A special thanks to Sandy for the great suggestions
Word count: 4,530
In truth, they were making him crazy. Teresa was adamant the Christmas tree was placed just so. They would now have to move the furniture to accommodate the large tree. Scott agreed with her, and Murdoch joined in with more suggestions. Once the furniture had been puzzled in and the tree situated perfectly, the girl then insisted Johnny and Scott helped to decorate… everything. She rode herd on them from the time they finished breakfast until late into the evening. Teresa’s orders and the enthusiasm of Murdoch and Scott were beginning to build a wall of uncertainty, and what? Insecurity? He had no idea what this was about.
What difference did it make that the pine boughs were not exactly in the middle of the table? An’ so what if the star on top of the tree was a tad crooked? Johnny didn’t understand all the fuss. He knew this was the birth of Christ and, as a boy, had been to church with his mother, but all this… hassle was something else altogether. He just couldn’t understand.
“What? What the hel… heck is a Yule log? T’resa, a log is a log. It all burns!” Johnny began his defense.
“Johnny Lancer, it’s a Yule log! It’s a tradition! It will bring us good luck!” Teresa was becoming more frustrated by the minute. Johnny just wasn’t getting into the spirit of Christmas, and she wanted it to be special this year.
It was Murdoch’s first Christmas with his sons, and it was the first Christmas they would celebrate without her father.Last year, Paul had been killed in November, and Murdoch was recovering from a bullet in the back, courtesy of Day Pardee. The loss was too bitter to celebrate the holiday. But this year would be different, Teresa promised herself.
Gotta get outta here before I do somethin’ or say somethin’ that’s gonna cause a problem!
“What’s wrong with Johnny? He doesn’t seem to be enjoying Christmas. Has he said anything to either of you?” Teresa asked after dinner that night as she straightened out misplaced ornaments on the tree.
Murdoch and Scott exchanged glances. They knew something had been bothering him, and had an idea what it was, especially when Johnny went to his room immediately after finishing his meal.
“Oh, sweetheart, don’t be too hard on him. I can’t imagine that he observed Christmas as he moved around on the border.” Murdoch held the emotions together that ran rampant at every holiday and birthday, not knowing if his son was safe, had food, or a roof over his head. Murdoch didn’t know for years if Johnny was even alive. “I’m sure he didn’t have much. His mother might have taken him to church on Christmas, but that would have been the extent of his celebrating,” he said with a smile at his ward and hoped she would understand.
“I never thought of that, Murdoch. I hope I wasn’t too hard on him. He didn’t seem to know what to do with the decorations or the importance of it. I wanted this Christmas to be special for all of us. It’s a new beginning here at Lancer. Maybe he’ll feel better tomorrow!” The sparkle in her eyes held promise.
Murdoch could only speculate what was going through his younger son’s head.
The Priest cast a wary eye on the woman and her mestizo son as they entered the crowded church and sat in the back row.
As the service began, Johnny again felt the glare wash over them, issued from stern eyes as he and mama listened to the words urging those in attendance to live their lives according to the word of the Lord. Shortly, people rose from their seats and made their way to the altar to receive blessings from the priest. Maria took his hand and went to stand in line. But soon, she pulled him away, to the back of the church and out the door. Maria was crying… the priest refused her and her son.
Johnny woke with a start. He hadn’t thought about that in years. That incident had not been the first they had been turned away, nor had it been the last, and it shaded a most sacred time of year in prejudice. He didn’t think the Almighty would be too happy the priest had acted in that way. Well, no matter. They had dealt with it and the subsequent issues that followed them around the southwest.
It had been a long night. Sleep came in spurts, but finally, the sky began to lighten. Johnny thought to stay right where he was. With any luck, his family would leave him alone, and they would have their Christmas without him. He was reminded of his mother at Christmas, and it left him with bitter-sweet memories. She loved the holiday and taught Johnny about the wise men and the angel and the baby Jesus, and Johnny always listened as she told him about the birth in the stable and all the animals there to offer solace the only way they could.
He could imagine the doves cooing in the rafters, and the cattle lowing, these sounds were soothing. A comfort. That had always made Johnny smile… And before long, mama was gone, and Johnny found himself alone, and he wanted to forget about Christmas.
He shook himself free of those thoughts. What good did it do to dwell on the past? Because there wasn’t anything that could change what was.
