Word Count 9,240
Christmas Eve Morning
There was only one place he’d ever felt truly happy, Johnny Lancer thought as he saddled his horse, Barranca. That was on the back of a good horse as they raced the wind together. After last night’s argument with his father, Murdoch, and their confrontation again this morning, Johnny felt like riding as far away from the Lancer ranch as he could get and not ever coming back. Thoughts of his brother, Scott, made Johnny shake his head. He knew he could never just leave without giving Scott an explanation, even if he was upset with Scott, too, as now. Funny how close they had become. Until a few months ago, he didn’t even know he had a brother. Now, no one was closer to him than Scott. So much so that it hurt beyond measure that Scott hadn’t been willing to listen about what happened yesterday either. Well, okay, he had, but by then it was too late. Then, there was Teresa. He could never just ride away from Teresa, either. She was his father’s ward, and like a sister. Johnny hadn’t let her as close as he had Scott, but, still, she was able to manipulate him in ways that no one else could—even Scott. Johnny felt a pull there that was anything but brotherly and knew Teresa felt it, too. Given time…. Johnny turned his thoughts from that dangerous trail, tightening the cinch on his saddle.
Johnny was finished saddling Barranca now and the horse was eager to go, sidling up against Johnny as he led the golden palomino outside. Johnny knew Dr. Sam Jenkins would be upset if he knew what Johnny had planned. There were eight new stitches in Johnny’s left side from the glancing blow of a knife last night. He wasn’t supposed to do anything that might pull those stitches loose. Doc hadn’t been happy when Johnny had decided to ride home last night. But, it had been late, Johnny was a bit hungover, and Dr. Jenkins had known Johnny would keep a slow pace in deference to his horse. Johnny loved Barranca and would never do anything to deliberately put the horse at risk. His own health was a different issue, Dr. Jenkins knew, but had acknowledged that Johnny would, in all likelihood, make it home okay last night. But, he’d be downright upset to see Johnny now. There was a set look to Johnny’s features that bode ill for anyone who dared stand in his way. Oh, Johnny still wouldn’t do anything to put Barranca at risk, but this was not going to be a slow sedate ride in the country despite the stitches that ached and a head that matched. Still, Johnny didn’t care what the doctor would think. Doc was a worrywart, and Johnny had never felt more in need of a ride in his life. So, he swung into the saddle, grimacing at the pull of the stitches and the pain that shot across the top of his head, settled himself, and gave Barranca the go-ahead. Soon, they were heading out under the Lancer arch.
Once Johnny was well beyond the hacienda, he relaxed somewhat. He realized that he’d been feeling on edge since Thanksgiving. The holiday was a surprise to him. Having spent most of his life in Mexico, Johnny had never heard of it. He found, though (from Scott, of course, who had celebrated the holiday all of his life), that it was a longstanding tradition in the States and that the late President Lincoln had established it as a national day of thanks. Johnny had always taken at least one day a year to take stock of his life and to give thanks to God for what he had, so the holiday made sense to him and he joined in with no reservations. Since then, though, it seemed as though the celebrations had been non-stop. Teresa’s birthday had followed shortly upon the Thanksgiving holiday. Thanks to Maria, Johnny and Scott had gifts for the young lady. Then, just last week, they had celebrated Scott’s birthday. Murdoch had supplied the needed information this time so that Johnny and Teresa had gifts. Johnny had unmercifully teased his older brother as he turned 25. “Face it, Boston. You’re getting old and no prospects yet. If you don’t marry soon, all the young fillies will either be married off or old maids not worth the trouble. Then who will give the old man here that heir he wants?”
“Something wrong with you we don’t know about, brother?” Scott had teased back.
“Not from what I’ve heard, Boston,” Johnny had replied, with a wicked grin that lit his eyes, too.
“Boys,” Murdoch had admonished his sons, nodding toward Teresa. But, he was smiling, too, at their rakish banter.
What Happened December 23 – Early That Morning
As he rode, Johnny recalled what had happened just yesterday….
Without any warning, the family had celebrated his birthday, Johnny remembered. It had been easy to surprise him, as Johnny had no idea until then when his birthday was. (He still had no idea how old he was, he realized; at least three or four years younger than Scott, he figured.) Teresa and Maria had fixed his favorites for breakfast and, as was the custom, Johnny had received his presents after the sumptuous meal. Johnny had the day off, too, as had Scott the week before. It was Saturday, and Johnny and Scott always went into town on Saturday evenings. Scott had a survey job he had started and wanted to get done before the Christmas holiday, so he had set off shortly after Johnny finished opening his presents. Johnny decided to go ahead into town without him, assuming Scott would join him there later that afternoon, as usual on a Saturday. This time, they’d have to make it a quick drink or two before heading back for Johnny’s birthday dinner. While waiting for Scott to join him, Johnny planned to visit with Val Crawford, the sheriff there and Johnny’s good friend.
As usual, Johnny had caught Val napping at his desk. The town was really a quiet one except for Saturday nights. Then, the drovers from the surrounding ranches were in town and usually ended up causing more than one ruckus before heading back to their ranches well after midnight, usually closer to morning. Val had growled at Johnny, excusing himself for his nap by saying he was resting up for the evening’s work ahead. “Didn’t know trouble was coming to town early.”
Johnny had made amends for his teasing comments by buying some of Val’s enormous stock of Indian blankets. He had insisted on a good deal by telling Val it was his birthday and making Val feel guilty when Val admitted he hadn’t known. The blankets would be used to restock some of the line shacks on Lancer. The two were sitting in Val’s office swapping “war” stories when Billy, the clerk at Baldemero’s Mercantile, had come running in.
