Beyond the Horizon

by JoJo
May 2012 Desert Island Challenge. Also fills Bingo prompt "Trapped".
Josiah and Nathan might be the only survivors.

"You still breathing, old man?"

He heard the voice clearly, thought for a second he was on his cot in the church. Coming out of some liquor-sodden sleep.

When he opened his eyes the light was so bright, so searing, he thought he was having a vision.

Then he felt hands, warm, firm. Touching his face, shaking him slightly.

"Josiah? You with me? "

A dark shadow loomed across the blinding white. Nathan's face, bizarrely pale, hovered over his. At the same moment Josiah tasted the crust on his lips, he realized Nathan was covered in it too. Dried salt.

He felt the burn of it in his eyes then and blinked hard.

"You remember what happened?" Nathan said, not letting go his face. There was anxiety in the voice, almost a request for assistance.

Josiah responded to it, although reluctant. Nathan needed to know he was lucid, present, could place them in the here and now, understand the circumstances that had brought them here. To this quiet and calm and warmth. Josiah cast his sluggish mind back, to the dark and the noise. The images came in a rush. Like a slap of freezing water.

The ship. Barely three days out of port. A storm that seemed to signal the end of the world.

JD and Buck had still been below and Josiah recalled praying they'd get up on deck, give themselves a chance, before they drowned for sure down there amongst the cattle pens. Topside he'd seen Chris and Vin trying to untie one of the little boats. Josiah remembered him and Nathan both making a move to get up the slippery deck to help them. He remembered sliding back into a mess of nets and debris. Then the big wave. Bigger than belief. Breaking right over the prow of the ship. Carrying everything in its path. Cargo, masts, ropes, sails, boats. And men. Josiah's stomach heaved. Men swept right off the ship and into the boiling sea.

"Dear God," he said out loud.

Nathan was still holding the sides of his face, so tight he could hardly speak clearly.


"The others," he got out. "I don't know... I saw them. Chris and Vin... "

Nathan's hold loosened. He patted one of Josiah's cheeks, his own jaw working. "Don't know about that. If that boat didn't get broke up... then maybe."

A rush of illogical hope, warm where the memories had been cold, coursed right through Josiah. He allowed Nathan to take hold of his arm, lever him first to sitting on the wet sand, then slowly up on his feet.

"Yes," he breathed. "Maybe. Maybe Buck and JD... if the ship didn't go down."

Nathan took a step back when he'd let go. He turned away from Josiah, looking out at the water stretching away to a shimmering empty horizon.

"Nathan?" Josiah asked the broad back. He saw the muscles under the sodden clothing tense.

"We lost Ezra for sure," was all he said.

Josiah wanted to ask how. What Nathan had seen that made him so certain? But he couldn't summon up the words to garner such an answer. And then Nathan turned again, looking all around him.

"Where the hell we at?" he demanded, sounding angry.

"On the coast somewhere." Josiah ran hands through his wet hair. "You all in one piece?"

"I woke up down there." Nathan pointed along the gently shelving shoreline. "And then saw you here. Ain't nothin' much else. "

There were one or two pieces of driftwood washed up on the sand. Dark with seawater.

"We need to get out of the sun, brother. Find some water and some help." Josiah turned his eyes towards the trees at the top of the beach. "Perhaps the nearest homestead will have a boat."

Nathan, wiping at his cracked lips with the inside of one wrist, stared at him. "You want to get back in a boat? You outa your mind?"

"It's calm." Josiah breathed in a lungful of the fresh, coastal air. "They could be out there, hanging on to some raft. Waiting for us."

Nathan gave him that look then. Like he wasn't sure whether to be amused or exasperated. "If you say so." He flicked an impatient hand ahead of them. "Lead on."

It didn't take them long to get through the trees, get high enough up on the rocks to see where they were.

Blue sky and green sea all around them. A kidney-shaped reef, surrounded in white sand.

"Just us," Nathan said. He seemed unsure quite what that would mean. Then he shook his head, disgusted. "Ain't no ships out there."

They needed Vin's spyglass. Hell, they needed Vin.

"Food," Josiah said firmly, looking back down the rocks they'd climbed.

After locating some fresh water, eating some ugly-looking fruits growing deep in the trees that turned their stomachs to acid, they collected things. Like boys amusing themselves. Anything that caught their eye or they thought could be useful. They started laying it all out, piling up dry wood, flints, smooth stones.

It was Nathan who stopped first. Said they needed to make a fire, before they got too cold and tired to help themselves. That there was nothing to cook over it seemed like a minor point. Josiah's stomach still felt scoured and unsettled. The hunger pangs didn't start until the following day.

On the third day, some more pieces of boat washed up, and a body.

Nathan examined it listlessly. Bloated and ugly. A young crew-member, same age as J.D. They had a brief, bickering conversation about how he should be buried. Nathan thought they should use the clothes, Josiah didn't want him buried naked but he saw the sense in it. He made a cross out of two slabs of the boat wood, lashed them together with dried and plaited fronds of leaf. They dug a grave up on a point and Josiah spoke the familiar words.

Then they sat there and looked out to sea. Wondered who else might be out there. Might need burying.

