Word Count 4235
Grunting with the effort, Scott and Johnny maneuvered the piano out of the wagon. Despite the December chill, sweat began to darken Johnny’s pink shirt and plaster Scott’s fair hair to his forehead. Murdoch cast an anxious eye heavenward as clouds silted over the sun.
The youngest Lancer bit back a sharp retort, the muscles standing out in his lean jaw as his father snapped at them to be careful for the tenth time. Murdoch had been on his back for weeks and now he was plucking on the young man’s last nerve.
Across from him, the cords stood out in Scott’s neck as they heaved the heavy instrument inch by inch. The tarps had been removed to ensure it didn’t slip and now the first drops of rain struck the gleaming mahogany surface.
“Hurry, boys!!” Murdoch urged, glancing at his watch. “Dammit, Johnny—look out for that corner! Must you always be so careless?”
Johnny let go of Teresa’s Christmas present and straightened, glaring at his father. “Don’t know why you’re tellin’ US to hurry, Murdoch—why in hell didn’t you buy this damn thing for her birthday? In JULY?”
The ensuing clash of wills had sapped the Christmas spirit out of the afternoon. By the time the piano had been wrestled into the spare bedroom, the three men were silent and irritable, anxious to get away from each other. Wordlessly, Scott and Murdoch disappeared upstairs to dry off and get ready for dinner.
Alone in the great room, Johnny tossed off a tequila shot, mumbling under his breath. Still angry, he fought down the urge to saddle Barranca and ride away once and for all. This family business—it was too damn hard. A scowl drew his black brows together as he stared into the fire. He poured himself another shot. The urge to be a free man again was growing by the second.
Returning from town, Teresa shivered as a cold wind lashed the carriage. She could barely feel the reins in her gloved hands. The seat behind her was piled high with gaily-wrapped presents but secret sorrow gnawed at the girl as a stray tear crept down her cheek. She always missed her father at this time of year. Without him, the hacienda seemed strangely empty. Unbidden, her thoughts turned to Angel Day. Bitterly, she wondered just where he wayward mother was this Christmas Eve. The thoughts increased her loneliness and more tears joined the first.
The carriage horse picked up speed as the hacienda came into view and Teresa hastily wiped the tears away. As they swept under the adobe arch, she plastered a bright smile on her face, masking the sadness. She was just tired from all the rushing about, the shopping, cooking, cleaning, she told herself. She was being silly. And she was not going to ruin the holidays for everyone else.
Standing in his socks and pants as he shaved, a towel flung over his shoulder, Murdoch’s shoulders slumped. His argument with Johnny weighed heavy on his mind. The big man stared unseeingly into the mirror as his mind drifted off to another Christmas twenty years before. He remembered a laughing toddler gazing wide-eyed at the gleaming Christmas tree. Brightly wrapped presents beckoned below. A delicious aroma preceded the smiling cook as she carried the first course to the table. The hacienda, decorated from top to bottom, glittered. Outside, the vaqueros lit the farolitos lining the courtyard, enveloping the house in light and warmth.
The glowing candles and bright decorations dimmed before the radiance of Maria’s smile as she laughed up at the tall rancher. Clad in luxurious ruby velvet, she was the gem of Murdoch’s life. Offering his arm, he escorted her to the dining room, holding her chair out with one hand and Johnny tucked securely in his other arm. Settling the little boy in his high chair, Murdoch had gazed across the table at the beautiful woman he called wife, drinking in the sight of her. Smiling, he listened to her warm laughter, enjoying her repartee as they laughed and talked throughout the meal.
Dinner finished, the three of them had reclined on the great room settee, Maria nestled in the crook of Murdoch’s arm. Gazing at the lovely tree, the crackling fire had faded to embers before the excited little boy between them finally drifted to sleep. Murdoch had risen, placing the warm little body over his shoulder. His son’s soft breath had tickled his ear as he carried the Johnny upstairs, Maria holding the candle aloft.
Shutting the door gently, she had taken his hand, leading him to their bedroom. Much later, drifting off to sleep, Murdoch thought that he had never been so happy.
The glass shattering as it hit the fireplace below jerked the rancher out of his reverie. Looking at his reflection, he wiped the lather off his chin. What he saw was a failure. The big man’s shoulders slumped further. Regret pierced him. “I’m a lousy father,” he thought. “I need to be patient with Johnny,” he thought. “And somehow…I always fail.”
