimmy Wheeler, the Boy who’d taunted him earlier narrowed his eyes in anger as John once again was the first to catch on to something new. His Father would be furious if he let himself be outdone by an Indian...a puny little runt of one as well. He’d fix the little redskin later.
Miss Ford asked at one point what they’d wanted to be when they grew up. There were several who wanted to be Doctors, Nurses or Teachers, even a couple who wanted to be Astronaughts.
“I’m gonna be Fireman...a tiller man.” John told them with certainty. The others laughed at him, who’d ever heard of an Indian Fireman?
Miss Ford seemed pleased, “That’s a wonderful thing to want to be. Don’t give up that dream Johnny,” She encouraged.
Lunch time finally rolled around and Miss Ford led her class to the lunchroom and then released them into the care of the other first grade teacher, Mr. Hayden.
She didn’t much care for the man as he was one of those who had made it very clear he had little tolerance for the children of the Reservation. He also believed in Corporal Punishment and he carried a heavy ruler that he applied liberally for any and every infraction.
John seemed at a loss as he watched the other children. He didn’t know any of the games they were playing and they didn’t seem inclined to take the time to teach him. He’d played baseball and football with his dad and Rick but that wasn’t what they were playing so he found a quiet spot and sat down alone to watch.
Jimmy Wheeler saw John alone and he headed in that direction... “Hey Tonto…?” The larger boy taunted.
“It’s John… not Tonto,” The smaller child answered in quiet tones. Why could this boy not remember his name? Maybe there was something wrong with him?
“Don’tcha even know who Tonto is?” The bigger boy sneered… “Ya stupid or somethin…?”
John looked at the boy in hurt confusion. His Parents had taught him not to say cruel things and John no idea why this boy was being so mean. “I’m not stupid,” He said softly... I just don’t know who Tonto is.”
“Well your Indian ain’t ya?”
“I’m half Indian… My Dad’s not Indian,” he clarified standing up.
“Whatever Tonto,” The other boy said giving John a hard shove. John staggered back in surprise at the unprovoked attack.
“Stop it,” John said angrily, well used to having to defend himself… He pushed the other boy back... It was all the excuse Jimmy needed. His fist lashed out to connect with the smaller boy’s cheek. John fell backwards, but climbed to his feet and charged back into the fray. He tackled the bigger boy and they both sprawled in the dust.
The other children began to run in their direction. They were soon gathered to watch the two combatants, their shouts drawing the attention of Mr. Hayden who raced across the playground. He grabbed both boys by the scruff of the neck, pulling them apart.
“What’s going on here?” He demanded angrily.
“He started it Mr. Hayden,” Jimmy lied.
“I…he…hit… I…d…didn’t…” John stammered as he always did when he was stressed or frustrated… terrified of the man who was practically holding him off the ground by his shirt collar.
“You little savages come here off the Reservation and cause problems every year. You have no manners… No discipline…” He snarled in the child’s face, “You’re always causing problems. I don’t know why they don’t just keep you at home… You’ll never amount to anything anyway.” He set the boy on his feet… “Now hold out your hands.”
John held out shaking hands... Mr. Hayden’s ruler slapped across the little boys palms. His mouth trembled, tears of pain welled in his eyes but didn’t fall…he blinked them away.
His refusal to cry out infuriated the Teacher. He slapped his palms again and again. John’s eyes began to take on a vacant look but the tears still wouldn’t fall... he’d long since learned from his upbringing that he was expected to bear whatever came his way stoically.
Miss Ford heard the yelling of the children. She came out of the school in time to see Mr. Hayden’s ruler slashing across Johnny’s palms.
“No...” She gasped in horror as she began to run towards the group.
Mr. Hayden dropped his ruler. He snatched the terrified child off his feet, shaking him like a rag doll. John’s head rocked from the rough handling he was receiving… His eyes widened in fear.
Mr. Hayden’s face loomed closer and Johnny pulled back fearfully. To the child’s frightened eyes, Hayden looked like a monster about to eat him alive. He cried out in terror.
Miss Ford snatched the child away from the older man. “Was that really necessary,” she snapped, trying to cradle the frightened little boy against her.
John rocked softly and pushed at her frantically to get away but she held on, not understanding what was happening and just thinking that he was afraid. John finally gave up the struggle and simply let her hold him as he shook with fear.
“He was fighting,” he said angrily.
The young woman’s eyes fell on Jimmy Wheeler who stood their looking smug. “And why was Mr. Wheeler exempt from the punishment Mr. Hayden?” She questioned sharply. The smug look fled from the young redheads face.
“He started it,” Jimmy muttered.
“I ddd…d…d…idn’t,” Johnny stuttered.
“Liar,” Jimmy shouted.
John flinched away from the angry voices. “Don’t fight…Don’t fight,” he whispered as his hands rose to cover his ears.
“Jimmy started it Miss Ford,” a little girl’s voice said from the group. “He pushed Johnny…I saw him,” She said honestly.
“I see,” Kimberly said looking at Hayden in disgust. “Well Mr. Hayden, perhaps next time you’ll investigate a little further before handing out the punishments.”
“You’ll find Miss Ford that it’s usually the little savages from the reservation that start these brawls,” he retaliated.
“They’re CHILDREN…NOT SAVAGES,” she growled angrily. “Come with me Johnny,” she said guiding the silent, frightened child away from the man…John shook off the touch of her hand but followed her nonetheless…His eyes vague and dull. “The rest of my class…Come with me. Recess is over.”
She took John inside and spoke briefly to the principle. The man pretty much shrugged off the incident which only angered the young teacher even more. This bright, inquisitive little boy would be ruined by these people and thought broke her heart.
She sent an aide to get her ice from the cafeteria, wrapping it in her handkerchief before laying it on the boy’s cheek. John allowed her hold the pack on his face but the dark eyes remained wary and downcast and no more words were forthcoming no matter how hard she tried to get him to talk to her.
Jimmy Wheeler spent the next half hour standing in a corner but it was too late, the damage was done.
His Cousin Thomas was horrified at the bruise on his cheek and the swollen and bruised palms. He spent the entire bus ride and walk home trying to get John to tell him what had happened but John remained silent.
Thomas delivered him to his Mother that afternoon…shrugging away her demand for an explanation… “He won’t tell me what happened náháa’e,” he said quietly. Kate pulled her son to her and held him, rocking the still silent, frightened child in her arms.
Soon after their return from school, her father showed up on her doorstep to pick him up. His face was creased in a frown as he watched the little boy. “What happened to him Red Moon?” He asked, his voice a low growl.
“We do not know for sure father but John’s eye is bruised and his hands are swollen and red. Someone hit him with something.”
Sun Walker’s mouth tightened angrily at the abuse but he offered no sympathy, “Did you cry John?” The man asked. Kate looked shocked that it mattered to him but John shook his head. “You did well John not to cry out…we are men of strength.”
“If he was a man I would agree Father, but he’s a baby... This was wrong,” She cried holding out her son’s bruised hands. His Grandfather merely shrugged.
Kate was furious but she knew she would have to wait for Roderick to fight John’s case. She had no way into town and even if she did her protests would fall on deaf ears with the school officials and anything she said here would merely cause another round of fights with her family for coddling the boy.
His cousin Thomas was right. He didn’t want to go to school the next day. He vaguely remembered that Miss Ford had snatched him from Mr. Hayden’s hands but he couldn’t remember everything that had happened after that. He remembered the sting of his palms...the red, swollen skin.
He’d zoned out after that…Like he always did when he was scared. He had no idea why or where he went but had only vague memories of the rest of the day and coming home…Of the others laughing at him and calling him crazy.
His father was wrong…School wasn’t a wonderful place. It was horrible for John…Full of mean, scary grownups and even meaner children. He didn’t want to ever go back.
Miss Ford was his one bright spot. She’d tried to protect him but it was the same…The people in the town were just like the ones at home. John curled his sore hands and sniffed back the tears of pain…Shoving the hurt way down deep. He wouldn’t let them win…No matter what. Grandfather would be proud of him.
He went to school the next day but without the same sense of adventure…He just wanted to get it over with and go home but he was met at the door by Jimmy Wheeler. “Hey Ttt…tonto…How are your hhh…hands?” He taunted.
John shrugged and tried to move past him but the other boy stepped in front of him, giving him a hard push. The other children gathered around to watch and laugh as Jimmy teased the smaller child and John’s eyes shifted nervously.
The little girl who’d told Miss Ford the truth the day before pushed the red headed boy away. “You leave him alone Jimmy,” she said angrily.
Jimmy pushed her back and she fell. “Mind your own business Lisa,” he shot back. “Let the little half breed take care of himself. Half bbb…breed…Half breed,” he sneered. “That’s what my dad said you were.”
John’s face flushed in even measures of embarrassment at the insult and anger that the other boy had pushed the little girl. John’s father had told him he should never hurt a woman. He glanced at the crying blonde girl and finally rose to his feet. He charged back at Jimmy, knocking him to the ground. “Llll…Leave hhh…her allll…one,” he stuttered.
“At it again I see,” A deep voice growled from behind them.
John turned to see Mr. Hayden. The ruler slapped ominously against his leg. John bit his lip as his eyes fixed on the ruler. “He knocked me down Mr. Hayden,” Jimmy whined.
“Jimmy started it,” Lisa said tearfully. “He pushed me down.”
“Well all I saw was you knocking this boy down young man,” he growled at Johnny, ignoring Lisa’s explanation. “Hold out your hands.”
John began to shake but he did as he was told. The ruler cracked across his already swollen palms. John flinched and bit down on his lip to keep from crying out which only seemed to irritate the man even more. He struck again. John began to rock and he felt the grayness begin to slip over him but suddenly he felt his shoulders grabbed and he was yanked away. “Mr. Hayden…I’ll thank you to let me handle the children in my class my own way,” Miss Ford warned in grating tones as she held John against her.
