Word Count 5620
The first snowflakes spiraled through the black boughs of the trees, silhouetted against the gray sky. Feathery clouds silted over the sun, fading it to a pale coin. Sifting gently down through the bare limbs, the flakes nestled in the long black hair of the woman far below, glinting like tiny stars before winking out. Dark eyes glanced up at the sky, noting the position of the fading sun. She had come farther than she had planned and the reservation was no longer in sight.
Sighing, the girl shrugged the carrying basket full of kindling off her shoulders and let it slip to the ground, leaning it beside a tree. Feeling chilled, she tugged the hood of her deerskin parka up over her head with one small hand. Trimmed with ermine, the luxurious fur framed the lovely young face with its high cheekbones and warm golden skin. Placing both hands on the small of her back, she leaned first backward, then forward, trying to stretch out the ache that had formed there. Her long velvet broomstick skirts swung about her soft leather moccasins, tied tightly at the knee. Sunk to the ankles in the carpet of dead leaves lining the forest floor, her feet were growing cold as the sun slipped toward the horizon.
Placing both hands on her rounded belly, she stood upright again, smiling as she wondered if her husband had returned from the trading post yet. Tall and lean, with a ready smile and a quick sense of humor, her husband, known as Matthew to the priests, was a shrewd trader. He would have new tales to tell when he returned and the three of them would laugh at his jokes over dinner. Her smile grew as she thought of her husband, leaving her suddenly eager to be alone with him.
Like all the men of his tribe, Matthew kept his thick black hair drawn back in public for modesty’s sake. When they were alone in their sleeping furs, he would let it down. Glossy, black as a raven’s wing, it reached to his waist, thick and shining. When he leaned down to kiss her, it would fall forward, enveloping them in a cloud of living warmth, sliding like silk along her skin and making her bare breasts tingle. Although the hut was too small for true privacy, her mother-in-law would turn her back, politely pretending she heard nothing.
A tiny, wizened woman with a ready smile, known for her culinary artistry, her widowed mother-in-law had journeyed from a distant pueblo to await the birth of her first grandchild. She was back at their adobe hut now, preparing dinner. Sensing her daughter-in-law’s restlessness, she had sent the girl out for a walk, telling her she needed more kindling. Anxious to feel useful, she had gone gladly, donning her deerskin parka and slinging a carrying basket over her shoulders. Going outside, she admonished the new puppy to stay behind. Crestfallen, the small animal had finally settled back on his haunches beside the door. Tongue lolling, he looked at her reproachfully, grieved at being denied an outing.
Smothering a grin, the girl had walked away, glancing back to see him watching still her. She knew if would be only a matter of minutes before her soft-hearted mother-in-law brought the animal inside. Smiling happily as she walked, the village was soon left behind as she made her way into the forest and began to pick up kindling. A short while later, her basket was full.
She thought of the adobe hut, suddenly anxious to return. Even now, rabbit stew would be simmering on the hearth. Round loaves of hard Indian bread and small delicious pastries sweetened with prunes would be set aside, their mingled aromas perfuming the air.
Hand-dipped candles with woven cloth wicks would be lit, casting scattered pockets of warm light. Although professing to dislike dogs in the house, she knew her mother-in-law would have settled the puppy in a cloth-lined basket beside the hearth before slipping him a bone filled with marrow. Contented gnawing sounds would be issuing from the corner as the puppy worked to extract it. The new cradle, recently built by Matthew, would be waiting on the other side of the crackling fire.
The older woman would be humming softly as she stirred the stew and smoke would be curling from the smoke hole, dissipating to feathery curls in the damp air.
With pleasurable anticipation, the girl thought of the festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe that they would be attending that evening. A new bride, this would be her first time. Her husband had assured her that it was an old tradition, mixing Indian customs with the newer ones of the Spanish conquerors. The entire village would turn out and many more guests would visit from neighboring towns.
