Word Count 7,375
Disclaimer: No, I don’t own them. Wish I did though.
Rated: PG for language. Also, a little bit of a sappiness warning, but tis the season.
Feedback: All feedback welcomed.
With a familiar feeling of detachment, Scott watched as Teresa stood up, moved to the hearth, and poked at the fire. He mused that with the firelight flickering behind her, it was like watching wavering dream images, something half remembered. With only the fire and one lamp in a far corner providing light, the room and the people in it appeared softened, the edges blurred. He partially closed his eyes and studied Teresa as she sat the poker back in its stand. Her actions were slow and measured; she seemed almost to be sleepwalking, but she turned her head to look into his eyes at one point, as though she could feel him studying her, and that particular look managed to stab at his lethargy a little bit. Then, without speaking to him, she went to stand beside Murdoch’s chair, adjusting a plaid blanket over his long legs, the Lancer tartan. It had been Teresa’s gift to her guardian last Christmas. When the blanket had been fussed with to her satisfaction, she moved to sit in a chair closer to the fire. She sipped at her drink and then wrapped her arms around herself. Sometimes it seemed to Scott as though Teresa was always cold anymore. She huddled near the fire whenever possible, and she always wore a sweater, always. Throughout her blanket fussing, Murdoch had neither moved nor spoken. Scott took a moment to wonder when was the last time he and his father had had a real conversation, one that did not include the words “fence” or “cattle,” one that wasn’t just about “calling the tune,” but it just took too much effort to think about it, and so he let it go.
He swept his eyes away from the quiet tableau, man and girl seated in matching leather armchairs, and looked down at the red-amber liquor in his glass. He sat hunched over on the couch with his forearms resting on his thighs, his glass cupped in both hands. He was in need of a haircut, another thing which took too much effort to even think about. His blonde hair hung in his eyes as he tipped his head down to admire his drink. He swirled it around a little bit, leaving long, silky fingers of liquid clinging to the sides of the snifter as he warmed the smooth bowl of it with his hand. He had already had two before this one, and the warmth of the expensive liquor was now spreading throughout his body, making him feel relaxed, and, thank God, sleepy for a change. The fire hissed and popped from being bothered, and the newly leaping flames created golden glints in his drink. Very pretty, he thought, but the sentiment died almost before it was born.
It was so astoundingly quiet here in the great room, with only the crackle of the fire to break the silence, that in the background, he could hear Maria finishing up in the kitchen, a quiet clatter of pans and the distant scrape of chairs on the tile floor. Soon she would head back to her little house. Her husband would be coming to escort her home any time now. Scott listened for her sweet voice, but she was mute. There was a time when Maria would hum or even sing as she went about her duties. Scott had not heard her do so for months.
It came to him that tomorrow would be Christmas Day, his second one here at Lancer.
Last year, Scott and his brother had been back home, here in California, for nearly six months when the holidays had rolled around. It had still felt strange and wonderful to say that, even after six months-he and his brother- they were that and more. Although, at times, he and Johnny and their father had a hard row to hoe, they had all pretty much settled in and gotten relatively comfortable in their roles with one another by the Christmas season. Well, Scott had gotten comfortable with the two of them. They, on the other hand were only moderately comfortable. Their relationship with one another, Johnny’s and Murdoch’s, was often rocky at best, but there were also unexpected, bright, shining moments of true family which they all cherished.
And, in spite of the minor, although sometimes loud, irritation of father and son disagreeing at times, Christmas had been wonderful. Scott remembered that it had been great fun figuring out what to make, buy or do for one another, for the entire estancia, for the community, in the spirit of Christmas. In fact, it had been the most fun he could ever remember having in connection with the Christmas season. One thing he found particularly enjoyable had been decorating the house, decking the halls. He had never been allowed to participate in such an activity growing up because that was “for the help to see to Scotty. Don’t be common.”