The man started to respond but then noticed John’s odd rocking motion and the arms that wrapped about himself as he stood trembling. “What in the world is wrong with that child?” He questioned sneeringly.
“Perhaps it was being abused by his teacher,” she shot back. “Come with me Johnny,” she said gently as she urged the child inside. “Lisa…Jimmy…You too.”
They followed her into the classroom. “What happened?” She asked the trio.
John stood mute but Jimmy and Lisa both answered. “Jimmy started it again,” Lisa said.
“He started it,” Jimmy said at the same time.
“He pushed me down too Miss Ford,” Lisa added for good measure. “Johnny was just defending me…And he called him a half breed and he was picking on the way he talks.”
Kimberly’s blue eyes narrowed angrily. “Mr. Wheeler. The corner is calling you,” the pretty blonde teacher said sternly. “And I don’t ever want to hear that term again, understand?”
Jimmy nodded but he had no intention of keeping that edict. He shot a glare at the little half breed as he moved into the corner. Just wait till recess.
“Johnny?” Kimberly questioned softly. The boy wouldn’t answer, neither did he look up. She touched his arm but he flinched away. Kimberly’s eyes filled with tears. “Poor baby,” she said softly. “Come and sit down,” she directed.
John obediently sank into the chair but the dark eyes continued to stare at nothing. The fingers rubbed together absently as they stayed tightly wrapped about his torso. He rocked gently. Miss Ford decided to leave him alone as the other children began to file into the room for class.
She’d let the boy come out of it on his own but her worried eyes returned over and over. What was happening to the child? She’d never seen this before and she determined to keep a closer eye on him in the future.
This boy was so bright but the white’s in this town seemed determined to beat him down to their preconceived image of Indians. Well not this boy…She’d see to that.
True to his word, John’s father returned home in early November. John was at school when he arrived. He greeted his wife with a passionate kiss. “John still in school…?” He asked as she stepped back.
“How’s he doing?” He asked with a grin sure that John would love learning the same way he did at home but Kate’s words wiped the smile from his face.
“He hates school.”
“What? But why?”
Kate shook her head. “The children in town make fun of him. One starts trouble with him every day… Calls him half breed…He’s started stuttering badly …and one teacher scares him.”
“Scares him…,” he questioned angrily. “What does he do…?” He began as the door opened and the subject of their conversation came in. The six year olds dark eyes were sad and downcast and even the sight of his father didn’t seem to perk him up. His hands were closed tightly and jammed into his pockets. “Hey John,” Rod greeted expecting his son to run to him to be tossed in the air as usual but he didn’t.
“Hi ddd…daddy,” he stammered quietly.
Rod noticed the hidden hands and hunched posture and the stammer in his voice. “Come here little one,” Roderick said softly. John’s mouth trembled but he walked slowly over to his father. The man gathered the boy into his lap. “Let me see your hands,” he said firmly.
“Are yyy…you mmm…ad at me?” John asked with a hitched stutter.
“No háhketa, I’m not mad at you,” he said softly, kissing the sable covered head tucked under his chin.
John slowly pulled his hands from his pockets and cast a sad look toward his father. He finally opened them. His father’s gasp of horrified rage brought tears to his eyes and he flinched in fear at the anger in his voice. “That son of a bitch.”
“I’m s…sor…ry daddy…I ttt…try to b…be good,” John whispered as the tears he wasn’t allowed to shed when his grandfather was around finally welled in his eyes and trickled down his cheeks.
Rod wrapped his arms around him tightly. “You didn’t do anything wrong John…,” he assured his son as the child began to rock slowly. “Go ahead and cry. It’s okay.”
“It’s weak,” he whispered forlornly.
“God little one…What are they doing to you?” He whispered into his son’s hair as the boy finally lost the battle and began to weep. Roderick’s eyes met Kate’s over his son’s head. “I’m gonna get you both outta here sweetheart…I promise.”
The next morning John went off to school as usual. John didn’t notice the red car parked at the edge if the playground. As usual Jimmy Wheeler began his verbal teasing. “Hey half bbb…breed…Wanna play ttt…tag?” He taunted, shoving the smaller boy. “You’re it.”
John backed away and shook his head. “Leave mmm…e a…lllone,” he whispered softly, refusing to be baited and knowing he’d be the one in trouble if he retaliated.
“Tag…You’re it,” he said again, giving the boy another push.
The other children saw another fight brewing and began to run toward them but Mr. Hayden was already on the move. He grabbed John by the scruff and yanked him backwards, almost tearing his shirt in the process. John stumbled and almost fell. “Hold your hands out,” he snarled.
John fought back tears of hurt and humiliation. He hadn’t done anything wrong. Why was this man so angry? Why did he always blame him? He knew his father would be angry again but there was nothing he could do to stop it. John tensed as the ruler came cracking across his palms…Biting his lip and flinching in pain with each blow. He clenched his teeth and once again began to retreat into his own mind.
The man was so intent in his hateful assault on the child that he failed to hear the car door opening behind him or the sound of running footsteps.
Mr. Hayden raised the ruler to strike again but someone grabbed his wrist. The man felt himself spun around to look up into the blazing green eyes of Roderick Gage. He plucked the ruler from the teacher’s fingers, snapping it in half like a twig. Hayden felt strong hands grasp the lapels of his coat.
He was raised on tiptoe to meet the six foot three inch gaze of John’s very angry father. John and the children who’d been watching Mr. Hayden’s assault on the boy stood in wide eyed wonder at the huge man who was shaking the other like a dog with a toy, much the same way as the teacher shook John at every opportunity.
“I don’t know who you are mister,” Rod snarled in the man’s face… “But that’s my son you’re abusing and I’m warning you right now…If my boy comes home again with one mark on him that I can attribute to you, you’ll wish you’d never been born. Do you and I understand each other?” He growled, giving him yet another shake.
The terrified older man nodded fearfully as the huge man dropped him. He fell to his knees as his shaky legs buckled under him. Roderick scooped his small son into his arms as Miss Ford who had just arrived to rescue the boy herself stood smiling in satisfaction at Hayden’s comeuppance. John wrapped his arms around his Dad’s neck laying his head on his shoulder.
“I…I…d… didn’t c…cry,” He stuttered in a whisper.
“It’s okay if you had my little one,” He soothed gently, brushing the shaggy sable hair from his son’s face. He carried him into the school and into the principal’s office.
The young secretary tried to stop him “You can’t go in there,” she said worriedly but the big, angry man shot her a warning glare and shoved the door open.
The principle was fortyish and graying and glanced up in alarm as his door ricocheted of his wall. “Can I help you?” He asked hesitantly.
Rod held John’s hands out so the man could see them. “One of your teachers did that,” he barked angrily.
“Sir…We need to maintain discipline…,” he began.
“Discipline…? This was abuse. I was watching…The other boy attacked John just as he does everyday apparently and no one in this school does a damn thing. John didn’t even defend himself and yet your teacher chooses to punish my son…WHY?”
“I…I…I don’t…,” the man began nervously.
“Don’t bother…I’ll tell you why. Because he’s half Indian and you all think that makes him fair game for your bigotry…Well that ends today. If my son comes home with one more bruise on him that was caused by one of your staff…I’ll be getting a lawyer and filing charges against you and this school… are we clear?” He barked out in rage.
“Yes sir,” the man agreed meekly.
“Good…Now I’m taking my son home.” Rod turned and stalked out. He loaded his young boy in the car and left. Rod glanced over at him as he drove. “Are you alright?”
John nodded but he wouldn’t look at his father. “Why do they n…not like m…me?” He whispered.
Rod was angry that a six year old should even have to ask such a question, especially one with such a gentle spirit and good heart as John had. It broke his heart to see his vivacious and fearless child looking so sad and downcast and defeated. “Oh little one…How do I explain stupidity…?” John shot him a questioning look. “Because you’re different…But what they don’t see is that you’re also special.”
John looked at him curiously, still not understanding. “But why am I diff…rent?”
“Because you’re only half Indian and half white and unfortunately some people have narrow little minds that can’t get beyond the surface of your skin color to see that you have such a wonderful heart and soul,” he said in disgust.
John frowned and Rod knew he still didn’t understand. He looked the same as the other children so why did being half Indian matter to the whites and being half white matter to the Indian? It was just too much for a six year old and John decided it must be him. Maybe he was doing something wrong and his dad just didn’t know it. Maybe if he tried harder they’d like him. He just didn’t know how to fix it. He’d just have to be good.
At the beginning of December Miss Ford set up a Christmas tree in the corner of the classroom. The children oohed and aahed excitedly at it when they entered the next morning.
The pretty blonde teacher caught the curious look in the dark eyes but John glanced away, hesitant to ask about it for fear the others would laugh at him. She squatted next to him. “What it is Johnny?” She asked softly.
He threw a cautious glance about to be sure there was no one else around. “What is it?” He asked quietly, the brown eyes taking in the bright lights and colorful balls hanging from the branches.
“It’s a Christmas Tree Johnny.” Johnny frowned and she understood. “Your people on the reservation don’t celebrate Christmas do they?” She questioned softly. The boy shook his head. “Do you know what Christmas is?” She asked.
He nodded uncertainly. “When God’s son was born.”
She smiled. “That’s right. Did your daddy teach you that?”
John nodded. “But he’s never home for Christmas and we never had a Christmas tree,” he said in wonder.
“Maybe your daddy will get one for you this year,” she said gently, hoping the boy’s father would make it home for Christmas.
“His dad’s almost never home,” Jimmy Wheeler said snidely from behind them. “Guess he don’t like you none either,” he taunted.
“In the corner Jimmy…Right now,” Kimberly snapped, pointing off to the corner of the room as John’s face took on the same downcast, sorrowful expression he usually wore. She wondered what the boy’s home life was like…Not good, she surmised from the look in the dark eyes.