“Sheriff, them kids are back again. They’re all over the place, knocking stuff off the shelves. They almost knocked down Widow Stack. Ya gotta come do something, Sheriff,” Billy had said, referring to children from the town orphanage.
Val had grumbled all the way over to the store, and Johnny had followed along to see how his good friend was going to handle this problem. He knew Val would rather stare down an armed bank robber than deal with a handful of kids loose in Baldermero’s. Johnny had laughed, watching Val grab a couple of children and get them under control, only to have them run off again as soon as he let them go to try to catch a couple more. “Ya gonna just stand there laughing?” Val had shouted at him, hanging onto the shirttail of one errant youngster.
“Thought I might,” Johnny called back, laughing heartily. “They look like right tough hombres.” At Val’s look, Johnny relented and helped round the children up. Billy had helped, too, and the three of them soon had the children at the front of the store ready to march them out. Then, to Val’s consternation, Johnny had told the children they could each go buy something for themselves for Christmas. With a delighted whoop, the children were back off again, running through the store looking for their promised treasures.
“Lot of money,” Val had stated as Billy was tallying up the last of the purchases. “Would have been cheaper to just help me roust ‘em out of here.”
“Maybe, but this is more fun. Although, watchin’ you chasing little Bennie down that aisle with all them nails and things on the floor sendin’ ya every which way was kinda fun, too,” Johnny laughed again.
“I could see you was havin’ a good time there,” Val replied.
Just then, Billy finished the talley and the last child skipped from the store. “That will be $36.40, Johnny,” he said.
“That’s over a month’s wages, Johnny-boy. Never knowed you to have more than $10 in your pocket at any one time—if that much. I might think it’s kinda’ fun throwin’ ya in jail when you can’t pay that there bill,” Val smirked.
“Shall I put it on the Lancer tab, Johnny?” Billy asked, anxiously. The Lancer ranch did a lot of business with the store, but he knew Murdoch Lancer usually pre-approved the purchases. If there was going to be trouble paying the bill…. Billy glanced worriedly over to Mr. Baldemero, who was helping another customer and didn’t notice.
Johnny grinned at Val before answering. “No. I’m paying, Billy. Throw in a bunch of them peppermint sticks, too, okay?” When Billy handed Johnny the bag with the peppermints, Johnny thanked him and said, “Just, give me a minute to go to the bank, will ya?”
“Sure thing. No problem, Johnny,” Billy replied, relieved.
“Ya plannin’ on robbin’ the bank now?” Val asked, following a still-smiling Johnny from the store onto the boardwalk out front.
“No need, and if I was, you’d be the last person I’d tell—Sheriff,” Johnny emphasized, knowing Val hated the term. “I still got the ol’ man’s listening money stashed there,” Johnny explained as he tipped his hat to a passing lady. The gesture caused the woman to blush and she cast Johnny a sidelong glance as she went by, even though she was on the arm of her husband, who noticed and gave a sharp tug on his wife’s arm.
“Ya keep that up and you’ll end up in my jail yet,” Val told Johnny.
“Since when is it a crime to give a smile to a pretty lady?” Johnny asked innocently.
“Ain’t, except’n her husband there took notice and may want to talk with ya later. Then, I’d have to put you away for disturbin’ the peace. Now go on with ya. I’ve got work to do,” Val said, stomping off in the direction of the jail.
“Hey, Sheriff!” Johnny called. Val looked back with an expression that would have caused many a lesser man to wither in his stance, but not Johnny. Instead, Johnny tossed a peppermint stick to Val, who deftly caught it, managing to glare at the younger man even while popping the candy into his mouth. Val continued on to the jail with Johnny’s laughter softly trailing after him.
Johnny had paid the bill at the mercantile and then had headed out to the orphanage. He had wanted to make sure the priest had enough funds to ensure the children got a good Christmas meal, and gave the priest the rest of the peppermint sticks to pass around to the children Christmas day. The priest, overwhelmed by Johnny’s generosity, insisted Johnny take the noon meal with them, and afterward each child had begged to show Johnny what they had bought earlier in the day. Johnny was happy for the children, but a little melancholy remembering his own time in an orphanage. His time there had been short, right after his mother had died; he had run away from the harsh conditions, preferring to take his chances on his own. There had been no happy times there to make good memories. The orphanage here was a nice one, clean and well-cared for, so Johnny hoped it would be different for these children. Still, his visit there left him haunted by memories of his mother, her death, the orphanage, and his life after. There were no happy memories to be shared at his birthday dinner, as Scott had done last week. Johnny was no longer looking forward to going home for his birthday dinner. But, talking with Scott over a drink at the saloon first would help, and Johnny brightened a little at the thought.
What Happened December 23 – Later That Afternoon and Evening
Johnny recalled now that his birthday had declined following his visit to the orphange….
After leaving the orphanage, Johnny had gone to the saloon to wait for Scott. He had thought Scott would be through his surveying job and in town by now, but the blond was nowhere in sight. So, Johnny sat at his favorite table in the far corner, sitting with his back to the wall with a bottle of tequila as his only company. Alone, he found his thoughts turning again to his birthday, wondering why his mother had never told him when his birthday was. When Scott had told of some of his remembrances of past birthday celebrations last week over dinner, Johnny found himself envying Scott his childhood memories of those times. He and his mother had never celebrated birthdays or Christmas. The only thing his mother seemed to celebrate was money enough to buy a fresh bottle. Johnny thought about what she had done to earn that money, and his thoughts grew black. There had been precious few happy moments in his childhood and he was fast losing track of them. One bad memory led to another. The level of tequila in the bottle dropped steadily as his mood darkened in proportion. What had started out as a happy day for him this morning was fast turning to bottled up anger with no outlet or direction except his missing brother.
