Word Count 3,073
This short story was written and posted to the Lancer groups on Yahoo in September of 2003. I made some minor revisions in March of 2014 prior to adding it to the files at the Lancer FanFiction group on Facebook.
The first rhyme is one that I learned as a child. I’ve used a little poetic license in using it here as it is believed to have been written in the late 1800’s. Wikipedia says this about it. The superstition of hoping for wishes granted when seeing a shooting or falling star may date back to the ancient world. Wishing on the first star seen may also predate this rhyme, which first begins to be recorded in late nineteenth-century America. The song and tradition seem to have reached Britain by the early twentieth century and have since spread worldwide.
The other two rhymes are my own altered versions of the first. I wrote them specifically for the purpose of this story.
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Boston, early March, 1870:
Deep shadows spread over the waters of Boston Harbor and slowly drove from sight the ships moored along the docks. The young man sitting on the edge of the bay took little notice. For the most part, his head was tilted back against a brick wall and his eyes were on the heavens as he watched the first star appear, grow brighter, and gradually become surrounded by a host of sparkling lights.
Unbidden a rhyme from his childhood came to mind.
Starlight, star bright,
First star I see tonight.
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.
He laughed softly. How many times had he done just that while looking out his bedroom window from the second floor of his grandfather’s mansion? Ten? Twenty? A hundred? With the sincere faith of innocent youth, he had believed that his heart’s desire would be granted. It had not.
A wave of sadness washed over him. The thing he had wanted most in his life would never be. If his father hadn’t cared enough to contact him even once in over twenty-three years, why should the man do so now?
Melancholy turned to anger as the dark monster of hate settled down upon Scott Lancer’s shoulder and whispered in his ear. “You are nothing to your father. He has no need of you. Forget him. He will never send for you. Wishing on a thousand stars could never bring it to pass.”
The bonds of fury tightened, making Scott’s heart beat faster. Just one time, it would be nice to stand face to face with Murdoch Lancer and tell him what a despicable excuse for a father he was. Perhaps a visit was in order. Trains ran all the way to San Francisco now that the railroad was completed. Reaching his father’s ranch wouldn’t take much over a week.
“Why waste your time and money?” the voice on Scott’s shoulder chided. “A letter would serve the purpose. You could even notify him that you’ve had your name legally changed to Garrett.”
But I haven’t.
“But you will . . . once you meet with your grandfather’s attorney on Monday.”
I’m not sure I’ll keep that appointment.
The voice grew more persistent. “Of course, you will. You know that nothing would make your grandfather happier than for you to accept his name as yours. After all, he is the one who raised you. He’s the only real father you’ve ever known. You owe it to him.”
Scott closed his eyes and let out a soft sigh. I know I owe him more than I can ever repay for taking care of me. I’ve never wanted for anything. I have a college degree, and he paid for my trip to Europe last year. He’s introduced me to the most influential people in the state as well as here in Boston. I’ve tried to show him my gratitude . . . but I just don’t know about changing my name. It’s so . . . final.
“Well, there’s still plenty of time to decide. Why not forget about it for now? You really should be on your way to the Vanderson’s. Barbara will be disappointed if you’re late. You promised her that you’d be there by nine, and a gentleman should never keep a lady waiting.”
No. I mustn’t keep Barbara waiting, must I?
Resigned to his fate, Scott rose to his feet and walked up the pathway to the street where his carriage awaited him. As he climbed inside, he hesitated for a moment and glanced up at the stars. If only he could have the one wish he wanted most, he would gladly leave all he had behind. That, however, was not to be, so he closed the door, called out to the driver, and settled back for the ride.
Mexico, three weeks later:
The last star faded from sight as the dim square of light in the stone wall slowly brightened. Dawn had arrived. In a short while, his life would disappear–snuffed out by the light of day just like the stars.
Unbidden, a distorted chant from long ago flashed through his mind.
Starlight, star bright,
Last star of the night.
If only you could, I wish you would
Grant me one last wish tonight.
Johnny Madrid laughed–a hollow, empty sound rising out of a heart filled with despair. For him there would be no more wishing on a far-off star for an impossible dream to come true. That nonsense would be left to children who hadn’t learned that the tiny lights in the night sky had no power to grant their wishes. Clouds didn’t have silver linings. The poor never became rich by wishing for a miracle. Life was one hardship after another, unless you were one of the lucky few to be born with a golden spoon in your mouth.
Bitterness crowded between the bars of the tiny window, sat down next to Johnny, and laid a consoling hand on his shoulder. “You could have been one of them . . . would have been, too, if it hadn’t been ripped away from you by that gringo father of yours.”