And while they had transformed the house, it had been such a joyful time, with Scott and Teresa teaching Johnny traditional Christmas hymns as they hung and placed greenery and carved and painted and strung ornaments, and then Johnny and Teresa, and even Maria, teaching him, okay, he could admit it, attempting to teach him, Mexican holiday songs, like the Pidiendo Posada
Also, last year, garland, smelling so cool and green, recreating memories of the dark, coniferous woods where it had been gathered, had draped this very mantle, where tonight’s fire burned, and it had run down the center of the dining room table, which had awaited their Christmas feast. A tree, cut on Lancer land by himself and Johnny, had been carefully dragged down from the mountains wrapped in a tarp, and it had graced the corner of this room, stuck in a bucket of sand. At first, the tree had confused Johnny some. “Why are we cutting down a perfectly good tree to stick it in a bucket of dirt in the house?” he had asked with a very perplexed look on his face. But once they had started in on the decorating and he had seen the beauty of it, he was no longer puzzled at all. In fact, he became the tree’s staunchest supporter in no time at all.
Before they were done with it, that tree had been brimming over with homemade decorations-tartan bows, painted wooden stars, pretty, dried red berries strung on thread, and tin snipped into holiday shapes and punched with holes. The tin ones were the very prettiest, reflecting the candlelight in the room. And it did seem that the whole house glowed with candlelight during the holiday. Scott thought that it was the most beautiful tree he had ever seen, far outdoing any tree his grandfather had ever had professionally decorated. For one thing, he had been allowed to touch this tree, to help decorate it, and that alone made it a superior tree, the best tree.
Over each doorway, he had personally hung a sprig of mistletoe, painstakingly located and engaged in the pine woods, up in the mountains north of the hacienda. Johnny had teased Teresa and Maria mercilessly, once he had been told the purpose of it, and had chased them both throughout the house, had sneaked up on one or the other, each and every time she found herself in a doorway, and bussed her cheek loudly. The entire hacienda rang with their laughter for days, until all of the little white berries had been picked clean. It wasn’t long before the girls turned the tables on his mischievous brother and started sneaking up on him instead, speeding up the disappearance of the kissing berries. Scott would never forget Johnny’s face the first time Maria had caught him looking the other way in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room.
Another thing which Scott remembered vividly about last Christmas was that the house had smelled warmly and constantly of cinnamon and ginger, nuts and citrus. The aroma of baking was ever present. Johnny had charmed Maria into promising to make chiles rellenos for breakfast on Christmas morning and then later into including something called Rosca de Reyes as a part of the Lancer Christmas dinner. Oh, and Christmas dinner had made the table groan with its magnitude, and Maria, along with her husband, and Cipriano and his wife, and Doc Sam had all joined them for the eating of it, all dressed in their finery. No one had left the table hungry on that Christmas night. No one had left the table without feeling the love that surrounded it either.
In Boston, Scott reflected later that evening, as he sat on the couch trying to recover from self-inflicted overabundance, in Boston he would have sat down in a very fancy, but confining, suit and tie to a formal dinner-grandfather at the head of the table and numerous business associates sitting up and down the long sides, silverware everywhere. The women would be sparkling with jewels, and the men would all have on black suit coats and snowy white shirts. They probably would have had crab or lobster, Beef Wellington with perigourdine sauce, gallons of expensive champagne. Only the best would do for Harlan Garrett. Here at Lancer, instead, Maria and Teresa had set the table with Mexican, Scottish and local dishes-especially lots of beef, of course, cooked outside in a pit and mopped with sauce-not perigourdine. For his part, Scott had requested lemon gingerbread, a treat he remembered from his childhood, and he had even had the recipe telegraphed to him from Mrs. Benson, his grandfather’s cook. Most importantly though, here, unlike the cold, formal dinners in Boston, laughter and teasing and love accompanied each and every mouthful.
And no one on the whole estancia had been more excited about Christmas last year than Johnny. He didn’t come right out and say it, but Scott figured that he really hadn’t had an “American” Christmas before, at least not one he could remember. His leaving from Lancer had been at such a young age. And really, why should he have had an American Christmas, living in the border towns with a Mexican mother? It seemed that he was more than willing to throw himself into it head first though, with the infectious enthusiasm of a child.
One evening, only a week or so before Christmas, the family had read “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens, aloud, by the fire, and when questioned about his own Christmas Past, at first, Johnny had said that he was more interested in his Christmas presents, and he had winked at Scott. But then, after Scott had administered a playful swat to the back of his head, he had spoken, hesitantly at first, of Las Posadas, which, he explained, was a very widespread custom in Mexico. Murdoch and Teresa were familiar with the custom, but for Scott it seemed wonderful and exotic.
