The Reason for the Season by Desert Sun

Word Count 27,337

Summary: Christmas, 1869, is a time of hardship for all three of the Lancer men. Will they be able to find a reason for celebrating Christ’s birthday?

(Note:  This story was first posted in December 2004 at the Lancer groups on Yahoo.  I did some minor editing before archiving it in 2017 to my folder for completed stories at the Lancer Fanfiction group on Facebook.  Most of the characters were part of the Lancer series on TV, either as regulars or appeared in a specific episode.)

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Part I – Dashed Hopes:

Chapter 1

Boston, Massachusetts on the evening of the twenty-third day of December 1869:

Frosty flakes of snow swirled around the young man standing outside the gate of the Dennisons’ new home on Tremont Street across the Common from his grandfather’s mansion on Beacon Hill. Some of the icy crystals stuck to his knee-length overcoat and top hat while others tickled his nose before melting and sliding down the long slopes of his finely chiseled face. A gentle but cold breeze sifted through the layers of clothing.  It didn’t bring so much as a shiver from Scott Lancer. He was too focused on the tiny object tightly clutched in his gloved hand.

Why? Why couldn’t she have waited? This Christmas was to have been the happiest one of my life. His shoulders sagged and his chin dropped a little closer to his chest. With the return of the ring that he had given Julie Dennison two weeks before Thanksgiving, all of his plans for the holiday season and for the future had been shattered like the panes of glass he had seen smashed during the war.

A tear slipped out the corner of one smoky-blue eye and joined the melted snow that was tracking down his cheek. Angrily he brushed away the betrayal of his emotions. He wasn’t about to cry. She wasn’t worth it. Her demands were too high, and he wasn’t going to compromise his convictions to suit her. If she truly loved him, she would never have expected him to accept a position at Whitfield Shipping no matter how much it paid. It was a well-known fact in all of Boston that Douglas Whitfield had few, if any, scruples. Those employed in the lower echelons of his company were as greatly overworked as they were significantly underpaid. Whitfield cared nothing about those who were less fortunate than he was and had even been a slave runner before the abolition of slavery had been signed into law. These facts made it impossible for Scott to consider having his own name linked with the man no matter how tempting the salary.

Jingling bells broke into Scott’s thoughts and announced the approach of the Garrett sleigh. As it glided to a stop on the snow-packed lane, he stepped forward and climbed into the seat behind the uniformed driver. Once settled, he curtly commanded the man to take him to a tavern near the docks on Hanover Street in the North End. He wasn’t about to arrive home early and face an inquisition from his grandfather. It could very well lead to another argument that would no doubt be as bad as or worse than the one he had just had with his fiancée, or to be exact, ex-fiancée as his mind had promptly reminded him.

When Scott arrived at the tavern a short while later, it was brimming with boisterous sailors and dock workers. There was no place to stand at the bar and all of the tables in the main part of the room were filled to capacity. Smoke clouded the air, scratching his throat and burning his eyes, and the din of loud voices and booming laughter was nearly more than his ears could take.

Normally he would not have gone to an establishment along the waterfront, especially alone. The patrons tended to be a crude lot, and a gentleman such as himself was not a welcome sight. On this night, however, he needed a drink, and the risk was preferable to running into someone who knew him. He had no desire to answer inquiries into his personal life, namely his impending marriage.

Wishing some degree of solitude, Scott craned his neck and searched the shadows beneath the open stairway that led to the rooms on the upper level. Upon spotting the small table he was looking for, he let out a soft sigh of relief. It was empty.

The shadowy alcove, however, soon proved to be no easy haven to attain. First, he had to push his way past the men lined up along the bar while dodging others who were carrying drinks to their tables. As he neared his destination, a burly man, who was holding a large mug of frothy beer, bumped into him. The malted liquid sloshed over the lip of the glass and dribbled onto the man’s hand–a few splatters of foam reaching out to glide down the sleeve of Scott’s coat.

“Ay! Waush whar yer goin’ bucko,” groused the big man, whose round cheeks were covered with a thick growth of reddish-brown whiskers. The slur of his voice clearly indicated that the drink in his hand was far from being his first of the evening.

“Beg your pardon,” Scott mumbled, sidestepping to allow the irritable seaman more room.

“Jake, maybe we oughta teach this fancy Dan some manners,” suggested another sailor, reaching out and snatching the hat from Scott’s head.

“I’ll thank you to return my property at once.” Scott spoke in a soft, authoritative tone–shoulders squared, back straight, and chin lifted as his eyes challenged the second man.

“Oh . . . he wan’s ‘is hat, does he,” sneered the man, holding the hat high with up-stretched arm.

The first ruffian set his drink on the nearest table and moved in closer to Scott. “Maybe, he’d like ta try an’ take it.”

“Think yuh can, purdy boy?” jeered the other.

Scott ran long fingers through his sandy colored hair as several other rough-looking men crowded in close–loud guff-haws reaching out to still the surrounding voices as all eyes in the room centered on them. In no mood to be pushed around, Scott calculated his chances while eyeing the man who had taken his hat. The bully looked to be several years older, and although a couple inches shorter, was a good thirty pounds heavier. There was no excess fat on the man’s frame, either, if those bulging arms exposed by his rolled-up sleeves matched the rest of him.  Undoubtedly, his muscles were hardened from a life of grueling physical labor.

Serving in the cavalry during the recent war against the southern states, Scott had learned that surprise was of the essence in any kind of a battle. A smile caressed his lips as with lifted brows he blew a sharp breath out his nose. Clasping his hands in front of his chest, he turned to walk away.  After one step, without giving the slightest warning, he sidestepped and rammed an elbow into the man’s stomach.

When his opponent doubled over with a loud grunt, Scott quickly spun to face him and smashed a fist into his jaw before the bully could catch a breath. The heavier man staggered, blood dripping down his chin from a split in his lower lip. His body teetered backward, bumped into a chair, and tumbled to the floor with a thud–the chair cracking and snapping as it splintered into pieces beneath him.

There was no chance for Scott to feel any pride in his victory. Before he could regain his own balance from the momentum of his punch, something slamming into his back brought sparks of fire shooting up his neck and stole the air from his lungs. Gasping, he stumbled forward. With feet scrambling, he was struggling to keep from falling when a second blow nailed him above the left ear and sent him reeling to the side as his head exploded with agony. His knees buckled and the floor rose up to batter him in the face.

Muffled laughter and jeering voices faded in and out of Scott’s hearing. He felt his body lift and roll as his ribs were set ablaze at the same instant that the air was driven from his lungs once more. Engulfed in waves of dizziness and fighting to breathe, he was then vaguely aware of the tug of his clothes under his arms as his head hung back, bumping against the floor while his heels scraped across the planks.

A moment later, cold air smote his lungs as he took a gasping breath. Released by his captors, he slumped into a blanket of icy snow, which clung to his face and crept beneath the collar of his coat. Hands roughly pawed through his clothing, and he desperately tried to push them away. He couldn’t. His weak arms were useless against the hardened muscles of the other men. When he finally did get one hand clamped on a sleeve, a fist smashing with a loud crack into his right cheek brought a burst of white light just before he slipped into a world of darkness and knew no more.

Chapter 2

Later that same night in Nogales, Mexico:

Staccato tapping of heels against the tile floor and snapping of fingers mingled with the rhythmic strum of a guitar. A dark-haired young man, sitting with his back to the wall at the corner table to the right of the bar, glanced up and smiled at the dancer. For a brief moment, his eyes lingered on the slender form, whose white peasant-style blouse hung off one shoulder and multi-colored ruffled-skirt flared with each twirl to reveal a pair of shapely legs. Long black tresses, swept back from each temple and fastened at the back of the girl’s head with a bright yellow ribbon that contrasted nicely with her bronzed skin, bobbed and swirled around her face as she spun and stomped to the time of the music.

“Your bid, Madrid.”

The gruff voice to his right snared Johnny Madrid’s attention and returned it to the game. Rocking his chair back on two legs and chewing at a corner of his lip, he studied the cards in his hand.  He then leaned forward with a thump and tossed a few coins onto the pile in the center of the table. “Raise yuh twenty.”

To his left, a man wearing the uniform of a police officer gathered up a stack of coins. “Y otro treinta, Señores.” With smug confidence, the Nogales police captain added thirty pesos to the pot.

“Su juego, Montoya.” Johnny grinned across the table at the fourth player, a well-built Mexican in his late twenties to early thirties, whose broad smile was accented by deep dimples.

Montoya, drawing in a breath, shook his head. “Capitán . . . cincuenta pesos es mucho dinero.”

Johnny agreed that fifty pesos was much money, but he kept silent.

The furrow between Montoya’s brows deepened as he studied his cards for a moment before smiling again and shrugging. “Pero . . . un cobarde nunca gana. Sí? Vientacinco mas, amigos.”

Twenty-five more pesos were shoved to the center of the table to prove that Montoya had no intention of being the coward who never won.

With a huff, the man on Johnny’s right threw down his cards.  He gathered up the last of his money and scooted back his chair, its legs scritching against the tile of the floor. “Too rich for my blood. Think I’ll call it a night.”

After adding his farewell with those of the remaining two men, Johnny studied his own options–fingertips tapping the cards cradled in his hands. He didn’t have much more than the fifty-five pesos needed to match the Capitán’s bid of thirty and Montoya’s raise of twenty-five. If he lost, he stood a good chance of going hungry before finding another job. Then again, if he won, he would more than triple the amount he had. The pot was the largest one that night.

Life was a gamble as far as Johnny was concerned. He’d wagered on his often enough. A few weeks earlier he had stood in the main street of Tucson and squared off against a man bent on filling him full of lead. He had walked away the winner then, and he was reasonably sure he would do the same with this game. “Ha qui esta mi dinero, que tienes?”  His soft voice was barely audible above the clinking of his money landing on the heap of coins.  Then he leaned back to see how the others would respond to his calling their hands.

With a triumphant smile spreading across his face, the Rurales captain counted out the necessary twenty-five pesos to match Montoya’s raise. Johnny felt a twinge of doubt. Even though the officer had been overconfident more than once that night, there was always the chance that the man did indeed hold the best hand.

Holding his breath, Johnny watched as Montoya laid his cards face up on the table and carefully fanned them out.

“Tres ases,” the smiling Mexican announced.

Johnny let out a relieved breath, smiled, and spread out his own hand while keeping a close watch on the third man. By the time he had exposed the last of his cards, he didn’t need to be told the outcome of the game. It showed in the storm building in the Capitán’s face.

Expelling a rapid string of Spanish, the Rurales officer slapped his cards face down on the table and glared at Johnny.

“Tu dises que yo chapusero?”  Johnny spoke softly while dropping his right hand to his side as he lazily leaned back in his chair.  If that look meant he was being accused of cheating, the man better be ready to back it up with lead.

“Calmate, Amigo. No es tu onrado…pero Senorita suerte la escoja en hombres el Capitan Hidalgo esta disiendo. No es eso Capitan?” [Easy, Amigo. It is not your honesty . . . Hidalgo he’s asking or questioning. Is that not so, Capitán?] The man across from Johnny disarmingly grinned toward the leader of the Nogales rurales.

Capitán Hidalgo muttered his agreement that it was not Johnny’s honesty but Señorita Luck’s choice in men that he was questioning.  His dark features were still clouded with anger as he suggested they play another hand so he could recoup his losses.

Keeping a wary eye on the man next to him, Johnny raked in his winnings while declining the offer to continue the game. He gave Hidalgo a cheerful smile and offered to buy another round of drinks. To his relief the offer was accepted.

A short time later–their glasses empty–Hidalgo strode from the cantina. Johnny stood to follow. The capitán hadn’t been a happy loser, and keeping an eye on the man was the best way to keep him from taking vengence.

Montoya glanced toward the man wiping a glass behind the bar.  Looking at Johnny, again, he spoke in a hushed tone. “Be careful, Amigo. He is not to be trusted.”

Noticing that the bartender had glanced their way, Johnny also switched to speaking mostly in English. “Gracias, Manolito. Kind o’ had it figured that way.”

“Oh, Madrid,” added Monolito Montoya. “I meant what I said about a job.”

Johnny let out a huff of disgust. “Punchin’ cows an’ workin’ my tail off from dawn ’til dark for a few dollars a month? No thanks, Mano. Not my kind o’ life.”

“And you call that living?” With a nod of the head and motion of the hand, Manolito indicated the pistol strapped to Johnny’s right hip.

After hesitating slightly as his eyes wavered downward before rising to look at the other man, Johnny said with a shrug, “I do all right.”

“You will die before you are thirty . . . and who will even mourn for you, mi amigo?”

Johnny stiffened and his voice became more defensive. “I have friends.”

Manolito leaned forward, his black brows arching. “Sí . . . but will they know of your passing?” Letting out a deep sigh, he settled back in his chair once more as he spoke in a pleading tone. “Think about it. Come home with me after the celebration tomorrow night. As my guest, if you like. No one should be alone on Christmas.”

“I’ll think about it . . . okay?” Johnny said while moving between the table and the end of the bar.

“Sí. You do that.”  Monolito didn’t sound hopeful.

Disturbed by the turn of the conversation, Johnny quickly crossed the floor of the cantina, eased out the door, and closed it behind him. From the arched doorway of the portico, he searched the moonlit street and watched for any kind of movement in the shadows along either side. Seeing no sign of Hidalgo anywhere, Johnny assumed that the man was in the lighted office across the way and headed toward the stable at the far end of town to check on his horse.

The street was empty except for a couple of horses that were tied to the hitch rail outside a cantina closer to the center of town. Deep throated laughter interspersed with high pitched giggles coming through the open windows upstairs told Johnny that the animals would be lucky if their owners put in an appearance before daylight. Feeling sorry for the poor beasts, he stopped to check their cinches. They were snug tight so he loosened them with little regard for the fate of the riders. He figured that any man who didn’t tend to the needs of his mount deserved to take a tumble.

Finally satisfied that the horses were comfortable, Johnny warily continued on toward the stable. At each alley along the way, he stopped to make sure that no one was lurking in the shadows and to take a quick look behind him. He saw no one. It was close to midnight and, other than a few people in the various cantinas, Nogales appeared to be asleep. Even the light in Hidalgo’s office had gone out.

Other than the snort of a horse in the corral next to the three-sided adobe barn, all was quiet when Johnny arrived at the stable a few minutes later. The open stalls where several horses as well as his own were tied were just light enough to make out the animals’ shadowy forms.

Johnny had just started to climb over the rail fence to get a better look when he heard a sharp cry coming from somewhere behind the building. Drawing his pistol from the holster on his hip, he darted along the side of the barn tand stopped at the corner when he heard Hidalgo’s angry voice.

Cautiously, his heart beating more rapidly, Johnny peeked around the end of the thick wall. A short distance from him, bathed in the light of the moon and spouting derogatory remarks, stood the captain of the Rurales with a heavy quirt in his upraised hand. At his feet was a white-clad boy.

Holstering his gun as he ran, Johnny dashed forward and grabbed Hidalgo’s arm before the man could do further harm to the youngster. This brought a flurry of curses his direction as the Rurale captain jerked free of his grip and began flogging him with the short, multi-lashed whip.

Johnny ducked his head against the blows that stung his face and shoulders. Backing up, he yelled for the young Mexican boy to get up and make a run for it.

The kid, eyes wide with fear, scrambled to his feet. With a worried glance at Johnny, he hesitated for just a second before racing to the fence that enclosed a small pasture behind the stable.   There he quickly crawled beneath the bottom rail and ran for the far side.