He knew he wasn’t going back to sleep. Dang! Maybe Murdoch had something for him to do that would take him away from the ranch. The ladies will be busy cooking for their guests tonight, no doubt Teresa would pester him regarding this or that when all he wanted to do was forget. It would be nice to see Val, Sam, and Mrs. Conway, though.
Hey! That’s it! I’ll go get Mrs. Conway! If I drive slow enough, that’ll take more time…
The kitchen was already bustling with activity when he made it downstairs. Thankfully, Teresa was occupied elsewhere, and maybe Johnny could eat his breakfast in peace without her ordering him to help with another ‘tradition’. Yule log brings good luck, huh?
The gentle hand on his shoulder gave a light squeeze, and he turned to meet Maria’s smiling face. Her gaze soft, as if she understood, and it touched his heart. Johnny nodded to her and returned the smile.
Finishing the last of his eggs, bacon, and biscuits, Johnny started for the back door when Murdoch called out to him.
“Johnny? Are you going somewhere?” Murdoch asked, then watched the familiar tense stance take over his son’s body. He hoped Johnny wasn’t about to bolt. He was still learning about his boys and didn’t know what to expect from Johnny other than his reluctance to participate in familial issues. And Murdoch did recognize the apprehension; could it be his son was insecure regarding the holidays? Murdoch almost huffed in disbelief. Johnny could face down a man in the street and walk away, but celebrating Christmas with family and friends had him close to running.
“Just goin’ out ta see Barranca. Why? Ya have anything I can do for ya?” Johnny asked, jumping at the chance to be away from the hacienda.
“No, son, no, nothing that needs doing,” Murdoch said, aching to ease the restlessness in his son.
“Well, I’m goin’ ta the barn, then.”
The back door closed, and Murdoch felt sadness wrap around his heart.
The soft scruff of the brush across the broad golden back brought a degree of calm for both man and beast. Barranca leaned into the touch, and the movement brought Johnny comfort. Memories forced their way into his head as Johnny did his best to stop the resurrecting flashes that pierced his brain. Every year this happened, and until now, he could lose himself in a bottle. Tequila had been his family, and the nearest cantina had been his church. And now, he was going to have to face those demons without that aid. Johnny sighed and buried his face in Barranca’s mane.
“Hey, brother! I haven’t seen you all morning. Where have you been?” Scott asked as he came into the barn. There was a skip in his step, and his smile stretched from ear to ear. “Aren’t you even going to ask me what I got you for Christmas?” he teased, wanting to encourage Johnny to ask questions so he could tell him that he’d have to wait to find out what was in the large box under the tree.
Johnny took a breath and sighed. “Been out here takin’ care of Barranca.”
“Johnny! It’s Christmas Eve! Why are you spending the day in the barn? Teresa and Maria have started to fill the tables with delectable indulgences looking too good to eat! And here you are, in the cold, damp barn!”
“Look, Scott, I ain’t so sure… I don’t… I’m fine… gonna get cleaned up an’ get Mrs. Conway. See ya later, Boston.” Johnny brushed past his brother, strode across the yard, and took the outside stairs up to his room.
This was all so new. Living as a family wasn’t easy, and Johnny admitted to himself he had no idea what he was doing. He had signed his name to a piece of paper, and his world turned upside-down, backward, and he was in a constant state of confusion. Signing his name on the Lancer deed had changed everything.
Formal Sunday dinners, Cattlemen’s meetings in Stockton and San Francisco, and celebrating holidays that he never had before, all made his head spin. He was dreading tonight and knew he would have to put in an appearance, but hopefully, he could sneak up to his room and not be missed.
Keeping out of sight, Johnny left the hacienda by way of the back stairs. Walking quickly to the barn, he let out a sigh of relief when he ventured out unnoticed by his family. Wishing the night was over, Johnny hitched the team, and making sure the heavy lap robe was on the seat, he drove from the barn and was out under the Lancer arch before anyone was the wiser.
What the hell’s wrong with me? What’s so bad about sittin’ around with folks I care about? Well, they ain’t the problem, it’s me. I guess all T’resa’s fussin’ just got ta be too much. What the hell difference does it make where a stupid ornament goes on a tree? An’ why do ya hafta chop a tree down an’ drag it in the house?
Johnny shook his head. He still didn’t get it.
An’ presents… I ain’t no good at buyin’ a present! Shoulda had Scott buy ‘em all for me. Don’t know what I’m doin’ buyin’ somethin’ for someone else!
But the longer Johnny drove, for some strange reason, the more at ease he felt. Sure the feelings would return on the way home, he could do nothing about it now.