Huge bonfires would be lit both for warmth and to light the Virgin’s way. Guns would be fired to drive off evil spirits as her effigy was carried through the pueblo. The procession would end at midnight at the tiny church with its low adobe walls and small graveyard. The church would be crammed full of people as Christmas Eve mass was conducted by the priest.
Hearing the slight crackle in the underbrush, she looked up, half-expecting to see her husband, come to help her carry the kindling home. But it was not Matthew who stood there, smiling at her.
It was a huge gray timber wolf, large head sunk between its shoulder blades and lips skinned back from its teeth as a low, ripping growl issued from it. Its wicked incisors gleamed in the half-light. Dark eyes fixed on hers, long body stretched out low to the ground, it lifted one paw, then another, slinking closer.
Picking his way through the woods, Barranca’s pale mane and tail gleamed in the fading light. With a muffled curse, Johnny pulled his hat down further and turned his coat collar up against the snowflakes hitting his back. Halting the horse, he pulled the watch that Murdoch had given him from his pocket. Peering at it, he reckoned he was near the reservation, still over an hour’s ride from the train station in Lamy. He wished he’d at least made it to Santa Fe before the snow began.
Glancing around, Johnny scanned the sky for the sight of smoke rising from cook fires. He saw nothing. The sun was almost at the horizon; if he didn’t make the trading post tonight, he’d have to camp out and the prospect wasn’t appealing.
“Too damn cold at this altitude,” he muttered to Barranca. “And now this.” He glanced again at the sky. The sight of the flakes, steadily increasing in size and number, irritated him.
It had been a long trip down from Colorado Springs where he had gone to purchase the stallion. The sale concluded, he had loaded both horses onto the small train that would make its way along the narrow-gauge track to Lamy. But when the train had run afoul of a section of broken track, Johnny had paid the conductor a handsome fee to keep an eye on the stallion until the track was fixed.
“I’ve got to get home,” he told the man, counting bills into his outstretched palm. “For Christmas. I’ll take the next train out of Lamy.” Saddling the palomino, Johnny had led Barranca down the ramp and leaped into the saddle.
“It ain’t safe,” the man had pointed out. “Shouldn’t be riding through the badlands alone; not at this time of year.”
Johnny knew the man was right but he had counted out the last of the bills, then picked up Barranca’s reins and touched his sides gently with his spurs to go find the telegraph office.
The message to his waiting family was the hardest he’d ever had to write, their disappointment at hearing he might be late for Christmas as vivid in his mind’s eye as if he were standing in the great room as they read it.
Anxious to make it home, he had ridden the palomino hard; they had come a long way since yesterday. But not far enough.
Now both he and Barranca were cold, tired and too damn far from home. Johnny heaved a sigh, suddenly despondent. Today was Christmas Eve; there was no way he’d make it back to his family in time.
“Well,” he said to the horse. “Can’t say they didn’t warn me.”
His family had tried to deter him, both Scott and Murdoch pointing out that the weather was too uncertain at this time of year to undertake a trip to Colorado.
His father had flung his hands up angrily and stomped to the great room window when confronted with Johnny’s insistence that he could buy the stallion and still make it back to Lancer by Christmas Eve. Murdoch had stood, back turned, glowering out into the purple twilight while his sons argued.
Johnny had waved the telegram at his father’s back, his own temper rising. “You read this—Bitterman won’t wait long. He needs cash, and fast. Don’t see as how I have any choice if I want the stallion.”
Scott added his two cents. “I know you’ve been waiting a long time for Bitterman to sell, Johnny, but…it’s Christmas. We should all be together.”
His brother had flung an arm wide, encompassing the great room. Only the week before, the three of them had wrestled in a huge blue spruce, erecting it before the floor-to-ceiling window.
Making a party of it, the four of them had decorated the tree together. Teresa made a pot of hot chocolate, which she set in the great room, along with a plate of fresh-baked gingerbread men.
Biting the head off of one, Johnny had stood under the mistletoe, waving the remainder at her. “These sure are good, Teresa. Can I have another?”