Focusing his attention on his own plight once he was sure that the boy would make it to safety, Johnny took a quick sideways step. He managed to dodge the next swing of the quirt only to trip over some hidden object in the grass behind the stable. Instinctively he threw out his hands as he stumbled and fought to keep his feet under him — the lashes of Hidalgo’s short whip connecting with his shoulder once more and igniting flames that raced outward to his arms and down his back to his waist.

Desperation set in as Johnny was driven further off balance by the blow. He stretched his arms out farther, his wide spread hands touching the rough stone wall of the barn and halting his momentum. One leg found its way under him, and he shifted his weight to that foot.

Suddenly Johnny’s world twisted drunkenly as the sole of his boot rolled on a rock. His shoulder hit the wall a split second before his head did, and through the raging pain, he was sure he heard Hidalgo laugh. Then something that he was sure had to be the heavy handle of the quirt smashed into the back of his neck. His knees buckled and he slumped to the ground.

Through the haze as consciousness fled, Johnny could feel the other man’s hands searching for the moneybag that held his winnings from that night’s poker game. He knew that come morning he would be flat broke. As his body grew limp, his last thought was, If I live that long.

Chapter 3

Earlier that evening in California:

For the first time in nearly a month, Murdoch Lancer gazed into the fireplace in the main room of his two-story Spanish style hacienda and absent-mindedly watched the flickering flames. He had been bed-ridden ever since being ambushed outside the livery stable in Morro Coyo almost four weeks earlier. A bullet lodged near his spine in the lower part of his back and another that had passed through the muscle of his right thigh had come very close to taking his life. If some of his men had not arrived shortly after the attack, he was sure that he would have bled to death.

Shifting positions on the sofa where he lay propped against a couple of pillows, the big man stifled a groan as the pain racing from his lower back down into his leg once again reminded him of the seriousness of his wounds. Death might no longer be a threat, but the prospect of being crippled for the rest of his life hung over him like the thick, dark storm clouds, which at times enveloped the mountain peaks that marked the eastern boundary of his one hundred-thousand-acre ranch. He could get around, just barely, with the use of the crutches brought by Sam Jenkins, the only doctor within a thirty-mile radius of the Lancer Ranch. It still remained to be seen whether he would ever be able to walk normally or climb aboard a horse and ride from one end of his beloved land to the other. Of course, when he considered the weakened state of his body, he had to admit that his present inability to walk or ride didn’t matter anyway. Getting from his bedroom to the couch in front of the fire earlier that day had taken every ounce of strength and determination he could muster.

For a while Murdoch closed his eyes and tried relaxing to the soft snapping and crackling of the fire. His mind refused to rest. The thoughts of how close he had come to dying alongside his segundo had stirred up other painful memories. Paul O’Brien had been more than just a trusted ranch foreman; he had been a good friend as well. Running the ranch without him would have been difficult enough if Murdoch had been well. To do so under the present circumstances seemed impossible.

This reminded Murdoch of the reason for the letter he had sent out shortly after being wounded. Not knowing whether he would live or die, he had needed assurance that someone would be there to carry on with the running of the ranch until his son, Johnny, could be located and to see that Paul O’Brien’s daughter, Teresa, would be taken care of. In his desperation, he had written to an old friend, Sheriff Joe Barker, for whom he had been a deputy in Abilene, Kansas. There still had been no answer, but Murdoch didn’t find that surprising. Mail delivery was always slower in the winter months. Not only that, Joe could be tracking an outlaw or delivering a prisoner to another town. Any number of things could delay the man’s answer for weeks.

If only Scott hadn’t died in that infernal war back east. I can’t imagine what possessed Harlan to let the boy have any part in that. Anger surged through Murdoch, and he clenched his jaws at the thought of the man who had denied him his firstborn son. The child’s mother had died shortly after the boy’s birth and her father, Harlan Garrett, had taken the newborn east to Boston. Given the threat by a crooked lawman named Judd Haney at that time, Murdoch had agreed to leave the baby there until conditions changed. When that time had come, Harlan had refused to give Scott up and had promised years of court battles if necessary to retain custody. All hopes Murdoch had had of convincing his son to come to California after the boy reached legal age had been dashed when word had come that Scott had perished in battle at the age of eighteen.

The chiming of the grandfather clock on the far wall behind him broke into the gray-haired man’s thoughts. He counted the gongs–eight precisely spaced with enough time for the sound of each one to fade before the next one rang. ‘Eight o’clock,’ he sighed. Soon it would be time to make the grueling trip back to his bed.

As silence once more descended, Murdoch heard the light tapping of footsteps in the hallway that led to the kitchen. Opening his eyes, he glanced over his shoulder at the doorway to his left in time to see a girl with long dark hair enter carrying a steaming cup.

“I thought you might like some hot apple cider,” the girl said with a slight tremor to her voice as she set the cup on the low table in front of him.

“Thank you, Honey,” Murdoch replied, his throat constricting as he saw the redness around the eyes of his dead friend’s daughter. She had been crying again.

Teresa O’Brien took a step back and moved to the other end of the sofa. She picked up the wool blanket that Murdoch had tossed into a heap earlier. After giving it a shake, she spread it over his legs and shifted her gaze toward the corner to the left of the fireplace.

Murdoch noticed the lip being drawn between upper and lower teeth. Despite the brave upward tilt of Teresa’s chin, he was well aware of the turmoil that the fifteen-year-old girl was going through. Christmas was little more than a day away, and the absence of a tree in the place presently occupied by a padded leather chair was sure to be a stark reminder of her loss. For the past ten years, her father had made a point of taking a couple of the men and going up into the mountains two weeks before Christmas to get the perfect white fir. Due to his death a few days after Thanksgiving, that was not to be, this year or ever again.

Wishing he could say something to ease the girl’s pain but knowing that there weren’t adequate words to remove the hurt that only time could heal, Murdoch sought some way to distract her. “Why don’t you add another log to the fire, then come sit by me and read the next chapter of that book you started last night?” he asked, ignoring his own pain as he shifted positions to make room for her to sit by his feet.

Teresa gave one final distracted gaze at the spot where a tree decorated with ribbons, bows, strings of popcorn, and bits of holly should have reached for the ceiling. Her eyes briefly closed and her shoulders sagged. Then with a gentle sigh, she went to the firebox and pulled out a chunk of wood. Once the fire was attended to, she picked up the book that lay on the corner of the table in front of Murdoch, settled at the foot of the sofa, and opened the book to the string marker that had been placed there the evening before.

At first, Teresa’s voice was soft with a slight quiver, but it strengthened after a couple of pages. Murdoch tried his best to appear interested, which wasn’t easy. His mind kept taking detours into the past where images of other Christmases lined the road.

There was the year of eighteen fifty-nine when Paul O’Brien had brought in a towering tree–lower limbs barely squeezing through the open French doors and top touching the ceiling once the stately fir was set in place. Teresa, five at the time, had danced with excitement as the decorations were added. On Christmas morning, her eyes had widened with wonder at the packages beneath the brightly adorned boughs. That had been the beginning of the tradition of her father providing the tree.  Until then, there hadn’t been a tree since the last Christmas Johnny had been there.

Reading without once glancing up, Teresa couldn’t have noticed the faraway look that crept into Murdoch’s eyes, nor could she have realized that he was hearing little of what she read. He, on the other hand, was unaware of the success of his diversion and that she was momentarily captivated by the world contained within the pages of the book. His thoughts had shifted to other times when the Lancer house had rung with laughter and good cheer–one being the Christmas before his second wife, Maria, had left taking their young son, Johnny, with her.

A sense of sadness soon weighed heavy on Murdoch’s heart as reality crowded out the memories of happier times. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on the story but soon found that was impossible. The bleakness of the present refused to be pushed into some far corner of his mind. Paul would never again fill the room with his rumbling laughter, nor would Scott ever step foot on the land that was to have been his heritage.  Years of searching for Johnny had proven fruitless. The boy seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth after Maria’s death. There hadn’t been one lead in over eight years. He can’t have died, too. Murdoch reasoned with dwindling conviction, not yet willing to accept what seemed a certainty.

A short while later, the clock chimed the half hour. Drawn from his thoughts, Murdoch realized that Teresa was no longer reading. She was merely staring at the open pages, her lips trembling. When she sniffed and rubbed an eye with the back of one wrist, he knew she was crying again. For how long or why, there was no way of knowing. He had been too lost in his own world of misery.

Ignoring the fiery darts in his back and leg, Murdoch raised up and scooted around to sit next to Teresa. He slid an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. Then unmindful of the tears that dampened the front of his shirt, he held her tight while her small frame shook with gasping sobs.

Murdoch felt his throat tighten–each swallow an effort. Fate had dealt them both a blow that would be difficult to recover from. Although he knew that the pain would diminish with time, experience had taught him there would always be an empty place in their hearts for the one they had lost. Life would never be the same without Paul.

Time ticked by unheeded while Murdoch comforted the grieving girl. Even if he could have seen the grandfather clock, he would not have cared that the hands were circling at their prescribed paces or that the chiming of the bells was on schedule. Seconds, minutes, and hours mattered nothing to him. Sorrow, descending like a curtain, had shut out the light of hope, and the arms of despair that had gripped him for most of the past month had once again enfolded him.

Part II – Prospects for a Gloomy Christmas

Chapter 4

The next morning in Boston:

Soft shadows concealed the corners of the room when Scott Lancer opened his eyes.  Even in the dim light, the pressure in his temples was almost unbearable. His first thought, as a moan escaped his throat, was that he should have had a few less glasses of champagne the night before. That, however, did not explain the pain in his ribs or the dull aching of his jaw until he remembered he had left the Dennison Mansion early.

When the events of the previous evening made themselves known with a rush, Scott’s heart began to race as he studied his surroundings more closely. He knew instantly that he was not in his own bedroom. This room was far too small and there was no fireplace to hold a warm, cheery fire. Instead, the room felt cold to his face.  The wall opposite him contained a tiny window and a crudely-built, open-shelved cabinet, which appeared to be used for storing folded clothes and other items, and the bed he was lying on sagged in in the middle. Also, he didn’t see his heavy wooden door with its ornately faceted glass doorknob. The doorway to his right was closed off with a blanket that appeared to hang from a wire that stretched from one side of the casing to the other. Where am I . . . and how did I get here? he wondered as he sat up.

Everything around him seemed to tilt and roll at his sudden movement. Leaning forward with a groan, Scott tightly clinched his eyelids together as he wrapped his arms around drawn up knees that were still hidden beneath an old quilt. His head felt like a balloon being squeezed in the hands of a child, and he was certain it would burst into a million pieces. For a moment, he even thought he was going to be sick. The wave of nausea, however, soon passed when the sensation of spinning rapidly through space ended and the pain between his temples subsided.

Once the dizziness had let up, Scott tried again to determine where he was and how he had come to be there. The last he could remember was getting into a fight at the Hanover Street Waterfront Tavern before being dragged outside and robbed. A touch of his hand to his left cheek told him that he had been hit hard on the bulging bone just below and to the outside of his eye. The skin was swollen and painful all the way to his ear.

Further examination of his face revealed another lump on his forehead that was also quite sore as was his nose, which felt considerably larger than normal. He didn’t need a mirror to know that he must look a sight. Assuming he had only been unconscious for a few hours, he inwardly groaned. And tonight is Christmas Eve. Grandfather has a house full of guests invited. I can’t possibly prevent them from noticing and asking questions.

With an audible moan, Scott remembered that the Dennisons were also expected to attend the evening’s festivities. He couldn’t be sure, of course, that they would still put in an appearance under the present circumstances. Julie had made it quite clear that she had no desire to see him until he was willing to reconsider the job offer with Whitfield Shipping. Either way, he was certain that he would be the center of speculation among his grandfather’s guests. News spread quickly among the elite of Boston. Word of his broken engagement was bound to have leaked out by now. Julie’s parents and more than one of their servants had been present when she had returned his ring. Undoubtedly, his grandfather already knew.

This last thought brought a shudder and another silent moan. His grandfather, Harlan Garrett, had been delighted about the impending marriage and would undoubtedly be displeased that it had been called off. Scott was also certain that the man was not going to be happy to learn that he had foolishly sought solace inside a common waterfront tavern where he was sure to be beaten and robbed. The elderly man’s lecture, filled with statements beginning with “I told you so; haven’t I warned you; and you know better than to,” was already ringing in his ears.

With a sigh, Scott laid back the quilt and swung his feet around so he could sit on the edge of the bed. He was still a little lightheaded. However, the swirling of the walls and furniture wasn’t nearly as pronounced as earlier, and the pain in his head failed to return in full force, so he tried standing.

The floor seemed to float beneath his feet and he swayed a little.  He refused to let that keep him from his first order of business. Someone had removed his outer clothing, and he was determined to find the missing articles. This proved to be a fruitless search. His pants, shirt, jacket, and overcoat were nowhere in the room.

This discovery brought a frown — honey colored brows squeezing together and lips slightly puckered. Not quite sure what else to do, Scott went to the blanketed doorway and pulled one edge of the crude curtain to the side so that he could see into the next room.

As though she was aware of his eyes on her, a small woman, whose auburn hair was streaked with gray, looked up from her mending and met Scott’s gaze. “Ah . . . so you’re awake, are yuh? Was worried, I was, yuh’d sleep right through Christmas.”

Scott hesitantly replied, “I’m sorry to have troubled you.”

“Oh, ’twas no trouble. No trouble atall, I assure yuh. ‘Tis just glad I am that me Seán found yuh. All covered with snow like yuh was, ’tis the grace o’ God he did, yuh know?”

“Seán?” Scott shivered and leaned against the doorframe.

“Aye. Me husband, Seán O’Halloran. He was takin’ the short way home from the docks last night, and there yuh be in the alley by the Hanover Street tavern down by the wharf.” The mending dropped to the woman’s lap and lay there unheeded as she went on with a lengthy account of her husband finding the fair-haired young man passed out cold in the snow.

Scott shuddered at Mrs. O’Halloran’s vivid descriptions of his injuries and how easily he could have lain exposed to the fury of the storm until morning or even longer. He certainly owed his life to her husband and decided that both the man and his wife should be amply rewarded for their services. When he made a statement to that effect, the woman immediately insisted it wasn’t necessary. She then went on about the thanks belonging to God and that he, Scott, could best show his gratitude by living a proper Christian life and aiding those poor souls, mainly Irish immigrants, who were starving to death while the rich refused to even pass them the crumbs from their overloaded tables.

Again, Scott shivered. He wanted to know about his clothes but was far too polite to interrupt his hostess in order to inquire as to their whereabouts. Just when he thought Mrs. O’Halloran would forever keep him standing there hidden behind the blanket that served to curtain off the bedroom, she scooped up the shirt she had been mending, stood, and laid it in the chair. With a shake of her head, she moved toward him. “Ah . . . but here I be prattlin’ on, and you standin’ there catchin’ yer death o’ cold, no doubt. Let me fetch yuh a robe so yuh can sit by the fire while I fix yuh a bite to eat.”

Scott shifted away from the door casing in preparation of returning to the bed where he could cover up and retain a measure of his dignity. “There really is no need for you to go to that much trouble. All I need are my clothes and I will be on my way,” he insisted as she stopped before him and reached out for something that apparently was hanging on the wall to one side of the doorway where he stood

“‘Tis no trouble, I assure yuh . . . and yuh’ll not be goin’ anywhere, young man, until yer clothes are dry. Now don’t yuh be frownin’ so. Yuh’re in no shape to be trav’lin’, lad, so I’ll be hearin’ no arguments from yuh.”