Putting the hairbrush down, Scott picked up the silver-framed photo of Harlan from the dresser. He had exchanged cards and presents through the mail with his grandfather but he knew the old man was angry—and hurt–at his grandson’s refusal to visit Boston for the holidays. The shattering glass followed by the sound of Johnny’s door slamming made Scott wish suddenly that he HAD returned to the old harbor city. Holidays there would be genteel and orderly, everything the Lancer holiday showed no sign of being. A small frown creased his brow. He regretted the estrangement that had grown between Harlan and himself since Scott’s return to Lancer.
Scott sighed. Sometimes he got tired of being the peacemaker in this volatile situation they had been pitch-forked into—strangers trying to meld into family. Setting the daguerreotype down, he wondered dismally if it would ever truly happen.
In his room, Johnny was tossing things into his saddlebags. Strapping on his gunbelt, he settled it around his lean hips, pulled on his poncho and placed his hat back on his head. Feeling the comforting weight of his gun low on his leg, he looked into the mirror. Johnny Lancer was gone. The black-clad stranger’s blue eyes were cold, his expression forbidding. The gunfighter picked up his gear and headed for the door.
The great room window cast a square of yellow light on the ground as the three shivering men approached, rain pounding them in the darkness. Through it, they saw the gaily dressed tree, shimmering candles, the large pile of presents. Beyond, the dining room table was set for dinner.
But the rooms were empty, causing them to glance at each other as one of them lifted his hand to knock.
Maria bustled in, wiping her hands on her apron. “Who on earth,” she wondered, “would be out on such a night?” She herself was anxious to conclude her duties and spend Christmas Eve with her family. Brows knit in puzzlement, she opened the door to the three strangers.
“Please, come in,” she urged them. “Come and get warm!”
Behind her, Murdoch stepped forward, offering a huge hand. “Yes, please do come in.” Seeing their eyes turn toward the table, he continued, “We were just about to have dinner.”
Scott ambled into the room, startled at seeing the three strangers. Dark-skinned, their hair wet with rain, he somehow sensed that they were not Mexican. But their eyes were kind and their expressions serene. He smiled.
Teresa paused on the threshold, startled, before adding her pleas to the men’s. Every eye went to Johnny as he descended the stairs. Murdoch’s jaw dropped.
“What are you doing, Johnny?” he asked quietly.
“What’s it look like, old man?” the gunfighter asked. “I’m shakin’ the dust of this place off my boots. Enough is enough.”
Scott stepped forward. “You can’t, Johnny…please.”
There was no change in the sapphire eyes. “My mind’s made up, Scott. I been trying to force myself to be something I ain’t for months now. I can’t do it any more.”
Already close to the surface, Teresa’s emotions spilled over. Tears glittered on her cheeks like diamonds as she searched for her handkerchief. Another person she loved–leaving.
She bowed her head, unable to speak.
Johnny’s icy stare raked the three strangers who smiled gently back at him.
Sudden pounding on the door startled them. A breathless vaquero stood there. “Senor Johnny….you asked to be told about the mare.”
The young man leaned forward. “Is she all right?” Besos was about to deliver Barranca’s first foal.
Twisting his hat in his fingers, Sanchez shook his head. “No, senor. She is not.”
Johnny dropped his gear. “Let’s go.” His cold gaze traveled over his family as he held up a restraining hand. “And I don’t need nobody following me.”
As the door shut behind him, Murdoch closed his eyes.
Inside the stall, the mare’s stertorous breathing filled their ears. Cipriano arose, wiping his hands on a towel.
“It is not good, Senor Johnny. The foal is in the wrong position.”
Johnny looked down as the mare dropped her head wearily back into the straw. A few stalls down, Barranca regarded them, ears pricked. From the loft, bright green eyes glowed as the stable cat watched the men, tail switching. Around them was the gentle sound of munching as the horses finished their extra ration of oats. The atmosphere in the stable was gravely expectant, the other animals seeming to know what was happening.
“And she’s weakening.”
Cipriano nodded gravely. “She has been in labor since this morning. I am afraid she cannot take much more.”
The young man sighed, dropping his head. The foreman’s wise eyes took in the gun and the traveling clothes. He waited, saying nothing.