Johnny told him that each night for many days before Christmas Eve, select children of a village would go from house to house, seeking shelter, singing a litany; the procession would be led by a tiny Virgen María, riding on a burro, which was led by an equally tiny San José, sporting a fake, horsehair beard. The other children following would play the parts of angels, shepherds with brightly decorated crooks, the three Kings. Finally, at a house chosen in advance, always the third house at which the crowd would stop, they would be given shelter in the “stable,” and that final house would throw wide its doors and host a party for all who had followed the procession. There would be good food and often even a piñata at the end of the evening for the children, filled with sugar cane and fruits. The luckiest child might even find a coin or two. While he admitted that he had never actually been “technically” invited to participate in one of Las Posadas, he winked at Scott again and told him that he had looked very much like a poor shepherd boy in those days, a great costume he had said, and he would sometimes be able to sneak in and enjoy the party. Sometimes he was discovered, but sometimes, some wonderful times, he wasn’t.
And then, later, when Johnny asked if they could build el Nacimiento in the yard, which Scott soon discovered was the same as what they called a Nativity scene in Boston, at the same time, he had also spoken of going to Christmas Mass, the Rooster Mass, Misa de Gallo, with his mother, almost before his remembering began, but still it was there. Buried in his rough and tumble, poor as dirt childhood, there existed a brief, but bright and beautiful, Christmas memory with his mother. After that conversation, Scott had worked for several long evenings to construct el Nacimiento for Johnny, had assembled it in darkness in front of the hacienda one evening, surprising his brother with it. And Johnny had had to swallow hard several times before he could speak. “Thanks, Scott-I, um, really. I…..”
Early on in the holiday season, after some hemming and hawing, Johnny had admitted to Scott that he had never had a Christmas present before-didn’t quite understand the concept of it really. Oh, he had said that presents were exchanged in Mexico, but on January 6th, on el día de Reyes. But, only the smallest children would get a gift, usually something like a new hat for a boy or a new colorful scarf for a girl. Would Scott explain the American tradition to him? But when he finally did get an understanding of the idea of the gifts, of the giving to all ages, and not being limited to one gift for each person, he had jumped in with both feet, so excited. He had pestered them all to death about what he should get the others-he had asked Scott endless questions about Murdoch and Teresa-would this be all right for her? Do you think he would like this? And Scott knew that Teresa and Murdoch had been quizzed about him as well.
On Christmas morning, Johnny had been very excited for them all to open the gifts he had fretted and obsessed over. He had wrapped them, each and every one, carefully, in pieces of material and colorful paper, instructed by Maria in the art of package decoration amidst much secrecy and whispering, laughter and scolding. But for some reason, Johnny didn’t seem to quite understand, or maybe believe, that they had all gotten gifts for him too.
Murdoch had thought long and hard when deciding on a gift for Johnny, had consulted with Scott, much like Johnny had about a gift for his father, and finally, he had been inspired by Johnny’s longing for warmer, Mexican weather, by his son’s complaints as a cold, wet fall had taken hold of and blanketed Lancer. Murdoch, on a trip to San Francisco, had gotten his brother a beautiful sheepskin lined, black leather coat, a thing of real beauty, and Scott remembered wondering at the time if Murdoch might have believed that it would keep Johnny from having a longing for Mexico.
When the time arrived, his brother had carefully opened the big package from his father, too carefully, as a chorus of “good grief” and “hurry up” and “for heaven’s sake son,” floated across the room to him. But, with all of them watching, and good-naturedly teasing him, he had taken his time, savoring every moment of the unwrapping. And then, after he had finally unveiled the gift, Johnny had just sat with the coat in his lap for a very long time, rubbing the warm, nubby sheepskin, the smooth, buttery soft leather. A while later, Teresa had called to him from across the room to try it on, but Johnny had looked at her without comprehension, had not tried it on, had just held it for the longest time. That very warm and beautiful leather coat still hung in the wardrobe in Johnny’s room.
It was difficult for Scott to grasp Johnny’s, well, the only word for it was his innocence. He was a Christmas innocent, without knowledge of how the whole thing ought to work here in California, here at Lancer, and not a wealth of knowledge from his lonely scattered growing up years either. But this innocence was a very good thing really. While he had very little knowledge of the getting, he had the concept of the giving nailed.