Given the firm set of Mrs. O’Halloran’s jaw and the unyielding command in her eyes as she held out the robe, which had seemed to magically appear in her hands, Scott could see that he had no choice but to reach around the edge of the blanket and take it. With a quickly mumbled, “Thank you,” he withdrew into the bedroom to make himself more presentable.

A short while later Scott was tidily wrapped in a faded blue robe that hung loosely on his lean shoulders. Obviously, the owner of the garment was considerably shorter and heavier than he.  The hem barely reached the calves of his legs, and the front edges couldn’t begin to be overlapped far enough to keep the robe from puckering around the waist where the sash was snugly tied to keep the front closed. Even once he was sitting in a ragged chair in front of the fireplace, Scott still felt inadequately covered until the woman brought him a small quilt to drape across his lap and tuck around his legs. She had insisted he needed it because the meager fire left a chill in the air, but he suspected she had also perceived his discomfort and had provided the covering to save him further embarrassment.

Once Scott was settled, Mrs. O’Halloran brought him a steaming bowl of stew, which was mostly broth with a few bits of chunked up potato, carrots, and onions along with a couple of small pieces of meat. The savory aroma tickled his nose and enticed his appetite despite the slight queasiness he had had a few minutes earlier while walking from the bedroom to the chair he was sitting in. He rested the bowl on his thigh, thanked the woman for her kindness, and then as she looked on, he dipped out a spoonful, raised it to his lips, and gently blew. The flavor of that first bite was as good as the smell had implied and as soon as he had swallowed it, he took another.

Mrs. O’Halloran nodded her satisfaction and went back to her mending while Scott sat quietly eating. Occasionally, he caught her glancing his way, pleasure wrinkling the outer edges of her eyes and lifting the corners of her mouth. He wondered if she had grown sons whom she was missing and whether that was why she was being so persistent about caring for him. If that were the case, he figured they were very lucky, whoever they were, to have her for a mother.

The direction of his thoughts brought a touch of sadness as Scott was reminded that he had never known his own mother. She had died when he was born. He couldn’t help wondering if she would have looked at him with that same light in her eyes and approving smile, and for a moment he let his mind picture what life might have been like had she lived. This only took him down a darker path to the father he had never seen despite the fact that the man was very much alive, so far as Scott knew.

A sense of gloom settled over Scott as he contemplated what might or should have been. Staring into the fire and unaware that he had finished his stew, he traced the edge of the spoon around the inside of the bowl that was now cupped in his left hand. He wasn’t even aware that Mrs. O’Halloran had risen from the chair next to him until she came to take the empty dish and offered to refill it. No longer hungry, he declined before closing his eyes and relaxing into the comfortable padding of the chair as he listened to his hostesses footsteps tracking softly to the kitchen area and back again.

The crackling of the fire and slight increase in warmth he felt radiating from its direction told Scott that the woman had added another chunk of wood from the tiny pile near the hearth. From the way she was being so frugal with it, he had a feeling it might well be all that she had. He made a mental note to have more delivered as soon as he returned home.

Mrs. O’Halloran’s quiet footsteps stopped in front of him, and Scott looked up to find her regarding him with eyes filled with concern. He assumed she was worried about how he was feeling so he quickly assured her that he was doing fine and that he was sure that he could leave once his clothes were dry. This news did nothing to change the apprehension in her face — a fact that left him puzzled.

Before Scott could think of something more to say, the woman held out one hand. His breath caught and his heart began to pound. In her palm was the ring that had sparkled on the third finger of Julie’s left hand less than twenty-four hours earlier. “How . . .?”

“‘Twas in yer shirt pocket, no doubt. By the grace of God, I felt it in the bottom of the tub, or ‘twould o’ been dumped out with the wash water.” She tipped her hand as she looked admiringly at the dainty gold band with its cluster of sparkling gems and asked if it was intended for a special lady.

Scott evaded her eyes and bit his lip. “It was,” he answered in a barely audible voice.

“Turned yuh down, did she?”

From the sound of Mrs. O’Halloran’s voice, Scott knew that her kindly eyes were filled with sympathy. His throat constricted at the sudden rise of emotion this knowledge brought, and he swallowed painfully. “Something like that,” he replied huskily.

“Perhaps, ’tis for the best.” She held out her hand for Scott to take the ring from her palm and then gently patted his arm. “As my Seán would say, the good Lord knows what’s best. It jest might be, He has plans for yer future that yuh know nothin’ about, and he knows she would want no part of it.”

Although Scott was fully aware that Mrs. O’Halloran was trying to cheer him up and get him to see a brighter side of the issue, the words accomplished little. He mumbled some form of agreement while clasping the symbol of his lost happiness in his fist, his knuckles turning white from the tightness of his grip, and then heard little of the rest of what she said. His mind was trying to comprehend what future he could have that would be better than a life shared with Julie. The only other possibility would be one that included his father. That hope, however, had died long ago when the man had failed to contact him or show any interest in his existence. After more than twenty-three years of silence, Scott had lost all desire to even meet Murdoch Lancer, let alone be treated as a son by the man. It was too late. Too much bitterness and hate stood in the way for them to ever be the family that they should have been.

Before he could pursue this line of thought any further, Scott heard a loud stomping on what had to be the front steps. The door to the outside was flung inward by a gust of wind and banged against the wall while a man, bringing a flurry of snowflakes with him, stepped through the open doorway.

Mrs. O’Halloran immediately rose from her chair. “Seán, ’tis home early, yuh be. Yuh not be hurt, now be yuh?” she inquired as the man strained to get the door closed.

Once the door was latched and his wife was helping him out of his threadbare coat, the man replied in a cheerful baritone voice. “Sent home early, we were, Katie love . . . and a good thing it was, too. Could barely see past me nose once I passed Sweeney’s. ‘Tis a bad blizzard, she be brewin’ an’ that for certain. Won’t be a soul goin’ nowhere on this fine Christmas Eve.”

At the news of the storm’s severity, Scott’s hopes of leaving plunged and then died altogether when he broached that very subject shortly after being introduced to Seán O’Halloran. Neither of the O’Hallorans would hear of him going anywhere as long as the blizzard raged outside their door. Even his protests that his grandfather would be worried about him did anything to convince them that the risk was justified. They merely pointed out that his family would much rather go through a little unnecessary fretting than have him chance getting lost and possibly freezing to death. Scott finally had to agree that they were right. There was nothing to do but wait for the fury of the storm to end.

Once Scott had resigned himself to spending another night with the Irish couple, the rest of the afternoon and early evening passed pleasantly enough. Seán had been a sailor in his younger years and was full of entertaining stories of life at sea even though most were centered on hardships of one kind or another. Still, they served the purpose of distracting Scott from his own troubles for a while.

It wasn’t until after dinner had been served and Katie O’Halloran was hanging stockings from the fireplace mantle that the cloud of despair settled in on Scott once more. His own stocking would now be in its usual place opposite his grandfather’s on the fireplace in the parlor. Missing would be the one Scott had had made especially for Julie. It was tucked away in a drawer in his room. He had planned to give it to her after dinner that night and have her put it on the center peg, which had not been used since his grandmother’s death when he was a small boy. Even if he had been able to get home, that place seemed destined to remain empty unless the young lady changed her mind about marrying him.

Any hope of Julie Dennison relenting was short lived. She could be very determined when she wanted to be. It was one of the things that had drawn him to her. Even though she had been obvious in her desire to snare him as a husband, certain favors had been withheld. She had strong moral principles in that respect, and he had admired her all the more because of them. That had made it all the harder for him to understand why she couldn’t respect his own convictions when it came to who he would work for. First, she had pressured him to accept a position his grandfather had offered. When he had refused because he would be putting a long-term employee out of a job, she had seemed to understand. However, when she had learned of the offer from Whitfield Shipping, she had refused to see his reasons for not accepting it. The man who had had the job had passed away suddenly so to her there was no ethical reason for Scott not to jump at the opportunity to earn an even larger wage than he would have received working in one of the companies owned by Garrett Enterprises.

Scott silently scolded himself.  I should never have told her that I wanted us to have our own house instead of living with Grandfather . . . and looking at the Holbrook estate was another mistake. It would take most of the funds I inherited from my grandmother just to buy it. Without an executive position in a major company, I couldn’t begin to afford the servants needed to care for a house and grounds of that size. Entertaining guests would also be expensive. The ball Julie was talking of holding in the spring could take a month’s salary.

Despair engulfed Scott and the throbbing in his head returned with a vengeance.  He let out a long sigh. When Mrs. O’Halloran suggested that he needed his rest, he gladly retired to the room he had awakened in earlier and gave no thought to whether there was more than one bedroom in the house.

Once snuggled beneath the quilt which proved to be no match for the chill in the room and was therefore another reminder of his host and hostess’s poverty, Scott wished he could sleep right through the next day. Christmas was a gloomy prospect. Even if the blizzard was gone by morning and he could make it home in time for breakfast, he knew that he would feel no joy in the exchange of gifts or the wide variety of delicious food that would be served at each meal. All reason for celebrating had fled when Julie had returned his ring. The season was ruined and the New Year promised to be bleak at best.

Chapter 5

That same day in Nogales:

Awakening to the feeling that he had been trampled under the hooves of a whole herd of wild horses, Johnny Madrid slowly lifted dark-fringed eyelids. He was lying on a pallet on the dirt floor of an adobe hut. His back was against a wall, and a Mexican youth, who appeared to be in his early teens, was sitting cross-legged a couple feet away–black eyes locked on his.

Johnny grunted. His head hurt and his back and shoulder felt like they were on fire. He forced a slight grin and spoke in a hoarse whisper. “Buenos días, Muchacho.”

Eyes unwavering, the boy returned the smile. “Buenos días, Señor. Nosotros pensamos que nunca despertaras.”

So he thinks I would never wake up, thought Johnny as vague flashes of a poker game, a disgruntled uniformed officer, and a helpless Mexican boy passed through his mind. Memories from the night before or what he assumed was the night before became clearer, and he remembered being beaten and robbed. What had happened after that was more like a dream. He wasn’t quite sure what was real and what was not.

A few willing answers from the boy cleared up most of Johnny’s questions. It soon became apparent that the youngster was the same one Capitan Hidalgo had been harassing behind the stable and that Johnny had been lucky to survive the beating received for interfering. He was sure he owed his life to the quick actions of the young Mexican, who had returned to taunt and lure the Rurale officer away before running home and bringing back help.

When Johnny tried to express his gratitude, the boy insisted that it was he who should be grateful and that his papá had been glad to come to the aid of the man who had saved his son. The praise left Johnny feeling uneasy so he quickly shifted the boy’s attention elsewhere by asking him who he was.

The boy lifted his chin as he proudly claimed he was José, the son of Carlos Martinez.  He paused and arched his eyebrows while intently watching Johnny. “Usted?”

“Johnny . . . Lancer.” The hated name had no sooner slipped off his tongue than Johnny bit his lip and looked away from Jose’s prying eyes. Why’d I do that? If I didn’t want him knowin’ I’m Madrid, why not use Harper?

Despite the Mexican custom for a child to retain the father’s name should the mother remarry, Johnny had grown up using his stepfather, Dan Harper’s surname. It wasn’t until Johnny had taken up the life of a pistolero that he had chosen to change to Madrid, which belonged to one of his mother’s ancestors. He had been proud of what he had made of that name. Therefore, choosing to use the name of the man who had thrown him and his mother out nearly nineteen years ago was even harder for him to understand.

“¿Usted tiene hambre, Señor Lancer? Porque mí mama es la mejor cocinera en Nogales.” José’s voice broke the silence as he asked if Johnny was hungry and proclaimed that his mother was the best cook in Nogales.

Amused by the way the boy had changed the end of Lancer to sore and rolled the r, Johnny almost chuckled, his mouth quirking into a grin. “Un poco . . . pero no necesitas molestar a tu mama. Estera bien,” he replied, declaring that there was no need to bother the boy’s mother; he would be fine.

“Es no molestia, Señor,” insisted José, jumping to his feet then racing across the small room. Before Johnny could stop him, he slipped out of sight through the blanketed doorway.

Johnny took the time alone to survey his situation. From what he could see, the Martinez family was poor. The house, if it could be called that, was little more than a single oblong room that appeared to be slightly longer than its ten to twelve feet width. There was no furniture. A multicolored blanket hung in the single doorway and beds, which consisted of straw pallets that were each covered by a similar blanket, lined the perimeter of the room. In one corner were what looked to be a small pile of neatly folded clothes and a few stone dishes. It was impossible to tell how many people were in the family or what ages they might be.

Deciding that these people didn’t need another mouth to feed, Johnny tossed the blanket aside and sat up. The quick movement brought instant regret as he sucked in a sharp breath. He closed his eyes and rested his face in his hands while trying to shut out the pounding in his head that accompanied the feeling of his flogged body falling off a cliff.

The sensation of tumbling through space let up soon enough, but the throbbing behind his eyes and at the base of his skull was more persistent. Tentatively, Johnny tried getting to his feet anyway. This wasn’t the first time he had dealt with a headache. Once standing, however, he wondered at the wisdom of that choice when the room seemed to spin before his eyes.

“Señor, por favor siéntese antes que se calle!”

The scolding voice that begged him to sit before he fell, Johnny was sure, belonged to the woman who had just pushed the colorful curtain aside and entered. A frown was puckering her brow and her dark eyes were snapping as she quickly moved toward him, her bare feet whispering against the dirt floor. At her heels was José followed by three younger children who came to a halt just inside the room, where they clung together while watching Johnny with wide-eyed wonder.

Johnny started to protest that he would be fine, but his legs betrayed him. He would have landed hard on the dirt floor if the woman hadn’t rushed to his side, grabbed his arm, and guided him to the nearest pallet. There he sat with elbows on knees, his head cupped in the palms of his hands and the heels of his hands pressing against his temples while he bit his lip and waited for the floor to stop whirling.

Speaking rapidly in Spanish, the woman reprimanded Johnny for getting up in the first place.  She then fussed over him as if he were one of her children. He wasn’t sure whether he liked all of the attention or resented it. In any case, he was too sick at the moment to escape her mothering. There was a drummer banging away on a big metal pan inside of his head, or so it seemed, and he was afraid that at any moment he was going to slip back into that world of darkness that he had just escaped from a short while before. Not that he thought that that would have been such a bad thing. At least he hadn’t felt anything while he was there.

Gradually the world around him slowed to a stop as the woman applied a cool, wet rag to Johnny’s head. Where the damp cloth had come from he had no idea. She had never left his side, her hand still on his arm as she encouraged him to relax and stop panting like a dog that had run for miles, which was impossible until his head quit feeling as if it would explode.

As the pain became more bearable, Johnny’s short, choppy breaths deepened. Señora Martinez’s voice also seemed more soothing. Anyway, he assumed that was who the woman was since he had heard José call her Mamá.

“Señor, esta bien ahora?” Concern was evident in the tone of the woman’s voice as she inquired whether Johnny was alright now.

“Sí.” Johnny’s strangled whisper as he opened his eyes didn’t even sound convincing to his own ears, and he wasn’t surprised when she insisted that he not move while she brought him something to eat. A part of him wanted to rebel at being told what to do, but he didn’t argue or even attempt to disobey her firmly spoken command. He wasn’t sure he could have gotten to his feet anyway, and he wasn’t about to crawl to the door on hands and knees with four pairs of young eyes watching him. No doubt one or more of the owners would have informed the woman of his transgression, and he had no desire to be on the receiving end of her wrath.