Driving through the gate of the Circe C Ranch, Johnny stopped the team by the front porch, bounded up the stairs, and knocked on the door.
Agatha Conway and her husband, Henry, had known Murdoch for years. They shared many joys and sorrows, and they’d been there for the other through highs and lows. When Maria left, taking baby Johnny with her, Aggie and Henry were there, rock-solid support that Murdoch so desperately needed. Then, the roles were reversed, and Murdoch was there for Aggie when Henry passed unexpectedly. Some in the valley half expected Murdoch and Aggie to tie the knot and were left wondering when it would happen.
Johnny stepped back as Agatha opened the door.
“Why, Johnny! What a nice surprise! You get yourself in here and warm up!” Aggie took his arm and steered him into the parlor. For Aggie, it was second nature to ‘mother’ him. She and Henry had been close to Murdoch and Maria, and they celebrated Johnny’s birth, and she grieved with Murdoch after he and his mother vanished in the night.
“Can I get you a cup of coffee to warm up, Johnny?” Aggie doted.
“No, ma’am, I’m fine, but thanks. I just thought ta come an’ get ya, get outta the house before I do somethin’ wrong,” he murmured.
Aggie’s smile grew across her pretty face. “Wrong? Whatever do you mean, Johnny?” As she studied the handsome features, she began to see another dimension to this young man. He was troubled, but, as was his nature, he wasn’t about to discuss it.
“Ah, nothin’. Mrs. Conway. It’s nothin’,” Johnny said as he mentally chastised himself for saying too much.
“I’m afraid I’m not ready, Johnny. It won’t take too long, though. I promise!”
“Take your time, Mrs. Conway. I’m early, an’ I’m sorry for that,” Johnny said as he looked at his boots.
“No need to apologize, Johnny! I’m grateful for the company! Sit down and warm yourself by the fire, please!”
“Thanks, ma’am,” Johnny whispered with a sweet smile.
Agatha Conway slipped into the kitchen and filled a plate with cookies, then poured milk into a glass. Taking the refreshments to the parlor, she set them on the table next to Johnny’s chair.
“Here, Johnny, have a little something while you wait!” Aggie’s smile grew as she watched him dig into the cookies, and she resisted the urge to touch his cheek. If only Maria had left him with his father…
True to her word, Aggie was ready in no time. Johnny helped her into the buggy, secured her packages behind them, and gracefully hopped into the driver’s seat. Taking the lap robe, he carefully straightened it over her.
Johnny turned to her and asked: “Ready?”
“Yes, I am Johnny. Thank you!”
With a light slap of the reins, the horses pulled the buggy down the drive and headed to Lancer, headed to an evening filled with friends to celebrate a most sacred time.
The sky began to lose its light and dusk settled in. Any other time it had been a comfort to Johnny. But as he drove toward home, the anxiousness returned, and he sighed, drawing Aggie’s attention.
In the dimming light, she noted the tight set of his mouth and a bit of squinting around Johnny’s eyes. The profile was strong yet strained.
“Johnny, is something wrong?” she asked softly.
With a slight jolt as if he had been poked with a stick, Johnny turned to her. A brief spark of surprise registered in his eyes before he recovered, then a slow smile crawled across his mouth. Aggie had always been a favorite person here in the valley, and this was only one reason why he liked and respected her. She pulled no punches, and you knew where you stood with her.
“What makes ya say that?” Johnny was almost successful in his bluff.
Aggie laughed softly, then looked straight ahead.
“I have a good ear to listen should you ever need to talk. I can only imagine the changes for all of you getting settled into family life. But I can tell you that Murdoch has never been happier… well, one time he was… when you were born.”
Johnny turned to face her. “You were here then?” He knew his father had known Aggie for a long time, but it never occurred to him how far back the friendship went.
“Yes, Henry and I started the Circle C around the same time that Murdoch brought your mother to Lancer. We were your first visitors when you were born. Oh, Murdoch was on top of the world when he held you!” and Aggie could not suppress a sweet chuckle.
Johnny felt his belly flip over. The words stuck in his throat wanting to come out all at once, so many questions and not sure which one to ask first. He pulled up on the reins, and the buggy came to a halt.
“You… you knew my mother?” The words whispered a plea.
“Yes, I did, Johnny. I knew her well.” Aggie’s smile soothed his apprehensions. Could there be something good, another side to Maria that Johnny never knew?
Johnny felt his heart beating faster. “What… was she like back then?”