Drovers coming in from one of the ranches had taken one look at Johnny sitting alone at his table in the corner and had known better than to disturb the former gunman to ask if he wanted to join their poker game. As the evening wore on, the game got loud as drink took its effect. The addition of a couple of drifters was the catalyst for a fight over allegations of cheating. Johnny found himself joining in when one of the combatants bumped his table and spilled his drink. It wasn’t much, but in his mood it was enough. The drovers and drifters had been fighting each other; Johnny was fighting anyone close enough to hit. Sometime during the fray a knife was produced and a couple of men were cut before Val had stormed into the saloon and waded into the melee—and the fight was over as suddenly as it had begun. Good-natured slaps on backs were exchanged all around as Val rounded up the culprits and charged them with paying for damages. He insisted the injured men, of whom Johnny was one, go to Sam Jenkins’ office for treatment.
Sam had waited to treat Johnny last, in case the young man wanted to talk about what had happened. As was his custom, Johnny had refused the offer of any painkillers and, for once, Sam hadn’t argued. The tequila Johnny had consumed earlier would be more than enough, Jenkins figured. Johnny had said little, only responding when Val called him a “damn fool” for having gotten into a fist fight on a Saturday night with total strangers. “Ain’t like you at all,” Val ended his tirade.
“I know, Val,” Johnny quietly replied, his eyes closed as Sam put in another stitch.
“So, what’s it all about then? Anything you want to talk about?” Val quietly asked.
Johnny shook his head, oblivious to the pain the next stitch was causing. “Just one more lie, Val. Just one more lie.” Val seemed to understand what Johnny meant, and nodded.
“Well, amigo, I got me better things to do than stand around watching you get yourself put back together. Stay outta trouble the rest of the night or I’ll have you in my jail yet,” Val replied. “Now, I’m going back to work.” Johnny opened his eyes and met Val’s, giving his friend a small smile, then watched as Val left the doctor’s office. Sam had listened to the exchange without seeming to and wondered.
Jenkins had wanted Johnny to spend the night in town because of the amount of blood he’d lost, but Johnny had insisted on riding home. It was late and he knew his family must be worried. Besides, he wanted to find out why Scott had never shown up. He had begun to count on Scott—to trust him. Now, Scott hadn’t shown up. Just one more disappointment in a lifetime of disappointments…..
What Happened December 23 – Late That Night
Boy, for once Johnny felt he should have followed Doc’s advice and stayed in town. What a mistake it had been heading home last night, Johhnny thought now….
Normally, Johnny would have insisted on taking care of Barranca himself after the long day, but Walt had been given clear instructions to watch for Johnny and to send him to the hacienda as soon as he returned. Johnny braced himself on hearing that news. His family wasn’t just worried; obviously, they were mad at him. That would explain why Scott hadn’t come to town. Johnny felt he’d messed up again. Would he ever get this family thing right? It was Saturday night—town night. Okay, so it was his birthday and he figured they would probably have a special dinner for him, like they had for Teresa and Scott. Johnny knew it was way past the dinner hour, far too late to celebrate with his family. He’d lost track of time waiting for Scott, and then with the fight and all. But, what difference did it make? Did the fact that it was his birthday mean he had to do what others wanted him to do? Maybe it was a good thing he and his mother hadn’t celebrated his birthday after all, Johnny thought as he entered the house, his earlier anger rekindling.
Johnny stopped just inside the entrance of the great room. It was worse than he had imagined. Instead of his entire family, only Murdoch was present in the great room, with Scott and Teresa already having retired for the night. Johnny glanced at the clock and saw it was well past midnight, and he felt a twinge of guilt. He only hoped the old man would listen, but a glance at the expression on Murdoch’s face didn’t bode well. Johnny sure wished Scott had waited up for his return. In the short time they had been together, Johnny had come to depend on Scott to be a buffer between he and his father. Johnny felt he really could have used Scott’s help this time. Johnny hurt from his knife wound and from a headache that was the result of his earlier drinking—as well as a few good fists to the jaw, Johnny acknowledged. Beside all of that, it was obvious from the low volume in the bottle on the table next to Murdoch’s chair that Murdoch had been drinking while he had waited for Johnny to return. Drinking alone was never a good thing, Johnny thought, and then smiled wryly when he realized he’d been doing the same thing himself.
Murdoch had looked up from his reverie in time to see the smile and thought Johnny believed this was all a joke. He stood and crossed the room to stand in front of his young son, wasting no time setting the younger man straight regarding his inconsiderate behavior toward his family. Johnny learned all about the birthday dinner celebration that had been planned and the cake Teresa and Maria had made for him and how his failure to appear had led to worry for his well-being by everyone. That is, until one of the hands who had gone into town for a part to repair a wagon had told them Johnny was there at the saloon when asked if he had seen Johnny on his way to or from town. Johnny’s attempts to apologize and explain had been brushed aside as Murdoch continued to rant. Murdoch’s ire had been given plenty of time to simmer with the lid on and he was now determined to let Johnny experience the full force and effect of his anger at Johnny’s inconsideration. Johnny found himself losing his own temper, yelling it was his birthday and he’d celebrate it how he pleased, adding why should this birthday be any different than the others, after all? Then, Johnny had walked out, leaving Murdoch shouting after him. Johnny was glad when Murdoch didn’t follow him, because he was really hurting and not just physically. He spent the night with Barranca.
TODAY – Christmas Eve Morning
It was obvious Murdoch hadn’t cooled off any during the night, Johnny thought, as he reflected on what had happened this morning at breakfast….