Señora Martinez returned shortly with a stone bowl that contained a small amount of rice and beans topped with a warm tortilla. Although it wasn’t much, Johnny was certain it was more than the family had to spare. He hated the thought of children going hungry on account of him, but he also knew it would be an insult to refuse the woman’s kindness. There was no choice in the matter; he had to try to eat what had been offered.

The smallest boy and girl watched Johnny’s every move and had him feeling like a rabbit with a hungry vulture circling overhead. He tried to ignore them as he tore off a chunk of the tortilla and used it to scoop up a little of the rice and beans. Taking a bite, he smiled approvingly. Señora Martinez was as good a cook as her son, José, had claimed. The meager meal, however, would have been much more enjoyable if he hadn’t felt as though he were stealing candy from babies. Even when the children were told to let him eat in peace and had moved away, he still couldn’t get their starved eyes out of his mind.

After cleaning up a little over half of the bowl’s contents, Johnny set the dish down. He let out a long, satisfied sigh and addressed the woman. “Gracias. Es muy Bueno . . . pero no puedo comer mas.”

His declaration that the food was good but that he could not eat anymore brought a frown to the señora’s face as she expressed her worries about Johnny’s injuries and their effect on his appetite. He assured her that he would be fine if he could just rest for a while longer. Once he had her somewhat convinced, he offered the remainder of his food to the youngest members of the Martinez family. They were reluctant at first and looked to their mother for approval.  When Johnny insisted and she didn’t object, one of them took the bowl from his outstretched hand. Soon the contents had disappeared and the children were noisily licking their fingers.

Señora Martinez promptly announced that Señor Lancer needed a siesta and shooed the children out the blanketed doorway. Before following her family outside, she fussed over Johnny a little more. He appreciated the woman’s concern for his welfare but was glad when he was finally left alone. Sleep, however, was slow in coming. The throbbing in his head and the burning ache in his back and shoulders kept him in wakeful misery for a while. Gradually though, he drifted into a land of dreams where he was no longer aware of his discomfort.

Sometime later, distant voices drew nearer and the drone of muffled words became more distinct as Johnny became fully awake. Lying on his side with his eyes closed, he listened as the Martinez children excitedly discussed the posada and other festivities planned for that evening. He didn’t need to look at them to see the anticipation on their faces. It rang in every word they uttered.

Reminded of a time when he too had looked forward to the nightly posadas that ended on Christmas Eve with a midnight mass followed by a meal with his family, Johnny was overcome with a sense of sadness. Those days would be no more. His mother and stepfather had died nearly ten years ago. Without them, he had lost all desire to celebrate the Holy season. Not only that, his way of life over the past few years had put him in opposition with the teaching of the padres. He had even come to doubt the existence of God so it made no sense to observe the birth of His son.

Johnny waited a while longer before letting it be known that he was awake. Although his head didn’t ache nearly as badly as it had earlier, he soon found that the pain and stiffness in his back, shoulders, and neck was much worse and that sitting up was a major undertaking. He hid his agony as best he could, but the concern in Senora Martinez’s eyes told him that she wasn’t fooled.

Once again, Johnny was subjected to the woman’s fretful care.  It only served to bring back stronger memories of his mother, and any hope he might have had of leaving came to an abrupt end. Senora Martinez would not hear of it, and neither would her husband, Carlos. When it came time for their family to join the posada, Johnny even had to assure them that he would be there when they returned. This was a promise that wouldn’t be hard to keep. He knew he couldn’t have gone far anyway.

The two youngest Martinez children kept a shy distance from Johnny while saying their farewells, but José moved in closer, his other sister, Rosa, at his elbow. “Adiós, Señor Johnny. Yo le traer algo de la piñata.”

“También a mí, Señor,” chimed in the girl, who looked to be about ten years old.

Touched by their generous offers to bring him something from the piñata, Johnny found it hard to say more than a simple, “Gracias.”

Carlos Martinez voiced his goodbye and headed the children out the door while his wife stood looking down at Johnny, who was sitting with his back leaning against the wall. After inquiring if he was sure there was nothing he needed and being told that he would be fine, she turned to go. Stopping at the doorway, she looked back. “Diré una oración a la Virgen María.”

As the woman joined the rest of her family outside, Johnny’s throat constricted at her offer to say a prayer to the Virgin Mary for him.  It had been a long time since anyone had shown him that much concern.  For a moment, he almost believed there was a God

The happy chatter and laughter of his host’s family soon faded into silence leaving Johnny alone with his thoughts. A part of him wished that he could be the boy he once had been. Although life hadn’t always been easy then, he had still been filled with the same blind faith and unwavering hope he had just seen in the Martinez children and their mother.

With a scowl pinching his eyes and distorting his mouth, Johnny settled onto his side. He didn’t want to think about the past. Those days were gone. The here and now was all that mattered. Even the future couldn’t be counted on. As Manolito had said the night before, Madrid would be lucky to reach thirty. In fact, the way things had gone for him in the last couple of months, Johnny wondered if he would even see his twenty-first birthday.

Is that why I kept quiet about bein’ Madrid? A soft sigh escaped his slightly parted lips. For the past few years, all he had wanted to be was Johnny Madrid, the best pisolero north or south of the border. Now for some reason, he found he wasn’t entirely satisfied with that ambition.

Angry that he had let his thoughts drag him down their present path, Johnny rolled over and pulled the blanket up to his ears. He wasn’t cold.  The evening air was still quite warm for late December. It was the chilling things going through his mind that he wanted to keep out. His course had been set. There was no turning back or choosing another. The name Madrid was becoming too well known on both sides of the Mexican border for him to do that.

Upon closing his eyes, Johnny refused to think about the future and where it might lead. He even tried to ignore the fleeting thought that a man named Lancer was to blame for the existence of Johnny Madrid. His father had been sneaking into his mind much too often in the last few months since Day Pardee had mentioned having a job to do in the San Joaquin Valley of California.

Maybe, I should’ve gone with him. I could’ve looked in on my old man while I was up that way, done what needed doin’, and might have made a few bucks to boot. Day’s never been one to do anything that wouldn’t put money in his pocket.

Johnny knew why he had chosen not to accept the offer to ride with Day. For one thing, Murdoch Lancer would more than likely be a dead man by now, and for another, Pardee wasn’t above killing from ambush. Johnny never had been able to stomach back-shooting, and he had little respect for a man who’d gun down his own father, either. Still, every man had a weak spot, and he had a feeling that he might have been tempted to do both if he’d been given the chance.

Wonder what my old man’s doin’ right now? Probably havin’ a big celebration of some kind. Bet he ain’t thinkin’ about me, that’s for sure. Bitterly Johnny squeezed his eyelids tighter together and swallowed at the lump that was growing in his throat. He wondered what he’d done to make his father hate him or if it was because of his mother being Mexican that the man hadn’t wanted him. I could’ve made him proud of me, if he’d just given me a chance.

Johnny let his mind dwell once again on the man who had been the center of his world nineteen years ago. However, there was not even a hint of fondness in his brooding thoughts since he had no memories of that time in his life. All he knew was that when he was very young his father hadn’t wanted him or his mother and had sent them away. He had never been told why.

Gloomily, he tried to push his troubling thoughts away and concentrate on something other than a man named Lancer, a far-off ranch in California, and the fact that in a few hours it would be Christmas. He could see no reason for celebrating. His body ached and his pockets were empty. This night was nothing special to him and tomorrow would be just another day to survive as best he could. If there was a God as he had been taught as a child, he was sure that Johnny Madrid’s welfare was of little concern to Him. The way he saw it, if his earthly father didn’t care about him then why should the Heavenly Father be any different.

After what seemed an eternity, Johnny’s breathing slowed and deepened. The whispers in the darkness outside the small room faded out of his hearing as he lost awareness of all that was around him, and at last he drifted into a fitful sleep.

Chapter 6

That same evening at the Lancer Ranch:

Once again, Murdoch Lancer lounged on the sofa in the living room of his hacienda. The chunks of wood in the fireplace burned brightly and shadows around the room danced in the flickering flames. In the corner where a tall tree had stood each Christmas Eve for the past ten years, there was now a small wooden manger surrounded by straw figures to represent the birth of the Christ child in a stable in Bethlehem. Despite Murdoch’s protests, Maria Sanchez, wife of one of his vaqueros, had initiated the setting up of the scene, She had insisted that the Holy Season should not go uncelebrated.

The steady ticking of the grandfather clock and the erratic crackling of the fire was joined by the soft rattle of the French doors. Murdoch didn’t look up from the picture in his hand. He knew that the doors were locked and that the noise was the result of the wind playing with the panes of glass.

Murdoch raised his left hand and ran the thumb down one side of his nose, ending with his fingers cupped over his chin as he studied the drawing in his other hand. Even though he had only seen Scott that one time on the child’s fifth birthday, there was no doubt in Murdoch’s mind that the twelve-year-old in the picture was that same boy. The long face, straight nose, and finely chiseled features had been burned in his mind that fateful day when Harlan Garrett, Scott’s maternal grandfather, had refused to relinquish custody of the boy.

“He’s a handsome boy.” Those had been Paul O’Brien’s words when Murdoch had first shown him the picture.

Yes, he was, the father’s pride in the Murdoch had to agree.

Still, there was something not quite right, even though the sketch was clearly the work of someone with great talent. It was the eyes, Murdoch decided, feeling the pull on his forehead as his brows drew together. Scott’s eyes were like Catherine’s, he recalled, and the artist really had captured the resemblance remarkably well. It was the sadness there; the haunted look of longing for something beyond reach that always seemed to tug at Murdoch’s heart whenever he looked on the face of his first-born son.

I should have found a way to bring him here.

A long sigh brushed over the finger resting on Murdoch’s lower lip. Slowly,  he slid his hand off his face and let his arm come to rest against his chest. He’d had that argument with himself more times than he could count. The outcome was always the same. There had been no way. Not without hurting Scott, there hadn’t. Harlan Garrett had seen to that.

Murdoch placed the picture on the small table at his side. His fingers moved to the box that was lying there. They hovered a moment before grasping the edge and bringing it to settle on his lap.

For a short while, Murdoch merely stared at the envelope on top. He didn’t need to look beneath it to know what was there; each item was engraved in his mind. The document at the bottom held fond memories that brought a mixture of joy and pain whenever he thought of the day that he and Catherine Garrett had signed their names on the appropriate lines. If she had lived, the rest of the contents in the box would not exist.

The next item was a letter from Harlan Garrett. It was short and to the point. Catherine had given birth early.  The child had survived, but she had not. Harlan had taken Scott on to Boston with him, where the baby would be safe and could be properly cared for. Other than a couple of short letters that didn’t even mention the gifts he had sent and a legal document, which had been received a few months after Murdoch had attempted to get the boy, there had been no further correspondence from his first wife’s father.

With trembling hand, Murdoch removed the larger envelope on top and fingered through the items below. Nearer the bottom was a small white envelope, its raggedly torn top a reminder of the clamor his heart had been in as he had opened it with trembling hand and read the meager contents written in the unsteady scrawl of an eight-year old child. Scott’s first letter had been brief, ending with a simple request: when would his father come to see him?

“I couldn’t tell him the truth,” Murdoch muttered, anger rising in his throat as he bit his upper lip. He suspected that was why his father-in-law had allowed Scott to write him in the first place. He knew I’d make an excuse. Wonder what sort of stories Harlan had told him about me. Nothing good, that’s for sure.

Two more small envelopes slipped past the edge of Murdoch’s finger. They were also from Scott. One had come when the boy was ten, and the other, dated approximately two years later, had been inside the package with the picture. The contents of both indicated that answers to previous correspondences had been lost as they had not been received.

Neither letter had made mention of the presents that had always been sent at Christmas and for Scott’s birthdays. Murdoch tried to ignore that oversight by reasoning that his gifts would probably have seemed insignificant next to what Harlan Garrett would have given the boy. Still, somewhere in the back of his mind, a small voice whispered that perhaps his son had never seen those offerings of love.

Thoughts of his elder son always uncovered the anger and bitterness toward Harlan which Murdoch had unsuccessfully tried to bury for more than eighteen years. “Should have gone after him . . . never let him take Scott to Boston. I should have known he’d file for custody and use everything in his power to keep my son from me,” he grumbled.

“Did you say something, Murdoch?”

The big man’s heart lurched at the sound of Teresa O’Brien’s voice so near. He hadn’t even heard her enter the room.  “It was nothing,” Murdoch softly stated, glancing over his shoulder at the girl as she moved around the end of the sofa.

Teresa’s piercing brown eyes met his, and he knew she suspected he was being less than truthful. To his relief, she didn’t speak her doubts. Instead she went to the fireplace, took the poker stick from its holder, and jabbed at the logs on the fire. A shower of snapping, crackling sparks reached upward, the tiny specks of red and yellow disappearing into the chimney, and then the flames eating at the chunks of wood grew brighter as their long arms stretched higher.

While the girl stirred up the fire, Murdoch looked on, a hint of a smile tugging at his lips and crinkling the corners of his eyes. She was the one ray of sunshine in his life. He didn’t know how he would have survived the past month without her. Despite her own grief, she had sat by his bed for hours at a time reading one of the many books in his collection of literature, filling him in on the activities around the ranch, or silently keeping him company as he slept. Never once had she complained that he was too much trouble even though he knew there had been days when he had not been a good patient at all.

“There.” Teresa stood and turned toward Murdoch. “Now isn’t that better?”

There was a wisp of a smile on her lips, but the usual light in her eyes was gone. Realizing this, Murdoch felt a pang in his heart as he nodded and said, “Yes. Much better.” She had always been such a happy child. Her bubbling laughter and constant cheerfulness had filled his home with warmth. Now even with the brightly burning fire, there was a chill in the room that cut through to his bones. He wondered how long it would be before the stone walls of his hacienda once again rang with merriment.

Teresa moved over to the sofa and picked up the blanket that was shoved into a wad at the opposite end from where Murdoch sat. With meticulous care, she smoothed out the wrinkles as she folded it into a smaller square before draping it over the arm of the sofa. Once that was done, she picked up his empty glass and a small plate with a few crumbs of crust from the slice of apple pie she had brought him earlier. “I’ll get you some more water,” she said.

“I don’t need it right now.”

“I know . . . but you will later, so I might as well get it since I’m going to the kitchen.”

Murdoch opened his mouth to chide the girl for constantly tidying up after him but thought better of it and thanked her instead. He was sure that her fussing was more for something to keep her mind off the loss of her father than because she liked everything neat and in its place. Before Paul’s death, she had often ignored their habits of leaving empty glasses and desert dishes on the fireplace mantel or one of the small tables in the room.

A heavy weight settled onto Murdoch’s chest as thoughts of Teresa’s father reminded him of his own loss. Paul had been so much more than his segundo, his foreman and right hand. The man had been his best friend, as well. They had spent many evenings, at home and on the trail, sitting in front of a fire while discussing ways to improve grass, water, and cattle or talking about a host of other topics, such as the price of beef, the rising need for better law enforcement with the influx of people moving west, and the expected effects current legislations might have on the ranching business.