“My daddy does too like me,” he whispered.
“Oh sweetie…I bet he loves you,” she whispered, hugging the child to her. “Why couldn’t these people just learn to like each other? Her heart broke for the pain their prejudice caused…Especially to this small boy.
By the Holiday break and despite Mr. Hayden and some of the other children, John continued to do well in class. Miss Ford made it habit to stay on the playground during recess, keeping Jimmy and his friends from attacking the boy. She giggled to herself as the girls seemed to migrate to him. John didn’t have any male friends but the girls were in no short supply much to his disgust. She was sure his tune would change in a few years.
He returned home with his very first report card and Kate hugged him tightly. She beamed with pride. “Just wait until your daddy sees this.”
John was anxious…Hoping his father would come home in time for Christmas. If he did, then maybe John could have a real Christmas tree like the other kids…Then maybe they wouldn’t think he was so different but by Christmas Eve morning, Roderick hadn’t returned.
John’s dark eyes were sad and the disappointment was plain. Kate chewed her lip… She had decided to ask her father to help her. She had no money to buy decorations like the ones the stores sold but she was sure she could make something to put on it. Pine cones and popped corn would be a fairly easy thing to use and she’d seen it done before. It wouldn’t be fancy but at least John would have a tree…A real Christmas tree like the other kids in town.
She bit her lip. “What can I make for you?” She mumbled softly.
“Make for who?” Sun Walker asked coming in behind her.
She turned startled. Both of her parents stood just inside the door. “Oh… Páhávevóonā’o Ného’e… Náhko’e,” she greeted.
They nodded in return. “Páhávevóonā’o,” Sun Walker answered.
“I was trying to think of something to give John for Christmas.” Her mother heaved a tired sigh and her father frowned as she continued. “I was hoping that you would help me to get a tree father.”
“For what purpose?” Her mother asked in confusion.
“To decorate mother so John can have a Christmas tree.”
Daniel shook his head. “We do not celebrate the white man’s Christmas Red Moon.”
“I’m not asking you to but John is half white and they do and the other children at school do,” she shrugged. “It would make him happy and feel as though he fits in...”
“The others manage without imitating the whites…So will John,” Sun Walker interrupted.
Kate’s mouth tightened angrily. When would her parents finally realize that John was her son and she’d raise him how she saw fit? “May be they do father but this year John is going to have a real Christmas. If you won’t help me than I’ll do it by myself.”
“The boy will be at the ranch with the others tomorrow…As any other day. Why do you continue to fill his head with this nonsense?” he yelled angrily.
None of them heard the whispered words from the bedroom doorway. “Stop it…Stop it…Please don’t fight…Please.” John backed into his room, his hands pressed tightly over his ears.
Kate had had enough of her parents telling her how to raise her son. “He will NOT be at the ranch tomorrow,” she shouted back, refusing to give in on this point.
“In fact…He won’t be at that damn ranch any day,” a deep voice growled from behind the older couple.
“Roderick!” Kate gasped as her parents turned to face the man.
“Sun Walker…White Owl,” Rod acknowledged as he stepped past them.
Kate threw herself into his arms. “I am so glad you are home,” she said against his lips as he kissed her in greeting. “John will be so excited.”
He stepped back and turned to face his in laws with a raised eyebrow. “So is this what goes on when I’m not here?” He questioned in irritation.
“We were discussing the boy.”
“The boy…? You mean my son…Your grandson?” He question angrily. “Where is John anyway?” He asked, glancing around.
“He is in his room,” Kate replied quietly, suddenly worried…He had to have heard them fighting.
Rod shot another annoyed look at his in laws before moving to the door. He pushed it open and gasped in shock. John sat in the corner…His small hands pressed tightly over his ears as he rocked. “Ah God,” Rod muttered as he ran to his son’s side. He lifted the child into his arms.
John pushed against him, trying to break free but Rod held him securely…The dark head pressed against his own. “Come on little one…Its daddy. I’m here John and this is never going to happen again,” he whispered quietly into the boy’s ear.
John seemed to hear him. The resistance eased and the small groans of frustration quieted. The dark eyes remained unfocused for a few long moments before he blinked.
John heard his father’s voice…He let the grayness ease and allowed his safe place to fall away as the other place…The place where everyone was angry and shouted came back into focus…Color and sound returned and the face of his daddy swam into focus. He’d be safe now…His father was here.
The small arms looped around his father’s neck and he laid his head on his shoulder. The raised voices and the anger and the bitterness were never around when his daddy was home. He closed his eyes as his father’s hand stroked the sable hair comfortingly.
Rod’s green eyes blazed angrily but he kept his voice carefully modulated. “Kate…Go pack your things, we’re leaving.”
“What…?” She questioned in confusion.
Sun Walker and White Owl exchanged a worried glance. The one thing they’d always feared happening was upon them. “Do not take them from here Roderick Gage. This is all the child knows…It’s where he and his mother belong,” he almost pleaded.
Rod kissed John’s cheek gently and held him a bit tighter. “Where they belong? Well it’s too bad you never made them feel that way. Instead you fight and yell and frighten my son into this state. Treat him like a servant…Brow beat my wife…I won’t have it. If I’d have known it was this bad we’d have been gone long before now I assure you but it’s done now…We’re leaving for California. Now…Please leave,” he growled.
Sun Walker looked stricken and his wife began to cry. Kate had never seen her mother weep or her father look so distraught but even so she never hesitated. They’d hurt her and her son time and time again…Refused to listen to her pleas or to give John a chance. What did they expect?
“Good bye father…Mother. I will write and let you know where we are but this is best for John. We need to be a family.” She turned and headed for the bedroom to pack.
Sun Walker cast a final glance into Rod’s unyielding face before turning regretfully away and leading his wife down the stairs. Rod closed the door behind them. “Come on háhketa…Let’s go and pack your things,” he said softly.
“Are we really going to Cal…fornia?” John whispered.
“Yes we are…Right now.”
The boy lifted his head…The dark eyes danced with excitement. “They will not laugh at me there?” He asked a bit hesitantly.
Rod’s heart broke at the evident look of relief in his son’s eyes. Why had he let this go for so long? Sun Walker may have been right all along…He was a terrible father to have subjected his son to ridicule and the emotional and mental abuse they’d been heaping on him even if he hadn’t realized just how bad it had become or its effect on Johnny. He needed to talk to Kate about that. She’d obviously been keeping that from him.
He understood that she was worrying about the money and his job and uprooting the boy over and over again as they had when he was little but he’d rather have dealt with that than have his child brow beaten and traumatized by his own family.
“No háhketa,” he replied, hugging John to him. “No one will laugh at you there and I’ll be around a lot more often so we can do things together and whatever you want to do when you grow up…I’ll help you.”
Johnny grinned happily. “Can I take my truck and my hat?” He asked.
“Sure ya can…Come on…Let’s go pack.”
Two hours later they were on the road. After spending Christmas Eve in a hotel, they made the final leg to their new home. The small white house stood back from the road. It wasn’t anywhere near the size of Rod’s ancestral home but Kate didn’t care. It was theirs…A place for them to finally be a family…A place where no one would care if John were half Indian or white.
Rod scooped his sleeping son into his arms and made his way up the walk. He unlocked the door and let Kate precede him inside. He considered waking John but decided tomorrow was soon enough to allow him to explore his new home. It was tough enough to get the child to sleep most of time as it was. If they woke him now, he’d be up all night.
“What do you think Kate?” He asked his wife quietly as she stood just inside the door, glancing around. “I know it’s not huge baby but…”
“Oh Roderick,” she interrupted, stepping into his embrace. “It does not matter…It is ours and that is all I have ever wanted was for us to be together.”
“Well then…That’s what you have…Forever,” he vowed, dropping a kiss on his wife’s lips. “Merry Christmas,” he whispered against her mouth. She giggled as they made their way to John’s new room to tuck him in for the first night in their new home.
John started school the first week after the New Year and his father’s promise had proved to be true…John quickly began to make friends. Most of the children had no clue that John was half Indian and the ones that did thought it was cool and nothing to be ashamed of.
Roderick was home frequently and even though money was still tight they began to do things as father and son. Hiking, rock climbing, camping, fishing and baseball games were John’s favorites but his most special times were going to the fire stations around Duarte and San Gabrielle or the beach. That’s when all of them went together.
Roderick and Kate were both a bit disappointed that Rosemary had left San Gabrielle for awhile to live in Santa Barbara near her husband Geoffrey’s family. His mother had suffered a stroke and they’d gone to be with his parents but they hoped she’d at least be close enough to visit. They’d really love for her to get to know her nephew.
Rod went to see his mother and father as well but nothing had changed. “What happened with your parents?” Kate asked her husband as the couple snuggled on the sofa.
From the doorway to his bedroom, John’s attention was caught…This was the first time his father’s family had been mentioned and he was curious. He shrugged. “I didn’t stay long.”
“Why?” She questioned softly.
“I asked if they’d at least meet their grandson…They refused.”
“I’m so sorry Roderick,” she whispered forlornly. “Maybe you shouldn’t have…”
“I’m not sorry,” he interrupted her. “I have you and John and I’ll never regret that decision,” he replied, kissing her warmly.
Around the corner, John’s face fell. They didn’t want him…His father’s parents didn’t want him either…Why? What had he done that was so awful that they wouldn’t even see him? Why did they all hate him so much?
Tears of shame and hurt slipped from the dark eyes at the thought but he swiped them away angrily…Tears were weak and he wasn’t weak and he wouldn’t cry. He wouldn’t let them hurt him.
Within a few months, John had made friends with the other neighborhood children as well. Kate was a little concerned at the age difference but John had also been the youngest among her family’s children and had managed to hold his own.