Aggie laughed out loud, a pleasant sound, a sound that was filled with warmth and memories of a cherished friendship. And a sound that Johnny found comforting.
“I can tell you that she was a strong woman, and she had a temper that was legendary around Lancer!”
Johnny knew all about that temper.
“We became good friends with a few things in common. We had both married men that were older by several years. That seemed to give us our first thread of connections. And from there, well, it didn’t take long, and we were close.”
“Did she… was she happy at Lancer? Did she love Murdoch?”
Aggie again heard the desperate need in Johnny’s voice.
“She loved your father with all her heart, and oh, she loved you! I’d never seen her happier as she was when she held you in her arms. There was a serenity that seemed to light up the room as she played with you. Ha! And serenity was not a word I would have used to describe her, except when she was with you.
“She was not very happy regarding the amount of work that was required on a ranch, though. I don’t think she realized that when she arrived here.”
“Did she ever say that she was unhappy?” Johnny was now at the crossroad of finding when things went south, and what made her turn away from a stable life she could have had at Lancer.
“Other than the work involved, no, but I began to suspect things were not easy for her in other ways. I don’t know if she ever told Murdoch or not.”
Aggie knew she had to turn the conversation on another path. Tonight was not the time to bring up the past such as it was.
She took a deep breath and started over. “Look at that sky, Johnny! Watching the stars begin to shine seems to wash the sky clean, just like rain!”
Johnny got the horses moving again as he mulled over what Mrs. Conway had told him. The only thing he discovered was his mother had loved Murdoch and was happy with motherhood in the beginning, and he found a measure of peace in that.
On the ride to Lancer, Aggie talked about Christmas, and what a wonderful time of year it was, bringing folks together and ‘tidings of comfort and joy’.
“Too bad it can’t be like that all year long,” Johnny said, meaning for the words to be kept private, but, dang! He put them to voice and said them aloud.
“You’re right about that, Johnny. But all we can do live our lives the best we can. Treat others as we would like to be treated.” Aggie smiled.
Nice thought, but it ain’t about to happen.
“Johnny, earlier you said you needed to get out of the house before you did something wrong. What was that about, if I may ask?”
He glanced her way with a shy smile. “Ah, well, I guess I ain’t too sure about all this gift givin’ and tree decoratin’ stuff. All I ever knew about Christmas was goin’ ta midnight mass. Scott explained about presents an’ all, but not sure if I got the right things. I had no idea what ta buy for them…”
“If it came from your heart, Johnny, you’ve nothing to worry about. May I ask what you got for them?” Aggie was curious and felt the need to help smooth away any anxieties.
Johnny cleared his throat and ducked his head before he spoke. “Will ya tell me if it ain’t the right thing?” Maybe if Aggie said it was alright, he might feel better about the gifts he purchased. Her validation seemed important to him now.
“One thing I can say, Johnny, is that I always tell the truth. I want you to know that.” As if it were an everyday gesture, Aggie looped her arm through Johnny’s as he drove and where it surprised him, it also felt strangely consoling.
“Alright, tell me what you bought!” The grin on Aggie’s face made Johnny laugh.
“I’m buyin’ T’resa a ticket on the train ta go see her aunt in San Francisco.”
Aggie gasped, and Johnny flinched.
“Is it that bad?” he asked, suddenly wanting nothing more than to saddle Barranca and ride out of there as fast as the horse could go.
“Johnny! That’s… why that’s a perfect gift! She will absolutely love it! She’ll be so surprised!”
“She will?” Johnny was stunned.
“Yes, she will! Now, what did you get Scott?” Aggie couldn’t wait to hear more.
“Well, Scott’s been needin’ a better holster. The one he’s got doesn’t fit his Colt just right an’ it could get him killed if he needs his gun in a hurry. So, I’m takin’ him inta town and have one special made for him.”
“Johnny, why were you so apprehensive? So far, these two gifts are ideal! I couldn’t have thought of anything better! What about Murdoch?”
“Ordered some a that tobacco he likes for his pipe an’…” at this Johnny hesitated.
“Oh, don’t stop there, Johnny! What else?” Aggie was bubbling inside, impressed with the choices Johnny had made.
“Well, I made an appointment with a photographer ta come out ta Lancer an’ take some pictures of us.” There was no response, and his belly flipped over. Uh oh, knew I couldn’t do this without messin’ it up! He quickly turned to face her only to find her eyes filled with tears.