When she brought it to him, he had kissed her cheek, making her blush and causing Scott and Murdoch to laugh before coming forward themselves. Each had bussed her cheek, causing her to blush furiously, laughing, before heading back to the kitchen for more.
They had all had a cup of hot chocolate, stirring it with candy canes before the men had switched to a stronger libation.
Working together, they had soon transformed the tree. Taking one last ornament from a black velvet bag, Teresa had handed it to Murdoch.
“Will you do the honors?”
Smiling, the tall rancher took it from her. Stretching to his full height, he placed the glittering silver star on the top of the tree.
Finished, he had glanced at his youngest. Johnny was gazing up at it, a smile on his face. It was not so very different from the one he had worn as a toddler, at his first Christmas.
In the face of the man, Murdoch caught a glimpse of the child who had been snatched away one night, never to be seen again.
His brow had clouded as he realized how new “Navidad con la familia” still was to his son. He wondered how many Christmases Johnny had spent on the move between one town and the next, first with his erratic mother, then in the company of hard-bitten men. Or worse, how many had he spent alone, only his gun gleaming in the cold starlight.
Familiar anger rose in Murdoch and the old urge to curse Maria made him bite his lip. She had stolen plenty when she left but the theft of Johnny’s childhood was a crime for which the tall rancher could never forgive her.
Wrenching his thoughts back to the present, Murdoch had glanced at the shining faces of Scott and Teresa before raising his own glass to clink it with his sons’ glasses of Scotch and Teresa’s own mug of hot chocolate.
“To us!” he boomed. “And a Lancer Christmas!”
“God bless us, every one.” Scott had quipped in his deep voice, smiling amiably.
“Hear, hear!” Teresa had responded.
“I’ll drink to that!” Johnny had laughed, white teeth flashing in his dark face.
They had spent the remainder of the evening together, talking and laughing, the great tree gleaming in the firelight. Murdoch had noticed that Johnny’s eyes strayed to it often. The older man had finally glanced at the clock.
“It’s eleven o’clock!” he exclaimed. He looked at Teresa. “We’d better get to bed.”
“Or Santa won’t come?” she suggested, raising an eyebrow as she rose from her chair.
“Something like that,” he smiled.
Scott was already banking the fire. Murdoch slipped an arm about Teresa’s shoulders. Together, they all trooped up the stairs, laughing.
The next day they had gotten the wire from Paul Bitterman, telling them he had decided to relinquish the Andalusian stallion which he had hitherto refused to sell. He was giving the Lancers first crack at the horse.
Johnny’s face had lit up at the news and had rushed up the stairs to pack. Knowing his son’s desire to start a breeding stable, Murdoch had little desire to throw cold water on his plan but Scott had no such reticence.
“You can’t!” he’d exclaimed angrily, following his brother up the stairs. “It’s almost Christmas—what if something goes wrong? You’ll never get back in time.”
“Nothing’s gonna go wrong, Scott,” Johnny had insisted. “I’ll get the stallion and be back in time for Christmas. Don’t be such a killjoy.”
Teresa had added her entreaties but Johnny had merely kissed her on the forehead, “Good-bye, honey, don’t worry,” he had told her before rushing breathlessly out the door. “I’ll see you in a few days.”
Now his shoulders slumped forward. As it turned out, Scott had been right. The mountain weather, always unpredictable, had ruined his plans. Although he’d never admit it, Johnny had been looking forward to Christmas at Lancer with the anticipation of a child. He thought of his family, waiting expectantly and a rush of disappointment filled him.
Johnny gathered up the reins again, glumly. It was too late now. He could imagine what Murdoch would have to say to him when he finally got home.
Barranca threw up his head, his ears going back. His breath was a white plume in the frosty air.
“What is it, boy?” Johnny murmured. One hand went to the silky neck as he urged the horse onward.