Johnny had not only been disoriented when he awoke this morning, he was stiff and sore from the fight and from sleeping on the straw in Barranca’s stall. He hurt more than he was willing to admit, too. The stitches in his side pulled as he sat up, causing a flame of burning pain. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply and evenly until the pain subsided, then stood. The world tilted a bit, but he managed to stay on his feet even if he was swaying—results of the hangover and blood loss from last night. Remembering his confrontation with Murdoch the night before, Johnny groaned aloud, wondering how a day had gone from good to bad so quickly. For a moment, Johnny contemplated skipping breakfast to wait until his family returned from church before confronting any of them, then he dismissed the idea. Confronting them before might shorten the ordeal, since Murdoch didn’t like to be late for anything—especially meals or church. Speaking of meals, Johnny vowed to be at the table on time so he could head off the beginning of another argument about being late to meals. It sure wasn’t because he was hungry, as his stomach heaved at even the thought of food.
Johnny used the outside staircase to go to his room and clean up. He checked the bandage around his ribcage, noting there was no blood (at least Doc could be happy with him), then put on clean clothes. After putting his boots back on, he remained seated on the edge of his bed and thought about the night before. His indulgence in self-pity was uncharacteristic and, Johnny now acknowledged, unnecessary. Johnny admitted to himself that he knew how Teresa’s and Scott’s birthdays had been celebrated and knew the family would celebrate his with a special dinner, too. He knew that’s why Scott hadn’t come into town, too. Johnny admitted to himself that he could have avoided the fight in the saloon and its results, as well as have avoided a fight with his family, if he had gone home and been on time for dinner. That knowledge was painful, in more ways than one as his head and side reminded him. Johnny concluded he owed his family an apology. Resolved, he headed downstairs to face the music.
Murdoch, Scott, and Teresa were already in the kitchen, but silence greeted Johnny’s arrival. They all stared at him, their eyes accusing him. Johnny bristled, his earlier resolve quickly deserting him. They weren’t going to listen to his explanation, Johnny surmised. So, without saying a word, Johnny sat down. Maria came over with a plate of food for him and lightly placed a hand on his shoulder, gently squeezing to show her support. He gave a weak smile in return before turning his attention to the food on his plate, merely pushing it around.
Finally, Scott spoke, mildly admonishing Johnny for going into town alone to celebrate. “I would have liked the opportunity to toast my brother on his birthday.”
The sight of the food was making him sick and, besides, Johnny was no longer in a mood to feel as guilty as he had earlier and he glared at Scott. “You knew where I was. It was Saturday night. Besides, I don’t see what the big deal is. It was my birthday. Seems I could celebrate however I want.”
Murdoch had abruptly stood at that point and said, “Get changed, Johnny. We’re going to church. You and I will talk about this when we get back.”
“I thought we were going tonight with Johnny to the Christmas Eve mass at the mission,” Scott interjected.
“It may be Christmas Eve, but it’s still Sunday, Scott. We’ll see about tonight, but we’re not missing the Sunday service at our church. Get ready, Johnny,” Murdoch ordered again.
“I’m dressed fine for what I plan on doing, and that ain’t going to your church with you, ol’ man,” Johnny had retorted.
“You can go to the mission for all I care, but you’re going to church with the family. It’s the least you can do after last night. So, get ready,” Murdoch had growled.
“No, I ain’t,” Johnny had stood up, glaring at his father.
“I call the tune here, remember?” Murdoch said.
“When it comes to work. This ain’t work,” Johnny pointed out. “You don’t tell me how to celebrate my birthday and you don’t get to say when or where I go to church, ol’ man.”
“Fine. Suit yourself. The rest of you, get ready, if you’re coming,” Murdoch had said, leaving the kitchen.
“Care to explain what this is all about?” Scott had asked.
“Nope,” Johnny had replied. If only Scott had been the one to ask this morning…. Now, Johnny had dug his heels in. Hell could freeze over before he’d explain anything to anyone, even Scott or Teresa.
Further attempts by Scott to find out what was going on were met with stony silence, and he shrugged his shoulders in resignation. “Well, as Murdoch pointed out, it’s Sunday morning as well as Christmas Eve. I’m anxious to see how it’s celebrated here, so I’m going to church. I’ll see you later,” Scott had said, going upstairs to get his things.
“Johnny, please reconsider,” Teresa had asked. “This is your first Christmas at home—your’s and Scott’s. I want it to be happy.”
“I know, querida, and I’m sorry. But, my going to church with the ol’ man ain’t gonna make it a happy Christmas. That ain’t up to just me. If it were, I’d go,” Johnny said.
Teresa had reluctantly nodded in understanding. “I know you would,” she’d replied.
Johnny gave Teresa a light kiss on the cheek before going outside, and had watched from the shadows of the stable as the surrey carried his family to church. Then, he had saddled Barranca.
NOW – Christmas Eve – In Town
The first person the Lancer clan met in town was Billy, the clerk from the mercantile. He enthusiastically informed them all of Johnny’s generosity the day before. “You never saw a happier bunch of kids, no siree. Made my day ringing up them purchases. But, I kinda got carried away, I guess. Seems I overcharged Johnny. Mister Baldemero caught it when he was going over the day’s receipts. Will ya give it to Johnny for me?” he explained, handing Murdoch six bits.
“Yes, of course,” Murdoch had replied, too stunned by Johnny’s generosity the day before to say much.