They were all, he, Murdoch, Teresa, Johnny, all learning one another’s ways last Christmas, all bringing traditions to the holiday, to be blended into a new and better, a stronger Christmas for them all. In addition to Johnny’s lessons concerning Christmas in Mexico, Scott enjoyed learning about the Scottish traditions that Murdoch had brought with him from Inverness. Among other things, his father had insisted that they all learn a traditional Scottish toast; Johnny had called it a brindis, and they practiced it for several days before Christmas. They were to use it between grace and the eating of the Christmas feast. Murdoch would say, “Slainte Mhath!” which meant ‘good health,’ to which they were all to answer, “Slainte Mhor!” meaning, ‘great health.’ They had all walked around the house loudly calling out the words of the toast to one another, practicing. It became a game-the moment one would see another down a hallway or across a room, the toast would be toasted. His father had also requested Dundee Cake for dessert and had spent long hours with Maria, experimenting, getting it just right, and Johnny and Scott had been more than happy to dispose of the rejects.
He was brought back to the present by the sound of a log falling in the fireplace, sending up a shower of sparks. He had been so wrapped up in his Christmas memories, that the sound had made him jump. And now, as he sat in the dark and quiet greatroom, glancing at Murdoch, who hadn’t moved, and then at Teresa, who only pulled her sweater around herself more securely, it occurred to Scott, a year later, that after they had all given and received their carefully chosen bounty last year, his ex-gunslinger brother hadn’t seemed to think that he had been worthy of receiving the gifts they had chosen for him.
As presents were dumped in Johnny’s lap on Christmas morning, he had taken to studying his boots, unable to look any of them in the eye. Scott remembered thinking at the time, as they prepared for their company to arrive after the giving and receiving of the gifts, that Johnny really didn’t know how to react to the outpouring of bounty, and the idea had cut through him. He’d had so much growing up, so many ‘things.’ His grandfather had loved the holidays, had hosted huge parties, and had spared no expense when it came to decorating their home and showering Scott with lavish gifts. He’d had hundreds of gifts through the years growing up. Strange, right now, he couldn’t recall a single one of them. Johnny had never had even one gift-not until last year. And so, as they had cleaned up the great room after the present opening frenzy in the early morning hours last Christmas morning in anticipation of the arrival of their Christmas dinner guests, Scott had apologized sincerely to his brother: “Johnny, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry ’bout what?” And his brother had looked so very genuinely puzzled. Then, he had smiled, “Sorry that Murdoch liked my present for him better than he liked yours?” His grin made Scott think of how young Johnny seemed sometimes. It was an enigma, how this hardened gunhawk could turn around and instantly be his “little” brother in the space of a quiet heartbeat.
And Scott did believe that Murdoch really had liked Johnny’s present better. Scott had ordered for his father an expensive silver inkstand-spent a month’s pay on it. But Johnny’s less expensive gift, pipe tobacco, all the way from England, had been the hit of the morning, and it had made Scott feel more than joyous to see the look on Johnny’s face when he, in turn, had seen the look on Murdoch’s. It was the first gift Johnny had decided on, so, really, the first Christmas gift his brother had ever purchased, and Scott had helped him to order it.
After that morning, the house had smelled like cherries and sweet smoke for nearly six months. But then Murdoch had put the remainder away-had hidden it away, and Scott didn’t know where he had hidden it. A couple of times, it had been on the tip of his tongue to ask, but then he had thought better of it. He had even looked for it once when he’d had the house to himself, had longed to smell it again, if only briefly, but he hadn’t found it. And even though it was never mentioned again, Scott knew that it was here somewhere, still lingering in the house, the memory of it like a ghost in the hacienda.
And they had tried to have Christmas this year, he and Teresa; God knows. They had tried valiantly to have Christmas. Of course, Murdoch had barely acknowledged the season. But, Scott had gone for a tree, alone of course. There had been no playful arguing over which tree was “perfect” as there had been last year. He had simply ridden out and chopped down the first one he had come upon which he believed would be short enough to fit inside of the house. No carols or toasts or laughter rang through the halls of Lancer this year. No mistletoe. No wonderful holiday smells filled the hacienda, although, Teresa, bless her loving, sad heart, had tried baking lemon gingerbread for him, to help his mood, and hers as well she said, but it had tasted like ashes in his mouth. She was nearly in tears as he tried to choke it down. But, she knew it wasn’t her fault, and it wasn’t Scott’s fault either. She knew why it just couldn’t be Christmas..
