Christmas Worlds by Desert Sun

Word Count 8,832

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Chapter 1 – Johnny’s World

He stood wide-eyed rubbing thumbs and fingers together at his side.  One step away, hung the forbidden object. Did he dare get close enough to touch it?

“Oh!”  Johnny Lancer sucked in his breath.  They were back again, the tiny slivers of light sparkling from the shiny metal star on the tree beside the fireplace.  He had tried to catch one of the dazzling beams the day before but had failed.  The only thing he had captured was a swift swat on the seat of his britches.

He remembered turning on the flood in hopes his mama would feel sorry for him and let him have his way.  The stream of big tears running out of his eyes and rolling down his cheeks hadn’t helped one bit.  Mama had marched him over to the chair on the other side of the fireplace and told him to sit there until supper was ready.

Next, he had tried sucking in his breath with raspy gasps between each sob.  No good.  Mama had simply ignored him.  Recalling that crying louder hadn’t worked either, he wondered if other mamas couldn’t hear when they were cooking.

Johnny’s pudgy cheeks dimpled.  His efforts hadn’t been without their reward. Papa had returned just then.  The giant man had swooped down and grabbed him by the arms, tossed him into the air, caught him by the wrists with big hands, and then whirled him around and around.

A giggle gurgled in his throat.  Papa had hugged him close and tickled his ribs until new tears had rolled down his face and laughter had left him out of breath with his sides aching.  The best part was when his papa had carried him over to the tree and pointed at the ornaments.  “Johnny, look at all of the nice things Mama put on the tree.  We have bows made out of ribbon, and strings of popcorn and cranberries.  See how the star sparkles in the sun.  Isn’t it pretty?” Then Papa had done the unthinkable and let him touch it.

Johnny wrinkled his eyebrows.  The picture in his mind of what had happened next was not pleasant, at all.  Mama had hollered at Papa.  She had marched up to the big man, raised her hand, and waved a wooden spoon in his face.

Wincing at the cramping of his belly, Johnny bit his lower lip as memories flooded his mind.  He didn’t like it when Mama got angry like she had the day before.  She had acted like she was going to whack his papa.

Johnny remembered peeking out from behind the sofa where he had run after Papa had put him down before turning to face Mama and how scared he’d been when his papa tried to retrieve the paddle, which was how he always thought of his mama’s big wooden spoon.  He’d felt it against his backside more than once.  Of course, it had never hurt anything more than his feelings.  Mama never hit him that hard or anyplace not protected by his thick diaper.  With Papa, it was different.  More than once, Johnny had heard the smart crack of the wood against his papa’s arm, shoulder, or back.  A couple of times, he had even seen his mama use the spoon smartly on his papa’s behind.  Papa never cried.  He usually laughed.  Johnny wondered if it was because Papa was big and big people didn’t cry.

The grin returned to Johnny’s lips.  Mama hadn’t had a chance of winning the day before.  Once Papa had caught up with her darting arms and clamped his hand around the weapon, the big man had easily twisted the paddle right out of her grip and tossed it to one side before wrapping her up in his strong arms.  She had yelled and kicked and squirmed, but it hadn’t done any good.  Papa had gone right on rubbing his scratchy whiskers, the result of his having been gone for two days, against Mama’s cheeks and showering her with kisses.  Finally she’d given in and had hugged and kissed Papa in return.

A frown puckered Johnny’s brow, and his young mind tried to figure out the mystery of what had happened next.  Papa had picked up Mama like she was a child, packed her off to their room, and shut door.  There had been a lot of laughing before Mama and Papa had come out again.  After that, Mama had been in one of her cheerful, giggly moods.

Johnny recalled how pleasant the rest of the evening had been.  His mama had given him lots of hugs and kisses, and his papa had gotten lots of Mama’s bright smiles.  A soft sigh whistled through Johnny’s nose.  He wished Papa would make Mama happy like that all of the time.

A brighter flash of light gleaming from the silver ornament brought Johnny back to the present.  He inched forward, swallowed hard, and glanced around.  Seeing he was alone, he stretched a chubby arm upward.  His hand wavered.  Drawing in a deep breath, he gathered his nerve and then lightly brushed the tip of his finger against the edge of the thin star-shaped piece of metal.

Johnny’s breath caught nosily when the star began to gently swing while the sun coming through the big window bounced off it.  As the ray of light slowly moved before his eyes, his mouth spread into a wide grin.  The dimples in his cheeks deepened, and his heart thumped faster in his chest.  Totally fascinated by the beautiful display of reflected light, he was oblivious to everything else around him.

When the swirling beam slowed to a stop, Johnny gave the ornament a firmer shove. It twirled in the space below the end of the branch it was suspended from, and the streak of light danced faster for a moment.  He clapped his hands and stomped his feet as squeals of glee burst from him.

“Juanito!  How many times must you be told, no?”

Johnny’s excitement ground to a halt at the sound of his mama’s sharp voice.  He poked his lower lip out and blinked to clear away the salty pools of moisture that had sprung into his eyes.  A shudder ran through his shoulders of what would soon follow.  His mama sure knew how to spoil his fun.