Murdoch absent mindedly fingered the items in the box, which he was still holding. Feeling the rough torn edges of newsprint paper, he was pulled away from the pain of the present and back into the past. The articles had been sent to him by another friend, Jim Harper, whose wife had known Catherine, Murdoch’s first wife, since childhood. If it hadn’t been for the aid of the Harpers, Murdoch was sure that he and Catherine would have had a much more difficult time becoming acquainted, planning their elopement, and procuring passage on a ship bound for California. Her family had strongly objected to his seeing her and had repeatedly tried to hinder and discourage their romance.

“Harlan Garrett’s Grandson Top of His Class”, Murdoch silently read upon pulling out one of the news clippings. There was no picture, but the big rancher could clearly see his former father-in-law’s smug expression and hear the older man claiming Scott had inherited the Garrett intelligence.

With a weary huff, Murdoch let the rest of the newspaper articles slip past his fingers. He didn’t want to read them, especially the last one which listed Scott among those who had died in battle. They were all reminders of what he and his son had missed by being separated, and reading them would only fuel his hatred for Harlan Garrett.

Next was a small leather-bound book, which Murdoch pulled out and clasped in his large hand for a moment before opening the cover to see his younger son’s full name and date of birth on the first page. He’ll be twenty-one come April, a man, if he’s still alive, he thought, with a shake of his head while envisioning the tiny baby he had held in his arms that day so long ago.

For several minutes, Murdoch scanned the pages of the journal he had started shortly after his younger son’s birth. There he had recorded each event as Johnny grew from infant to toddler. As he read the entries, memories flashed through his mind. He saw that first upward twitch of tiny lips that later turned into a dazzling grin that melted his heart; Johnny’s contorted face as the child struggled to sit upright for the first time and that same look of determination when he scooted backwards while learning to crawl; Johnny taking a faltering step then squealing as he ran across the living room a couple of weeks after that; the child’s first attempts to feed himself, which had resulted in more food on the outside of the mouth than in it; and a pair of flashing blue eyes and jutted chin that marked the boy’s first temper tantrum.

Murdoch sighed heavily and snapped the book shut. The journal entries were a stark reminder that not only had he never had the pleasure of watching those changes in his first-born son but also that the years of observing Johnny grow had been far too few.

When Teresa came in a short while later and set a full glass of water on the table at his side, Murdoch was grateful for the distraction. After thanking her, he put the box on the floor, picked up the glass, and took a long drink of the cool refreshing liquid. “Sit with me for a while,” he said, sitting a little straighter to make room for her by his feet.

“Would you like me to read to you?”

“Yes. That would be nice.” He smiled weakly, took in a deep breath, and slowly let it out as Teresa rose to get the book she had read from earlier that day. Although he had no idea of where she had left off that afternoon, he was glad for anything that might get his mind off his sons. I should have left that picture on the desk and that box in the drawer where they belong, he scolded himself with a grimace.

“Is your back hurting you? I could sit over by the fire, if you need to lie down.” Teresa stood by the table, an open book now resting in the palm of her hand.

Looking up into the girl’s concerned eyes, Murdoch shook his head and assured her that he was fine. That wasn’t quite the truth. The ache in his lower back was worse, and he knew that before long he would find it unbearable. However, for the time being, he welcomed the added distraction the pain would provide.

Teresa was soon settled at the far end of the sofa. She might just as well have been reading to the stone walls. They would have heard as much as the man beside her did. He wasn’t even aware of the brief periods of silence when she paused to glance over at him. His mind was still inside the box near his feet.

The last addition to the container’s contents had been the large envelope that contained a report from the San Francisco office of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Inside its pages was a detailed accounting of the Agency’s efforts to find Maria and Johnny Lancer. Most of what was written there told of one dead end trail after another. The results had been no different from that of other searches Murdoch had instigated.

There had been one small success in the Pinkerton’s efforts.  They had finally located Maria. The news had been far from good. She had been dead for more than eight years, and any tracks Johnny might have left behind had long since vanished. Even searching for the boy under the name of the child’s step-father had proven fruitless. Either he’s using another name or . . ..

Murdoch shifted positions. He didn’t like thinking about the alternative to that last thought, so for a while, he tried to concentrate on what Teresa was reading. This worked for a few minutes, but soon his mind was back on his missing son. What does he look like? Is he tall like me or small like Maria? Is he happy? Has he married and started a family? Will I ever see him again? If the Pinkertons do find him, will he even want to come home? What reason was he given for Maria leaving? Was he lied to? Does he think I don’t want him?

Doubt ridden questions continued to bombard Murdoch’s mind, and he wasn’t even aware that he was scowling until he heard Teresa’s softly spoken, “Murdoch?”

“Hm?” The rancher’s brows arched as he was pulled from his dark thoughts.

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. My back was complaining a little, that’s all. Please, go on with the story.” Murdoch gave Teresa a reassuring smile and hoped she would believe the falsehood.

The girl’s forehead wrinkled and she started to speak. For a moment Murdoch thought she was going to inquire as to whether he even knew what she had last read. She didn’t. Instead, to his relief, she sighed, turned the page, and continued on with her reading.

When the chiming of the grandfather clock proclaimed the ten o’clock hour, Murdoch sent Teresa off to bed. He sat for a few more minutes, his thoughts drifting to the fact that in a couple of hours it would be Christmas. This brought no comfort. There was no reason for celebration that he could see.

Having been further discouraged by his reflections on past disappointments, injustices, and losses, Murdoch eased his tall frame off the sofa. The stiffness and pain in his back and leg were an instant reminder of his present troubles. His life had been a journey of one hardship after another. He seemed destined to have everything that gave life meaning taken from him: first his wives and his children, then his best friend, and now even his beloved land was threatened.

Murdoch collected the picture and box of memoirs, hobbled to the desk, and put the items away. He closed his eyes for a few seconds and bit his lip, but the scenes invoked by his reminiscences refused to budge. Dejectedly, he let out a long breath, turned down the lamps, and went to his room.

For what seemed an eternity, Murdoch lay in bed trying to sleep but unable to empty his mind long enough to do so. If Catherine had only lived. If Scott hadn’t died. If Maria hadn’t left. If I could just find Johnny. If . . . if . . . if.

The weight of depression rested heavily on the weary rancher. His life had been filled with ifs and if onlys. None could be changed. Paul, Catherine, and Scott could not be brought back to life. His decision to leave Scott in Boston could not be reversed. Maria could not be brought home. be Johnny’s return was the only wish he could possibly be granted, but even the prospect of that ever happening seemed remote and any hope Murdoch had was rapidly vanishing. There seemed to be nothing left to hang on to except his land; yet, without his sons to pass the ranch on to, he was even feeling it was pointless to risk the loss of more lives in order to keep what he had spent his life building.

Long after he had retired, the chiming of the clock in the living room told Murdoch that Christmas had arrived. He found no joy in that knowledge. There was nothing to be happy about.  There was no reason for the season as far as he was concerned.

Part III – The Meaning of Christmas

Chapter 7

Christmas Day in Boston:

Scott awoke to the sun streaming through the tiny window, the bright rays penetrating his closed eyelids and bidding them to open and greet the new day. When he complied, he found that a chair had been brought in while he slept and that his clothes, which looked as though great pains had been taken to press the wrinkles from them, had been carefully draped over its tall ladder back. He was sure that he had Mrs. O’Halloran to thank for that act of kindness.

Cautiously, Scott sat up.  He was surprised to feel so little of the pain of the previous day. A quick examination told him that, even though his face was still tender to the touch, some of the swelling was gone from his cheek and nose. He was sure that the discoloration was worse and wondered how best to broach the matter with his grandfather. There didn’t seem to be a good way, so he resigned himself to his fate of listening to a lecture on the foolishness of his actions.

Once assured that he wouldn’t fall flat on his face if he got out of bed, Scott crawled from beneath the quilt. The nip in the air prodded him to dress quickly. Still, despite his hurry, he noted that his clothing showed little or no signs of the ordeal he had been through. For this he was grateful; and he hoped that with a little luck the moment when his physical injuries were noticed would be delayed until after he had been to his bedroom.

On the seat of the chair was a bowl of water. Scott touched the metal pan, its warmth bringing a gentle upward curve to his lips. When he noticed the razor, his smile broadened. Either Mrs. O’Halloran was a very perceptive woman or else her husband had informed her that their guest would appreciate a shave. Scott didn’t care which. He was just glad for the opportunity to remove the stubble from his face. The two-day growth of whiskers would be much more difficult to hide than the bruises beneath.

A short while later, clean shaven and feeling presentable, Scott left the bedroom to join his host and hostess, whom he could hear stirring in the next room.

“Ah . . . Scott, me boy, ’tis up you be. And how be you this fine Christmas morning, Lad?”

“Much better, Sir,” Scott replied. Then, uncomfortable with Shawn O’Halloran’s cheerful greeting and almost paternal attitude toward him, he smiled hesitantly as he joined the other man in front of the fireplace.

“Good.” Shawn waved at one of the chairs. “Sit, me boy. We were about to recite the Christmas story.”

Before he could comply with his host’s request, Scott’s attention was drawn toward the kitchen by the light padding of footsteps just as Mrs. O’Halloran, wiping her hands on her apron, appeared in the doorway. Again, he felt uneasy. Her smile was welcoming and her eyes sparkled with an affectionate gleam that said he was part of the family rather than some unfortunate stranger her husband had brought into their home.

Katie immediately plied Scott with questions concerning his well-being. Despite his attempts to assure her that he was fine, she fussed over him for several minutes before her husband rescued him with a softly chiding, “Katie, love, you’re smotherin’ the poor lad.”

Scott, the corners of his mouth twitching, dropped his eyes at the conspiratorial wink given him by Shawn O’Halloran. For the briefest of moments, he wondered what it would have been like to have had the man for a father. This line of thought was short-lived and ended when the Irishman announced that it was time for the telling of the Christmas story before the pot of tea boiled away to nothing.

Mrs. O’Halloran’s cheeks flushed. She immediately apologized for the delay and settled into one of the chairs in front of the fireplace. Scott tried to refuse to take the only other chair, but he soon relented when Shawn insisted. However, even though proper etiquette dictated that he not argue with his host, he was assaulted by a twinge of guilt as he watched the older man lower himself to sit on the corner of the hearth. After all the couple had done for him, Scott couldn’t help feeling that he, instead of Shawn, should have been the one sitting on the hard stone.

Once the three were seated, Katie began to recite the story of the Christ child’s birth. Her soft tone was filled with reverence as she related how an angel had appeared to a young Jewish girl to inform her that she had been chosen to be the mother of God’s son. While she quietly talked, the gentle snapping and crackling of the fire in the fireplace kept cadence with her words and seemed to punctuate each phrase.

“….and ’tis only fittin’ we too rejoice on this the day of our Savior’s birth, for truly ’tis a marv’lous gift God has given us,” Katie concluded after telling about the men from the east who had arrived in Bethlehem to worship the newborn King.

Shawn heartily concurred with his wife, and Scott politely did the same, although his words of assent were not nearly as zealous as those of his host. Ever since the war with the southern states, Scott had been plagued by doubts of God’s very existence.  His broken engagement with Julie had done nothing to strength his wavering faith.

The O’Halloran’s overlooked, or perhaps failed to notice, their young guest’s lack of enthusiasm. Scott wasn’t certain which and didn’t particularly care. Mostly, he was relieved that their discussion of the wonders of that first Christmas was short and that neither of them insisted he participate.

After Shawn had said a prayer of thanksgiving, Katie went into the kitchen to prepare the morning meal.  Scott chose that moment to stiffly rise to his feet. “If you’ll excuse me, Sir, I’ll get my coat. I appreciate all that you and your wife have done for me, but I need to get home before my grandfather has half of Boston out searching for me.”

“Lad, you can’t be thinkin’ of leavin’ without eatin’. ‘Tis cold . . . and ’tis trekin’ in snow to your knees, you might be.” Shawn laid a hand on Scott’s shoulder and went on to insist that the young man’s grandfather would not expect him to be traveling on an empty stomach in his condition.

Realizing that Shawn O’Halloran was not about to let him leave without an argument, Scott relented. His growling stomach and the tantalizing smell of cooked apples, which was drifting in from the kitchen, made agreeing to stay for breakfast that much easier–not that he needed the added incentive. In actuality, Scott hated to leave. The warmth in the O’Halloran home had somehow soothed his aching heart and dulled the sting of his broken engagement. Once he was home, he knew his pain and disappointment would be overwhelming. He needed little encouragement to prolong the inevitable.

The meal was meager in comparison to what would have been set before him at the Garrett mansion on Beacon Hill, but Scott hardly noticed. Katie was a good cook. Her potato griddle cakes, topped with a tart applesauce, were the best he had ever tasted.

Scott enjoyed the conversation with the Irish couple as much as he did the food. By the time he laid his fork down on his empty plate, he regretted the thought of leaving. He drew in a deep breath and slowly let it part way out before glancing from Shawn to Katie. “Thank you for breakfast. It was very delicious. I appreciate your kind hospitality, but I really must be going. If you’ll excuse me–“

“You can’t be leaving yet,” interrupted Katie, who was seated across from her husband at the small table and around the corner on Scott’s right. She rested her hand on the younger man’s arm as she rose to her feet. “I’ll just be a wee bit clearin’ the table.  Then we’ll be seein’ what goodies those stockings be hidin’.”

Shawn swallowed the last of his tea and set his cup down with a clump before also rising. “Come along, Lad. We best go in by the fire. Katie’ll no be wantin’ us under foot.”

A mixture of feelings warred inside of Scott as he followed the older man out of the kitchen. Part of him was glad for a reason to delay his leaving the O’Hallorans while another argued that he had imposed on the couple too much already. They had little enough for themselves, and he hated the thought of their going without later on in order to provide for him at the present. Not only that, Christmas was a time for family. He felt he was intruding even though they had given no indication that he was doing so.

Stretching his arms behind him, palms of his hands toward the fire crackling in the fireplace, Scott savored the heat. Once again, he was reminded of how little fuel the Irish couple had. Immediately, he began formulating a plan for replenishing their dwindling supply of wood and coal without their knowing he was their benefactor.

While he stood talking to Shawn, Scott surveyed the room, which contained two chairs flanking a small table that held an oil lamp, a wood box by the door to the outside, and a pail for coal at one end of the hearth. He was certain that Julie Dennison would have thought the sparse furnishings both shabby and deplorable. She would never have considered living in such a hovel, and yet the O’Hallorans seemed quite contented and happy despite their apparent poverty.

Scott pulled his attention back to his host for a moment and replied to the man’s latest question. His eyes, however, took in the open archway into the kitchen and then moved to the blanketed doorway of the room he had used the night before. Suddenly, his heart lurched. There were no other exits.

Attempting to cover his dismay at the discovery that there was only one bedroom, Scott nodded his agreement to what Shawn was saying while trying to determine where the man and his wife had slept. He found no signs of bedding anywhere, which had him wondering if they had spent the night slouched in the chairs by the fire. I should never have stayed, he thought.

Before Scott could chide himself any further, Katie O’Halloran came in from the kitchen. Shawn moved quickly to her side, bowed grandly with an exaggerated wave of one hand, and escorted her to one of the chairs in a manner befitting a queen. There she thanked him with a kiss on the cheek before sitting down with a grace that would have rivaled that of any woman born to the upper class of Boston society.

Upon realizing that he was staring open mouthed at the charade between husband and wife, Scott hastily turned his head and watched the dancing flames of the fire. His eyes were drawn upward again by a shuffle of feet as Shawn took a couple of swaggering steps backward and pivoted on one heel. A wink from the Irishman, however, brought a flush of heat to Scott’s cheeks, and he again settled his gaze on the fire.