Johnny looked up, forcing a smile. His planned departure would have to wait.
“You go on home to Isabelle. I’ll watch the mare.”
He shook his head as the foreman began to remonstrate.
“It’s OK, Cipriano. It wasn’t turning out to be much of a Christmas Eve, anyway.”
The foreman left. Johnny knelt beside the mare, running a gentle hand over her swollen side. A ripple ran over it as another contraction took place.
Sadness swept him. He had so looked forward to the birth of this foal—the first one by Barranca. “Come on, Besos—you can do it,” he urged her gently. The mare did not raise her head.
Johnny settled himself in the straw beside her, his back against the wall, and pulled his poncho closer.
A soft yip alerted him and he rose. Lucky was standing outside the door, tail wagging gently.
A reluctant grin touched Johnny’s face as he opened the door.
“But you have to be quiet,” he admonished. Curling his tail around him, the dog settled into the place Johnny had just vacated.
He ran his hands again over the mare’s belly again. Cipriano had already done all he could and he was far more skilled than Johnny. It seemed there was nothing left to do but wait and watch as the mare slipped away.
Dinner was a somber affair. Over the long centerpiece of evergreen, holly and bayberry candles, the strangers regarded the monosyllabic family, then each other, before turning their attention to the roast beef, new potatoes and myriad side dishes.
Murdoch looked up, for once at a loss for words. Beside him, Scott and Teresa were also quiet. Jelly, too, was silent, a highly unusual state for the old handyman. All thoughts were on the young man in the stable, knowing his departure would coincide with the foal’s delivery. It was just a matter of time.
The strained meal over, back in the kitchen, Teresa was downcast as she made up a plate for Johnny. Placing it on the table, she put a red-checked cloth over it before turning to Maria.
Hugging the older woman, she urged her homeward. “You go, Maria. I’ll do the dishes.” Over her protests, she led the older woman to the door, handing her the rebozo to cover her head.
Alone in the kitchen, a gentle hand covered hers and she looked into the kind eyes of the oldest stranger.
“I’ll take it to him, Miss Teresa. It’s no night for you to be out in.”
She nodded mutely, handing him the plate. “Thank you.”
A minute later, the second stranger entered the kitchen, smiling. “You wash and I’ll dry.”
“Oh, no,” she demurred. “You’re our guest!”
“Nonsense,” the man said gently. “You provided the meal. And I want to help.”
Surprising herself, the girl burst into tears, blotting her eyes with her apron. Unperturbed, the stranger guided her to a chair. “Now,” he said. “Tell me all about it.”
In the great room, Scott played a desultory game of chess with the third stranger. But his bleak thoughts ruined his concentration. The game was over quickly.
He rose, pouring himself another drink.
“I’m going to go talk to Johnny.”
Behind them, Murdoch rested an arm on the mantel as he stared down into the flames, a glass of Scotch in his hand.
“I should be the one to do that, Scott,” the older man said. “I’m the one who drove him away.”
“It’s not too late,” his son remonstrated.
The stranger spoke in his mellifluous voice. “That’s true, Murdoch. While there’s life—there’s hope. It’s never too late to make things right with a loved one.”
Murdoch lifted his head. “I have so much to answer for. I failed my son in so many ways. Both my sons.” His shoulders slumped.
Scott’s urge to speak was forestalled by a gentle touch on his shoulder. He closed his mouth, wondering why his eyes suddenly felt so heavy.
“Scott,” the stranger murmured, too low for Murdoch to hear. “That struggle with the piano must have worn you out. Why don’t you go nap a little? I want to talk to your father.”
The young man’s head snapped at the mention of “piano.” “How did you….”
The stranger patted his arm. “You rest, Scott. And don’t worry about your grandfather.”
As if in a trance, the older brother left the room, passing a hand over his eyes.
The second stranger waited patiently until Teresa’s outburst subsided.
“Teresa,” he said, “It’s not wrong to miss your birth parents, especially at Christmas.”
She flung a hand wide. “But Murdoch has given me so much. And Johnny and Scott are like my brothers.”
“And you feel guilty?”
A whisper answered him. “Yes.”
Taking her hand, he put the other under her chin, tipping it up until she met his eyes, her lashes spiky with tears.
“Do you love Murdoch?”
“Do you honor him every day? Are you grateful to him for everything he has done for you?”