“Come to Mamá, Jaunito.”

Johnny stepped back from the outstretched arms.  They looked inviting, but he wasn’t sure he could trust them.  Mama didn’t like it when he touched things he wasn’t supposed to.  She had to have the paddle hidden someplace close at hand.  He wasn’t about to be fooled into letting her get a hold of him so that she could use the dreaded spoon on his bottom again.

Maria Lancer moved closer, and Johnny darted sideways and then dashed for the far side of the room.  His short legs couldn’t outrun his mama’s, so he ducked under the table and stopped on the other side.  He’d learned that keeping a piece of furniture between them made it difficult for her to catch him.

Johnny was so intent on avoiding his mama that he didn’t hear the door behind him open and close.  A shrill scream tore from him as an arm caught him around the middle and lifted him off the floor.  He kicked his feet and pounded at the arm with his fists while continuing to yell at the top of his lungs until he heard a deep voice just inches from his ear say, “Johnny, settle down.”

“Papa?”  He craned his neck and looked up to meet the stern look in his father’s eyes.  Now he’d done it.  Hadn’t Papa warned him about running from Mama?

“Husband, take Juanito with you, por favor.  If I turn my back for un momento, he goes to the tree. I scold and scold, but he does not stay away.  I fear it will fall on him, yet I cannot watch him constantly while I am cooking.”

From the tone of his mama’s voice, Johnny was sure that he was in big trouble.  He knew enough of her words to know what she was telling his papa. He looked at his father’s big hand resting against his small chest and clinched his jaws together.  If Papa did the punishing, that hand would be used on his bare-bottom instead of on the padded seat of his pants.  He could already hear the loud pop and feel the sting.  A tear found its way down the side of his face and dripped off his chin as he sniffed and hiccupped.

Johnny felt himself being lowered until his feet touched the tile floor.  Firm fingers lifted his chin and forced him to look upward into the eyes of his father who was kneeling in front of him.  Sniffling between each word, Johnny said, “Sawie Papa . . . Yonny sawie.”

“I’m sure you are, Son, but Mama’s the one you need to apologize to.”  The man’s hands engulfed Johnny’s shoulders and squeezed gently.  Then they guided him around to face his mother and gave him a little push.  “Now tell Mama you’re sorry.  Then we’ll get your hat and coat, and you can go for a ride with me.”

Johnny glanced back at his papa.  Receiving the reassurance that he needed in the eyes of the tall man, he drew his small frame up proudly and marched over to his mama.  “Mama, Yonny sawie.  No do ‘gin.”  His glistening blue eyes searched for the twinkle of forgiveness to appear in his mama’s eyes.

His body relaxed when Mama pulled him close and gave him a tight squeeze.  “Juanito, what must I do?  You are so defiant, but I am not able to punish you as you deserve,” she said, her words muffled in his hair.

When his mother held him out away from her, Johnny flashed her a dimpled grin that lit up his eyes.  He didn’t quite understand all that his mama had said, but it didn’t matter.  Mama was smiling.

A few minutes later, Johnny merrily tugged at his father’s hand as they headed toward the door.  Mama had forgiven him and Papa was taking him for a ride.  Once again, all was right with his world.

Chapter 2 – Murdoch’s World

Murdoch Lancer halted his horse on a hill overlooking his massive Spanish casa.  Although its dingy-gray, stone exterior was crumbling in many places and reflected little of the mid-afternoon sun, he could envision the stone walls as they once had been–magnificent, gleaming white.  Silently he vowed that one day they would be like that again.

For a few minutes, Murdoch gazed out over his dream.  Near the road that led to the house a short distance away was a solidly built rock structure that had served as a jail when the estancia had been the center of Spanish civilization in the area.  It was one of the few buildings that still remained of the original hacienda, which he had been told, included a store, housing for more than a hundred workers and their families, and a small mission that served as both chapel and school.  A corral made of rocks piled one upon the other and mortared together was attached to one side of the stockade.  Until recently, portions of the stone fence had been in bad need of repair, the gates broken or charred beyond use.

Murdoch’s heart swelled with pride.  The gleam of recently hung wooden gates and the new barn on the other side of the enclosure were reminders of his hard work.  In time, there would be more including a stable for horses–palominos, the best in the country.  He’d put it there next to the barn, and fence the flat area on the other side into a big pasture.  Once the ditch was finished, he’d have all the water he needed to turn the whole valley into one big green meadow.  Then he’d see if people still laughed and said this land would grow nothing but scrub-brush.  First, though, he’d take O’Brien and go to Sonora right after the first of the year.  He’d buy another herd of cattle, drive them north, and sell them at a hefty profit to the miners.  Then, he’d go get Scott.

“Papa. Go.”

Murdoch dropped his gaze from the world beyond him to the dark-haired child tugging at his sleeve.  “Yes, Johnny.  We’ll go soon.”

He smiled down on his small son sitting in front of him.  Johnny’s short legs straddled the fork of the saddle and the fingers of one chubby hand were entwined in the horse’s mane.  “For you, my boy,” he whispered.  “All of that is for you.  You and your brother.”