Every day Josiah took a walk along the shore. Just up and down near where they'd built the shelter at first. Then, as days passed, right round the island. Searching for useful flotsam and jetsam, he said. Nathan knew that might have been true, but figured he was mostly checking to see if anyone else had been washed up. Nathan himself didn't want the evidence. He didn't want to see any of their friends that way, swollen and gray, lying heavy on the beach like dead fish.

Instead he went hunting plants. The one thing that had survived the storm with him was one of a pair of knives he'd carried with him since he was a free man. He hacked at undergrowth with it in the dampest, thickest parts of the wood. Turned up bark he thought might be useful. Some bristly, spike-leaved plants that looked kind of familiar. He tested them out on himself, just in case they were poison. Like all his medical heroes had done down the ages.

"Maybe something like feverfew," he reported back. "Could be useful."

Of course, they'd have to chew them, and the bark. So far they hadn't turned up anything for boiling water in.

Josiah groaned at the mention of boiling water.

"Coffee," he said. "I thought it was whiskey I wanted. But now I remember. It's coffee."

"Coffee and eggs." Nathan grinned wide. "Coffee and eggs and bacon and fresh biscuits." He let out a little laugh. "Hell, I could even use a tin of beans right about now."

"Keep talking," Josiah said. "You just keep talking."

Despite everything they already knew about one another, they learned a whole lot more, real quickly. And a certain amount of honesty seemed appropriate.

"I'm a fool with women," Josiah admitted after a long night by the fire going over it all. And Nathan had laughed, that rich, warm laugh of his. Josiah had bared his own teeth in a smile. "And then again, brother, so are you."

"Rain," Nathan said, the laugh fading. He often spoke her name. Frequently with regret. "Hell, Josiah. I always put the town and what the Judge wanted first."

"And did you never tell her how you felt?"

"Had a mind to."

"She knew," Josiah said. "I'm sure she knew."

Actually he wasn't sure of any such thing.

Days passed in a steady procession. Nearly all of them hot and bright. They got better at catching fish. Better at cooking it too. Better at looking after each other. When Josiah wanted to sit and drink in the calm, for no other reason than that he liked the calm, Nathan wanted them to get moving, keep their muscles and bones working. When Nathan wouldn't stop finding mindless things for them to do, to keep them occupied against some feared inertia, Josiah would physically stop him. Head him off at the pass.

"How long, Josiah?" Nathan would ask, voice tight, every time he had to be still.

They'd not been straight enough in their heads with all this to mark time to begin with. Josiah reckoned he'd begun round about the fourth or fifth morning. Scoring a mark on a lump of the boat. They'd propped it up in the corner of the shelter. Like it was a symbol. An altar.

Not much more had washed ashore. A boot they didn't recognize one day, and some wood that looked like it was from a different boat, an older one lost to the ocean and then shifted off the seabed by the storm. There hadn't been any more bodies. Not that it gave them any answers. They both thought, and knew the other thought, of sharks in the deep out there.

Once they knew they'd survive, at least for a goodly while, Josiah began to feel the peace of the place. Its simplicity. Beauty even. The sea breezes were gentle most of the time, the silence was huge and weighty. Great chunks of books he'd read in the past began to come back to him, fully formed, or so he thought, perfectly recalled. He felt his head was like a library just opened. And Nathan was happy to be read to. Had plenty of stories of his own, too. And his voice was something to hold on to as the darkness crept in around them.

He and Nathan had always talked a lot. It took days and weeks before it felt like their favored topics - the War, the morals of man, the future of the West - had begun to pall.

And there were always more subjects. A whole universe of them.

Josiah began to realize that the more content he was becoming, the more uneasy Nathan grew. Not that staying alive was difficult. They'd both done it before in worse circumstances, and at least this place gave them enough to eat. Only minor predators. Temperate conditions for the most part.

Nathan couldn't seem to find any joy in it. Not even the relief of survival.

"I know it's not what either of us wanted from life." Josiah had tried and tried not to be preachy. Nathan had asked for some bible words early on but not lately. "We have to go on surviving. It's the very least."

"No," Nathan said, stubborn as only he could be. "I'll tell you what. No one's coming for us. And you should know, I'm like to go crazy if I have to stay, don't damn well try to get back to the world, to Rain. On some raft or I don't know what. Find out what happened to the others."

Of course, it wasn't just Nathan who thought of such a thing.

Every day when Josiah made his cut on the wood, he'd think about the others. Even if he didn't say anything, there were thoughts, comforting ones, that drifted through his mind.

Maybe there were other islands out there. More than maybe. Josiah didn't even pray for the possibility. He just began to believe. If Vin and Chris had managed to get into that damn boat, they could have reached one. Or been washed up just like him and Nathan. If the ship hadn't gone down, once the seas calmed, maybe it had limped into shore down the coast somewhere. With Buck and JD still on board. Mexico maybe. The south Pacific. Perhaps they were all sitting in some cantina somewhere, even Ezra, sharing a bottle of tequila and remembering their friends.

If they left this strange little haven, it might not be true.

There was only one thing he feared more than putting to sea on some rough-hewn vessel and drowning in the attempt.

Like some dread monster of the deep, circling under the waterline, Josiah feared losing his faith.