Shawn O’Halloran went about retrieving the stockings from the fireplace mantel and distributing them as if they were filled with emeralds, diamonds, and other costly gems. Scott thought of refusing the offered gift, and may have done so had he not noticed the anticipation on Shawn’s and Katie’s faces. He was certain that by not accepting their generosity, he would have hurt their feelings and robbed them of a certain measure of joy.

At the couple’s insistence, Scott looked inside the stocking, which even had his name embroidered on one side. The sweet smell of dried plums and apples mingled with the more pungent odor of cinnamon tickled his nose. Overwhelmed by the simplicity of the gift and the knowledge that the treats were a rarity in the O’Halloran household, Scott swallowed at the painful constriction in his throat and blinked his stinging eyes. “Thank you,” he managed to say after a moment of struggling with his unexpected emotions.

Katie assured him that it was nothing while her eyes sparkled with delight.

Scott, who had grown up surrounded by wealth, was again struck by the pure pleasure she seemed to get from giving even though he was sure that a portion of what he had received had come from her own stocking.  After staying a for a few more minutes, he declared that he really had to be going. Despite his claims that he could make the walk home on his own, Shawn would not hear of it, and went with him as far as the top of Beacon Hill. Scott was grateful for both the company and the occasional steadying hand. The snow had drifted to a depth of nearly three feet in a few places. Without the aid offered by the other man, Scott was sure he might never have made it past Union Street, which was barely half the distance to his destination.

“Are yuh sure, Lad, you can make it from here?” Shawn asked when they reached the corner of Beacon and Tremont Streets.

“I will be fine, Sir. I haven’t far to go.” Scott stretched his hand out to the Irishman. “Thank you for all you’ve done. You’ve been most kind, and I appreciate the hospitality of you and your wife.”

“‘Twas our pleasure,” replied Shawn, firmly grasping Scott’s hand and shaking it.

Scott was surprised by the pain in his chest at having to part with the other man. Even though it had been less than two days since they had first met, he felt like he was saying goodbye to a close friend or relative. Never before had anyone captured his heart so quickly as the O’Hallorans; and, although he knew it was partly because he owed Shawn for saving him from freezing to death two days earlier, he knew that the real reason was their having taken him into their home and cared for him as if he were their own son.

A short while later Scott trudged up the long drive to the Garrett mansion. The tall, stately brick house seemed enormous after the tiny cottage he had just left. He stepped onto the front porch, took a deep breath, and opened the door to find his grandfather standing in the foyer. His heart plummeted. Now I’m in for it.

“Scotty! I expected you home hours ago. I realize the weather was too atrocious for traveling last night, but I thought surely you would be here in time for breakfast this morning. How are the Dennisons? Is Julie with you, or will she be arriving later?”

“I’m sorry I’m late, Sir,” Scott replied, removing his hat and hanging it on the coat tree just inside the door. He debated on just what else to say. His grandfather apparently knew nothing of the ended engagement or that his grandson had been missing for nearly two days. This had Scott wondering what reason his driver had given for his disappearance at the tavern.

“Scotty, whatever happened to your face?” Harlan Garrett’s eyes widened  and then narrowed with the wrinkling of his brow.