Johnny’s legs wiggled as they always did when Murdoch stopped too long in one spot.

Murdoch rubbed his son’s arm.  “Next year, Johnny, you’ll have a big brother to play with . . . and to help keep an eye on you.  He’ll be five next September, so he’ll be a big help to your mama.  He’d be here now if I could have managed to go after him.  He’s in Boston.  Do you know where that is?”

Johnny tipped his head back and grinned up at Murdoch.  “Go, Papa?”

“In a minute, Son.  First, let me tell you a story, all right?”

Johnny nodded his head vigorously.  “Stowy.”

“Awaaaay . . . on the other side of the country . . . there’s a place called Boston.  There’s a harbor there.  That’s where they tie up ships.  Remember, Papa’s ship in the house–the one you’re not supposed to touch.”

“Sip.  No!  Mama ‘pank!” Johnny shook his head and wagged his finger.

Murdoch chuckled.  On more than one occasion, he had seen Maria shake her finger at their son in much the same manner.

“Anyway,” Murdoch said.  “Back there in Boston, you have a big brother.  His name is Scott.  Next year I’m going to go get him.  How about that?  Would you like a brother to play with?”

Johnny wrinkled his brows and squinted up and Murdoch.  “Scopp?  Buvver?  Pway?”  He nodded and then rocked back and forth thumping his heels against the horse’s shoulders.  “Go Papa!”

Murdoch laughed.  “Johnny, you have a one track mind.  No wonder your mama has such a time keeping up with you.  You can’t sit still for five minutes.”

“Go!”

“All right, Son.”  Murdoch gently nudged his mount into a walk and guided it down the hill.  When they reached the level ground at the bottom, he urged the horse into a full gallop.  As always, the faster pace brought squeals of delight from Johnny.

A little less than a mile from home, Murdoch slowed the horse to a walk so it would be cooled out by the time they reached the corral.  He wasn’t at all surprised that his son protested loudly, but he didn’t give in, either.  “We have to go slow, Johnny.  If we put the horse away hot, he’ll get sick,” he said.  “You don’t want Socks to be sick, do you?”

As expected, Johnny vigorously shook his head and quieted down.  For the rest of the ride, he seemed content to lean back against his father’s broad chest and follow the horse’s rhythmic motion.

When Murdoch arrived at the barn, he dismounted and led Socks inside.  After hoisting Johnny onto a feed barrel, he stripped the saddle and blankets from the horse’s back, and gave the animal a thorough rubdown and brushing.

Murdoch looked up and smiled when he noticed that his son was watching his every move.  He loved having Johnny with him and wished that he could spend more time with the boy.  Ranch work, however, was hard and often dangerous.  Having a child along just wasn’t practical.  Someday, though, they would spend lots of time together, just the two of them.

In his mind, Murdoch saw an older Johnny.  Together, they were rounding up cattle and burning the Lancer L on the hip of a new calf, clearing brush from a gully, or driving steers to market.  The scenes soon changed to include a third form with fair hair as he saw his older son, Scott, riding and working alongside them.

Murdoch’s throat ached and the corners of his eyes leaked.  He made a silent promise to the child he’d never seen.  Come fall of the next year, he would make the trip to Boston.  He’d arrive by Scott’s birthday.  His family would all be together before another Christmas arrived.

For a while, Murdoch indulged himself with daydreams of two young boys.  One was slender built with blond hair and the other was shorter, stockier, and dark haired.  He could see them playing tag in amongst the trees by the house, skipping stones on a pond, and sitting beside a stream while they fished away a lazy summer afternoon.  Like most brothers, they teased each other unmercifully, scuffled, fought with each other and for each other, conspired, laughed, and cried together–inseparable.

“Papa.  Dow!” Johnny’s insistent voice interrupted Murdoch’s thoughts.

Murdoch shook his head and chuckled.  His son had waited quietly for close to five minutes, which was about the limit of Johnny’s patience.  There would be no peace now.

While Johnny kicked his heels against the side of the barrel and every minute or so voiced his need to be moving, Murdoch continued with the task at hand.  His son would just have to learn that a man took care of his horse first and then attended to his own needs.

At last, the horse’s coat was shining, and Murdoch swung Johnny up onto its back and led it out to the pasture that paralleled the house.  Once the animal had been turned loose inside the rail fence, he hefted his son onto his own shoulders and headed toward the house. 

“G’yup, Papa,” Johnny called.

At the rocking of his son’s body, Murdoch took off in a mock gallop toward the house.  He reached the stone wall along the edge of the courtyard, dodged around the end, and nearly unseated the child.  At the door, Murdoch made a few whirls then halted to stomp a foot and snort.  The whole time, Johnny whooped and laughed in his ear.

The mirth and excitement expressed in his son’s high-pitched giggles were infectious, and Murdoch joined in with a deep-throated laugh.  It was Christmas and he’d never been happier.  He’d spent a lovely afternoon with his pride-and-joy.  The ranch had made a tidy profit for the first time, and he’d have his older son with him come next fall.