The horse danced uneasily, shying sideways. His ears flicked forward nervously. Following their direction, Johnny saw what he had missed.
Barely visible in the rapidly-falling snow, a woman stood unmoving, her eyes locked on something ahead of her. She was clutching a stick of wood in one hand. It was pitifully small and thin, yet he knew from her posture that she was prepared to use it. His eyes fell to her belly, protruding inside the parka.
Johnny’s blue eyes flicked right, following her gaze.
Well-camouflaged against the forest floor, he barely registered the snarling timber wolf before it leaped for her throat.
The gun’s report shattered the stillness and the acrid smell of gunpowder filled the air as the wolf completed the arc of his leap, crashing into the girl. She sprawled backwards in the snow with the huge animal atop her, its muzzle buried in her throat. Johnny’s first horrified thought was that he had missed. Leaping from the horse even as he reared up, Johnny landed on his feet in the snow, rushing forward with the gun cocked.
With adrenaline-fueled strength, he grabbed the wolf around the neck with both hands, wrenching it off the girl. Its head rolled bonelessly and a red patch bloomed on its side, telling him the animal was dead.
Flinging the carcass aside, he returned to the girl, dropping to his knees beside her. Behind him, Barranca stamped, snorting and Johnny spoke over his shoulder. “Easy, fella, easy.” Half turned to run, the horse sidled backward, then stood, heaving and trembling as his breath plumed out into the frosty air.
The girl’s eyes opened, roaming over his face. Suddenly afraid, she tried to sit up, then fell back, breathing rapidly.
Seeing her fright, he tried to soothe her. “It’s all right,” he told her. “I ain’t gonna hurt you.”
“You OK?” he asked, slipping an arm behind her shoulders. The hood had fallen back, leaving her face exposed. Deathly pale, she sat up, closing her eyes once again. Tremors shook her.
Johnny knelt before her, patting her cheeks with one hand as he steadied her with the other.
After a moment, she opened her eyes again. “Don’t rush,” he told her. “Just sit still for a minute, get your breath back.”
After a moment, she nodded. Over his shoulder, he called to Barranca. When the horse stood beside them, Johnny helped the girl stand, keeping one arm about the slender shoulders.
“Easy now,” he told her. “I’m gonna help you up. Then you tell me where you live and I’ll take you home.” The snow was falling faster now, flakes glittering on her eyelashes and the fur-lined hood of her parka like tiny stars.
Still fearful, the girl looked into the blue eyes so close to hers. She had never seen a white man up so close before, much less had one touch her. But the arm supporting her was so strong, the voice so gentle. The blue eyes held nothing but concern and she felt her fear leave her.
“Come on, then,” he told her. “Go easy.”
Leaning against his side, the girl took several halting steps forward. A gush of water ran from between her legs, staining the snow. Stunned, she looked at him.
Black eyes met blue as the snow swirled around them. The last of the light was leaving the day.
Suddenly, she doubled over in his arms, her face contorted.
When the contraction had passed, the man and woman looked at each other. The sun had reached the horizon now and they could barely make each other out in the swirling snow.
“You’re gonna be all right,” he told her. “I won’t leave you.” Although it was almost full dark, he could still make out the gratitude in her eyes. “Which way is the village?”
Another contraction hit. Gasping, the girl doubled over, clutching her stomach. Despite the snowflakes hitting his face, sweat broke out on Johnny’s forehead. It was clear they’d never make the village, wherever it was.
Speaking calmly for the girl’s sake, he asked, “Is there anyplace else I can take you? That’s close?”
Her face tight with pain, she shook her head. Thinking quickly, Johnny swung her up in his arms. Despite her advanced pregnancy, she was petite and he had no trouble getting her into the saddle. Clutching the horn, she looked down at him, her face pale and strained.
Following the direction of her hand, he spotted the basket full of kindling and grabbed it up, knowing it was about to come in handy.