Johnny let his thoughts talk for him. I should have made him pay for what he did to my mama and me. Instead of fightin’ lost causes for nice people with no money in their pockets, I should’ve looked up my old man. Fillin’ him full of lead might not have made me any richer, but the pleasure of seeing him die would have been payment enough.
“I tried to tell you to stick with Day,” the bitter voice whispered. “He told you he had a job to do up north. You could have made some big money . . . maybe even taken care of Lancer along the way.”
Johnny argued while he paced the narrow confines of his prison. You know why I quit Pardee. He don’t care who he kills or how he does it. For the right price, he’d put a bullet in the back of one of his own men. I should know, I seen him do it once. Not only that, he’s downright cruel. I saw what he did to that rancher’s wife outside El Paso. It wasn’t pretty.
“He had a job to do. She tried to stop him. Sexton Joe would’ve done the same.”
I ain’t the Preacher. As much as I hate my old man, if I was gunnin’ for him, I’d give him a fair break. I’d meet him face to face and make sure he was packin’ iron. I ain’t never gunned down anyone in cold blood.
“There’s always a first time, Johnny Boy. How do you know what you’d do if you met up with the man who threw your mama out? You just might walk right up to him and put a bullet between his eyes. No warning . . . no howdy-do . . . no nothing.”
Johnny let his breath out with a whoosh and resumed his restless pacing. Three steps forward, spin on one heel, three steps forward, spin on the other heel. Back and forth across the hard dirt floor he walked while closing his ears to the argument. It was useless. He would never see his father anyway, so why waste thoughts on what the outcome of such a meeting would be?
The outer door clanged. Heavy footsteps drew closer and stopped outside the thick wooden door of Johnny’s cell. It was time to meet his destiny.
With a fleeting glance at the window now bathed in sunlight, Johnny let his final wish fly toward heaven. If only the past were not what he had been told. He would gladly bury Madrid in the sand of Mexico, return to the home of his birth, and take the Lancer name.
Johnny took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and faced away from the guard as ordered. A few moments later, with hands secured behind his back, he joined his fellow prisoners and was shoved into the back of a wagon for the ride up into the hills. He knew he would never get his last wish.
California, that same night:
A trail of white streaked across the Milky Way and vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Forty or more years ago the gray-haired man gazing out his bedroom window would have jumped for joy at the sight of the falling star. He had been a child then, and stars were what dreams were made of. Now he was a man going on fifty. Through many hard knocks over that span of years, he’d learned that life was like that shooting beam of light: what was here today was often gone tomorrow.
Into his mind tumbled his first wife’s translation of the words taught him by his maternal grandmother so many years ago.
If you wish upon a falling star,
Life will bless you wherever you are.
It matters not how short or long the trail,
Its eternal brilliance will never fail.
Murdoch Lancer laughed. A pitiful sound it was–not light or musical. No. It was deep and throaty . . . and harsh–the cynical huff of a man who no longer believed in the magic of his childhood. Dreams were for the young and foolish. Wisdom had taught him long ago that nothing was ever eternal . . . except for God, if such a being truly existed.
The cold fingers of hopelessness wrapped around the big man’s heart and squeezed while a mocking voice grated in his ear. “Your dreams are shooting stars. They all begin in a bright ray of light that vanishes suddenly during the night. Like ashes in the wind, they’re never seen again.”
I still have the ranch.
“For how long? Since O’Brien and you were ambushed last November, Pardee has torn down your fences, scattered your cattle, and threatened or beaten your workers. Out of a hundred and fifty vaqueros, you now have less than twenty. He’s already taken over three of the largest estancias between here and San Jose. Now he’s back to finish what he started. Face it . . . it’s only a matter of time before you are either run off of this place or buried.”
I still have eighteen good men, the best of the lot. He outnumbers me by no more than seven.
The voice refused to be silenced. “Pardee will never meet you in a fair fight. He’ll pick your men off a few at a time whenever they’re away from the hacienda. You can’t stay holed up here forever.”
I don’t plan to. I’ve sent for my sons. Scott isn’t dead, like I thought, and the Pinkerton agency may have gotten a line on Johnny. When my boys get here, we’ll find Pardee’s camp and put an end to this.
“Ha!” The sound seemed to resound in Murdoch’s ears. He tried to close out the words that followed, but could not. The voice only became more insistent. “You think those sons of yours will risk their lives to save your dream. Surely you don’t believe they will help you out of any sense of loyalty. By now, they will have heard so many lies that they may even hate you enough to join Pardee. They certainly aren’t going to do you any favors.”