Murdoch grasped his son’s wrist.  In one smooth motion, he swung Johnny up and over his head then enfolded his arms around the small body and squeezed.  With a full heart, he reached out to open the door.  His dream ranch was taking shape.  He had a beautiful wife and his arms held a child that he loved more than life itself.  All was right with his world–almost.  All that was lacking was Scott, but he’d be there next Christmas.  Then his family would be complete.

Chapter 3 – Maria’s World

Maria Lancer swept a stray strand of long black hair back from her face and stirred the pot of venison stew steaming on the stove.  Satisfied that it was ready to eat, she put the pan of Scottish shortbread into the oven.  Tamales, rollenos, rice, and churros would have been more to her liking, but she had promised her husband a Christmas dinner in keeping with the traditions of his homeland since the evening before had been observed according to her customs.

Just before dark on Christmas Eve, they had headed for Morro Coyo to join in the celebration of the Holy Night. There had been singing and dancing until midnight when the birth of the Christ child had been announced by the flaring lights and crackling of fireworks.  Afterward, they had returned home for a hearty Mexican meal before sleeping for a few hours.

Normally, the rest of Christmas Day would have held no significance for Maria.  However, she believed her son should learn of the heritage he had received from his father, so she had worked hard throughout the early afternoon to prepare a traditional Scottish meal.

While the biscuit-like cake was baking, Maria neatly arranged four plates along with utensils on the small dining table.  Next, she went to the fireplace on the far side of the large room and added another log to the fire.  When it was blazing away, once again adding warmth to the room, she returned to the kitchen.

A peek at the shortbread revealed that it was done.  Maria took it out of the oven and set it on the cutting board to cool.  She stirred the stew and then poked a fork into the potatoes on the bottom rack of the oven.  Finding that they were soft, she put them into a bowl and covered them with a folded dishtowel to keep them warm.

Satisfied that the meal was ready, Maria went back into the sparsely furnished main room of the house.  She saw a couple of her son’s toys lying on the floor, picked them up, and put them in the box by the fireplace.  Just then, she heard Johnny’s squeals mingled with his father’s hearty laughter.  A few seconds later, the door opened and Murdoch Lancer entered carrying their son.

“Mama.  Go fass,” Johnny said excitedly as his father lowered him to the floor.

“I was careful,” Murdoch said before she had a chance to scold him for taking chances.  “Hmm.  Smells good. I’m starved.”

“You are always hungry, Husband,” she said while removing their fidgeting son’s hat and coat.  “Juanito, hold still, por favor.”  When Johnny’s hands were free of the sleeves, she focused on Murdoch once more.  “The food, it is ready.  When Señior O’Brien is here, we will eat.”

As if on cue, there was a loud rapping.  “That must be him, now.”  Murdoch turned to open the door and motioned for their guest to enter.  “Paul, come in.”

“Hope I’m not late.  That hammer-headed gelding busted the corral fence last night.  Makes twice this week.  Took me all morning to catch the horses and get them locked up again.”  O’Brien shrugged out of his thin coat and handed it to Maria.  “Sure be glad when I can afford to built something new.  I’m not so sure being a landowner is such a great thing after all.”

“We get that herd back from Sonora, you’ll have some extra money,” Murdoch said and motioned for his friend to follow him to the other side of the room.  “Let’s go sit by the fire.  You look like you could use some warming up.  Care for a drink?”

Paul took the glass from Murdoch’s hand.  “Thanks.  It is a bit chilly out.  Beginning to look like it could snow come evening.  I’m thinkin’ I’d better get started home about dark.”

Maria decided to put the food on the table while the men continued to talk of the cattle-buying trip.  She didn’t want to hear their plans and feel the clutch of fear in her heart that the thought of Murdoch being gone for two months always brought.  So much could happen.