Quickly gathering up the reins, he began leading Barranca in the direction she had indicated, his mind racing. The heavy snow made visibility difficult and the horse had to pick his way among the trees carefully. Glancing over his shoulder, Johnny saw her grimace again, clutching her belly. It was happening so fast, he thought grimly. God help them if she had to deliver a baby out in the open. The dead wolf hadn’t been the only predator in the woods. Others would be drawn by the smell of blood.
Pulling his hat lower, Johnny squinted into the driving snow. The wind was picking up and the flakes were getting smaller, never a good sign. The temperature was dropping rapidly.
At a muffled groan behind him, he felt himself begin to sweat again. He was only a gunfighter, nothing in his background had prepared him for this. Heaven knew, Johnny Madrid didn’t know anything about birthing babies. But he suspected he was about to find out.
He stopped, looking back at the girl. Her face was now only a pale blur but he saw her body contort again. The contractions were coming faster. Afraid she would pitch out of the saddle, he put one foot in the stirrup and swung up behind her.
At his touch, she stiffened, then relaxed again as his hands gently tugged her hood forward again, shielding her face. Johnny’s arms went round her as he took the reins. Something in the hard chest at her back and muscular arms around her was comforting. The body heat emanating from the stranger was welcoming, a tiny respite from the cold. Her hands and feet were freezing.
Hunching forward to protect the girl, Johnny gave Barranca his head. The horse had found shelter from storms before; the man could only trust that he would do so again.
His blue eyes searched the woods ahead of them. Snowflakes swirled madly around them, driven by the rising wind. Visibility was almost zero. The pueblo could be fifty feet away, he thought grimly, and they’d still miss it.
With his arms on both sides of the girl’s belly, he felt the next contraction seize her. She dropped her head forward, her entire body tightening. A muffled groan escaped her lips.
When it eased, the girl leaned her head back against his chest, panting. Forlornly, she wished she had never left her warm adobe hut. She had so wanted Matthew to be with her, waiting nearby, for men were never allowed at births, for the baby to be caught in the work-roughened hands of its grandmother and to hear its first cry secure in their own tiny home. She didn’t want to give birth out in the open, like an animal. It was too cold, they had no supplies and help was too far away…how would a baby ever survive?
The same thoughts were echoing uneasily in Johnny’s own head as they rode. Then the part of him that was Madrid rose up. He might not know anything about birthing babies but he’d seen plenty of foals and other young animals being born. The thought helped to calm him. Breathing deeply, he began running all the things he used to do for them through his mind.
Another contraction ripped through her; the baby was anxious to be born. Desperate to get off the horse and lie down, she closed her eyes, calling upon her totem and all her ancestors to help her now.
Head down, Barranca plodded forward through the snow stinging his eyes. Johnny willed his body to remain relaxed, unwilling to communicate his unease to the girl or to the horse.
The palomino halted suddenly, ears flicking forward. Ahead of them, something moved in the dimness and Madrid’s hand went to the butt of his gun.
But it was only a small group of deer, startled out of their hiding place. Leading the herd, a big buck with a magnificent rack looked at them. His antlers gleamed in the dusk. Moving quickly, the animals were soon out of sight.
At this sign from her totem, the girl closed her eyes, feeling reassured. Another contraction gripped her and she doubled up, gasping. Unable to help herself, she groaned again.
As if in answer to their prayers, the first stars peeked through a sudden opening in the clouds. They were quickly covered over again but it had been enough. Ahead of them lay a deeper darkness. They had found a cave.
And not a moment too soon. Pulling Barranca to a halt, Johnny jumped down. Grabbing inside his coat pocket, he pulled out a tin of matches and struck one. It immediately blew out. Pulling his gun, he managed to strike another one as he moved forward, hoping not to find a bear or wolverine in residence.
Leaving the girl slumped forward over Barranca’s mane, he crept stealthily inside. Little more than an indentation in the hillside, the cave was small but serviceable. In the shape of an L, the entrance branched sharply to the right, cutting the wind. Luckily, the cave was empty.