He was almost seven but these children were ten and twelve. John seemed happy and appeared to fit in with the group alright. He was coming out of his shell and almost never slipped into withdrawal anymore.
School was no longer a place to avoid but somewhere he enjoyed going so Kate allowed the friendships to continue. She had no idea that the boys were teaching ‘Johnny’ as they called him any bad habits or she would have stopped it cold.
And while John was usually right in the middle of the group, the other boys seemed to at least have sense enough not to let him get into too much trouble and they protected him from the other kids as well.
Rosemary came back to San Gabrielle one Saturday morning several months later. She made it a point to stop and visit. Kate opened the door and her squeal of excited laughter brought a chuckle to Rose’s lips. “It’s good to see you too Kate,” she teased as the two women embraced each other.
“Come in,” Kate finally said grabbing the woman’s hand and pulling her inside. “Rod and John are out but it’s so good to see you.”
“I’ve missed you,” the older woman replied, a bit disappointed that her brother and nephew weren’t home.”
Kate smiled. “We’ve missed you as well. I know if Roderick had known you were coming he’d have stayed home instead of taking John out hiking.”
“How is John? He’s seven now right?”
“Almost eight and finally starting to grow, though he’s still very thin…He has made some new friends and it has been good for him here.”
“Ricky told me in his letters that they were pretty tough on him out there…Though he said he hadn’t realized how bad it had become.”
“Yes…He was very angry with me for not telling him but…”
“He understood at the same time,” Rose finished.
“Yes…We just couldn’t afford to keep moving to stay with him and rent is so expensive in California and Texas.”
Rose nodded. “I’m sorry I missed them…I’d love to see John.”
Kate stood up and left the room…She returned a moment later with a framed photo. A sable haired, dark eyed boy grinned at her from a picture frame. The two missing front teeth made Rose chuckle. “He’s the image of his dad at that age except for the brown eyes,” she said noting the glint of impishness in the orbs. “He’s adorable Kate.”
“I wish my family felt the same way…,” she said with a sigh.
“What’s the problem?”
“John’s half white…,” she sighed. “And my people can not see past that…The whites of Lame Deer have never accepted my people,” she shrugged. “And my father…He expects John to be a man…To just take the abuse and show nothing. He forgets he is only a child but he’s gotten much better since we’ve come here. These people do not care whether he is white or red,” she said taking the picture back.
“Good…Maybe he’ll get the chance to just be himself here then.”
The two women visited for a long while before Rose finally stood to her feet. “Kate…It was so good to see you again and I’ll try to get by more often but Geoffrey’s mother is in a bad way and his father isn’t much better so we’re limited for time.”
“That’s all right but I’m so glad you came,” Kate answered, giving the woman a tight hug.
“Tell Ricky and John that I’ll see them the next time.” Kate nodded and Rose left without knowing there would never be a next time.”
Twelve year old Roy DeSoto yawned in the back seat of his dad’s 1956 Chevy Bel Air. They were on their way home to Norwalk from his Aunt’s home in Altadena…And he was anxious to get home. His best friend and next door neighbor Joanne Hutchin’s had promised to wait for him to get home before they went to the lake with her sister Eileen and some of their other friends.
Joanne and Roy had been best friends and confidantes almost from the time Jo had moved from their farm to Norwalk three years ago. They’d been inseparable except for times like these when he had to accompany his parents somewhere.
It was never a fun time. His mom and dad argued frequently and Roy suspected sometimes that they only stayed together for him. He often wished for a brother that could at least keep him company during those long periods when they weren’t speaking. He sighed heavily at the silence that often fell between them after the fights. His mother’s frozen, tight lipped stoicism and his father’s martyred looks.
This was one of those times. They’d been arguing over something when they’d first come into his Aunt’s kitchen that morning. He’d heard enough to guess that his father was out late again and that meant some other woman. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d been caught by his mom. It was gonna be an uncomfortable trip home.
“I need a cup of coffee Harriet,” Michael DeSoto grumbled into the silence as he pulled into a road side cafe.
“Fine,” she answered crisply. “Roy didn’t get a chance to have breakfast before we left my sisters. We’ll get something there.”
Roy slid down a little lower into the back seat. He didn’t want to eat, he just wanted to get home to Jo. He swore to himself…If he ever got married it would be to Joanne Hutchins and he’d never make her feel the way his father made his mother feel.
“Well it wasn’t my fault you hustled us all into the car before breakfast,” he shot back defensively.
“No…Who’s fault was it that you were out in the bar with God knows who until three o’clock this morning?”
“Oh for heaven’s sake Harriet…Don’t start that again, besides Roy doesn’t need to hear that.”
“I’m sure he’s heard it before…It happens often enough,” she mumbled, bordering on tears.
Michael sighed again. “Look…I said I’m sorry and I’ll try harder to be a better husband and father,” he growled.
She nodded but she knew better. It just wasn’t in him to be faithful…He was always drawn to a pretty face. They climbed from the car and headed inside. Roy’s feet were dragging…He’d rather just go home.
They walked into the café and found a seat. There were a few other people scattered about and Roy’s blue eyes scanned the others in boredom.
They stopped on a family a few tables away. An attractive dark haired man and the most beautiful woman Roy had ever seen. His eyes shifted to his father briefly and he shook his head in despair…His father’s eyes were locked on the woman…He almost understood. She was stunning.
He looked back and noticed the young, dark haired boy that sat with them for the first time…The chocolate brown eyes of his mother and the sable hair of his father were a cute combination of both parents. His attention was drawn away by his mother’s sniffle as she also noticed her husband’s interest in the beautiful Indian woman a few feet away.
Michael pulled his gaze away before the large man with her noticed his interest…He didn’t relish getting his face rearranged by her husband. “I’m sorry Harriet,” he murmured, making a concerted effort not to look at the woman.
John glanced over…His attention caught by the other boy. His strawberry blonde hair and blue eyes a direct contrast to his own dark eyes and hair color. He threw the boy a small half smile. Roy grinned back.
The arrival of the waitress broke the silent communication and they looked away with a shrug, figuring they’d never see each other again…Neither knowing that fate had other plans.
Three months later Roderick was in Los Angeles…He’d been working in the smaller office on the fourth floor but at the end of this week…Friday Fred Briggs was officially retired. The training period was over and he was cleaning out his office for Roderick to take over.
Rod went in early to pack his things and begin moving them to the larger office upstairs to begin his new job as Senior Engineer. He figured by coming in this early, he wouldn’t be disturbing anyone while he set up his office.
He was a bit surprised to find the door to the office unlocked and pushed the door open…Peeking cautiously around the portal to be sure he wasn’t bothering Fred. The office was empty but it was obvious the older man had already been here. Several boxes sat on the floor and another on his desk.
Rod frowned at the file box in confusion. The files belonged to the company and if Fred had them, they should be transferred to his possession or it was possible he’d just packed them up to return them to the file clerk.
Rod set his own box down and lifted the lid but his eyes were drawn to box on the desk. He glanced at the door as he chewed his lip in indecision. It wouldn’t hurt to take a peek. If they were personal items he’d just close the box but if they weren’t…? Maybe he’d need to say something to old man Morris about it.
He lifted the lid…There were a dozen or more files tucked inside. Rod set the cover aside and cast another glance at the door. He didn’t like the idea of snooping but these were obviously company property…Why would Briggs be taking them?
He noted some of the labels…They were files on several of the rigs and drilling platforms…Each one the property of Wyvern Morris and Company. Rod’s teeth tugged at his lower lip as he pulled one of the files free and opened it. He began to read.
The green eyes widened in concern. “Oh my God,” he whispered as he realized the repercussions of the surveys’ he was examining. He pulled a second file and began reading in shocked horror. What should he do?
His eyes fell on the Xerox machine in the corner. He wasn’t sure what he was about to do was right but he needed proof if he chose to report this. He quickly copied the two files he’d already read. He put them back and pulled three more. He didn’t have time to read them but he would later…As the Senior Engineer these should have been given to him anyway.
The next file he pulled was one he recognized… “God have mercy,” he mumbled…It was a working platform…If this was like the others…? There was not only a danger to the environment but to the men working on it as well. Were the others also active rigs? He’d need to find out.
He’d just finished copying the file when he heard the sound of approaching footsteps in the hall. He quickly shoved the files back into the box and set the lid in place.
He shoved the copies deep into his own box of personal items and pulled several photo’s out to place on the shelves just as the door opened and Fred came inside.
The older man looked surprised to see Roderick there at this time of the morning. His gray eyes flickered to the box on his desk before he smiled coolly. “Morning Rod, How are you?”
“I’m good Fred,” he replied, sounding a bit shaky at how close he’d come to being caught. “I’m just putting out a few personal items to make it feel more like my office,” he said setting out a photo of John and Kate. “Unless you’d like me to wait of course,” he added.
“No…No…Go right ahead. Make it feel more like home. The office will be yours soon anyway,” he said sounding jovial…Though the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. He glanced at Rod once more as the younger man turned back the shelves.
Briggs glanced at the box on his desk…He noted that a corner of the lid was lifted. Briggs’ eyes shifted to Rod once again to be sure the younger man’s attention was diverted before he casually lifted the cover and looked inside.
The older man’s brow furrowed briefly before he closed it once more…He noted that the Xerox machine was on…It hadn’t been when he’d left. Had Rod used it or had he interrupted him in time? He came up beside Roderick to look over the items on the shelves. Fred wasn’t positive but he felt as if something wasn’t quite right.
He needed to let Roderick know subtly of course to keep his mouth shut just in case and then he’d talk to Morris and his son. Briggs picked up the photo of Kate and John. “Your wife and son?” He questioned casually.
“She’s beautiful…Good looking boy.”
“Yes she is and thank you… I’m very proud of him.”
Briggs nodded. “You need to treasure them my boy…You never know how short life can be.”