She tried to tell herself that he had to go.  There was a fortune to be made from buying cheap cattle in Mexico, driving them up to the California gold fields, and selling them for several times the amount that had been paid for them.  However, the knowledge that the money would go a long ways toward building the ranch that she knew her husband dreamed of one day passing on to his children did not relieve her anxieties.

~~~~~

A couple hours after his arrival in the Lancer home, Paul O’Brien stood by the door and slipped on his coat.  Smiling at Maria, he said, “Delicious meal, Señora.  I hope this man of yours knows how lucky he is to have such a good cook.”

Maria felt the heat rise in her checks at the praise coming from her husband’s friend and one time foreman.  The meal had indeed been a success.  Even Murdoch had said the stew was the best he had ever tasted.  Of course, she had no intention of telling him it was the added spices that made the difference.  She was hoping she could get away with adding even more chili peppers in the future.

An arm was placed possessively around her shoulders, and Maria looked up into the loving eyes of her husband.  “I certainly am lucky,” Murdoch said.

“Much as I hate to eat and run, I’d best be getting on home.  A while ago, it looked like it was snowing in the mountains.” O’Brien buttoned his coat, settled his hat in place, and said to Maria, “Thanks for the shirt.  It’s real nice.”  Just before he opened the door to leave, he placed a gloved hand on Johnny’s head and ruffled the child’s hair.  “You be a good boy, Amigo, okay?”

After Paul had gone, Maria cleaned off the table while Murdoch took Johnny and went out to put the horses in the barn.  By the time they returned, she had the table cleared and the dishes done up.

“Maria, come and sit by the fire with me,” Murdoch said as he picked up the large Bible that lay on the small table by the sofa.  “When I was growing up, it was a family tradition for the man of the house to read the Christmas story.”

After settling Johnny between them, Murdoch opened the Bible and read in a deep tone that was pleasing to Maria’s ears.  “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.  Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily.  But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.  And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.”

Maria leaned her head against her husband’s shoulder while he found the next portion of Scripture.  Contentedly, she listened to the voice she never tired of hearing.  “…And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.  And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.  And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Johnny squirmed and made an attempt to get down.

“Sit still, Son,” Murdoch said sternly before going on.  “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Maria briefly let her mind wander back to the previous year when she had placed her own dear son in the crude wooden box in the manger scene that had been set up where the tree now stood.  She wondered if Mary could have loved the baby Jesus any more than she, Maria, loved her Juanito.

Murdoch read on.  “…The shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.  And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”

Maria halfway listed while she pictured Juanito sleeping peacefully on the bed of straw.

“…And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them,” Murdoch said and then turned back a few pages.  He went on with his reading while Maria continued with her musings.  “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews?  For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.  …When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.  And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh…”

While Murdoch sat in silence as though contemplating on the meaning of the story he’d just read, Maria thought of how it would have been to be the mother of God’s son. The moment was peaceful but short-lived.  Too soon, Johnny’s insistent “dow” broke the silence.

Rather than spoil the sense of harmony that had enveloped them, Maria let Johnny scoot of the sofa.  When he made a beeline for the tree, she called out to him.  “Juanito, Papa has a present for you.”

Murdoch, to Maria’s relief, caught the hint and collected the package that had been placed on the floor behind the tree. He gave the present a little shake and said.  “Johnny, look at the big box.  Shall we see what’s in it?”

At the light rattling sound, Johnny crowded close.  With help from his father, he tore away the brown paper.  When the thin slatted-lid was lifted, he peeked inside and sucked in his breath.  “Oooh!  Hosey.  Go fass!”

Maria watched Murdoch remove the wooden rocking horse from the box and set it on the floor while Johnny stood by, wide eyed and open mouthed at the sight of his first horse.  “El caballo es maravilloso,” she whispered as she admired the detailed head sporting a bridle with reins along with the mane and tail that were made of real horsehair.  They gave the toy an almost life-like appearance.  The child-size saddle strapped to the horse’s body proved to be just the right finishing touch.  By some stroke of luck, Murdoch had found the small saddle tucked away in a corner of the loft in the old dilapidated barn before the building had been torn down to make room for the new barn. 

Johnny, once mounted, laughed with delight when his father set the horse in motion.  He kicked his feet, shook the reins, and hollered, “G’yup!  Go fass!”

Murdoch chuckled as he smiled down on the excited child.  “He’s going to run the legs off of every horse on the ranch, someday.”

“Si.  He is the son of his papá, no?” Maria said with a hint of sarcasm.  More than once, her husband had challenged her to a race when they had gone riding.  If Johnny loved the thrill of a fast horse, he had come by it honestly.

Murdoch laughed heartily.  “He is at that.”

After they had watched their son enjoy his Christmas gift for a few minutes longer, Maria went to the tree and retrieved a soft package wrapped in newspaper and tied with a bright red ribbon.  She handed it to her husband and stood back to watch him open it.

The warm smile that was flashed in her direction told her that he was pleased with the embroidered shirt.  Although the white cloth had cost little, she had spent many hours adding the colorful details that decorated the garment’s front.  “You like it, no?” she queried, hesitantly.

“I like it, yes.”  Murdoch drew her close and kissed her tenderly while she wrapped her arms around his waist.

“Papa!”  Johnny’s insistent voice intruded.  “Go!”

Murdoch pushed down on toy’s wooden nose and laughed.  “Maybe the horse wasn’t such a good idea.”

Maria stood by and observed the emotions play across her husband’s face as he watched their son trying to keep the momentum of the rocking horse going.  At first, Murdoch looked so pleased, but slowly his countenance changed to one of thoughtful contemplation.