As he thought of her, Scott watched as Teresa stirred from her silent stillness, getting up from her place by the fire once again. She stood, accompanied by the soft creak of leather, which sounded loud in the oppressive quiet of the room. This time she wandered to the ornate buffet near the couch, where a tray of scotch and brandy, cut glass crystal and smooth, fat brandy snifters sat waiting. “More brandy, Scott?”
At his curt nod, she filled his glass and refilled her own as well. And then without asking, she poured two stiff fingers of scotch into a glass and carried it back to Murdoch. One look at that cut glass as it was enveloped in his father’s big, rough hand sent Scott back to this very room, to a time that was now six months gone.
It had been a very hot night in June, which had followed an equally hot day, so different from this rainy, cold night in December, worlds different. Scott remembered that, as he had sat on the verandah in the evening after supper that night, he had been thinking about just that, how hot it was, how in Boston, it would not be nearly this hot until late July, if then, and about how tired he was, how hard he’d had to work these past six months. But, at least his muscles had settled into the routine, didn’t protest every morning as he pulled himself from bed before the sun, as they had at first, when they had barked at him with every stretch.
He was thinking that it was nearly bedtime, another adjustment, this early bedtime business, but it was necessary, and how these people didn’t seem to know how to sleep past sunup. In fact, he believed that the early morning wake-up call was probably the most difficult change he’d had to make in California; cows couldn’t wait, it seemed. But he also remembered, as he sat there under a sky bursting with stars, that he had felt genuine contentment and a sense of pride, pride in his adjustment to this land, pride in his hard work, and pride in his newly formed family, a family that was struggling so hard to coalesce.
And then, from within the walls of the hacienda, he had heard familiar voices, in the great room, raised, shouting-Murdoch and Johnny at it again-and the voices were rapidly escalating in volume and in the intensity of the obvious anger. He sighed, and as he pulled his long lean body up from his perch on the low adobe wall, he wondered if the two of them would ever figure out a way to co-exist without snapping one another’s head off periodically.
He knew that the two men loved each other, even if neither would ever admit to it aloud, but they were both just so damn stubborn, two of a kind really, from the same mold. And, with some sort of inborn instinct, they both knew exactly how to rub the other one the wrong way-just which words to say, which moves to make, the exact tone of voice to use. And they both employed this ability with the skill of a surgeon.
Scott really was getting just a little tired of acting as the constant mediator and go between for these two, supposedly, grown men, but he couldn’t think of any other way around it. He figured if he ever did go back east, he would now be a natural to work as an Ambassador. Yes Sir, Mr. President. Sure, send me to Prussia. Of course, I can fix that little problem. Both of these men who meant so much to Scott would admit, but only to him of course, that they wanted their relationship to be less fractious, but then something would set fire to a spark, and they would be at it again, loudly and enthusiastically.
As he made his way towards the French doors that led into the back of the room that evening, Teresa, her head down, had nearly knocked him over; she seemed to be in an enormous hurry to escape the battlefield. She was looking for him, looking for him to “fix it” of course, and tears were spilling down her cheeks. “Oh Scott. He says he’s leaving. Please, you’ve got to stop him.” And he knew, of course, that the only “he” should could possibly mean was Johnny.
All Scott could think of was-not again. They had been through this several months ago, Murdoch and Johnny, heated words, Johnny leaving in anger, and it had all been because of some stupid wild horses and a few cattle. And really, a year now into their partnership, still, at some point every day, the thought occurred to Scott that this might be the day when Johnny leaves. When would that feeling ever completely go away? What was wrong between them now? What were they fighting about this time?
But by the time he had gotten to the great room, it had already been over. Murdoch sat at his desk, a mostly full glass of scotch enveloped in his big hand, a dark, stormy cloud hovering thickly around him, still threatening to break loose at the slightest provocation. He was staring blankly out at the stars Scott had been admiring only moments before, and Johnny was nowhere in sight.