Meeting his grandfather’s concerned, questioning gaze, Scott drew in a deep breath. Lying was out of the question. He gathered his nerve, resolved to face the lecture that was sure to come, and launched into an accounting of what have befallen him–a few details conveniently not mentioned.

~~~~~

The Garrett house was shrouded in darkness except for the flickering light coming from slowly dying flames in the fireplaces that had warmed various rooms throughout the day. Scott lay in bed, his eyes fixed on the far side of his bedroom where glowing embers faintly lit the area around. His thoughts, however, were not contained within the confines of the walls surrounding him.

In his mind, he relived the events of the day. He was once again inside a small cottage a short way from the waterfront. The love he had seen there would not soon be forgotten, nor would the sacrifices the O’Hallorans had made on his behalf.

First thing in the morning, I’ll see to it that they have enough wood or coal to last the winter. Then, I’ll see that a food basket is prepared and delivered. Grandfather said to take whatever I wanted. At least, he was too grateful to be angry with me for long.

As Scott made his plans to repay the Irish couple for their kindness, he felt a sense of joy that he hadn’t believed would be possible for some time to come. Christmas was nearly over, his body still ached, and there had been no word from Julie or his father. The gifts received from his grandfather that morning had brought little comfort; yet, the very thought of providing for the needs of the O’Hallorans had lifted his spirits.

“Christmas is the season for giving,” whispered the voice in Scott’s head.

“Yes,” he sighed. Life might not be all he could wish or hope for. The next few months were bound to be painful without Julie, and once again the holiday season had gone by without his father contacting him. On this night, that was not what mattered, though. As his friend Jimmy Martin had told him a few months ago, God had never promised a life filled with roses. The Heavenly Father had only promised strength to deal with the pain left by the thorns, and to bring healing in His own time.

Christmas was a day for rejoicing in the birth of God’s Son–a special gift from heaven. Tomorrow was soon enough to deal with the disappointments of life. With this final thought, Scott closed his eyes, sent a silent prayer upward, and then drifted off to sleep without knowing of the blessings that were about to come his way.

Chapter 8

Before dawn that morning in Nogales:

Laughter filled the air. Caught up in the excitement, the eight-year-old boy pressed through the jostling crowd in hopes of reaching the open space inside the circle of children. Finally, he could see the decorated clay pot dangling from the end of a rope that had been strung through a metal ring in the archway of the hacienda’s porch. A young girl, with a strip of white cloth tied over her eyes, swung a stick in one direction then another as her quarry weaved back and forth as it was raised and lowered.

“Vamos!” shouted a black-haired peasant boy on the far side of the circle of spectators.

“A su derecho, Maria,” another called to instruct her that the piñata was to her right.

She struck at the quickly raised pot and missed. “Más alto!” another child yelled, telling her that it was higher.

“Delante de usted!” shrieked a girl from somewhere in the crowd as the piñata passed in front of the blindfolded girl.

” Golpe él endurecer,” came another voice, advising her to swing harder.

The black-eyed girl rested the stick against her shoulder.  As she swung it out and upward, her body twisted to one side from the added effort she put into striking at the illusive piñata. When she connected, more shouts encouraged her on. She struck again and again, until the decorated clay pot shattered.

Loud cheers spread through the crowd of spectators as the contents, sounding like rain spattering on a tile roof, scattered in all directions. The boy dashed forward, leaning over and grabbing up walnuts and pieces of chocolate and dried fruit as he scrambled for his share of the prize.

Suddenly, he stopped, and his eyes traveled up the trunk of a giant tree that had appeared from out of nowhere–boughs adorned with sparkling stars that twirled and glistened. His mouth fell open, and he stared in wonder at the swirling beams of light making their way through the surrounding darkness. He was sure that he had never seen anything so magnificent in all of his life.

A tall man with outstretched arms and pleading eyes moved out of the shadows beyond the tree. The boy drew in a sharp breath, his heart pattering wildly. Compelled to respond, he stepped forward only to have the man fade from sight.

* ~ * ~ *

Johnny Madrid awoke with a start to a mad thumping against his ribs. He could hardly breathe. The dream had been so vivid that for a moment he thought he was that child again.

Once he finally started relaxing, he lay pondering the puzzling dream. He couldn’t imagine how his mind had conjured up a decorated tree when he had no memory of having seen one before. There was little time, however, for the pursuit of this line of thought. It was ended by the growing sound of merry laughter, chatter, and singing. The Martinez family would soon be home.

Words and various voices of men, women, and children soon became distinguishable. Johnny heard a muddle of farewells and good wishes spoken, and then the blanket over the doorway into the Martinez home was thrown aside and in burst four excited children followed by their parents.

“Señor Lancer, Rosa sin fondos el piñata,” José Martinez exclaimed, the pride in his black eyes over his sister’s accomplishment of breaking the clay jar barely visible in the dim light of the moonbeams streaking through the window. He plopped down on the mat beside Johnny and began telling him all about that night’s festivities.

Rosa Martinez crowded close to her brother and looked shyly at Johnny. “Berto llantos,” she said, when her older brother had come to the part in the account of the posada where the infant son of their cousin Ricardo and Rosita Hernandez had been placed in the manger.

“Roberto estado el bebé Jesús,” quickly explained José.

“Jesús nunca llantos,” Rosa stated, jutting her chin upward as she declared that Jesus never cried.

A grin played at the corners of Johnny’s lips as he ran a finger down the bridge of his nose. “Todos bebés lamento,” he quietly told her.

” Pareja Jesús?”

The dubious sound in Rosa’s voice nearly earned a chuckle from Johnny. He choked it back and forced his tone to remain serious. “Sí . . . y cuándo un lleno – adulto hombre, también.”

The girl looked toward her mother, who had just finished lighting the candle in the stone bowl in the center of the room. “Mamá?”

After lighting the candle in a bowl near Johnny and giving him a speculative glance, Señora Martinez assured her daughter that Señor Lancer was right. Jesus had indeed cried like any other baby, and the Bible did tell of God’s son weeping over the city of Jerusalem when he was a grown man. Rosa, apparently satisfied, turned back to Johnny. “Éstos es para ti, Señor.”

A few walnuts and pieces of dried fruit were cupped in Rosa’s outstretched hand. Knowing the treats would be a rarity for any of the Martinez children, Johnny hated taking them from her. The intense expectancy in her gaze, however, prompted him to reach out and accept her gift. To destroy her joy by refusing her sacrifice would have been heartless and cruel.

Wrapping his fingers around the treats to keep them captured in the palm of his hand, Johnny grinned at the young girl. “Gracias, Rosa.”

Rosa smiled, her eyes wavering downward as she softly replied, “De nada.”

“Éstos es para ti, también, Señor,” said José, unrolling the hem of his loose fitting white shirt to reveal the treasure wrapped there.

Johnny bit his lip. It had been a long time since he had been on the receiving end of such generosity. Most of the kids he had come into contact with over the years would have horded every morsel. Must’ve learned it from their parents, he thought, remembering the unselfish care Señora Martinez had given him.

A soft rattle of pottery drew Johnny from his thoughts. Soon the family would be partaking of the Christmas meal. Feeling he had been enough of a burden and not wanting to deprive them of more food when they had so little to spare, he thanked José for the treats and struggled to rise.

Once standing on unsteady legs, Johnny expressed his gratitude to the boy’s parents for their kindness and said that he needed to be going. Before he could take more than one wobbly step toward the doorway, Carlos Martinez moved in front of him and insisted that he sit back down for he was going nowhere without eating first. Being in no condition to argue, Johnny did as he was bidden.

The meal, meager but good, reminded Johnny of some of the Christmas dinners his mother had prepared when he was a child. Those thoughts, however, brought too much sadness, and he was glad for the distraction afforded by the Martinez children. Even the younger two were warming up to him enough to say a few words now and then.

By the time they had finished eating, the conversation had wormed around to the reason for the night’s celebration: the birth of the Savior. Johnny said little. If Jesus had come to earth to save anyone, he was sure it was not for the likes of him. He had done too many bad things in his short life to deserve being rescued from a wrathful God. The Martinez’ were a different matter. They were good people.

Johnny ran into more opposition when he again broached the subject of leaving. Señora Martinez refused to hear of his going anywhere while it was still dark. Johnny wasn’t certain he could have gone far anyway, so he chose not to argue. Morning would come soon enough. If he was careful, he could sneak out at daylight while everyone was sleeping. That way no one would insist on feeding him again.

The Martinez children were soon settled onto the mats closest to Johnny. Their mother carefully laid a blanket over each one, blew out the candle, and joined her husband on the far side of the room. It wasn’t long before all were asleep.

* ~ * ~ *

Despite his resolve to be gone before anyone else was awake, Johnny Madrid opened his eyes to two pair of watchful eyes and the sun streaming through the window. From the steep angle of the rays, he guessed it was approaching noon. How’d I sleep so long? he wondered while greeting the two youngest Martinez children.

Johnny, once again, found that he could not leave without partaking of the family’s small supply of food. However, as soon as he had eaten, he declared that he had to be going. This time, no amount of urging from Carlos and his wife could detain him. He was feeling much better after a night of rest.

Even though his head was clearer and his legs no longer trembled with every step, Johnny was glad to see the stable on the outskirts of Nogales. He still hurt from the beating Hidalgo had given him, and he found the half-hour walk from the Martinez home was more tiring than he had expected.

His horse had been fed and was contentedly munching a mouthful of hay when Johnny checked on him. Good thing I paid in advance. he thought, patting the animal on the rump.

The wiry little gray snorted; then as Johnny moved to its shoulder and scratched its chest, the animal stretched out its neck and crowded closer. “Better enjoy this high life while yuh can, Boy,” Johnny said.  “Looks like we might be in for slim pickin’s unless yuh feel like chasin’ cows for a livin’.” This brought an indignant shake of the horse’s head accompanied by another snort.

Johnny laughed and slapped the horse on the shoulder. “That’s what I think of the idea, too. Punching cows is hard work. Besides, I ain’t ready to be boxed in. I got too much livin’ to do first.”

The gray fluttered his lips, dribbled bits of hay into the manger, and went back to eating. Johnny gave him one more pat. “Adios, Amigo. I’ll check on yuh later. Maybe I can find Manolito and con him into another game of cards. His old man’s got plenty of money. Mano won’t miss a few pesos.

Before hunting up Manolito Montoya, Johnny sorted through his gear, which he had stashed in a dark corner of the barn. He still had a couple of dollars rolled up in his bedroll, and his rifle was worth enough to give him a poker stake. With any luck, his pockets would jingle before the day was over.

Finding the son of Don Sebastian Montoya was easy. All Johnny had to do was ask around. The trouble was getting the young man away from his family. They seemed set on not letting him out of their sights. Finally, Johnny gave up and went in search of someone else to win a stake from.

A few hours later, Johnny returned to the stable. He had been fortunate to find a couple of willing opponents and had come away richer than he had expected. Forty-five pesos would buy him a pistol to replace the one Hidalgo had taken from him and leave him with enough money to get by until he found a job to his liking.

Voices, coming from the far end of the open-faced barn, attracted Johnny’s attention about then. He shrugged his shoulders and slung his saddle onto his horse’s back. Whatever was being said was none of his concern. All he wanted to do was get out of Nogalas before he had another run in with the Rurales captain. Conchita at the cantina where he had been playing cards had warned him that the man was looking for him.

Lifting the heavy saddle pulled at Johnny’s sore ribs and back.  He took a moment to rest before tying his bedroll to the cantle of his saddle and starting to lead his horse out into the corral.  Hearing the voices at the other end of the barn become louder, he paused.

Three men came into view and stopped outside the corral fence. Johnny wasn’t one to eavesdrop, but his curiosity got the better of him when one of the men told the others that Hidalgo had taken a bribe to look the other way when Mendoza made his move to run the peasants off their land.

“Carlos Martinez mosto andar primero,” the man continued.

At the mention of the name of the man who had risked the wrath of the rurales in order to help him, Johnny listened more closely. He owed Martinez a favor. If Carlos was in danger, Johnny wanted to know enough to be able to warn him.

Unaware that they were being watched or that their plot had been overheard, the men separated a few minutes later. One went back the way they had come, and the other two strolled down the street to the nearest cantina. Once they were out of sight, Johnny quickly led his horse out of the corral and mounted. There was a job to do, and he had no time to waste. Before heading for the Martinez place, he needed to buy a pistol.

The only store in Nogalez, Mexico had little selection in the way of firearms. Few of the people could afford them. Johnny thought of crossing the border into Arizona but decided against it. Hidalgo might have the border patrol watching from him. This one’ll have to do, he thought, picking up the only revolver in the small adobe shop. He gave the cylinder a couple of spins, looked down the barrel, and then tested the firing mechanism. Although the gun had definitely seen better days, everything seemed to work. With a quick modification, it could be fired by fanning the hammer so that cocking it before each shot would no longer be necessary.

As he started to leave, Johnny noticed a jar of peppermint sticks. He grabbed a handful and laid them on the counter next to the gun. By the time he added a gun-belt, two boxes of shells, one sack of cornmeal, and another of beans, most of his poker winnings were in the hand of the storekeeper.

Johnny loaded the revolver, slid it into the holster, and fastened the buckle of the gun belt. Once he was outside, he looped it over his saddle horn where it would be less noticeable than if he were wearing it. He then slipped the candy and boxes of shells into his saddlebag and tied the last two items to the cantle of the saddle.

A grin played at the corners of Johnny’s mouth. Despite the serious nature of his mission, his heart was lighter than it had been in days, and he had the strange sensation that someone was smiling down on him from above. Christmas had turned out to not be such a bad day after all.

Chapter 9

That same day at the Lancer Ranch:

Beyond the glass panes, large white flakes drifted downward to obscure the grey landscape. Murdoch Lancer shivered and let the edge of the heavy drape slip through his fingers. His first wife, Catherine, would have been thrilled to see the snow falling on Christmas day—something that had only happened a couple of times at the Lancer ranch during the close to a quarter century that Murdoch had owned it. After all those years, he could still hear her saying how a new blanket of snow made the world look so pure and fresh. Like God’s Son came to do to men’s hearts, his mind recited.

Murdoch sighed and turned away from the window. Leaning heavily on the cane held in his right hand, he hobbled across the room to the dresser facing the end of his oversized bed. After propping the walking stick against a nearby chair, he worked the buttons through the carefully stitched slits on the left side of his shirt, tucked the tail of the soft brown plaid fabric inside his trousers, and fastened the waistband before scrutinizing his reflection in the mirror. The man looking back at him appeared to have aged considerably in the last month. His prematurely gray hair had turned whiter, his cheeks were hollow, and his skin had lost its healthy tan.

The rancher shifted his eyes down to take in the new shirt that his ward, Teresa O’Brien, had given him that morning after breakfast. Admiring her skill with a needle, he smiled as he ran a finger down one sleeve and buttoned the cuff. She did a fine job.

His face soon clouded with pain and his throat tightened. On the bed lay a similar garment made of blue plaid. No doubt, the recipient would have been Teresa’s father had the man not been murdered a few days after Thanksgiving that year. Blue was Paul’s favorite color. Someday, I’ll wear it . . . when his memory isn’t so fresh in both our minds, he thought while reaching for the brush on the dresser top.

Unwilling to pursue this line of thought, Murdoch concentrated on running the brush through his hair. He frowned at the unruly curls snuggling around the back of his collar and swirling over his ears. Needs cutting, but I suppose I’ll have to put up with it a while longer, he silently groused.

For another week or two, sitting for any length of time in one of the hard, straight backed chairs in the kitchen was out of the question, and Murdoch knew it. In the meantime, he would just have to ignore his less than neat appearance and be thankful that he didn’t have to go without shaving. Long hair was much less irritating than a bristly face.

Finally satisfied that he was presentable, Murdoch picked up the cane. He grimaced a little with each halting step but ignored the discomfort in his back as best he could. Maria had insisted on preparing Christmas dinner as usual. There was no way he was going to let Teresa sit at the dining table alone. Somehow, he would make it through the next half hour, and then he would recline on the sofa like he had been doing a good portion of the last couple of days.

“Are you sure you’re up to sitting at the table?” Teresa O’Brien asked when Murdoch arrived in the main living room of his hacienda a short while later.

“I’ll be fine,” he said, having noticed the concern in her voice and the puckering of her dark brow.

“Here . . . I’ll get your chair for you.” She quickly moved to the head of the table and slid the high-backed dining chair out far enough for him to easily sit down without bumping his legs against the edge of the table.

Murdoch eased his tall frame into position and let Teresa help scoot him up to the table once he was seated on padded chair that was covered in light olive-green fabric. While she settled into her seat on the side closest to the bookcases that lined the wall behind the table, he hooked his cane over the back of the chair opposite her and bit his lip when his eyes briefly took in the empty place next to hers.

Before Teresa could detect the wave of sadness that had swept over him, Murdoch looked over his shoulder at the Mexican woman who had just entered through the doorway behind him. He drew in a deep breath and gave the woman a weak smile as she set a steaming dish on the corner of the table. “Gracias, Maria. Buele bien,” he said, watching her fill the small bowl in front of him with a ladle full of creamy soup.

A sparkle of pleasure lit up Maria’s eyes and her lips parted. “Gracias, Senor. Es bueno para ti. Usted esta muy flaco,” she said, patting his arm before filling Teresa’s bowl.

Teresa’s mouth quirked at Maria’s reference to Murdoch’s thin condition, and he softly chuckled. The Mexican cook had always told him that he had too little meat on his bones. She was forever trying to fatten him up, a feat that had been a source for much teasing from both Teresa and her father.

Despite the glaring absence of Paul O’Brien, the meal passed pleasantly. Murdoch noticed that Teresa became quiet a few times and that her lower lip quivered once. For the most part, though, she seemed to be enjoying herself, and he did his best to hide his awareness of the difficulty she was having holding her grief in check.

When Maria picked up their plates after they had finished with the main course of the meal, she shook her head and wagged a finger. Murdoch ignored the scolding she gave him for not eating enough to keep a bird alive. She had filled his plate with way more mashed potatoes and ham than he could possibly have eaten, and he was sure that she was fully aware of that fact.

“Maria, I’m fine. Besides, I had to save room for pie.” he said, choosing to speak to her in English instead of her mother tongue.  He couldn’t help but notice the amusement in Teresa’s eyes.

There was no appeasing the motherly Mexican woman. She rattled on for several minutes about the necessity for proper nourishment. It was a lecture he had heard daily ever since Sam Jenkins, the doctor from Spanish Wells, had allowed him to have solid foods two weeks after Pardee’s bullet had been dug from his back. Murdoch expected she would continue to fuss until his normal appetite had returned.

After insisting that his dinner needed a chance to settle before desert was served, Murdoch retired to the sofa in front of the fireplace. Teresa’s offer to help Maria with the dishes was emphatically turned down, and the girl soon joined him after stirring the fire and collecting a large Bible from the bookcase.

“Will you read the Christmas story to me?” Teresa asked, holding the Bible toward Murdoch after Maria had cleared the table and wouldn’t be back until the dishes were washed, dried, and put away.

Murdoch opened his mouth to refuse, let out a long breath, and finally accepted the black leather-bound book. The pleading in her eyes made it impossible for him to deny her request even though he dreaded the flood of memories that were sure to come. Reading the account of the birth of the God’s Son had been a long-standing tradition that had started the first Christmas after he had married Catherine Garrett.

“Are you sure . . .?” He hesitated, not quite knowing how to word the question without bringing her pain.

“Yes.” She looked down and turned toward the fireplace. “Daddy would want us to. It’s the reason for Christmas.”

With a nod, Murdoch opened to the Bible to the first chapter of Matthew. She was right. Paul had never tired of hearing the story of Jesus’ birth. He had always had a strong faith in God. Even when Teresa’s mother had left, he had faced the pain and disappointment without seeking comfort in a bottle. O’Brien’s only falter had been when Teresa had started asking questions. The lie about Angel’s death had slipped out, and then it had been necessary to appease the girl with a fake grave.

Hopefully, Teresa will never need to know the truth, thought Murdoch with a prick of his conscience for having gone along with the deception.

Pushing away the unsettling memories, Murdoch attempted to concentrate on his reading. He managed quite well except for sneaking an occasional peek at Teresa, who was now seated next to him on the sofa. Once he thought he saw a tear spill from the corner of her eye and slide down her cheek. His throat tightened, making talking difficult. Fortunately, he had just finished Saint Luke’s narrative of the night Jesus was born in Bethlehem and was able to get his own emotions under control while turning back to Matthew for the story about the wise men from the East.

Murdoch finally reached the end of the passages of Scripture and handed the Bible back to Teresa. For a few minutes, they sat in silence.

Teresa was the first to speak. “Daddy loved Christmas,” she said, hugging the black book over her heart while gazing toward the manger scene by the fireplace.

“Yes, he did,” Murdoch replied, his eyes also on the nativity scene that Maria had been instrumental in setting up

Again, neither spoke. Words weren’t necessary. Murdoch draped an arm around the girl’s shoulders and pulled her close. Feeling her tremble, he knew she was silently crying. I’ll take care of her, he promised his missing friend. She’ll be the daughter I never had. If Johnny doesn’t return, she’ll be my sole heir.

After a while, Teresa drew away. “I think I’ll put this back and get the pie,” she stated, lifting the Bible that had fallen to her lap and rising to her feet.