What the heck did that mean? Rod wondered. Was it a warning or just a casually thrown out piece of advice?
“Yes…Yes it is,” he agreed, deciding to take it as the latter until Brigg’s next words changed that opinion.
“Good…Good… Just wanted to be sure you understood. You have a lot of years left with this company. If you play your cards right, your family will benefit from it my boy.”
Rod frowned…He understood. He also understood what he hadn’t said but he also knew the repercussions of what he’d read in those files. If the OCSLA or the Minerals Management Service ever saw what was in those files…It would cost Morris and his shareholders, including Roderick’s own father millions.
Briggs was obviously aware of what was in those reports…Were the others? Could Roderick just keep his mouth shut about it and hope the worst never happened? But what if it did? It could cost not only untold amounts of environmental damage but it could take a lot of lives as well…
Rod shot Briggs an uncomfortable smile. “Well…I um…I guess I’ll go get a cup of coffee and some more of my things…Unless you’d like me to wait until later I mean?” He suggested.
Rod needed to get away…He needed time to think. Briggs saw the green eyes flick toward the box on the desk and he knew for certain that Rod had seen what was inside. He held back a sigh…That could be very bad for a lot of people.
“No…Feel free…I’ll just take some of these things out of your way,” the older man said tightly as he moved back to the desk and grabbed the box. He needed to speak to Wyvern…Fast.
Roderick grabbed the box and retreated out the door. What should he do? It could well cost him his job and the new life he’d just begun with Kate and John but could he live with himself if someone got killed? What if one of those rigs went? The damage would be devastating to the surrounding area. The financial repercussion could wipe out quite a few of Morris’ innocent shareholders. Oh the bigger ones like his father would likely be fine but the smaller ones…?
Rod blew out a frustrated breath. The first thing was to find a safe place for the copies he’d made. Rod worried his lower lip all the way down in the elevator. Maybe he could make some casual inquires…Ask a few innocent questions without tipping the government or Wyvern off before he made his decision.
Rod wished he’d never let curiosity get the best of him. After all…What he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.
Rod’s eyes fell on the 8X10 photo of his son…He pulled the handful of papers from the box. He had an idea.
Being careful obviously hadn’t worked. As careful as he’d been, the attention had been caught and Roderick was approached in the parking lot two days later by two strange men.
“Mr. Gage…?” One man in a dark suit questioned.
Rod’s green eyes flitted between the two. How did they know his name…He was certain he didn’t know them. “Yes,” he finally answered warily.
One man flipped open his wallet to show him his ID and Rod’s heart sank. “I’m Edward Chambers and I'm with the OCSLA and this is Agent Peter Tanner…You made a phone call to my office the other day.”
“That was supposed to be anonymous,” Rod said bristling with anger.
The other man smiled tolerantly. “Yes, well…We’ve had our eye on Wyvern Morris for a long time.”
“Apparently you’ve had more than that on him,” Rod growled.
“Yes sir,” he replied honestly without going into further detail. “Is there somewhere where we can talk?”
Rod hesitated. He didn’t want to lose his job but he knew what Morris and Briggs were doing was criminal. He breathed out a resigned sigh. “Sure…There’s a coffee shop around the corner. We can talk there.
None of them noticed Fred Briggs as he watched the three men from his car across the way. He shook his head as he watched them walk away. Apparently his message hadn’t been clear after all. Oh well…Oil rigs were a dangerous business. It was truly a shame though…Roderick Gage was a nice man with a young wife and son but what could he do. He should have heeded the warning.
He watched the three men disappear around the corner before he climbed from the car and headed inside. Rod wasn’t the first man to make this mistake but he hoped he would be the last.
Rod looked across the table at the two men. “Look…I gotta tell you…I’m real uncomfortable about this. Someone already suspects that I’ve seen those files. I had a subtle warning to mind my own business. You start sniffing around and I’m in a lot of trouble.”
“Mr. Gage…If they suspect you’ve seen those files…You’re already in trouble. As I said…We’ve been investigating this company for a long time. Now…You’re best bet is to play ball with us. Can you tell us what you saw?” Chamber’s asked.
Rod’s hands dropped to his hands. “If I do this…How much danger is my family in?”
“My wife and son...”
They exchanged a glance. “Honestly quite a bit…But as I said…That became a reality the moment you saw those files.”
“Oh God,” Rod whispered.
“We may be able to protect you and your family but only if you help us,” Tanner said quietly.
Rod scowled at the implication if he refused. John and Kate would be at risk either way…Now he had to decide which of them was the greatest danger and how to protect them? It had no idea that it was already to late.
Rod finally blew out a frustrated breath…He guessed he needed to do the right thing here. What Morris and Briggs were doing was morally and ethically wrong and they were endangering not only the environment but his employee’s lives as well.
“Look…I can do better then tell you what I’ve seen.”
“What do you mean?” Chambers asked, looking eager.
“I made copies of the reports.”
“Do you have them with you?” Tanner asked, as his eyes flitted toward Rod’s briefcase.
“No…I hid them. I don’t have them with me. I’ll have to get them for you.”
“When…?” Chambers pressed.
“Don’t worry they’re somewhere safe. If you give me an address I’ll mail them to you.”
“I think it would be better if you hand them over directly.”
“I really don’t want to be seen with you thanks.”
“I take my son out on Saturdays.”
“Early…We’ll meet you at your home.”
Rod sighed. “Fine.”
“That will get the investigation started Mr. Gage but you will need to testify. We knew from others that something was going on but we never had the proof before and they disappeared before they could testify…So please be careful to keep those files safe.”
“Disappeared?” He questioned worriedly.
“Most of them were pretty scared…We were lucky to get to you before Morris did.”
“Great…So what now?” He asked, angry that the warning had come after the fact.
“Don’t worry Mr. Gage…We’ll be keeping an eye on you and your family. We need your evidence and your testimony,” he said frankly.
“If anything happens to my wife and kid,” he warned.
“The best advice I can give you is to act as if nothing has happened…But we’ll watch out for them I promise you.”
Rod nodded. “Thank you,” he replied standing up. “I’ve got to get home.”
The three men parted company. Tanner and Chambers watched as he disappeared around the corner. “What do we do now?” Tanner questioned worriedly.
“Stay with him…I don’t want to lose this one.”
“How could you be so incredibly stupid?” Morris’ son Chad sneered from the chair beside his father’s desk. “It’s a good thing you’re retiring Fred…You’re getting senile,” he finished.
“I was only gone a few minutes. How was I supposed to know he’d show up an hour early?”
“That’s enough…Both of you,” the senior Morris barked out. “What’s done is done…Now we just need to do damage control.” Wyvern looked to Briggs. “How much do you think he saw?”
“I don’t know but…The Xerox machine was on when I got back…It wasn’t when I left.”
“Great…So he may well have real hard evidence and not just his word against ours like the others,” Chad growled.
Briggs nodded unhappily. “Yes,” he muttered.
“Are you sure the people he was talking to were government?”
Again the unhappy nod was his answer. “I’d know Tanner and Chamber’s anywhere…They’ve been snooping around for a long time now…”
“Yes…And thanks to your stupidity they now have what they need to bury all of us,” Chad said snidely.
“Are you certain he didn’t give them anything?”
“I didn’t see anything with Rod when he walked away but…”
“You’re not sure?”
“The fact that he has those reports is bad enough but they still need his testimony…,” he trailed off.
Briggs looked at the floor in dismay. “He’s a good man…He’s got a pretty wife and a young son Vern,” he said with a sigh.
“You should of thought of that before you left those reports laying around for anyone to look at,” Chad snarled.
“He should have thought of that before he snooped into the company’s business and was disloyal enough to talk to Chamber’s,” Wyvern reminded him.
Brigg’s sighed again. “We don’t know for sure that he made copies of anything…,” he hedged.
Morris shrugged. “I can’t take that risk…None of us can.”
Brigg’s nodded in resignation…He knew what was about to happen and he hated himself for it. He really liked Roderick and this was all his fault. If he’d just been more careful, Roderick Gage would have been around to watch his son grow up.
“Send him to N44…Kill two birds with one stone,” Chad suggested with a smirk at the pun.
Wyvern nodded…It was tragic but there was no help for it. Gage needed to be silenced before he could give Chamber’s whatever he’d copied.
Kate was cooking dinner when Rod arrived home later. She heard the front door close and stepped from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel.
Roderick was standing in the foyer…His fingers brushed the photo of their son, lightly touching the small features through the glass. He’d brought the photo home from the office with him the other day. He’d smiled and told her he didn’t have enough room on his shelves. She’d believed him. She frowned a bit at the preoccupied look he was wearing.
Rod noticed her watching him and quickly dropped his hand and moved toward her, abandoning the photo to take her in his arms. She smiled up at him, forgetting her worry of a moment ago. “Hi baby…Did you have a good day?” He questioned before dropping a gentle kiss on her lips.
He’d thought about telling her everything but decided against it. She’d just worry and didn’t want that. What she didn’t know wouldn’t scare her. He knew he’d eventually have to tell her but not until he had no other alternative.
“How was John today?”
She grinned up at him… “Today he was good…Tomorrow…?” She shrugged and laughed. “He’s into everything with the other boys around here. He’s got so much energy and he’s just all…Boy,” she finished with a joyful smile.
John had had it so rough in Montana and both of his parents loved that he fit in so well with the other children here in LA and he’d been able to put the first few years of his life behind them.
“Something smells great,” Rod said as he smiled down at her, he hooked his arm around her and headed for the kitchen.
Roderick received a phone call later that evening. “Rod…This is Fred Briggs.”
The younger man swallowed a little nervously, wondering why the man would be calling him at home. “Hello Fred…What can I do for you?”