Seeing Murdoch’s stern visage, it wasn’t hard for Scott to decide that he might have more luck with his brother than with his father. But he was very wrong about that. Without bothering to knock, Scott had walked purposely into Johnny’s room to find him packing a few things into his old, battered saddlebags. Johnny looked up at him and spoke as though he was expecting him: “I’ll leave Barranca at the livery in Morro Coyo. You pick him up and bring him back here for me, will ya please Scott?” He turned away for a moment to pick up something from the end of his bed. And then, without looking at his brother, he continued, “And please take good care of him. But, I know you will. I’m only takin’ what I came with.”
He had turned around then and had looked Scott square in the eye for the first time since his brother had entered the room, and what had really frightened Scott wasn’t the words that Johnny had said, or even the fact that he was talking about leaving Barranca behind, but it was the look on his brother’s face. He didn’t look angry or hurt. He just looked resigned, and tired, infinitely tired.
“Johnny, why are you doing this? You know Murdoch. He’ll forget that anything has happened by morning, and he’ll be telling you which creek he wants checked. And you’ll feel better after a night’s sleep too. You two can work this out.”
“No,” he shook his head sadly. “No, I won’t feel better. And no, Scott, we won’t work this out. Not this time.” He pushed past his brother and walked out of the door, just walked away. It was like he didn’t even feel that the previous six months had ever happened, as though he and Scott had not forged a bond.
Scott followed calling after him, beginning to panic. “What’s this about Johnny? Talk to me. We can fix this no matter what was said or done. That’s what families do.”
“Just leave it, Scott. I can’t stay here.” And with that he was gone, just gone, as though he had never been there, except that he had left behind so much, touched their lives so deeply.
Things were not the same. As Johnny had made very clear, Barranca was left behind, and the horse had definitely not been the same since Johnny had left. The gift from his father, that wonderful new coat, the Christmas coat, it was left behind, the new saddle Johnny had worked so hard to save up for, clothes that Teresa had mended and cared for, pictures of the family, left behind, and Scott, Scott had been left behind. And Scott was not the same, no, not the same at all.
And he was still gone. It had been six months. Scott sipped at his brandy and looked over at Murdoch once again. Not once in six months had his father mentioned Johnny, not one damn time. And if Scott dared to mention him, or if Teresa did, Murdoch would stare at that person for a moment and firmly change the subject; or sometimes, he would just leave the room. It didn’t even matter what the original conversation had been about, if Johnny’s name came into it, Murdoch disappeared. It was as though Johnny had never been there, never been a huge part of their lives, never teased Teresa or spent the evening playing chess with Scott, shared meals and work and fun with them all. It seemed as though Murdoch had thrown the memory of Johnny firmly away.
That evening in June, after his brother had left, Scott had stormed into the great room; he was livid, nearly sputtering with black anger and had demanded to know what was going on, had raged at his father. But Murdoch was a changed man-that quickly, from a normal supper with the family, talking about the next day’s work, praising Teresa for a lovely meal, to angry words with his son an hour later-and he hadn’t been the same since. No, he hadn’t been the same at all.
That evening was the first indication of the new Murdoch. He didn’t defend his actions with Johnny that night; he didn’t speak at all. And now, he never looked his oldest son in the eyes anymore. As far as Scott could tell, he never looked anyone in the eyes anymore. Strangely, he walked with a limp again, like he had when the brothers had first come to Lancer, had even fished out his old cane to use. And, he drank far too much. With this thought, Scott looked down at his third brandy, and then set it on the table next to his chair. He looked over at his father again, who sat staring at the flames, just as he had been doing all evening. Murdoch never, never, laughed or smiled anymore, and he rarely talked. Scott and Teresa hadn’t just lost Johnny that night; they had lost Murdoch too.
Scott had tried to mend the fence. In Morro Coyo that next day, Scott had found Johnny in the saloon sipping at a beer, just as he had that first time his brother had decided to leave with Wes and the black stallion. This time though, Johnny didn’t smile at him, didn’t even really talk to him-just told him quietly that he would not be changing his mind. That he was leaving on the stage, first thing the next morning. Then, he had asked Scott again to see to Barranca, stood up abruptly, and walked out of the saloon, left Scott sitting there alone, not even a farewell handshake this time to mark the leaving. So, Scott had ridden home without further protest, without trying again, but, at the time, he hadn’t really believed that his brother would leave, not really, couldn’t believe it. He had expected to see him come riding home within a day or two, a week at the most.