“That sounds like an excellent idea.” Murdoch shifted positions to ease the ache in his back and softly grunted. “I think I’d like to turn in a little early tonight. Sam said he’d stop by in the morning, and you know how he is? If I look the least bit tired, he’ll accuse me of overdoing it.”

“Which, of course, you would never think of doing,” Teresa said with a flash of her eyes.

“No, I wouldn’t,” Murdoch replied with mock innocence and chuckled when Teresa shook her head and gave him a knowing smile before returning the Bible to its place on the bookshelf and leaving the room.

Murdoch rested his head against the back of the sofa and watched the flames dancing in the fireplace. When his eyes strayed to the corner where a tree usually stood, he sighed. Next year, things will be different.

Teresa’s arrival with two plates deterred the rancher from further contemplations on what the future would bring. She handed him the dish with the larger piece of pie and settled down beside him on the sofa. “Mmm. It’s good, isn’t it?” she said after taking a bite.

“Yes. Very good,” he said, savoring a mouthful of the sweet pumpkin custard filling.

Teresa paused between bites of her pie.  “Things’ll be different next year. We’ll have a big tree to decorate . . . and Johnny’ll be here. The Pinkertons are the best in the country. I just know they’ll find him and bring him home. You’ll see.”

“Yeah.” The word came out in little more than a whisper.  Murdoch took another bite of pie so he wouldn’t be expected to say more. Teresa had come too close to voicing what was going through his mind.

“It’s still Christmas, isn’t it?” She faltered, took a deep breath, and went on. “I mean, the reason for celebrating is the same . . . no matter what happens . . . isn’t that so?”

Unable to meet the imploring gaze of Teresa’s brown eyes, Murdoch focused on the plate in his hand. He supposed she was right. Although the presence of close friends and family made it easier to be joyful, this day was intended to be devoted to commemorating the birth of God’s Son.

“Murdoch?”

Snapped out of his reflections by the anxiety in the girl’s voice, Murdoch reached over and clasped her left hand in his. “Yes, Honey. The reason for Christmas is the same. That’s one thing that will never change.”

Resting her head on Murdoch’s shoulder, Teresa let out a soft sigh as she snuggled closer. He slid his right arm around her and smoothed her silky hair. For the first time since being ambushed and left for dead outside the livery stable in Morro Coyo, he felt at peace. The future no longer seemed so bleak. Even though Paul O’Brien was gone forever and Pardee might take the ranch, Murdoch still could hope that his son, Johnny, would come home someday. In the meantime, he had Teresa and that was enough.

And so ended Christmas, 1869.

Epilogue

One year later:

Flames blazed merrily inside the large, stone fireplace, the fire’s warmth keeping the chill of winter at bay. Scott Lancer, hands behind his back, savored the heat as he watched the game in progress on the stool in front of him. On his right-hand side of the black and red checkered board, a dark-haired young man sat cross-legged on the floor. Opposite him was a man, whose hair and beard were gray.

The younger man plunked a black disk down in the last row of squares on his opponent’s side of the gameboard and declared it should be kinged.  He then grabbed up three red game pieces that had been jumped over.

“Oh!” exclaimed the whiskered, older man.

“Jelly, yuh just ain’t payin’ attention,” the younger player said.

“Yeah. Well, if I didn’t know yuh better, Johnny Lancer, I’d say yuh was cheatin’,” Jelly retorted.

Scott Lancer listened to his younger brother and the hired man, Jelly Hoskins, argue back and forth while they continued their game.  His mouth twitched upwards at the corners. He had grown quite fond of Johnny in the eight months since they had first met after arriving in Morro Coyo on the same stage. A year ago, I never knew he existed. Now, I can’t imagine life without him . . . or any of this, he thought, looking beyond his half-brother to glance around the large room that served as living room, dining room, and office.

The big man, sitting at one end of the sofa, which faced the fireplace, glanced up and smiled over the top of the checker players as his and Scott’s eyes met. Scott returned his father’s smile while thinking,  He’s not at all what I expected . . . even if, at times, he is harder to read than a closed book. I may never know why he left me with my grandfather, but I know he cares about me. Maybe, he’s right about letting the past die. It can’t be changed.

Scott reflected for a moment on the events that had altered his life in the past year. So much had happened. Not only had he gained a father and a brother, but he had also taken on a whole new way of life. Mrs. O’Halloran was probably right. Julie might not have agreed to my coming here . . . and I doubt she would want to live here.

Scott dropped his gaze to the checker game. He didn’t want to think about the young woman he had hoped to marry or the numerous letters he had written, all having gone unanswered. Even though the ache in his heart had dulled, he still loved Julie Dennison and wondered if he always would.

Johnny had two kings and was in hot pursuit of Jelly’s single checker. Even though the older man was one square away from gaining a king, Scott was sure that it was only a matter of time before Jelly lost. All Johnny had to do was crowd him into a block at one edge of the board or into a corner.

Footsteps brought Scott’s attention to the doorway beyond the alcove where a tall evergreen tree stood next to the fireplace. The decorations adorning the stately boughs were not as elegant as he was used to at his grandfather’s home in Boston. However, the drooping strings of popcorn and strips of gingham that formed a spiraling path from the bottom to the top of the tree, along with colorful ribbon bows, shiny tin stars, and bits of holly created a sight just as pleasing. He couldn’t help admiring it as his gaze traveled past it to the sixteen-year-old girl who had entered carrying a large silver tray.

As his father’s ward, Teresa O’Brien, approached, Scott stepped forward to meet her and took the serving tray filled with plates of pie. For a moment, his mind flashed back to the first morning after his arrival at Murdoch Lancer’s ranch. Teresa had barged into his room without knocking and proclaimed that he was to think of her as a sister. It had seemed a ridiculous idea at the time, but now he couldn’t think of her in any other way. She was as much a part of his new life and family as his father and brother were, and as it appeared Jelly was on the way of becoming.

A whoop of victory mingled with a groan of defeat abruptly drew Scott from his thoughts. He smiled at his brother while Teresa handed the young man a plate with a large piece of apple pie and congratulated him for winning. Scott laughed softly as the scowl of defeat faded from Jelly Hoskin’s face when the whiskered man was handed an equally generous slice of pie.

After Teresa and Murdoch had their plates, Scott set the serving tray next to the model ship on a small table that was behind the sofa. He then picked up his dish and returned to his former place in front of the fireplace.

Scott savored a bite of the pie. The apple filling, tarter and more heavily spiced with cinnamon than he had been used to his grandfather’s cook serving, reminded him of the previous Christmas spent with the O’Hallorans. He wondered how Shawn and Katie were fairing and whether the coal and food supplies that he had ordered had been delivered to them in time for the holidays.

Memories of the Irish couple, who had befriended him, wound their way around to include a silver-haired man and the numerous letters requesting that Scott return to Boston for Christmas. Maybe, I’ll go next year. Surely Grandfather can understand why I needed to be with Murdoch and Johnny this year.

Another forkful of apple pie made its way into Scott’s mouth. The young man glanced at his father, noticed a pleased smile, and smiled in return. He then lowered his eyes to take in his brother, and thoughts of Boston slipped away. At the moment, he had what he needed most, his family.

* ~ * ~ *

The fork, held snugly by strong fingers, scraped against the delicate pattern of the china plate and captured the last crumbs of pie crust. Johnny Lancer licked the silver utensil clean and handed it and the dish to the waiting girl. “Thanks, T’resa,” he said with a grin. “Good pie.”

“Ain’t never had none better,” chimed in Jelly, handing over his plate, too.

When Teresa flushed a little from the praise, Johnny chuckled. His eyes danced with mischief, and he proceeded to tease her a little.

Teresa glared back at her guardian’s younger son, but Johnny merely laughed as she stalked away. He knew she was faking her anger. They were like brother and sister and couldn’t have been closer if they had shared the same blood.

“Someday, Little Brother, you’re going to push her too far.”

“Think so?” Johnny replied, looking up at the lean, fair-haired young man, who was still standing in front of the fireplace.

“Yes, I do . . . and you won’t get any sympathy from me when she gives you what you deserve.”

Seeing the all too familiar upward tilt of his half-brother’s chin causing steel-blue eyes to look down the edges of a straight nose, Johnny choked back a laugh. Even after having lived eight months in California, Scott still had an uppity air about him at times.

For a moment, Johnny slipped back in time. Scott had given him a similar look in Morro Coyo when Teresa had informed them they were brothers that day they had arrived on the same stage. Guess he didn’t think any more of me than I did of him. He sure had me fooled, though . . . him in that fancy outfit. That was some good shootin’ he did against Pardee and his gang. Good thing, too–.

“…you listenin’?”

Jelly’s indignant voice penetrated Johnny’s mind and ended further reflections on the brother who had become his best friend despite their glaring differences. “Uh, . . . yeah. I’m listenin’,” Johnny replied, with a fleeting thought that he was glad that Scott had been willing to put the past behind him and accept their father’s offer of a partnership in the Lancer ranch.

“Well . . . are you gunna take on Scott or not?”

Johnny glanced at his brother and grinned before focusing on Jelly. “Oh . . . why don’t you. I already beat him twice today.”

“If you played fai–.”

“Yuh sayin’ I cheated,” cut in Johnny, turning his eyes upward at Scott, who was now standing with arms crossed.

“No.” Scott dropped his hands back to his sides. “I was merely suggesting that I would have a better chance of winning if we both played by the same rules.”

“Then . . . all the more reason you should play Jelly.” Johnny scrambled to his feet and stepped backwards. “Sittin’ on the floor ain’t beyond your dignity is it, Brother?” he asked with a wave of one hand at the spot opposite Jelly.

“If it wasn’t Christmas, I would have to teach you some manners, Little Brother,” Scott replied with a slight smirk as he brushed by Johnny in order to take the vacated seat on the rug between the fireplace and the sofa.

“There’s always tomorrow . . . if yuh think you’re big enough,” Johnny softly drawled, his eyes crinkling at the corners when he noticed that their father was hiding a smile behind one hand.

Jelly spread the checkers out into their appropriate squares, black on his side and red on the other. A few minutes later, he and Scott were embroiled in a fierce battle of wits while Johnny leaned against one side of the fireplace to watch. Teresa, having returned from kitchen, joined Murdoch on the sofa.

The pace of the game slowed a short while later. Scott was taking his time studying the board before making a move so Johnny looked away. As he gazed around the room, memories of a day in mid-April came to mind. He would never forget following Scott through the arched doorway near the far end of the dining table and seeing Murdoch Lancer for the first time.

He reminded me of that man I dreamed about last Christmas. Wonder what he was thinkin’ about me. Did he see the kid he lost? Johnny dropped his eyes to the floor and toyed with one of the silver buttons on the leg of his pants. Too many times he had wondered if his father had seen a little boy named Johnny Lancer inside the smart-mouthed gunfighter, who called himself Madrid. He took a lot off me that day. My stepfather whomped me good the one time I called him an old man.

Jelly grumbled about losing three men because of being forced to jump one. Johnny, realizing that he had missed Scott’s previous play, tried to pay closer attention to the game. His eyes, however, soon strayed when he noticed Murdoch gazing at the nearby tree.

More memories crowded into Johnny’s thoughts. That morning, he had walked into the living room and found his father twirling one of the silver stars on the tree as sunlight, streaming through the large window behind the desk, bounced off the shiny metal. Somewhere in the far corner of Johnny’s mind the memory of a similar scene was tucked away just out of his grasp. He wondered if Murdoch’s expression at being caught playing with the ornament hadn’t been a sign that the man was remembering the same incident from the past.

A bit of upper lip was snagged by Johnny’s teeth. He considered asking if a tree had always been put up in that corner at Christmas but decided against it when he noticed his father’s shoulders droop as the man’s eyes shifted to the floor. Questions had a way of riling Murdoch, at times. Today had been too good of a day, and Johnny had no intention of spoiling it by bringing up unwanted memories.

A whoop followed by a laugh from Jelly had Johnny watching the game again just as the whiskered man gathered up three red checkers while Scott crowned a black checker at the edge of the board. “Better look out,” Johnny warned. “Boston’s just sneaky enough to give yuh a few of his men so he can set yuh up for later.”

The words were no sooner out than Scott moved into a position that forced his opponent to make a play resulting in the forfeiture of several black game pieces. Jelly grumbled loudly. Doing nothing to sooth the man’s testy mood, Johnny’s laughter won a dark scowl and a cross retort.

Out of the corner of one eye, Johnny saw his father smiling and decided to ignore Jelly’s cutting remark. The sight of Murdoch enjoying himself had been rare in the past few weeks. With the anniversary of Paul O’Brien’s death falling on Thanksgiving, the holiday season seemed to have brought with it bittersweet memories of past years. Johnny was sure that the previous Christmas couldn’t have been too pleasant.

Johnny’s eyes returned to the game. His mind, however, strayed to the Christmas he had spent with the Martinez family the year before and how that had led to his involvement in helping a group of Mexican peons fight against a rich landowner, who had tried to drive them off their lands in the hills surrounding Nogales. It had been a losing battle from the beginning. Still, he had owed a debt of gratitude to Carlos Martinez and had felt obligated to help out.

That Pinkerton agent might not have found me if I hadn’t told José my name was Lancer, mused Johnny. He filled his lungs and slowly let the air out again. By some chance of fate, the agent had happened into the camp of the revolutionaries and mentioned that he was looking for Johnny Lancer, a half-breed Mexican with blue eyes. José knew by then that the Johnny was Madrid and had told the detective that the man he was searching for was being held by the Rurales in Nogales and would soon be executed.

Because of the part they had played in his rescue, Johnny had seen to it that the Martinez family would never again go hungry. Using nearly half of the thousand dollars that his father had given him for coming to the Lancer ranch, he had brought them and several other families north and settled them in some of the houses that had been vacated during the raids by Day Pardee, the land pirate who had been trying to run Murdoch out when Johnny had first arrived. Being farmers, Carlos and most of the men had been put in charge of growing crops that would provide feed for the cattle in the winter. The women and younger children had tended to vegetable gardens and gathered fruits and nuts while the older boys had learned to be ranch hands.

Jelly’s distressed cry pulled Johnny back to the present just as Scott swept up two black kings from the checkerboard. From the triumphant smile on Scott’s face, it was easy to see who was in charge of the game. With three red kings to one remaining single-layer black disc, there was no way for Jelly to win.

As expected, the game was over a few minutes later even though Jelly took time to study his limited options before each move. He had been easily forced into a corner where there was no place to go except into the direct path of one of Scott’s kings.

“Told yuh Boston was sneaky,” Johnny said in a consoling tone as he took a swaggering step forward and slapped Jelly on the back.

“I didn’t need you ta tell me that,” Jelly retorted. “He’s a Lancer, ain’t he? You both know more ticks’n a card shark fleecin’ a bunch o’ drunken cowhands on a Saturday night.”

Murdoch, sliding a finger down one cheek, spoke slowly and deliberately. “Theoretically, they’re only half Lancer.”

“That’s right. It might not be a Lancer trait at all,” Teresa said, leaning forward.

Scott chuckled, his eyelids lowering as his brows lifted, and Johnny let out a hearty laugh. Jelly then groused something about the apple not falling far from the Lancer family tree, either, which brought more laughter from the two younger men and Teresa. Murdoch, shifting to lean his head against the back of the sofa, just looked on and smiled.

This is the way life should be . . . the way it could have been, if–. Johnny never finished the thought as he glanced from one member of his family to the next. The joy of the present crowded out all thoughts of the past.

* ~ * ~ *

When the laughter died out, the only sounds to break the silence were the crackling of the fire in the fireplace and the ticking of the grandfather clock, which was on the far side of the room. Murdoch Lancer closed his eyes as he rested his head against the back of the sofa a while longer. He wanted to soak in the warm feeling of having both of his sons with him on this their first Christmas together.

The peaceful quiet didn’t last for long. Jelly demanded a rematch game of checkers. This started a friendly argument between Johnny and Scott when they each insisted that the other should do the honors.

Murdoch drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. The sound of his sons bickering was like music. He supposed he might have found the exchange irritating had Scott and Johnny grown up together at the ranch. Only they hadn’t. Neither had known the other existed until earlier that year. Just seeing his boys together brought too much joy for Murdoch to complain about them squabbling, especially when their words seemed to be said in good-natured, teasing tones.

The cushion beside Murdoch moved, alerting him that Teresa had gotten up. He wondered where she was going but didn’t bother to open his eyes until he heard her say, “Isn’t it time for the Christmas story?”

“Yeah . . . I guess it is,” Murdoch hesitantly replied, taking the Bible from the girl’s hand. He normally would have read the account of the Savior’s birth immediately after dinner; however, he had been unsure whether or not to continue the tradition now that his grown sons were home. Neither had shown much interest in attending church, although Scott had gone a few times when Teresa had been exceptionally persistent.

Teresa settled next to her guardian on the sofa. “Murdoch, as head of the house, always reads the story of the first Christmas. It’s a tradition that started with his father in Scotland,” she explained to the other three men.

Johnny leaned against one edge of the fireplace and rested an elbow on the mantel. “So . . . you do this every year?”

For a second, Murdoch was transported back in time. His second wife, Maria, was sitting in Teresa’s place and a dark-haired toddler was wedged between them. The future had looked so bright that Christmas day. If only she hadn’t left–.

“Murdoch?”

“Yeah . . . every year,” whispered Murdoch, thankful his younger son’s questioning voice had pulled his mind away from the road of heartache it had been headed down. The big man then fumbled through the pages of the black, leather-bound book, and he did his best to keep his voice steady as he began to read.

When Murdoch stopped to turn to another portion of Scripture, he glanced up. Both of his sons seemed lost in thought, and he wondered whether they were thinking about the birth of God’s son on that first Christmas morning, or if it was memories of another Christmas that had caused their brows to pinch and their eyes seem to reach beyond the walls of the room. His own mind wanted to stray, too, but Murdoch reined in his thoughts and hurried on with his reading.

When Murdoch had finished reading about the wise men coming to worship the Christ child, he let out a long sigh and handed the Bible to Teresa. She clutched it in her arms, a tear slipping out the corner of her eye. “Daddy loved hearing the Christmas story,” she said to no one in particular.

Teresa’s voice was soft and shaky, and Murdoch felt a lump creep into his throat. He too missed her father, who had been both ranch foreman and friend for so many years. Even with Scott and Johnny home, Paul O’Brien’s absence left a shadow of sadness that threatened to dim Murdoch’s holiday spirits.

Jelly dragged one arm across his eyes and stood. “Think I’ll go check on the stock,” he huskily announced as he headed for the French doors.

“I’ll go with yuh,” Johnny said, pushing away from the fireplace. As he hurried after Jelly, Scott excused himself and followed them.

Still clutching the Bible, Teresa turned searching eyes on Murdoch. “Jelly’s missing his boys, isn’t he?”

“Yeah . . . I suppose he is,” Murdoch replied, running a thumb down one side of his nose.

“But they’re better off, aren’t they? The boys, I mean. They needed families.”

Murdoch drew in a deep breath and agreed with her while remembering the circumstances that had brought Jelly Hoskins into their lives a short time before Thanksgiving. Through less than honest means, the whiskered man had been taking care of several orphans of various races. Murdoch, with help from his sons, had convinced Jelly to let Johnny find suitable homes for the boys where they could be properly cared for.

When Teresa left a few minutes later to wash up the dessert dishes, Murdoch went over to the French doors and looked out. He smiled. Dangling at the end of a rope that hung from a support beam of the covered patio was a chunk of broken pottery, the remains of what had been a piñata two nights ago. He thought of taking it down but couldn’t bring himself to remove the evidence of the festivities that had taken place there.

Catching sight of his sons about then, Murdoch stood and watched them slowly stroll toward the house. They stopped part way to look back toward Jelly, who was closing the gate. Scott slapped Johnny on the back and Johnny gave Scott a shove. To look at them, one would never know they hadn’t grown up together.

For a few minutes, Murdoch’s thoughts centered on his sons. He still found it hard to believe they were both there. It had only been by some stroke of luck that, after an extended stay in Europe, his friend, Jim Harper, had returned to Boston the previous year in time to attend the annual New Year’s Eve ball.

Murdoch shook his head and let out a long sigh. He would never forget that day in late January when Jim’s letter had arrived with word that Scott was still alive. The news had been as shocking as learning two months later that Johnny had been located.

This last thought brought a shudder of the big man’s shoulders. He could so easily have lost his younger son. According to the Pinkerton Report that Murdoch had received after his sons had arrived home, Johnny had been seconds away from death at the hands of a firing squad outside Nogales, Mexico.

When his sons reached the stone fence that enclosed the courtyard, Murdoch turned away from the glass doors and returned to the sofa. As he passed by the tree, he halted. His eyes traveled upward from one dangling star to another until coming to rest on a much larger one at the top of the tree. The shiny piece of metal, representing the bright star the shepherds near Bethlehem had seen on the first Christmas night, reminded the tall rancher of the reason for the holy season. Jesus was God’s gift of love to mankind.

Laughter rang through the room, and Murdoch turned away from the tree to watch Scott and Johnny walking toward him. Two more gifts from God . . . and two more reasons to celebrate, he thought with a smile and a warm glow filling his heart. The past then slipped away into a dark corner of Murdoch’s mind as the tall man took pleasure in the present.

The End

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3 thoughts on “The Reason for the Season by Desert Sun

  1. Another great story, some gaps answered,such as why Murdoch had not contacted Scott after the war,believing him dead; or why Scott quickly thought of helping the Irish family, the McGloins…even Johnny’s involvement which lead to the firing squad.

    Like

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