There was a long hesitation on the other end as the older man closed his eyes and swallowed back the regret he was feeling at what he was about to do. “Well actually Rod…Wyvern is considering reopening ‘Nancy’…Uh…N44…It’s right off the coast of Santa Barbara. We’d like you to head out there tomorrow and see if you think it’s worth saving.”
Rod had an eerie sense of foreboding but shook off the feeling as just his own imaginings at everything that was going on. “Sure Fred…that won’t be a problem. It should only take a day to check her out.”
“That’s what we figured too.”
“Great…Then I’ll be home by Saturday…I promised John I’d take him to a ballgame and then to the fire station.”
“Fire Station?” Fred questioned with a sinking heart at the thought of the fatherless child and the widow he and his partners were about to create.
“Yeah…My son has his heart set on being a Fire Fighter one day.”
Fred wondered sadly if he still would on Sunday. “Yeah, he finally murmured. “One day should resolve everything,” he almost whispered.
Rod was packing an overnight bag when Kate came into the bedroom. Her dark eyebrow rose questioningly. “Where are you going?” She asked curiously.
He smiled at her as he flipped the bag closed and snapped the buckles. “Fred Briggs called a little while ago. He wants me to go check out one of our rigs…It’s been shut down but I guess old man Morris thinks it might be worth saving…Though it’s probably Chad more so than his father,” he said sounding a little disgusted at the younger man’s greed.
“When will you be back?”
“Friday night…It’s just overnight and it’s right off the Santa Barbara coast.”
“So you’ll be back by Saturday?”
“Don’t worry baby…I won’t disappoint John.”
She smiled up at him. “You never disappoint us Mé’oo’o’,” she teased…Her brown eyes sparkled invitingly.
“Where’s John?” He asked huskily as his lips brushed hers.
“It’s a school night…He’s in bed.”
“I’ll go kiss him good night…I’ll be right back,” he said catching her mouth for a brief moment.
“I’ll be waiting,” she replied with a meaningful nod toward the bed.
He grinned wickedly. “Then I’ll hurry.”
Rod slipped from their bed early the next morning. He sighed wistfully, wishing he didn’t have a plane to catch. He’d much rather spend the next few hours in bed with his beautiful wife. He glanced down at her sleeping face and smiled.
He got dressed quickly and leaned down to kiss his wife. She moaned softly, the dark eyes fluttered open as she smiled up at him sleepily. “I love you Katie…I’ll see you Friday night.”
“Okay Mé’oo’o’,” she replied.
“I’m going to say goodbye to John.” She nodded. Roderick picked up his suitcase and headed down the hall.
John lay sleeping...he felt the gentle stroke of a hand against his forehead as his hair was brushed back. His eyes fluttered open and his fathers face came into focus.
“Hi Dad,” The boy whispered sleepily.
“I just wanted to say goodbye... I’ll only be gone a couple of days this time,” he said quietly. “Then I’ll take you to that Dodgers game I promised you,” he said still gently brushing his son’s brow with the backs of his fingers. The boys’ eyes flicked toward his Mom as she stood smiling at them from the doorway.
It always touched her heart to see the love her husband displayed toward their troubled son and the bond between them.
Rod had taken up her habit of smoothing the hair from the boy’s face or stroking his forehead. It was something that soothed the child from the time he was an infant and even more so when he was pulling into himself but that had almost stopped after they left the Reservation and her bitter, angry family behind.
“Then maybe we’ll even get a chance to go visit that fire station you wanted to see.” The child grinned sleepily… “Go back to sleep John... I love you,” he said leaning down to kiss his son’s forehead.
“Love you too,” He murmured as his eyes closed. Neither noticed his Father’s lucky green pen lying next to John in the semi darkened room.
Roderick spent the ride out to ‘Nancy’ contemplating the possible repercussions of testifying against old man Morris and his cohorts. Should he simply recant his story…Refuse to testify. He’s the only one who knew where the proof was hidden.
But what if he did…? He blew out a troubled breath. Morris was a vindictive son of a bitch and his son Chad was even worse. Would they come after the man who’d cost him millions? And what about the others who’d have to pay out…Including his own father.
Chambers and Tanner had both insinuated that he wasn’t the first to tell them of the company’s shady dealings. What had happened to them? Why had they never actually testified? Rod was still uncertain about this whole thing.
Would they come after his family? Roderick wouldn’t risk Kate and John’s life…Not for anything. He should have just left the box closed and never read the file in the first place.
Maybe it would be better to send Kate and John back to the Reservation until this was all over…No one would ever find them there.
The thoughts and fears whirled round and round in Roderick’s mind but his attention was finally caught by the sight of the almost abandoned rig…He frowned, curious as to why they’d want him to come out here.
He’d been told months ago that the rig was in disrepair and the cost of replacing or repairing it was more than they’d gain from actually running it.
Rod’s heart beat a bit harder…Was there another reason why they were sending him out here now of all times? Rod grinned and shook his head at his own fanciful musings. No one knew he’d talked to anyone…At least not yet. And none of them knew about the copies he’d hidden either. He was being ridiculous…Wasn’t he?
He let his mind drift back to this morning and the beautiful face of his wife smiling up at him as they’d made love and the sleepy grin of his eight year old son when he’d kissed him goodbye this morning. He loved them and missed them so much when he was away and wondered how he’d managed to get through five long years without them being an everyday part of his life but he’d never let it happen again.
His musings were once again interrupted as the boat bumped against the dock. Rod grabbed his bag and sketched a wave at the captain. The man smiled and waved back as Rod stepped up onto the walk.
Rod glanced around. He’d been warned that the rig was virtually abandoned, with only ten or so men aboard. He headed off in search of the crew chief…Samuel Bertullo. Rod had met the man once before and he didn’t like him much.
Thankfully this time he was the man’s boss and not just another man on the rig but that didn’t change the fact that the man made his skin crawl. He glanced up and saw the object of his deliberations watching him from the deck above.
Roderick blew out a breath…The sooner he got to work the sooner he could get out of here. He mounted the stairway.
John ran into the kitchen for breakfast about the time his father’s boat was leaving the Santa Barbara docks. His mother swept the shaggy mop of dark hair back and kissed his forehead. “All ready for school háhketa?” She questioned.
“Mo…om,” John groaned. “I’m too old for that now,” he protested.
“You will always be my baby John…My little one,” she teased as she ruffled the sable hair. John giggled despite himself. She smiled down at him and frowned as she noted the green pen in his pocket. “Isn’t that your daddy’s lucky pen?” She questioned.
John nodded his head. “It was on my bed this morning when I got up.”
“Don’t lose it,” she warned. “He’d be upset with you.”
John nodded and plucked it from his pocket, setting it on the table as she placed his plate in front of him. She picked it up and set it on the counter as John began to eat.
John ate quickly knowing the other boys in the neighborhood would be running by any minute. If he wanted to walk to school with his friends, he needed to be ready. He grabbed his books a few minutes later and ran for the door.
The four older boys were waiting on the sidewalk as John kissed his mom and trotted down the stairs to join them.
The boys waited for Kate to close the door. “Come on Johnny,” the oldest boy Gary whispered as he grabbed the younger child’s arm.
"Where are we going?”
“The river…It’s a great day and we don’t want to go to school.”
John frowned… “We’ll get in trouble.”
“Not if we don’t get caught,” another boy named Dave said with a conspiratorial laugh.
John hesitated for another long moment before he grinned. “Okay…This time,” he agreed. John hated being deceptive so he rarely skipped school when the others did, but this was such a beautiful morning and a day spent at the river playing was too enticing to pass up. The children ran up the road and turned the corner toward the river.
Roderick found Bertullo just as irritating as he’d been the first time he’d met him. He followed the man to the quarters he’d be spending the night in and dropped his bag. “I’ll be with the men on deck,” Sam muttered as his gray eyes swept over Roderick assessingly.
The tall man was rather imposing and his green eyes met Bertullo’s without flinching. Bertullo held very little respect for most people but Roderick was one of the ones that managed to earn it. He’d worked for Morris for five years…Taking on the dirtiest of jobs, working through holidays for the extra money and turning his nose up at the bevy of women who haunted the bars where the crews hung out between stints on the rigs.
The man was totally focused on his young wife and son in Montana and earning enough money to get them a house in California. Bertullo had to admire his resolve. He didn’t like what he’d been ordered to do but he had no choice. Morris owned him body and soul.
Rod nodded his head curtly. “I’ll be checking out the rig for a while…I’ll meet you up there later.”
The man threw him a shrug of indifference and walked away. Rod shook his head with a scowl. He left his quarters and began the inspection he’d been sent to perform. Rod climbed a gangway and stopped to look out over the churning ocean waves slapping against the rig. A large boat sat at anchor about a mile away and Rod wondered briefly what they were doing there but gave a shrug a turned away. Fishing most likely or maybe just curious about the platform.
Roderick spent most of the morning inspecting the inner workings of the platform…His eagle eye missed nothing…From the cracked turntable to the saltwater damage to the blowout preventer. He shook his head wonderingly. How could Morris even consider repairing this beast…The rig would cost them an exorbitant amount of money to repair or replace everything that had potentially gone bad aboard her.
Rod was heading for the substructure and the engine room...Hopefully his last stop before sitting down for a much needed break with the rest of the crew. He wanted to talk to them about ‘Nancy’ as well. He didn’t understand why they didn’t just cap the old girl and been done with it. The few men that he had had a chance to talk to told him they’d only gotten here the day before as well so he hoped there’d be at least one of them who’d be able to tell him more about the platform.
Rod felt that nervous flutter once more…Was something else going on here that he was unaware of? He hoped he was just being overly cautious because of Chamber’s and Tanner’s visit but still…Something seemed very wrong with this whole assignment.
For one thing…A junior engineer could have done this assessment so why send the senior engineer. Why all the new men on board?