Hurrying back outside, he helped the girl down. With one arm about her, Johnny led her into the cave, seating her with her back against the wall. Moving quickly, he led Barranca into the short branch of the cave, yanked the saddle off and grabbed his bedroll under one arm.
Helping the girl up, he held her securely against him as he led her to the longer branch. Undoing the ties of his bedroll, he kicked it, causing it to spread out. Seating the girl on it, he ran back for the saddle blanket and carrying basket.
Upending the basket, he grabbed a few of the dry sticks before dropping to his knees again. Taking the knife from his boot, he laid them in a small pile and peeled off some bark.
“Dios, por favor,” he thought as he struck a match. Rewarded by curl of smoke, he blew on it, causing a tiny flame to lick up before smiling at the girl, white teeth flashing.
Despite the cold, she was sweating, strands of long hair plastered to her face. Hurrying to her side, he began undoing her parka. Taking the bandanna from his pocket, he mopped her face. Raising frightened eyes to his face, she managed a weak smile that was quickly replaced by a grimace of pain.
The cave’s small size proved to be a blessing as the tiny fire quickly warmed it.
Between labor pains, Johnny and the girl looked at each other as a new dilemma presented itself. Indian women were notoriously modest; it would be a sacrilege for her to be seen by a strange man, even one assisting at the birth of her child.
Again, she thought fleetingly of her husband before her thoughts turned to the women of the village. Were she back in the pueblo, someone would hold her up as she knelt on the floor, supporting her from behind as gravity assisted the birth process. Other women would wait in the background, talking, eating and laughing as they waited to welcome the newest member of the tribe. Someone else would light a smudgestick, gently waving an eagle feather, spreading the smoke to the four corners of the hut to ensure that no evil spirits were lurking.
Huddled in the bedroll, the frightened girl looked up as the stranger mopped her face again. In the flickering light, she saw clearly how kind his eyes were, how sure his hands. His white teeth flashed in the heavy stubble of black beard beginning to come in as he smiled reassuringly at her. Seeing it, some of her embarrassment fell away.
In the next moment, it was completely forgotten. Clawing at her skirts, she pushed them aside as she felt the urge to push. Warned, Johnny got quickly between her knees, hands out. A sudden gush of blood stained the bedroll, followed an instant later by her scream of deliverance. A moment later, a newborn baby filled his hands.
Glancing down, Johnny noted ten fingers, ten toes and the sex. Quickly, he checked the airways, gently running a finger inside the baby’s mouth to make sure it was clear and wiping the nose.
He was rewarded a moment later by a cry, then another. Drawing a deep breath, the baby drew his knees up, wailing angrily at being thrust from the womb into the cold air of the cave.
Carefully, Johnny wiped the infant off before laying him gently in the crook of the girl’s arm. She looked down at him, smiling, then raised her eyes to Johnny’s. He smiled warmly back at her, happy it had gone so well. Seeing the direction of her eyes, he looked behind him.
Barranca stood there, ears pricked. His eyes were fixed on the new arrival. Stamping his feet, a nicker escaped him as he turned to Johnny.
Seeing the horse, Johnny had to laugh, followed an instant later by the girl.
Still watching them curiously, Barranca remained unmoving, his tail swishing gently as their laughter filled the tiny cave.
The next morning dawned clear and cold. Sunlight sparkled on the blanket of white covering the landscape.
Giving the girl his bandanna and the canteen, he went outside to give her privacy as she nursed the baby and cleaned up. To ensure the child’s safety from evil spirits, someone from the village would have to return to bury the afterbirth. Using his comb, she brushed her hair, tying it back with a strip torn from her skirt.
Squinting against the glare, Johnny spotted the multi-storied pueblo in the distance, smoke from the cook fires rising lazily into the air. Tiny figures were fanning out; the search party, Johnny suspected.
Rubbing his hands, he went back inside and smiled down at the girl. Cuddling her son, now wrapped in one of Johnny’s shirts, close, she smiled back, radiant. Full, the baby gurgled, one small hand brushing his cheek.