Next were some people who had been in the mercantile the day before. They wanted to congratulate Murdoch on his fine young son. “Why, he knew just how to handle those children. So patient and kind. Not at all like I expected,” the Widow Stack had said. “I don’t know who was happier—the children or Johnny. That boy has a smile to light a room,” the other woman had said. Murdoch had been a bit agape at these pronouncements. Both of these women had been against his bringing Johnny home to stay because of his reputation as a top gunfighter. They felt he was trouble waiting to happen. Now, they were praising him!
After the church service, the Lancers saw the priest from the orphanage waiting near their surrey. “I had hoped Johnny was with you this morning. But, perhaps I will see him later. I pray he is well. He seemed happy when he was at the orphanage and the children were showing him their gifts. But, he was very quiet when he left. His visit brought the children much happiness, though. Please tell him, and thank him, again, for the monies and peppermints for their Christmas. It was most generous of him, and the children are so happy this morning.”
“Yes, we will. Thank you,” Scott answered. “I’m sure he’ll be at midnight mass, though. He’s mentioned it a couple of times now.” When the priest was gone, Scott said to Murdoch and Teresa, “It seems Johnny had a very busy day yesterday here in town.”
“Yes. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t thought about gifts for the children at the orphanage this year. It’s been a difficult year financially for the ranch,” Murdoch said.
“I’m even more ashamed,” Teresa admitted. “The ladies committee usually tries to do something, but I’ve been so busy trying to make this a special Christmas for all of us that I haven’t helped with the orphanage this Christmas.”
Val flagged them down as they were headed out of town. “Tell Johnny he can pick up them blankets he bought off me yesterday next time he’s in town. Oh, and tell him next time he gets into a fight in my town I’ll throw his sorry hide in jail overnight—birthday or not.”
“Fight? What fight?” Scott asked, as Murdoch’s mouth tightened in anger. They knew Johnny had been in town at the saloon, but they hadn’t heard about a fight.
So, Johnny hadn’t said anything to his family about the fight, Val thought. It wasn’t his place to go into the particulars, but he guessed there was no harm in telling them about the fight itself. Val explained about the poker game and the ensuing fight. “Don’t know why he had to join in. Wasn’t nothing to do with him but a little spilt tequila and I heard he’d already had plenty of that by then. Never known him to get so riled over something like that—not enough to risk his gun hand in a fist fight anyhow. But, one of the boys from the “Rocking R” said he’d looked like he was spoilin’ for a fight when they come in, so I guess it was handy.”
“Was anyone hurt?” Scott asked.
“You mean was Johnny hurt,” Val stated. Scott simply nodded. “He was one of ‘em the doc’ had to patch up. It weren’t deep, but he bled something good. Guess he’s a little sore this morning. You can tell him for me I may not have arrested him last night, but that won’t get him out of paying his share of damages. Reckon $10 will cover it. That is, if he has any of that listenin’ money left of his after buying all that stuff for them kids. And don’t forget to tell him to come get them blankets!” Val laughed and moved off.
“Murdoch, let’s stop at Sam’s and see if he’s there. I want to find out about Johnny’s wound. We’ll have to keep an eye on those stitches to see to it they don’t get infected,” Teresa insisted. So, Murdoch turned the surrey around and headed to Sam Jenkins’ house, where the shingle hanging from the front porch post announced he also had his doctor’s office inside.
“Be right with you,” Sam called as the bell above the door rang upon the entry of the Lancers.
As they were waiting, Scott spoke, “I think we all owe Johnny an apology, don’t you? Thinking back on it, I realize now that Johnny was surprised yesterday to find out it was his birthday. And, even though we would have all liked to share it with him, maybe he was right, too, that he should have been able to celebrate it the way he liked. It seems he had a pretty good day here in town—at least most of it.”
“Maybe you’re right, son,” Murdoch reluctantly acknowledged, and Teresa nodded her agreement, too.
At that moment, Dr. Sam Jenkins emerged from his back room, stopping when he saw the three Lancer family members in his outer office. For a second Sam thought Johnny might have taken a turn for the worse. He’d lost considerable blood yesterday and had insisted on riding back to Lancer. But, just as quickly, Sam realized they wouldn’t all three have come into town for him; they would have sent for him if Johnny were seriously ill. Smiling, he said, “I take it you just found out about Johnny, and not from Johnny. Am I right?”
“How bad is it, Sam?” Teresa asked, worried.
“It’s not serious, dear. He should take it easy for a couple of days so he doesn’t pull those stitches. I wasn’t happy about him riding back to Lancer last night, but he insisted he’s had worse and ridden all day. He’s a stubborn little cuss, but he’s right. I’ve seen the scars,” Sam said sadly. “You just need to keep an eye out for fever, which would indicate an infection. But, then, you know that.”
“What happened, Sam? Val said he was in a fight in the saloon,” Murdoch wanted to know.
“Then you know about as much as I do. Johnny didn’t say much about it, but enough, so ask Johnny. But, Murdoch, be sure you want to know before you ask,” Sam advised, meaningfully.
“Maria?” Murdoch asked, with dread.
Sam nodded. “That’s my guess. The boy was hurting last night, and not only from his stitches.” Sam saw them out to the surrey. “Send for me if you need me. Otherwise, I’ll see you tomorrow for Christmas dinner.”
Murdoch said, “Can you come today and spend the night, Sam?”
Sam gave a good look at his friend. “All right. I’ll pack a few things and leave a note for folks.”