Rod’s green eyes caught sight of Bertullo watching him from the draw works above him. He nodded to the man before letting his eyes wander seaward. The ship he’d seen earlier was still there…Anchored in the same spot as before.
He frowned curiously…What was the attraction that would keep even an avid fisherman in one spot for four and a half hours? He finally shrugged and moved down the gangway and disappeared below deck. He pushed Bertullo and the strange boat from his mind…He just wanted to get this last inspection done and have a quick lunch before having the captain return him to shore. He’d made a promise to John and he intended to keep it. He walked down the steps…Noticing that the area smelled strongly of fuel and he sighed in frustration at yet another problem to be fixed. There had to be a leak somewhere.
Rod was kneeling next to the engine casing, checking the rotary table a few minutes later when he heard the clang of something hitting the deck behind him. He stood quickly and turned about but he saw nothing.
“Hello…?” He called out expecting one of the men to make an appearance but no one answered. He moved toward the open door but it suddenly slammed closed…The heavy locking mechanism spinning around from the outside. “Hey…I’m still in here,” he shouted. He sighed in aggravation at having to go and reopen the heavy hatchway. He’d only taken a couple of steps when an explosion rocked the entire platform.
Roderick was thrown backward by the blast. His breath left his body with a whoosh as he skidded across the floor on his back. He lay for a moment in stunned shock at what had just happened. He gasped in precious oxygen, trying to catch his breath. The smell of smoke and diesel oil permeated the air in the closed room.
Rod’s eyes burned and he began to cough harshly…He finally pulled himself to his feet and his green eyes widened in horror as he realized the only door into the engine room was now cut off by a wall of flames.
He retreated to the small room that housed the mud pump. There was an access hatch that opened to the platform and then the water below. If he could just get that open...He could escape a fiery death.
The room was quickly filling with thick, black, choking smoke, making it difficult to see and even more difficult to breath. The heat was intense and building rapidly and he could hear the sound of the raised voices of the crew above the roar of the flames as they tried to open the heavy door to the engine room but something had jammed the mechanism.
Rod knew in his heart that this was no accident…This was a deliberate attempt to silence him. Someone knew what he had seen…What he had copied and who he’d spoken to and he’d just bet that Fred Briggs as well as Morris and son were behind this but he didn’t have time to dwell on that right now.
His fingers found the small ventilation hatch and his heart sank in disappointment…It was bolted firmly closed… He was trapped. Rod suddenly remembered his tool box sitting near the engines and dropped to his knees…Crawling toward it.
The metal box seared his fingers and he cried out as his flesh blistered instantly from the red hot metal. He ripped a section of his shirt away and used it to protect his fingers as he grabbed the heavy screwdriver…If he could just pry the hatch loose, he could drop through to the safety of the platform below and then Briggs and Morris had better watch out.
He could still hear the frantic cry’s and pounding of the crew as they tried desperately to get the door open but Rod knew it was too late even if they could…The flames would reach him in only seconds.
He tackled the hatch with his makeshift pry bar even as the flames moved inexorably closer. The deck was buckling and Rod knew that Bertullo had most likely doused the floor with some sort of accelerant. He’d smelled it when he’d come in.
Tears trickled from his smoke filled eyes and he began to feel dizzy but he kept on. He had two corners loose and the third was almost free…He couldn’t give up now. His back felt as if it was on fire and he knew the flames were right on top of him.
The door was finally jerked open and the men began to douse the inferno but the sudden rush of oxygen caused them to flare. Rod felt the deck heave beneath him from the intensity of the heat. The hatch twisted along with it.
His mind flew to Kate and John…How would they survive without him? Agony pierced his body and soul as he felt his clothing begin to ignite. He screamed in pain and his vision wavered and began to turn gray.
‘NO…’ His mind screamed…He’d been so close to freedom. “KATIE…JOHN…,” The cry of pain and despair was ripped from him as he collapsed onto the hatch and he felt nothing more.
Kate glanced at the clock and noted the time. Almost three in the afternoon…John would be home from school soon and she needed to get dinner started. Roderick had hoped to be home by tonight so she needed to be sure to have enough for him as well in case he made it home in time for supper.
She’d begun to peel the potatoes when she heard a car pull into the driveway. She smiled, thinking Roderick had made it home early after all. She continued with what she was doing, expecting to hear the front door open at any moment.
A quiet knock brought a frown to her pretty face. Roderick certainly wouldn’t knock…She set the knife down and wiped her hands on a towel before moving to the front door. She glanced out the living room window to see a large, black car parked in her driveway.
She opened the door curiously. Two men in dark suits stood on her doorstep…The serious and sympathetic look on their faces made her heart pound in fear. Her first thought was for John. “John…Did something happen to my son?” She asked worriedly.
“No ma’am…Your son is fine,” they reassured her.
“Oh thank the spirit,” she whispered but the look in their eyes brought her up short. “What is it?” She questioned.
“Mrs. Gage…Could we come in for a moment?”
Her face paled at the tone and she knew something was terribly wrong. “What?” She cried backing away from the men. They followed her inside and gently closed the door.
“Mrs. Gage…I’m Fred Briggs and this is Chad Morris.” She nodded hesitantly. “We work for W.A. Morris and Son Oil…”
“Roderick…?” She whispered as her hands flew up to cover her mouth to stop it from trembling.
Fred Briggs felt his stomach flip at the agony reflected in the woman’s face and he felt guilt welling up in his heart. God…How could he have been a part of this? To have made this beautiful, young woman a widow…God, how he hated himself for what he’d done.
Chad Morris planted a look of sympathy on his face but his cold gray eyes swept over the beautiful Indian woman standing in front of him. She was stunning…He’d had no idea that Roderick’s wife looked like this. Maybe he’d come back after she got over her husband’s death…She’d be a lonely widow and he was a pretty good catch…Not that he’d ever seriously consider marrying an Indian woman but she’d make a good mistress.
He forced the look of sorrow back on his features as Fred continued…The older man’s sorrow was genuine. “Mrs. Gage…We’re so sorry. There was an accident on one of our rigs this morning,” he explained leading her carefully into the living room. His eyes fell on the photo of a young boy on the table in the hall…He recognized him as Rod’s son from the other picture at the office.
“How bad was he hurt?” She questioned, praying it was only an injury.
Fred bit the inside of his lip and continued with a hitched breath. “Mrs. Gage…There was an explosion and a fire…Rod,” he hesitated. “Rod was trapped…The men couldn’t get to him in time. I’m so…so sorry but…”
“NOOOO,” she wailed as she began to sink to her knees in despair.
None of them heard the front door open but their attention was caught by the arrival of the dark haired eight year old boy from the photo.
The group of children raced down the sidewalk toward home…Their good natured ribbing and lighthearted pushing and arm punching bringing laughter and arguments in equal measure.
Even though he was the youngest of the boys…8 year old John grinned at the antics of his older friends, though the quiet, shy, dark haired boy didn’t always understand what they teased him about. They included him in their group, that’s all he cared about. He felt accepted as he never had in Montana.
They were on their way home, intending to arrive about the same time as the school bus. John knew if his Dad found out about him skipping class he’d be in big trouble.
He’d put up with a lot of John’s antics since they’d moved to California, but the one thing he was adamant about was his son getting a good education. John wanted to be a fireman and his dad was all for it but he wanted to be sure John would be smart enough to accomplish that dream.
He just hoped he could sneak past his Mom before she noticed the dirty, wet clothes...If not he’d spend the rest of the day preparing to have his butt blistered when his Dad got home tonight and he could kiss the game and the trip to the fire station goodbye. Not that his father would ever truly hurt him, but he’d make sure John thought twice before doing it again.
Johnny waved goodbye to his friends as they ran on and headed up the walkway. He gave a curious glance at the strange black car parked in his driveway. He carefully opened the front door knowing his Mom would normally be in the kitchen cooking dinner at this time of day.
If he could get to his room and change before she spotted him she’d be none the wiser. He crept into the hall. The soft murmur of voices coming from the living room caught his attention. He peeked inside the door. Two men were seated on the couch, speaking soft consoling words to his Mom.
“NOOOO…,” Katie was slowly sinking to her knees on the floor and tears were coursing down her cheeks…her face was a frozen mask of sorrow. John would never forget the keening wail of agony that escaped her lips.
He didn’t know what had happened or who these men were but he knew it was bad. He ran to the weeping woman on the floor.
“M…mom…what’s wr…wrong?” He cried throwing his arms protectively about his mothers’ shoulders. He shot a glare at the two men, knowing they were somehow responsible for his Mother’s pain.
Kate threw her arms about her son, pulling him against her…knowing what John’s reaction would be. He’d slip away as he always did when he was frightened or emotionally stressed, but there was no way to spare him this pain.
“J…John…these men worked with your Daddy…oh John…”She wept pulling him into her lap and holding him tightly.
John felt fear rising up…his heart thumped wildly.
“Mé’oo’o”… She was rocking him slowly…”Háahketa …,” she stammered through her tears, “Your…your d…daddy’s g…gone John…H…He’s dead.”
John blinked in shock…he heard a roaring in his ears and then sound faded. His breath coming in short sharp gasps as his mind began to close in on itself. He began a slow steady rock and his world turned gray.
Fred’s eyes swept over the woman and child and he wished he could somehow change what had happened but it was too late. He watched as the small boy’s body folded in on itself…His body rocking slowly but it only lasted a moment before he arced backward, trying to push away from his mother’s arms.
“Oh my baby…,” she wept miserably. At that moment, she wanted to die herself but she knew she had to be strong for John’s sake. She held him close as he continued to fight.
“What’s wrong with him Mrs. Gage?” Fred asked worriedly.
“My son has a neurological condition…,” she murmured. “He’ll be alright…He’ll be alright,” she repeated as she rocked the distraught child in her arms…Holding him tightly despite the struggle he was waging.