And now it had been six months-six very long months-and tomorrow was Christmas Day. Merry Christmas to us every one, he thought wryly. He was very sure about what he wanted for Christmas this year. All I want for Christmas, he thought, is my life back, my brother back, my father. Nothing, nothing at all, was the same. The contrast between last year and this one was unbelievable. There was very little greenery in the house, only the little tree, and that tree had been decorated in a haphazard manner, mostly by a quietly weeping Maria. There were no delicious smells of the holidays wafting from the kitchen on this Christmas Eve, and no guests had been invited to share a feast in honor of the day tomorrow. As far as Scott knew there were exactly three gifts under the tree; he and Teresa had gotten each other a gift, and together they had picked out something or other too for Murdoch.
But most of all the house had no laughter, no lightness, and most importantly, most sadly, no hope. Just today, he had come to a decision. Until recently, he had held onto a tiny shred of hope that Johnny would return. Now, after six months, that hope had finally died. That hope and Teresa had been the only things holding him here in California. Now there was only Teresa.
He had believed for many months that if he willed it, if he wanted it badly enough, and he did want it so very badly, that Johnny would find his way home. That this magical season, more than any other time of the year, would bring the prodigal son back into their midst. He glanced out of the big window behind his father’s desk and saw the north star shining brilliantly, hugely, in the sky. It had guided travelers in a far away land, all those many, many years ago. If only it would guide his brother. But, it had been so long now, Scott could only assume that Johnny had finally met an inevitable gunfighter’s fate.
He was nothing if not pragmatic. He was not given to flights of fancy. His grandfather had trained that tendency out of him many years ago, had taught him not to expect miracles. And so he didn’t. Tomorrow, no, the day after, not on Christmas, he couldn’t tell him on Christmas Day, but the day after that, he would tell Murdoch. He and Teresa had decided this morning. They would be leaving as soon as they could get packed, definitely before the New Year. Together they would head east, to Boston.
Scott looked over at Teresa now and caught her looking intensely back at him. He could see the firelight sparkling off of a tear that rolled slowly down her cheek. He jerked his eyes away from her. No tears. No tears, please. Please, all I want for Christmas….
There was a soft knock at the door. Scott wondered idly who it could be, but it really didn’t strike him as important, not nearly as important as finishing this brandy and then stumbling up the steps to bed. Julian would come for Maria at the kitchen door, so he knew that it wasn’t him. He hoped that it wasn’t a problem that would require him to leave the house, not tonight. With nothing better to do, he had volunteered to help with chores on Christmas Day-chores that didn’t disappear just because it was a holiday. And, several of the vaqueros had volunteered to work through this holiday too, men with no family, with nowhere to go. Surely they could handle whatever problem might have developed here tonight. He sent off a short prayer that there were no cows wallowing in rain-soaked gullies which needed his attention. He was just too damned tired to chase a bunch of dumb cows, and yes, just a little bit too drunk as well.
And then he heard Maria crossing to open the door, and shortly after that, he heard her sharp, intake of breath in the surrounding quiet. “Gracias Dios, oh, gracias.” He looked at her, and she was frozen in place, her hands folded at her ample breast, a bright red and yellow dish towel clutched in them, but then suddenly, her breath came in heaving gasps, and when she could finally actually catch her breath, she let loose a long string of soft but very hard to follow Spanish. She looked through the doorway at someone, spoke to that someone, someone standing just out of his sight.
He heard a small gasp and turned to see that Teresa had looked over at Maria also. And then, as she caught full sight of their visitor, she stood abruptly, literally jerking to her feet; he could tell that she could see from her angle of vision whom it was who stood just outside of the door. Her eyes grew large and round, and, inexplicably, he thought he could hear her moan softly. Then, she moved forward awkwardly. She could tell who was there. Then she was stumbling even faster towards the doorway, one hand held out in front of her, as though reaching for something, reaching across not just space, but across time as well. She could see who stood just beyond the door. She was crying, instantly, big tears, just rolling unchecked, and he saw that Maria was crying as well and crossing herself over and over again.