A shiver of apprehension ran through Maria.  She had seen that same look on Murdoch’s face a few weeks earlier in Sacramento when they had met a flaxen-haired young woman leading a young boy with blond hair out of one of the shops.  At the time, his expression had been so intense that she had wondered if he was wishing that the woman and child were his.

Suddenly Maria’s mind was overcome with troubling questions.  Was it possible that her husband was beginning to regret his marriage to her, a Mexican girl with little education?  Could he have been looking to the future and thinking that he would be better off with a wife of his own kind?  Even now, was he considering the possibility that being married to her and having half-breed children might hinder his ambitions?  Just last week, hadn’t she found, tucked under papers in his desk drawer, a picture of a woman of similar appearance?  Who was the beautiful woman with light colored hair and why hadn’t her husband ever mentioned her before? 

When Murdoch turned his face toward her, Maria saw only love and admiration in his eyes.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small box.  With a soft sigh, he handed it to her.  “It isn’t much,” he said as she took the small, plain box from his fingers.  “I wish I could have gotten more for you.  Next year–“

She shushed him by gently tapping two fingers against his lips.  “To me it shall be like a sack full of gold,” she said.  With trembling hands, she opened the box and carefully removed an ornate “L” that was surrounded by a circle of gold wire.  Holding the symbol of the Lancer brand by its long shiny chain, she whispered, “Es hermoso.  Always, I will treasure it.”

With eyes shimmering from tears that threatened to spill over and run down her cheeks, she admired the necklace.  In her mind, it represented a promise of the future–a sign that she belonged to him.  Once again, her fears were stilled and all was right with her world.  She was with the man she loved.  They had a fine son.  Perhaps by next Christmas there would be another addition to their family.

Chapter 4 – Scott’s World

A sharp rap on the front entry door interrupted the quiet atmosphere.

The golden haired, four-year old boy in front of the fireplace leaped to his feet–toy soldiers scattering in all directions.  “He’th here!  He’th here!” he lisped as he dashed for the foyer.

“Scotty!”

Scott Lancer stopped before he reached the doorway and whirled to face his grandfather, who was sitting in a wingback chair on the far side of the hearth.

“You know better than to run in the house,” Harlan Garrett said.  He raised one hand and crooked a finger at Scott.  “Come in here at once, and pick up your toys.  Wilson will see to the door.”

Scotty pushed out his lower lip.  “But Granfather.  Ith him.  I know it ith.”

Harlan rose and walked to his grandson’s side.  “Scotty, what are you babbling about?  I am expecting no one to arrive at this hour.”

“My father,” Scotty said.  “He’th thuppothed to come, today.  I athed God ta bring him.”

Apprehension clutched at Harlan’s heart.  Surely, Murdoch Lancer would not arrive unannounced at such an inopportune time.  “Your father is not here.  Now, gather up your gifts.  You should have been in bed more than an hour ago,” Harlan said.  He hoped his sharp tone would squelch any further discussion of the man he felt had stolen his daughter from him.

“But-“

Harlan placed a hand on the child’s shoulder.  “Now, Scotty.”

Tears quickly sprang into Scotty’s steel-blue eyes and trickled down his cheeks.  Sniffling, he slowly walked back toward the fireplace.

Footsteps and voices sounded in the foyer.  Harlan looked through the open doorway of the parlor and watched the butler approach.

The butler stopped and stood stiff-backed in front of Harlan.  “A package, Sir, for Master Scotty,” he said and held out a large box wrapped in plain brown paper.

Harlan turned and closed the double doors leading into the parlor.  Satisfied that Scott wouldn’t hear them, he said, “From him?”

“Yes, Sir.”

Harlan let out a sigh and waved a dismissive hand.  “Put it in the attic, Wilson.  Tomorrow, you can take it to the orphanage.”

“But, Sir–“

Harlan glowered at Wilson.  “Are you questioning my judgment?”

“No, Sir.  I shall take it at once.”  Wilson spun around sharply on his heels and strode to the large curved stairway that led to the upper levels of the Garrett mansion.

A slight click came from behind Harlan.  “I picked ’em all up, Granfather,” Scott said in a quiet tone.

Harlan’s heart raced.  How much might Scotty have heard?

Slowly Harlan turned to face his grandson.  He smiled down on the boy and held out a hand.  “Good.  Now come along.  I’ll call for Miss Benson and have her put you to bed.”

While Harlan rang for the nanny, Scotty glanced around the foyer.  His shoulders slumped.  “It wathen’t him?” he asked dejectedly.  Pain filled his eyes as he looked up at Harlan.   “Why, didn’t he come, Grandfather?  Where ith he?  Doethn’t he want ta thee me?”

“Forget about him.  He’s of no consequence.  The man is irresponsible.  Didn’t I tell you that you couldn’t count on him to be here?”  Harlan forced his tone to sound sympathetic as he squeezed Scotty’s hand.  He didn’t dare allow his bitterness for Murdoch Lancer to be made known to the child.

Scotty sniffed.  “Yeth, Thir.”

Harlan’s conscience protested the manner in which he was deceiving his grandson, but he hardened his heart.  If Murdoch Lancer hadn’t filled Catherine’s head full of wild dreams of getting rich in California, she would never have gone with him to that God forsaken land. Murdoch had stolen her and it was his fault she was dead.  Well, he wouldn’t take Scotty no matter what it took to prevent him.

The arrival of a dour-faced woman in her mid-fifties interrupted Harlan’s thoughts.  “Shall I put Master Scotty to bed now, Sir?” she asked and reached out for the child’s hand.

After answering affirmatively, Harlan placed a hand lightly on Scotty’s shoulder and squeezed gently.  He then dismissed his grandson with a brief “goodnight” and went to the library, which was next to the parlor.

Harlan sat down in the soft leather chair behind his desk and retrieved a small bundle of envelopes from the locked drawer on one side and riffled through them.  He supposed he should burn them, yet he couldn’t bring himself to do so.  Reading them always brought him a sense of satisfaction that the tables had been turned.  He may have lost his dear Catherine to Murdoch Lancer, but he would never allow the man to take her son.

With a smile, Harlan relaxed back in his chair.  For the time being, his world was secure.  The arrival of the package from California meant he needn’t fear that Murdoch would be coming to Boston in the immediate future.