“Bad idea?” he asked with brows raised.
“Oh, Johnny!” she whispered. “You have no idea how happy that will make him! Murdoch will be thrilled with that gift!”
The thoughts in his brain swirled out of control. Had he done it? Had he been right regarding the gifts he purchased? And now, Johnny found himself a bit anxious. Anxious to give his family the gifts he had agonized over.
He pulled the team to a stop on the hill overlooking the hacienda, overlooking Lancer, the most beautiful place in the whole wide world.
“Johnny, look!” Aggie pointed to the night sky. “It’s beautiful! See that star, the bright one?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Johnny whispered.
“Your mother used to sit and watch that star for hours. She loved to sit out at night and gaze at the stars. We spent a lot of time in that indulgence!”
Johnny was shocked. Mama watched the stars? He was just beginning to get a glimpse of the woman that gave him life.
Aggie turned her attention back to him. “Yes, she did. Johnny, I think next week that I would like you to come and see me. There is so much I want to tell you. I want you to know Maria as I knew her. The good friend she was to me. Will you do that? Come and see me?”
Johnny felt his throat constrict, making it hard to talk. He blinked the moisture from his eyes.
“Yes, ma’am, I’d like that. Thank you, Mrs. Conway,” was all he could say before his voice would crack and give him away.
“Good, Johnny. I’d like that, too. And call me Aggie!” She hugged his arm to her and did not let it go. “Now, let’s get down there and celebrate!”
He helped Agatha Conway to the door and deposited her packages inside. Then he left to tend the horses. Frank came into the barn, taking the chore from Johnny, and with a broad smile and sincere thanks, the young Lancer left for the house.
Crossing the yard, Johnny stopped to look up, finding again the bright star blazing in the darkness. He never noticed it shining so bright, and he wondered if he were close enough, would he see a halo there? He couldn’t help but smile. He was suddenly warm as if there were arms around him and a brush as soft as snowflakes caressed his cheek. It filled him with tranquility, and he felt… love. And his smile grew. Could it be? He wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.
“Te amo, Mama. Feliz Navidad,” he whispered to the star.
He stared at the brilliant beacon a few moments, then turned to the hacienda. Sam’s buggy was there, and Val’s horse stood at the hitchrail. Sounds of laughter rang in the still night air, and warm light flooded out of the windows to wash the patio in a soft yellow glow. Aggie said Maria used to spend time here watching the stars, and he could imagine her sitting there, gazing skyward with her beautiful smile and her black eyes sparkling. She had been happy here, for a time. And Johnny’s eyes misted over.
Johnny Madrid Lancer stood in reverence, absorbing the sights and sounds of Christmas for the first time in his life. Flooded with a curious warmth, he fought the tightness in his throat and looked again to the magnificent star blazing in the sky. As if guided by an ethereal hand, Johnny went to the front door and stepped into a world he’d never known. Family and friends, now anchored in his heart, greeted him with cheerful salutations. Not aware he stood under the mistletoe in the doorway, Teresa threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek.
“Merry Christmas, Johnny!” she cried with a dazzling smile and eyes shining with excitement.
“Merry Christmas, querida! Hey, it looks real pretty in here. Ya did a good job, T’resa!” he whispered.
Murdoch stepped to his younger son. “Johnny, Merry Christmas!” and he pulled Johnny into a bear hug. “This is going to be the best Christmas I’ve ever had. This is more than I could have dreamed with both you boys here with me at Lancer!”
Johnny held his father’s eyes. Overwhelmed with new emotions, Johnny knew he had to say something.
“Thanks, ol’ m… Murdoch, yeah, it is pretty special!” he responded with a smile.
Scott pounded Johnny’s back. “Hey, brother! Merry Christmas!”
“Scott… ya gonna be sober enough for church later?” Johnny teased with a wink as Boston smirked.
Val approached and shoved a glass of tequila into Johnny’s hand. “’Bout time ya got yer carcass here! They been worried ‘bout ya, amigo!” Val whispered.
The evening trailed into late night. Everyone had gone to bed, except one. Johnny stood in the great room, the fire burned low as he sipped the tequila in his hand. He couldn’t sleep. The celebration thundered in his head as he recalled the hours spent with the people he loved. But there was a tiny spark of something missing. Johnny went to the window and pushed the curtain aside. The star blazed brightly, seeming to wink at him.
Johnny raised his glass in honor and memory.
“Feliz Navidad, Mama. I wish you were here.”
~ end ~
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