Then both women were moving forward through the doorway, each one reaching out for someone. And suddenly he knew. All I want for Christmas….Could it really be possible? He jumped up and almost tripped over his own feet in his haste to get to the door; he did manage to tip his brandy over onto the floor, the glass shattering spectacularly. No matter. Suddenly, he knew without a doubt that his grandfather had been wrong. He had been so dead wrong. Miracles do happen. His Christmas miracle was standing in the doorway. He knew it. He knew it. Before he could even see him, he knew it was him. And then he was there, at the door.
After six long months, Johnny had finally found his way home-standing there, one arm around each of the sobbing women, he looked a bit battered, and wet, and he was definitely thinner. His hair was longer, unkempt; he never could keep it trimmed. He wore the same clothes he had walked out of the door in, every last stitch. His red shirt was ripped on one sleeve, his boots scraped and scuffed, and he held his worn, dripping hat in the hand he had thrown around Maria.
There was a brand new scar running just through one eyebrow, and he stood awkwardly, as though he couldn’t put his full weight on his left leg. But he was home. “Johnny,” he breathed.
In a soft voice, a voice that Scott had longed to hear for so long now, a voice that seemed unsure, possibly, of acceptance, he answered his brother. “Feliz Navidad, Boston.” And then stronger, a bit more sure, teasing, “How come you haven’t put up el Nacimiento? Oh, and where’s my present?” He stepped forward, towards his brother.
After a moment of complete and utter silence, Scott nearly knocked Johnny down as he grabbed him in a hug. “Johnny. Dear God. You’re home. You’re home. Where have you been? Why didn’t you send word, just once even, to let us know that you were all right? I was pretty darn sure you must be dead by now, boy. What’s wrong with your leg?” He knew that he was babbling, but he didn’t care.
Holding onto his brother fiercely, slapping him on the back, Johnny began talking before Scott had even stopped to take a breath, “Lo siento, Scott. Really, I am. I’ve missed you so much, brother. I didn’t think I could get beyond the words me and the old man spat at one another that night. But, I found out that my heart was here at Lancer, always. It always will be. I couldn’t stay away. I couldn’t, no matter what the words.”
Scott pulled away, held Johnny at arm’s length studying him; his brother was home. He could see that Johnny was looking over his shoulder into the heart of the great room, searching for and then looking at Murdoch, so Scott turned and looked at his father too.
The Old Man had heard the commotion, looked up and could see who stood in the doorway. Scott was afraid, so incredibly afraid, that Murdoch would bellow and roar. That he would tell him, “You’re not welcome here, boy,” or something to that effect. That Johnny might have taken the first step, extended the hand of forgiveness and peace, in vain. But Murdoch sat up straighter, pulled the plaid blanket from his legs and was walking slowly towards the group at the door. Scott could see that he was trembling. With anger? With sorrow? He came up to Johnny and stood right in front of him. “Johnny,” he whispered, and his strength gave out completely at that moment. He fell to his knees in front of his son. “Johnny,” he said, in hushed tones nearly like a prayer. Scott knew then that his father was trembling with joy.
Johnny moved forward a step, away from the group surrounding him where they all still stood in the doorway, and awkwardly lowered himself to his knees in front of his father, grabbing him by the shoulders. “Lo Siento, Murdoch. So very, very sorry.”
His father looked up at last, looked his wayward son full in the eye. Tears brimmed in his eyes, ready to fall. “No, Johnny. No, I’m sorry.” Johnny was shaking his head. “No, no,” Murdoch continued, “it was me; it was my mouth, my damn, big, bellowing mouth. It just came out. I don’t believe it now, and I didn’t believe it then. Your mother…..Your mother…..”
“No. Stop. Don’t even talk about her. Nothing good can come of it. I don’t believe it. I’ll never believe it. I don’t care what she may have said, or what you think you might have heard. I. Don’t. Believe. It.”
Then in a very quiet voice. “I don’t believe it either, son.” Murdoch reached out and awkwardly put his arms around his wayward boy. “Please, Son, please come home to stay.”
And Johnny leaned into his father and knew that at last he was truly home. “Si, of course I’ll stay. That’s all I ever really wanted for Christmas.”
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