“Listen to me, Teresa. The ones that have gone before us are never far away. They remain in our hearts forever. They visit us in our dreams, guiding our steps and watching over us in this earthly realm. And a grateful heart and humble spirit keep them closer still.”
A smile lifted her lips. “Like guardian angels?”
The stranger nodded, smiling. “Just like guardian angels.”
Her heart suddenly felt much lighter. “Thank you….I don’t even know your name.”
His smile grew. “That’s because I never told you.”
In the great room, the third traveler observed Murdoch from his position on the settee. A sip of Scotch warmed him as he waited for the big man to speak.
Murdoch lifted his gaze from the flames. He didn’t confide in strangers but there was something compelling about this man. As if a too-tight gag had been removed, words spilled out in a torrent.
The stranger kept his eyes on him, encouraging by means of smiles and nods. His accent was strange to Murdoch but there was no mistaking the genuine concern.
By the time they noticed that the bottle of Scotch was almost gone, the hour was late. Rain still drummed on the roof and the huge fireplace log had turned to red embers glowing softly in the dark room.
“Murdoch,” the stranger said. “You have to forgive yourself. Only then can you move on. Neither you nor Johnny can go forward when the past is always tethered to you like a ball and chain. The truth is, unless you meet her again, you will probably never really know why Maria left. It could have been something you did. Or it could not. No one ever really knows what someone else is thinking. And she had free will.”
The tall rancher nodded slowly, mulling over the words.
The smaller man spoke again. “Did you do the best you could…at the time?”
Murdoch nodded decisively. “Yes. I made many mistakes but I tried.”
“Then you have to let it go. Guilt is corrosive, Murdoch. It will eat away at you until you lose any chance for a future. Let the past bury its dead. And you get on with living.”
Upstairs, Scott turned over, clutching the pillow. Beneath closed lids, his eyes moved rapidly. He was dreaming of Harlan and the many Christmases they had shared back in Boston. He saw himself as a little boy, mouth agape as he entered the drawing room. Santa had come in the night and the room was piled high with presents. A fire snapped on the hearth and his grandpa was there, arms outstretched. “Merry Christmas, Scott!” Although deeply asleep, one part of Scott’s mind felt that he was connecting with his grandfather once again. The joy in the dream-room was palpable. There had been many such Christmases. A smile lifted his lips. “Merry Christmas, Grandfather!”
In the cold stable, Johnny sighed as he shifted about, trying to find a comfortable position. Lucky’s lifted ears alerted him. A saddle blanket suddenly appeared over the stall door. A second later, a beaming face filled the opening.
“Here, take this,” the oldest stranger announced. “Then I will hand you your dinner.”
The cherubic visage made Johnny’s lips twitch upward in spite of himself.
When the young man was settled, he looked down at the mare. Johnny had draped a blanket over her. She was asleep.
The young man responded to the unspoken question. “She’s not going to make it. The foal, either.”
The sadness in the blue eyes touched the stranger. Despite the menacing mien, this young man could still be salvaged. If he could leave his hurt and anger behind, a good and full life was in his grasp. Leaving the hacienda now would be the biggest mistake he could ever make.
Finishing his meal, Johnny set the plate down outside the stall before kneeling beside the mare once again. She was growing cold as the life force left her body. It made his heart ache.
Lucky raised somber brown eyes to the young man. Animals knew, Johnny mused. Somehow, they always knew. The black and white barn cat crept soundlessly down from the loft. A few feet away, Barranca nickered softly.
In the corner stall, the goat they had given as a companion to Diablo, the temperamental black stallion, resumed chewing its cud, yellow eyes blinking in the lantern light. The huge black horse raised his head, his large intelligent eyes soft. Nosing in his hayrack, he searched for the last of his Christmas oats.
Johnny had the sense that the animals were standing vigil. He gestured at the fading mare.
“Just this morning, she was healthy and full of life. Now she’s dying. And the world’ll go on just as if she’d never been here. Just like Lancer will go on once I’m gone.” His lips twisted down bitterly.
Seeing it, the traveler cast his eyes heavenward. His lips opened but the young man held up a restraining hand.
“If you’re gonna talk to me about God—don’t.” he said shortly. “There is no God, no matter what you or the priests say. If there was,” he continued savagely, “kids wouldn’t starve or be abandoned. Men wouldn’t beat their wives. Women wouldn’t leave one fine day and never look back.”