I’m not expecting any favors! Murdoch turned away from the window. Leaning heavily on the cane in his right hand, he hobbled back and forth across the floor of his bedroom as his thoughts continued. I’m prepared to offer them each one third of the ranch. The paper has already been drawn up. They won’t be fighting for what’s mine. They’ll be fighting to hang onto what is theirs.
“What makes you think they’ll even come?” the voice mocked. “Surely Scott has no need of your money. Harlan Garrett is a wealthy man. He will have seen to it that his grandson wants for nothing. As for Johnny, you don’t even know if he’s alive. You’ve tried to find him for years. What chance is there of him being found now, or in time to do you any good? You’re setting your hopes on stars that vanished from your life more than twenty years ago. Give it up while you still can. Take Teresa, your men, and whatever you can take with you and get out before you have more deaths on your conscience.”
The grip on Murdoch’s heart tightened. He slammed his big fist against the top of the tall dresser near the window. No! This is my land. I’ve poured my life into building this ranch. This place was nothing when Catherine and I came here. It’s taken me twenty-five years to build my herd from a few head to twenty-thousand. I’ve worked and sweated to bring water to this valley, and I have a gray hair for every good blade of grass out there. I love this ground more than any other that God created. I’ll not give it up without a fight.
Murdoch went back to pacing while continuing to justify himself. I’ve already made arrangements to send Teresa back east next week. Jim has offered to take her in until it’s safe for her to return here. He’s even promised to see that she’s provided for, if it comes to that.
“And you’re men? Can you ask them to die for a lost cause?”
Murdoch stopped at the window once more and scowled out into the darkness. They know they’re free to go at anytime. If they stay and we win, they’ll be amply rewarded for their loyalty. No matter what they choose to do, though, I’ll not leave my land. Pardee’ll have to kill me to take it.
“Then you are a fool.”
Trying to close out the derisive words, Murdoch looked up into the heavens again just as another steak of white flashed across the speckled sky. He sighed softly. Maybe holding onto the hope of having his sons at his side one day was foolish. Yet he couldn’t let go of the dream. If he could only be assured of having that one wish, he’d gladly trade all that he possessed. Deep down in his heart he knew that the land was not of paramount importance. It was what it stood for. The legacy that he’d built for his sons was symbolic of the love he would have given them if fate hadn’t taken them from him. Until he knew they had no desire to hang onto it, he’d fight to the death to hold it.
Wearily Murdoch turned, limped over to the bed, and crawled beneath the heavy quilt. Yesterday, one of the wheat fields that he had been saving to use during spring roundup had been burned. Who knew what tomorrow would bring. Pardee was closing in and still there had been no word from Scott or Johnny. Time was running out. If they didn’t come soon, there would be nothing for them to come home to.
Rolling over, he pushed the discouraging thoughts aside. His sons would come. They had to. There simply was no other option. This was one dream that had to come true, otherwise his whole life would have been wasted. As tears pooled in his eyes and one or two sneaked between tightly closed lids, Murdoch sent up one last plea to the creator of the stars and then slowly drifted off to sleep.
Lancer Ranch, one year later:
Sparks snapped and crackled while flames flickered and danced among the pile of limbs. Along one side of the campfire, a middle-aged man with gray hair lounged between two younger men. Overhead, brightly shining lights peeked through the black veil of a cloudless and moonless sky. Suddenly, three tails of brilliant white appeared and streaked toward each other. Coming one from the east, one from the south, and one from the northwest, they joined together directly above the three men and then vanished.
Each of the men gazed in wonder; each lost in his own thoughts of wishes made in the past–most of which had not been granted.
Scott Lancer shifted his gaze from the heavens to the dark-haired young man sitting on the far side of the older man and smiled. At the same time, Johnny Lancer let out a soft sigh, glanced at his brother, and grinned.
“What’s so amusing?” asked the big man in the middle.
“I was just thinking about wishing upon stars,” Scott said.
“Ya were?” Johnny asked.
“Funny.” Scott paused to cross his arms. “You can wish and wish and nothing happens. Then one day you make a wish and you end up with far more than you ever dreamed of.”
“Yeah,” Johnny said in almost a whisper.
“Maybe, it’s not so funny,” the third man said. “Maybe, it’s because someone else was wishing for the same thing.”
The two younger men both looked at the big man between them. “So, Murdoch . . . did you get more than you wished for?” Scott asked.
“Far more.” Murdoch Lancer smiled at each of his sons. Then he let out a long breath, looked up at the stars, and whispered, “Far more than you’ll ever know.”
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