NOW – Christmas Eve – At the McDonald Ranch
After leaving Lancer, Johnny had gone to the McDonald ranch. Angus and Flora McDonald were old friends of Murdoch’s and were old enough to be Johnny’s grandparents. They had known him as a baby, and readily took to the role, knowing he had never known any of his grandparents. When Johnny needed comfort, he often sought them out, or the Talbots. Maura Talbot was like a surrogate mother to both Lancer sons, but Johnny figured the Talbots would be in church this morning, whereas Angus and Flora rarely went due to their age and the distance to town. One look at Johnny’s face had been enough for Flora McDonald to know something was wrong with the boy. And, she instinctively knew Murdoch wasn’t the problem this time—at least, not totally. Johnny seemed more hurt than angry.
“It’s right glad we are to see you, lad, but why aren’t you at church with your family?” Flora asked, insisting Johnny come in and sit by the fire. “Have you eaten?”
Johnny smiled at her bustling activity, looking down to hide his smile. “Yeah. You now Teresa and Maria.”
“Aye, and I know you, too, lad. At least have some milk. It’s fresh this morning,” Flora offered, knowing he preferred milk to coffee or tea. She didn’t wait for an answer, pouring him a glass from the pitcher on the counter near the sink.
The three sat at the sturdy kitchen table and talked, with Johnny listening to their tales of Scotland. When Flora stood to start the noon meal, Johnny got ready to leave. “I guess I best hightail it back to Lancer.” His manner said he’d rather be heading anyplace else.
“Nonsense, boy. Stay and eat with us. It will pleasure us both,” Angus insisted. After the meal, Flora had motioned to Angus, who took the hint and made an excuse to go to the barn. “Keep Flora company for me, lad,” he asked.
“Sure you can trust me?” Johnny teased.
“No, lad, but I trust her,” Angus replied, laughing before giving Flora a peck on the cheek and a quick smile.
Johnny helped Flora clear the table, and then dried dishes as she washed them. Flora was struck again that something was wrong; the boy was being too quiet and there were pain lines around his mouth. “Are you all right, lad?” she asked.
Johnny knew he couldn’t hide anything from this woman. “Yeah. It’s nothing. I got in a fight yesterday in town. Needed a couple of stitches, that’s all.”
Flora gave him an appraising look, then nodded. “All right. But, there’s something else a botherin’ you lad. What is it?”
Johnny’s hands stopped their drying motion and he set the plate carefully on the counter. “Yesterday was my birthday,” he said quietly.
“Aye, I know,” Flora acknowledged, smiling brightly.
“I didn’t,” Johnny replied softly, but Flora could hear the anguish in the admission. “Just one more thing she didn’t bother to tell me.”
Flora didn’t have to ask who “she” was, knowing it was Maria Lancer, Johnny’s mother. “You’re angry with her,” she stated matter-of-factly. Johnny nodded. “Don’t be too hard on her, John dear. You’ve told us how hard it was for you and your mother. With Christmas so close, perhaps she didn’t have the means to celebrate both and felt Christmas was more important.”
“I could understand that, and forgive it, but we didn’t celebrate either one,” Johnny informed Flora, his head down so she couldn’t see his eyes that were filled with the pain that admission brought him. “I tried all day yesterday to pretend it didn’t matter, but it does. I loved her so much. Why couldn’t she at least tell me when my birthday was? Did she hate him that much? Did she hate me, too?”
Flora went up to Johnny and wrapped her arms around him, letting his head rest on her shoulder as she crooned to him, the words indecipherable but soothing. Angus found them thus when he came back in. It was a few moments later before Johnny straightened and stepped back. “Gracias,” he smiled a weak smile.
“You’re welcome, lad,” Flora answered. “I wish there was something more I could say or do to ease the hurt. But there are none who can speak from the grave, even though there be much to answer for, and only your mother could tell you why she did what she did, lad. Those of us that’s left can only pick up the pieces of our lives and go on. You know that better than most your age. She hurt your Da, too, when she left and took you with her. She left just before your second birthday, she did. I feared for your Da’s life, he was so full of grief. Two sons lost to him. For years, Murdoch didn’t celebrate Christmas; it were just too painful for him. Later, he made the effort because of young Teresa, but it wasn’t the same as before, when he had you and Maria.” Flora took Johnny’s face gently between her hands, looking him in the eyes. “Talk with your Da, John. If anyone knows how you feel, it’s your Da. You have much in common, and he loves you so, dear boy.”
Johnny lowered his head to hide his eyes. “Yeah. He proved that last night,” he said sarcastically.
Flora dropped her hands to her waist in exasperation. “What did that man do or say now?” Johnny told them both what had happened in town and how Murdoch hadn’t given him an opportunity to explain. “Oh, Johnny dear, he was worried, can’t you see? And here it was your first birthday home again. How he must have looked forward to it. You can understand that, can’t you? Surely you can forgive him?”
Johnny stood with his head still down, wrapping his arms around himself. Flora had hit the nail on the head, of course, only reinforcing the conclusion he, himself, had drawn earlier. But, he had never stopped to think what it must have been like for Murdoch celebrating the birthdays of his sons for the first time in twenty years. He remembered now the joy on Murdoch’s face as they had toasted Scott. Johnny realized then that he had missed out on that last night with his father, lifting a glass by himself in a saloon—and Murdoch lifting a glass by himself at home waiting for his absent son to return.
“Guess I didn’t stop and think. I was waiting for Scott to come into town and I got to thinkin’ ‘bout Mama…. Didn’t think about anyone else, especially Murdoch. I meant to apologize to everyone this morning, only…. Well, it don’t matter now. Best I just get it done. I only hope they’ll let me get my apologies done before lightin’ into me again,” Johnny replied.
“Why, of course, they will, lad. You’ll see. Why, by now Murdoch’s had time to think it over, too, and I’m sure he’s just waiting on the chance, if I know Murdoch Lancer, and I do,” Angus affirmed.