~~~~~

Young Scott Lancer trudged up the stairs and followed his governess, Miss Benson, into his room.  The excitement of Christmas was gone.  It no longer mattered that his Grandfather had a tree that touched the ceiling or that it was adorned with numerous strings of cranberries and popped corn along with bows of various sizes made from either red satin ribbon or white lace.  Forgotten were the packages wrapped in white paper and tied with colorful ribbons and the fun he’d had opening them.  What he’d wanted most had not arrived.

With a lump in his throat, Scotty changed into his nightshirt and crawled between clean, crisp sheets.  “G’night, Mith Benthon,” he said in a quiet, formal tone.

“Good night, Master Scotty,” she replied stiffly.

When the door was shut and he was alone, Scotty slipped from under the covers and knelt beside his bed.  He folded his hands together, bowed his head, and closed his eyes.  “God bleth Grandfather and Wilthon and Em’ly, and Jack and Jimmy Martin.  And could you make Mith Binthon happy tho thee’ll thmile thumtime?”

Scotty drew in his breath, let it out noisily through his nose, and continued.  “God, could ya make my father more ‘thponthible, so he’ll come ta thee me.  Ya brung Jimmy’s father home for Chrithmuth.  Why didn’t ya bring mine?  Wath I bad?  I tried real hard ta do what I wath told ta do.  Would ya bring my father in the mornin’ if I promith to try harder ta be good.  Thankth for lithnin, God.  Amen.  “

After crawling back into bed, Scotty pulled the quilt up to his chin.  Why wasn’t God fair?  His friend, Jimmy, was always getting into trouble, yet God had heard Jimmy’s prayer.

Scotty looked around the tidy room, dimly lit from the moon shining through the partly open curtains.  Three new pairs of pants and four shirts had been hung in the closet, several pairs of socks had been put away in his dresser, and his toy soldiers were lined up on the middle shelf of the bookcase near the door.  He had a warm quilt that smelled fresh and clean, and his tummy was full of ham, potatoes, scrumptious pastries, and other good things to eat.