Johnny gave a short, bitter laugh. “God is dead. Just like that mare’s gonna be in a few minutes.”
The rain drummed on the roof as the stranger considered the young man before him, laying a gentle hand on the mare’s head before he spoke.
“Not true, Johnny. People do all of those things, sure. And it doesn’t make it right. But people do lots of other things, too. Like spend twenty years searching for someone they believe in their heart is dead. They give up secure lives in other places to take a chance in a new one. They reach out when their hearts have been broken. They try…one more time.”
“Love is all you have to work with, Johnny. Without it, you have nothing. And neither will they if you go.”
A snort interrupted their conversation and both men looked down. The mare was straining once again. As they watched, a small, wet bundle slid out. Still enclosed in the birth sac, the tiny animal twitched and was still.
Moving quickly, Johnny ruptured the membrane, allowing the little stallion to take in air. The small sides bellowed out slowly and sank quickly.
Still on his knees, he urged the foal on. “Come on, come on…you can do it.”
Beside him, straw rustled as the mare struggled to rise. She fell back weakly.
The stranger touched a gentle hand to her head, softly coaxing. Valiantly, Besos tried again. This time she made it. Staggering to her feet, the mare lurched over to the foal and began licking it. Warmed and drying rapidly, the tiny animal tried to stand. Long spindly legs went out from under it and the little creature sprawled in the straw. Beside him, Johnny held his breath. The next few moments were critical. If the foal could not stand, he could not nurse. And if he couldn’t nurse, he would not survive. To lose him now was unthinkable, not when the fragile creature had fought so hard to be born. The foal sprawled in the straw once more.
“Here, little one,” he murmured. “Let me help you.”
Putting gentle hands under its belly, Johnny supported the foal as the mare turned. Nuzzling her warm side, the little stallion searched for milk. Finding it, he began to nurse.
The young man and the stranger looked at each other, beaming. Lucky’s tail began to wag. Straw rustled as the other horses stirred to wakefulness, alerted to the new life among them. The black and white cat walking along the stall door blinked as it looked down at the newcomer.
Drawn by the voices, Sanchez emerged from the bunkhouse. Halting on the threshold, he stared the mare and foal. “Esto es un milagro!”
“Si.” Johnny agreed. “It is a miracle.” He slapped the stranger on the back. “I don’t know where you come from, Mister, but I’m sure glad you did!”
Looking up, he saw Murdoch’s beaming face over the half door, Scott right behind him.
The youngest Lancer’s smile chased away their shadowy fears. Talking and laughing excitedly, the five men watched the little animal nurse.
It was late when they left the barn. The rain had stopped. One star, brighter than the rest, gleamed high in the eastern heavens.
Back at the house, Murdoch looked in on Teresa. The girl was sound asleep. Together, the six men brought the piano from the spare room and placed it gently by the great room window. Carefully, they polished away all the finger smudges, arranged the sheet music on the rack and placed the matching bench in front of it.
When the Lancers awoke the next morning, there was no sign of their guests. A gleaming gold piece lay on the table. A sweet smell that none of them could identify hung in the air.
Spying the piano, a sleepy Teresa rushed forward, squealing. Smiling, the Lancer men watched, enjoying her happy astonishment.
A long time later, all of the presents had been opened amid much laughter. Clutching a tray loaded with eggnog and gingerbread men, Teresa returned to the great room. Johnny was tossing the gold coin into the air and catching it as the men mused over their departed guests.
“I never got their names!” Scott exclaimed. “Did you?”
“Gaspar,” Teresa offered.
“Balthazar.” Murdoch added. They looked at Johnny.
Scott’s mouth gaped as he, Teresa and Murdoch took in the significance. “What?” Johnny demanded. “Tell me!”
Dissonant chords issued from the new piano as Teresa tried to wring music from it. She had a long way to go, thought the patriarch mildly. Beside her, Scott turned the page, murmuring in his deep voice as Johnny clapped his hands over his ears in pretended pain. Beside them, Jelly cracked Christmas nuts for Dewdrop, at his feet on the rug. Glancing furtively around, the handyman stashed some candy canes in his pocket. He’d take them out to the horses later.
From across the room, Murdoch watched the others indulgently. The racket pained his ears but he wouldn’t have had it any other way. It sounded like family.
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