Johnny gave them both a dazzling smile, one that practically lit the room. “Guess I better get back to Lancer and have a talk with my old man. You two coming for Christmas dinner tomorrow?” he asked, grabbing his hat, then stopping at the door to face the couple.
“No, lad. Tis too far for such as we, old as we are,” Angus replied.
“I’ll come for you, and you could stay the night. I’ll help with any chores that need doing here first,” Johnny offered.
“Thanks, but no, lad. You’ve given us Christmas today with your visit. Come back soon, dear,” Flora asked.
“You bet,” Johnny answered. He shook Angus’ hand, and gave Flora a kiss on the cheek. “Better watch out, old man,” Johnny smiled. “I’ll win her, yet.”
“Go on with you, lad! But, you’re welcome here anytime,” Angus answered, smiling. The old couple stood in the door waving as they watched Johnny ride out.
Johnny’s heart was light as he waved one last time to them before urging Barranca over the knoll and out of sight.
Christmas Eve – Traveling Home
Murdoch had asked to ride back to Lancer with Sam, who was taking his buggy in case there was an emergency, although, as he put it, “My best customer is at Lancer already.” Scott was driving the surrey with Teresa just ahead of them.
“All right, my friend. What did you want to talk with me about? And, Murdoch, if it’s about Johnny, I’ve already told you all I know,” Sam said as they left the fringes of the town behind.
“You know me too well, my friend,” Murdoch replied. “I had hoped he had said something more last night. Something to explain why he didn’t come home last night to celebrate with us.”
Sam nodded. He had no qualms about telling Murdoch what Johnny had said yesterday. It was not said by Johnny with an expectation of confidentiality. In this case, telling Murdoch may actually help the situation. “Yesterday was his birthday, wasn’t it?” Sam said, and Murdoch nodded. “I’m sorry, Murdoch, but he didn’t really say anything to me at all. Val was after him for getting into a fist fight in the first place, asking him what it was all about. Johnny told him it was the result of another lie. He didn’t say anything else. But, I could tell he was hurt…sad, Murdoch. I figured, then, it was Maria. When he’s upset with you, he’s angry,” Sam explained his reasoning, smiling.
“And you think that makes me feel better?” Murdoch asked, a little angry himself.
“It should. The boy cares for you, Murdoch. That’s why he gets upset and angry with you—and himself—when you two are going at it. Stop and think about that next time.” Murdoch looked away at the passing landscape at Sam’s words. Sam felt a little dread. “All right, Murdoch. What have you done to that boy now?”
“Am I that rough on him, that you’d think the worst of me?” Murdoch asked, astonished.
“Too often, yes,” Sam honestly replied. He decided to be blunt with his friend. “For all he’s been through—maybe because of all he’s been through, I don’t know—Johnny has an amazing zest for life. Yet, too often, you seem to want to put it out. Why?”
There was a look of contemplation on Murdoch’s face before he answered. “You remember Maria, don’t you, Sam?”
Sam nodded his head. “Yes,” he said quietly. “Johnny’s her spitting image, I know. It took me back that day I got my first good look at him. And, he’s only a little older than Maria was when she came here as your bride, isn’t he?.”
“She was seventeen. Johnny is four years older than she was,” Murdoch gruffly answered.
“She had a joy for life, too, as I recall,” Sam continued. He looked at Murdoch. “Surely you’re not comparing the two? Johnny is nothing like Maria in his personality, Murdoch. Oh, I can see how you may have thought that at first. Why, I’m sure he got his temper from her! She had a sharp tongue and wasn’t afraid to use it. But, Maria was only concerned with Maria. She didn’t care about anyone or anything else. Maria was the most selfish little thing I’ve ever met. And don’t look at me like that. You know I’m right.” Murdoch nodded, acknowledging Sam’s assessment of his deceased wife was accurate. “Johnny is patient, kind—he’s got one of the most giving personalities I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. He’s everything Maria wasn’t. In fact, he’s a lot like you are. So, don’t you dare sit there and tell me that you look at your son and see the wife who betrayed you instead of the shining gem that you somehow managed to reclaim into your life!”
“No, of course not!” Murdoch replied emphatically. Then, he seemed to droop. “But, you’re right, there are times…. Johnny’s zest for life sometimes causes him to take chances and risk his life without a thought or care about himself or the rest of us. Maria was like that, too, so you can’t deny he takes that from her. Last night, I was worried about him, Sam. Where was he? Had his past caught up with him? Did someone recognize him as Johnny Madrid? I was waiting for a rider to come and give me the bad news, when Johnny came in. He’d obviously been drinking. All I could think of was her—Maria. How she had taken my heart and trampled on it, then run off with my son. In that moment, I felt the same way I had when I realized she was gone. We’d waited dinner for him and he never showed—just like I waited dinner on her that night, too, because she had gone to town, just like Johnny did yesterday. Right here at Christmas—again. It was like it was all happening again. When he came in, I couldn’t help myself. All of my grief and outrage, all the years of loneliness and longing…. Then, there he was. Standing there with a smile on his face, as though mocking me—the way she used to do, too. I took all the years of my anger with her out on Johnny last night. How do I make up for that, Sam?”
“My friend, doctors are able to work many so-called miracles, but I don’t have a cure for this. Only you and Johnny can fix it, and the only way to do that is to talk to him, Murdoch. Tell him what you’ve told me. Johnny is incredibly forgiving. And, don’t ask me where he got that; I’m sure I don’t know. He loves you, Murdoch. I have no doubt of that. As much as Maria wanted to leave, Johnny wants to stay and call Lancer home. Even after last night, he’s still here, isn’t he? Talk to him,” was Sam’s sage advice.