After saddling the horse, Johnny went back inside and helped the girl carefully to her feet, the baby in her arms. Lifting them both gently, he placed her in the saddle. Taking Barranca’s reins, he began leading the horse toward the pueblo.
They were soon spotted and members of the tribe gathered, pointing. Summoned, a tall man appeared, shading his eyes against the sun. A moment later, he was running forward to greet his wife and son.
Because he had attended a birth, Johnny was led to the sweat lodge to cleanse himself before entering the couple’s home. A small stream gurgled past, the water running too fast to freeze. Relaxing in the heat, he closed his eyes, feeling himself beginning to sweat. Droplets caught in the black hair of his chest, where they gleamed like diamonds. Other droplets formed on his body, gathering together before sliding slowly downward in rivulets along his bronzed skin.
The shaman entered, tossing a handful of herbs onto the fire and pouring more water on the hot rocks. Pungent steam filled the air. Johnny breathed deeply, the clean fresh smell of sage and lemongrass filling his lungs. Leaning his head back against the wall, he drowsed a little.
When enough time had passed, the shaman returned, beckoning from the entrance with one hand. A small stone bowl was in one hand. In it was a root which the holy man had pounded with a rock, releasing the cleansing saponin that the young man was to wash with.
Continuing with the ritual, Johnny plunged into the icy water, gasping as it took his breath away. Moving quickly, he soaped his body, then his hair, sinking beneath the surface to rinse.
Rising up with his black hair plastered to his head, he stepped out of the stream. Naked body gleaming in the sunlight, he accepted a blanket from the shaman and wrapped it about himself before entering the man’s hut to dress. A soft deerskin tunic and leggings, both a pale gold, were folded on the crude table. With a wave of his hand, the shaman indicated that they were gifts. Seating himself, Johnny drew on the fringed boots that reached his calves, another gift.
The young man had had the utmost difficulty getting the shaman to refrain from burning his clothes; according to the holy man, they were unclean. Eventually given to a woman who had washed them by pounding them on a rock in the river, the offending garments were now steaming before the fire in her hut, since the holy man refused to touch them. When they were dry, she would pack them in his saddlebags. His boots, belt, jacket and other belongings waited beside her door.
Scraping his face carefully, Johnny removed all traces of beard, wincing at the rasp of the knife.
At last, he was suitable. Outside, a small boy waited to show him the way. Beaming at being honored, he led Johnny through the maze of buildings before tapping on Matthew’s door. It was quickly opened by a small, wizened woman who smiled widely at the sight of him. Standing aside to allow him to enter, she closed the door gently, then hurried to the fire and began bustling about.
As his eyes adjusted to the hut’s dim interior, Johnny spotted Matthew and the girl seated on the bed, the baby between them. They looked up, smiling. Matthew rose, extending his hand. Using his limited English, he spoke warmly to his guest.
“Welcome to our home.”
Because Indians rarely revealed their tribal names, Matthew had given him the Anglicized version of his wife’s name: Star. Looking at the girl’s glowing face, Johnny thought that it suited her. Now she also rose, placing the baby in his cradle before coming forward, smiling shyly.
With a hand on his guest’s elbow, Matthew urged him toward the table.
The three of them seated themselves as his mother ladled out bowls of stew and set them down. Sliced Indian bread was already on the table and pottery cups held a beverage.
Suddenly, Johnny recalled what day it was and swift regret pierced him, accompanied by a sense of guilt—he had disappointed everyone at Lancer. His sudden sorrow at not being home faded as he looked at his new friends now looking expectantly at him. All were smiling widely, awakening an answering response from him. From inside the cradle, the baby cooed.
Family, he suddenly suspected, was where you found it.
Taking his cup, he held it out. The other three lifted their own, waiting as he touched each one in turn.
White teeth flashing in his dark face, Johnny smiled as he gave the toast.
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