None of those things took away the pain in Scott’s heart.  With tears sliding down his cheeks and dampening the pillow under his head, he quietly cried himself to sleep.  When would everything be right with his world?

~~~~~

That same night, God in Heaven looked down on the world that he had created.  He saw a stonewalled house on a ranch in California, and his heart ached for the small family sitting happily in the dim light of the flickering firelight.  Soon their world would be torn apart, never to be entirely put back together again.

It has to be, God thought.  When I made man, I gave him the freedom to choose his destiny.  I must abide by the rules that I have set forth since the beginning of time.  Only when the Evil One interferes can I step in.  One day, when the fullness of time has come, I will set my world right.  Then there will be no more pain and suffering.

As he continued across the North American continent, God took time to listen to those who called upon him for a myriad of different reasons.  Some requests were selfish in nature, and he closed his ear to them.  The rest were considered and answered, each on its own merit: to some, yes; to others, no; and to the rest, wait.

Coming to Boston, on the far-eastern coast of the United States of America, the Heavenly Father heard, once again, a young boy crying for his father.  He longed to give the child what he prayed for, but the will of man stood in the way.  “Someday, my son, you will have your father.  In the course of time, your prayer will be answered,” he whispered.  “Keep your faith in me, don’t give up, and I will give you far more than you are asking.  Then your world will seem right.”

Epilog

Twenty years later:

A little after dawn on Christmas morning, without knocking, a dark-haired young man opened the door of the room across the hall from his own.  He sauntered in and leaned against the doorjamb as he had often done in the more than six months since his arrival at his father’s ranch.

On the bed lay a man with much lighter hair–his quilt tucked snugly beneath his chin.

“Come right in, Brother,” Scott Lancer said.

“Aren’t ya gettin’ up?” Johnny Lancer said in a soft drawl as he took a step forward.  “I thought you couldn’t wait fer Christmas to get here so you could see what I gotcha.”

Scott spoke with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.  “Little brother, are you really that much in a hurry for me to open the gift you have for me, or are you just anxious to find out what is in the package I put under the tree for you?”

Johnny leaned back against the wall near the door.  “Ain’t interested in the least what ya got me, Boston.  I just hate ta see ya wait any longer than ya hafta to open yer present . . . that’s all.”

“Is that a fact?”  Scott rolled over and pulled the blankets over his head.  In a muffled voice, he said, “In that case, Johnny, I’m going back to sleep for a while longer.  You kept me up way too late last night.”

Scott heard his brother let out a snort.

“Me!” Johnny said.  “You’re the one that took nearly an hour to make one move.  I never took more’n a couple minutes ta make up my mind about what to do next.”

“That’s why you lost, Brother.  You have no patience,” Scott mumbled.

“That so?”  Indignation clearly rang in Johnny’s voice.  “And I suppose you got the patience of Job?”

“Mmm, hmm.”  Scott came close to chuckling at his brother’s choice of words, but he managed to hold it in.

“Well . . . Mister I Can Wait . . . it’s a good thing ya have all that patience, ’cause you’re gunna need it.”

Scott grunted.  “Oh?”

“I think I’ll take me a little ride before breakfast,” Johnny said.  “And don’t go gettin’ no ideas about openin’ yer present before I get back.”

“What’s to keep me from it?” Scott asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.

“I’m hidin’ it before I go.”  There was a scuffle of feet, then just before the door slammed, Scott heard, “If yer real nice to me when I get back, I might even remember where I put it . . . in a week or two.”

“Johnny, wait!”  Scott threw the blankets back and rolled out of the side of the bed that was away from the door.  As his feet thumped the floor and he stood up, he grabbed for the pants that lay neatly folded over the back of a nearby chair.

“Hey, Boston.  Ya sure can move fast when ya want to,” Johnny drawled softly.

Scott, right foot poised over the appropriate leg of the pants, hopped around to face his grinning younger brother who was peeking around the edge of the door.  “I suppose you think you’re pretty smart?”

Johnny grinned, came into the room, and closed the door.  “That’s me.  Purdy and smart.”

With the pants half on, Scott reached down with one hand, snatched up a boot, and tossed it at his brother.  Just then the door swung inward and batted the flying boot to one side.

“Scott, are you up, yet?” a feminine voice said.

“Teresa!” Scott said.  He dropped down to sit on the floor where his lower body would be out of sight while he finished getting into his trousers and glared at her over the top of the rumpled quilt on the bed.    “When are you going to learn to knock before you enter a man’s room?”

Teresa muffled a snicker.  “I didn’t see anything but your long-johns.  If you hadn’t been lazing in bed, you’d have already been downstairs . . . and I wouldn’t have caught you with–“

“I’ll be right down,” Scott interrupted, his cheeks feeling hot.  “Now will you leave while I finish getting dressed?”

Teresa looked at Johnny and smiled.  “A bit of a bear this morning, isn’t he?”

Johnny grinned back.  “Didn’t get his beauty sleep last night.  He’s always a bit touchy when he’s up too late.”

Scott glared at the pair by the door.  “Do you–“

“Isn’t Scott up, yet?”  A deep impatient voice from behind Teresa cut Scott off in mid-sentence.

“Come right in, Murdoch . . . join the party,” Scott said to the tall man who was now looking over Teresa’s shoulder.

Murdoch’s mouth twitched and he cleared his throat.  “Don’t you think we should take pity on him and leave?  Otherwise, he’ll be in a grumpy mood the rest of day.”

“Guess so,” Johnny said. He gave Scott a devilish grin.  “But if he don’t show his face in ten minutes, I’m comin’ up here and drag him down them stairs . . . pants or no pants.”

“Come right ahead if you think you’re big enough,” Scott said as Johnny turned to follow their father and Teresa into the hallway.

Scott tugged his pants the rest of the way on.  One of these days, his brother was going to push him too far.

A few minutes latter, Scott descended the stairs to the main level of the house.  When he arrived at the doorway to the large living room, he stopped to observe his family gathered near the fireplace.

First Scott looked at the tall, gray-haired man–his father.  Less than a year ago, he would not have believed that the day would ever come that they would be together.  He had grown up thinking that he meant nothing to the other man. But he had been wrong.  Despite Murdoch’s abruptness their first days together, there had been something in his eyes that said he cared.

A gentle smile parted Scott’s lips when he shifted his gaze to the girl standing next to his father.  Teresa.  He almost chuckled as he slowly shook his head.  On his very first morning at Lancer, she had barged into his room without knocking and had managed to lodge herself in his heart.  She had treated him like a brother from the beginning and had expected him to think of her as a sister, and he had been powerless to do otherwise.  He suspected that she was what held his family together those first couple of months.  She was always looking on the bright side and making them see things from the other’s point of view.  He couldn’t imagine life without her.

Lastly, Scott focused his attention on the dark-haired young man, whom he hadn’t even known existed until that fateful day they had arrived in Morro Coyo on the same stage.  He still remembered the shock of learning that he had a brother–Johnny Madrid, a gun for hire.  A year ago, the thought would have been appalling.  Now, pride welled up inside of Scott.  He was proud to call Johnny his brother even if he could be a nuisance at times.

Scott briefly indulged himself with memories of the past.  He thought of his first meeting with his brother and then with their father later that same day.  He pictured his first sight of the ranch, the fight with his brother the following day, and the past few months of getting to know Johnny and Murdoch and of finding himself part of a family.

“Hey, Boston, I’m comin’ up after ya,” Johnny called without looking in Scott’s direction.

“No need to shout, Brother.  I’m right here,” Scott said as he stepped through the doorway and made his way across the room to join his family.  For the first time in his life, he was truly happy.  He had the father that he had always wanted, and a brother and a sister that he had never dreamed off.  At last, all was right with his world.

The End

Written 2003 or 2004
Revised December 2013

2 thoughts on “Christmas Worlds by Desert Sun

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