“You’re a good doctor, and a better friend, Sam,” Murdoch thanked him, as they passed under the Lancer arch.
Johnny crested the hill overlooking the Lancer hacienda just as Sam and Murdoch disembarked from Sam’s buggy. Scott and Teresa had arrived just ahead of them and were still in the courtyard waiting for Sam and Murdoch before going inside. Johnny felt happier than he could ever remember feeling before as he saw his family down below. He had loved his mother, and always would, but she had betrayed that love. His family down there never had, even though Johnny admitted he had tested them many times. The time for testing was over. It was past time that he recognized and accepted their love. It seemed appropriate, too, that this realization should come at Christmas—a time for love and family, or so he had always believed; there was no better proof of it than the here and now. Johnny had no doubts that he and Murdoch would continue to butt heads. They were too much alike to do otherwise. But, he had no doubt the old man loved him, and now he could admit to himself that he loved Murdoch, too, without it taking away from the love he had for his mother. The knowledge gave Johnny a warm feeling. He wanted to carry that feeling into Christmas day. It was time to mend the fences with his family, to explain what had happened and ask for their forgiveness. Johnny was sure he would still get a lecture—probably three; one from Murdoch, one from Scott and definitely one from Sam for going riding today. Teresa, God bless her, would just be happy that he had apologized and would accept it, he was sure.
“Let’s go home, pony,” Johnny whispered to Barranca. The golden horse reared to his full height, with Johnny expertly balanced in the saddle, at ease, laughing again with the joy of life. Then, the two were off down the hill, the young steed gathering speed as he hit the level ground, the fences of the pastures looming ahead of horse and rider.
Scott had spotted his brother when Barranca had reared up, and had pointed toward them just as Barranca and Johnny had started down the slope. They could all see Johnny was not going to use the road, but had opted to jump the fences. “He wouldn’t dare! He’ll rip those stitches for sure!” Sam exclaimed, as Johnny approached the first fence.
But, Johnny would dare, and did, Barranca jumping cleanly with Johnny leaning forward, one with his horse, steady in the saddle as they came with headlong speed toward the next fence. Two more stood in his path, and as he came toward the last one they heard Johnny urge Barranca, “Up, big boy! Up!” he yelled. Barranca neatly tucked his feet, his mane and tail flying, his ears up and alert, as he cleared the top railing with room to spare. The pair skidded to a halt in front of their enthralled audience, Barranca rearing again before coming down on all fours and prancing.
Johnny’s laughter was hearty and his joy evident in the dancing light of his eyes as he leapt from the saddle. “Good boy,” he crooned to his horse, giving a loving pat to the golden neck. Barranca nodded his head before stretching it and his neck out and blowing hard, as though laughing with Johnny. Johnny laughed again, patting the horse’s cheek. Jose came up, and Johnny handed Barranca off with a last pat.
“Hola!” Johnny said as he turned to the waiting group. He strode over to Murdoch with a smile of assurance before giving his father a quick hug. “I know it’s a bit early, but Feliz Navidad, papi,” he said, his eyes shining.
Murdoch hadn’t heard that word in twenty years from those lips, and had never seen that smile directed at him since his son had returned. He could feel as well as see a change in Johnny from the night before. He didn’t know what had happened, but he was thankful for it. For a moment, Murdoch couldn’t reply because of the emotions that churned inside. With a tremulous voice, he finally managed to say, “Feliz Navidad, mi hijo.”
Turning to Scott, Johnny grabbed him by the neck and gave him a quick embrace. “Merry Christmas, Boston—Scott.”
“Merry Christmas, brother, even if it is a bit early,” Scott replied, grinning. Something had changed since this morning. Scott wasn’t sure what, but he knew things were going to be better in the coming year. He could see it in his brother’s relaxed, easy manner. It was easy to respond in kind to the joy his brother was exuding. “And Happy New Year.”
“One thing at a time, Boston. One thing at a time, and one day at a time,” Johnny replied, laughing. He turned to Teresa, taking her in his arms and kissing her on the cheek. “Merry Christmas, querida.”
“Merry Christmas, Johnny, and thank you,” she whispered in his ear.
Johnny held Teresa for just a moment longer, then turned to Sam. “Hey, doc. You’re a day early for Christmas dinner, ain’t ya? I reckon you want to get a look at these stitches though, huh? Don’t guess I pulled more than eight of them out jumping those fences, but it sure was worth it!”
“Eight! That’s all that you have and you know it, you young fool. What am I going to do with you?!” Sam replied in exasperation, but he was smiling. Johnny’s good mood was just too infectious not to.
“Well, way I figure it is, you’ll give me a lecture while you use that dull old needle of yours to put the stitches back. Am I right?” Johnny teased.
“The longest lecture and the dullest needle I’ve got, young man,” Sam responded in kind.
“Yeah, well, you’ll probably have to wait on that lecture ‘til ol’ Murdoch and Scott get done with me. Best get to it all so we can be done before supper. Don’t want to be late ‘round here. The ol’ man there don’t like to be kept waiting,” Johnny laughed, heading for the hacienda.
Johnny’s laughter seemed like a warm blanket enveloping the others as they followed him. This was going to be a happy Christmas after all because love had been recognized and accepted. And, Christmas is all about recognizing and accepting love, right?
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son to the end that all that believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” JOHN 3:16. Remember: YOU are the reason for the season. God loves you and gave His Son for you. If you’ve never done it, won’t you accept the true Gift of Christmas? God’s love has been tested and is true. And, as Johnny and the Lancers could tell you, that kind of love is worth recognizing and accepting.
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