Fred’s eyes closed…This just kept getting worse and worse. The boy desperately needed his father and he’d been instrumental in taking him from him but there was nothing he could do now but press on. “I’m so sorry Mrs. Gage…Mrs. Gage…I hate to ask you at this time but it’s very important…Did Roderick bring anything home with him from work?”
She looked at the man blankly. “I don’t understand…What are you looking for?”
“Files…Papers…?” He questioned with a shrug.
She shook her head as she climbed to her feet and lifted a still struggling John in her arms. “No,” she whispered… “Now I need to see to my son…When will you bring Roderick home?” She asked, just barely above a whisper.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Gage…The entire rig was destroyed…The men couldn’t get to him and had to evacuate themselves…”
“What are you saying?”
“There is no body Mrs. Gage…We didn’t find one and the rig exploded…,” he shrugged lamely. “We couldn’t locate his body.”
Tears trickled down her beautiful face. “I see…,” she murmured, clearly distressed that she couldn’t even bury his body.
“The company will pay for his memorial service of course and if there’s anything else we can do?” Chad volunteered magnanimously.
She nodded sadly. “Thank you…Can you see yourself out. John needs me.”
“Yes of course…We’ll be in touch…If there’s anything you need…?”
“I need my…husband,” she whispered plaintively as she buried her face against her whimpering son’s hair.
“Yes ma’am,” Briggs mumbled guiltily. She turned and carried John from the room.
The two men watched her leave. “He has to have hidden them somewhere,” Chad muttered as she disappeared from sight.
“If they’re here, she hasn’t seen them.”
“We can’t take a chance they’ll turn up.”
“What do you suggest…Kill her too…How about the boy Chad…Should we blow him up too?” Briggs snarled. “It’s done…Leave them alone to grieve and move on with their lives.”
“I may just need to keep an eye on them for a while…Just to be on the safe side.”
“Leave them alone Chad, she doesn’t know anything and even if she did find them she probably couldn’t understand them.”
Chad threw him a wicked grin. “She’s still worth watching,” he said taunting the older man.
“Stay away from them,” Briggs growled. “We’ve already done enough…Let’s go,” he said feeling sick.
Rosemary squeezed Kate’s hand as she sat beside her in the front row of the church. Roderick’s parents sat on the opposite side and hadn’t even acknowledged Kate or their grandson. Rose was so angry she couldn’t even speak to them herself right now.
She leaned around Kate to look at Rod’s son. He was the spitting image of his father. John hadn’t spoken a word since she’d arrived yesterday…He hadn’t acknowledged her presence in any way. His eyes were frighteningly vacant and while motionless at the moment, she knew if she touched him he’d begin to rock slowly once again.
Kate had told her it was something he did when he was emotionally distressed. The doctor had told them it was a neurological condition and that when this happened as Kate warned her that it did frequently, he’d come out of it on his own eventually but in the meantime…Just leave him alone.
John had compliantly followed his mother into the church…Had sat patiently while the minister intoned Roderick’s funeral service but it was obvious that the child was still in shock and that he hadn’t seen or heard any of it. Her heart broke at the sight of him sitting so still and silent.
What were they going to do now…How would Kate go on without her beloved Roderick…How would John go on without his dad? She’d help them any way she could certainly but Kate had cherished Rick…She’d be lost without him.
The minister finished and moved to speak to Jonathan and Lenora for a moment before coming over to Kate and Rose. “My deepest sympathies Mrs. Gage,” he murmured, shaking her hand. “Mrs. Hughes…I’m sorry for your loss.”
Rose nodded and after the parade of Rod’s friends and co worker’s dwindled, she wrapped her arm about Kate’s shoulders, leading her out of the church. Kate gently urged John ahead of her…Barely touching him unless he stopped moving. They made it to Rod’s beloved DeSoto and Rose helped Kate and John inside and drove them back to the house.
“So what are you going to do now Kate?” Rose asked softly.
She shrugged gently. “Get a job…I still have to support John. Rod…,” her voice hitched at his name. “We have a little money put away but it will not last that long.”
“I want to help you,” Rose began.
Kate shook her head. “Thank you but…John and I will be alright,” she smiled at Roderick’s sister. “Go home Rose…Go home to your family. I need…John and I need to be together now.”
Rosemary nodded understandingly. “You’ll call me if you need me?”
Kate nodded. “Yes.”
The two women shared a brief embrace before the green eyes turned to John. “Will he be alright?” She asked softly, wanting desperately to touch the boy…To hold him comfortingly but she knew he’d never allow it.
“Yes…Eventually as will I,” she replied quietly.
Rose nodded reluctantly, giving her a final hug. Things would never be alright for either of them again. She let the tears roll down her cheeks as she drove away.
It was another two days before John finally slipped back from his safe place. Kate breathed a sigh of relief as the dark eyes regained awareness of her and his surroundings. John had never gone away for so long before and she’d been very afraid she’d lost him too. John seemed very confused by the loss of the three days. “Wh…what hap…pened?” He questioned fearfully and then the memory returned. “Ddd…da…ddy?” He stuttered.
Kate knelt next to him as tears welled in the chocolate brown eyes and slid down his small cheeks as he remembered what had sent him into the grayness in the first place. Kate wrapped him in her arms. “It will be alright Mé’oo’o’,” she soothed gently.
The dark head shook in the negative. “Is he rrr…really dead mmm….ama?” He stuttered softly with a hitched breath.
John sniffled forlornly. “He lied ttt…to mmm…me. He said hhh…he’d always c…come home.”
“Oh Na’háhketa…He didn’t lie. It wasn’t his fault…He would have come home if he could have,” she reassured him, feeling miserable that John seemed so angry with his father but she knew it was normal. She’d been angry too…Angry that their life together had been cut short. That they’d lost so much time just getting here where they could finally be together as a family and angry that he’d never be able to see his son grow up…to see him marry, have a family or become the fireman he wanted to be. It just wasn’t fair.
“There was a fire on the oil rig John…Your daddy was trapped,” she explained. “They couldn’t get to him in time to save him Mé’oo’o’.”
The small, sensitive mouth set in a grim line. “When I’m a…a ggg…grownup and I can bbb…be a fire…mmm…man…I www…won’t let ppp…people die,” he vowed as the tears fell once again.
“You will make your father very proud Mé’oo’o’,” she promised, hugging him to her. “And me as well.”
Kate got a job as a seamstress in a garment factory. Piece work didn’t pay very well despite her skills with sewing but between that and the money Roderick had squirreled away she was able to hang on for several months though she’d had to be frugal with every penny.
Rosemary called regularly but the younger woman refused to ask for help, refusing to become a burden on Roderick’s sister when her own husband and his family were going through so much with the death of his mother, especially knowing how the rest of Rosemary and Roderick’s family felt about her and her son.
John remained withdrawn and brooding over his father’s death. His school work began to suffer and Kate was very afraid that he still harbored some severe emotional issues…That he was still angry with his father for leaving him, albeit unwillingly…Though he clung to the one thing that reminded him of his father…His green pen.
He spoke little and for the first week or so had stuttered horribly but that thankfully had ceased. It took a couple of months but both she and John had begun a slow recovery. He’d told her that he used to love to watch her and Rod dance at night and she began to teach him how…Each finding comfort in the other’s nearness and the quiet conversations they shared as she taught him the steps. She urged him to study…Reminding him of his promise to his father and himself to become a firefighter and that he had to have good grades to do that, she’d warned him.
John began to apply himself once again and his grades began to improve.
The one thing that bothered her was his continued association with his older friends and the trouble that they frequently got into but they were all he had and she couldn’t bear to take them from him too.
John turned nine in August and started third grade in September and it had been nine months since his father had died. They were barely scraping by and Kate had some tough decisions to make.
She knew it was only a matter of time before she lost the house. The mortgage payments were being paid later and later each month and the bank was threatening to foreclose. She’d already sold Rod’s DeSoto to put food on the table and pay the bills a few months ago.
She sat at the table with her head in her hands as the tears slid down her face. She loathed the idea of what John’s life had been like on the reservation and how much he’d hated it there but she’d run out of options…She’d have to return to the reservation and plead with her father for help.
She wouldn’t let her son live in the streets like a stray animal when she lost the house…There just was no alternative.
“Mom…?” A small voice questioned from behind her. She turned to face her son. “Why are you crying?” He asked worriedly as he moved to her side.
She put her arms around him and hugged him to her. “Háhketa,” she began…Johnny rolled his eyes at the endearment.
“Mo…om,” he whined. “That’s for babies,” he protested indignantly.
“You’re right Mé’oo’o’ but you will always be my baby,” she said softly, setting a gentle kiss on his forehead. Johnny smiled tolerantly. “John…I have something to tell you.” The boy nodded questioningly. “John…I can’t afford to pay for the house anymore,” she told him honestly. “The bank is going to take it away…”
“Where will we live?” He questioned with a frown.
“We have to go back to Montana…To the reservation John.”
He shook his head adamantly. “NO…No…I don’t want to go back there.”
“I know you do not…I do not want to either but we have no choice. I cannot make enough here to pay the bills.”
“I can get a job,” he offered.
She smiled affectionately. “Oh my little one…Thank you but…No one would hire you. You are too young.”
A pout settled on the young face. “It’s not fair…I don’t want to go there…They hate me.”
She hugged him too her as the tears flowed down her cheeks in sorrow. “I am sorry my baby,” she wept, feeling like a failure that she couldn’t do better for her son.
John realized that he’d made her cry with his selfishness and immediately became contrite. “I’m sorry mom…Please don’t cry. I’ll…I’ll go back,” he offered, giving in.
She nodded and held him close. Spirit…She hated doing this to him but what else could she do?
A week later John sadly waved goodbye to his friends from the backseat of the taxi…An hour later they were on a bus to Montana.
Continued in part 6
Published to site 09/20/11
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