Word Count – 7,885
“How about something from the wine cellar to celebrate the holiday?” Murdoch suggested to the uncomfortable silence dominating the room.
Three pairs of eyes regarded him intently. “Special occasion deserves a special wine,” he continued in the silence. The rain tapped against the room’s big windows, now hidden by the drawn curtains. Although a merry fire was crackling along the logs in the great fireplace to ward off the chill of wintry California weather, there was little warmth or cheer hovering about the big room to identify the approaching holiday. <<Whose fault?>>jeered a little voice inside him.
“It ain’t any holiday,” Johnny finally drawled from his recumbent position on the sofa. He lazily shifted his legs, crossing one over the other, and closed his eyes again.
“Close enough – tomorrow is Christmas Eve,” Murdoch replied. “Short work day.”
Johnny mumbled something that couldn’t be heard and went silent. Scott glanced at his brother, frowning, then dropped his gaze back to the book in his lap. Only Teresa nodded with over-bright encouragement. Murdoch felt a flush creeping up his neck and cursed his continued awkwardness. But he’d made the offer – well, it was more of a pronouncement. And he’d have to go through with it because he wouldn’t renege now, even though they were making it easy for him to do so. There was the matter of pride, and Murdoch Lancer was a proud man. But as his sons ignored him and Teresa continued to eye him, he realized that it was probably wasteful to try and break their stony conciliation. Six months together and what did they know about each other? Johnny with his outbursts of temper, and Scott with his bouts of silences. Even Teresa’s cheerfulness seemed forced as of late.
His sons, one from Boston and one from the border. Neither had any of his traits that he co uld see, no visible resemblances, though Teresa often told him they all shared a certain look. Scott was thin, Johnny was not. Scott was blond, Johnny was dark. One had vivid blue eyes, the other darker blue. But what did he really know about them as individuals? About them as sons? And just what did they think of him? Oh, he knew they talked about him, probably dissected him at every opportunity. They were becoming fast friends. They had sweated through enough days together to come to know each other, rely on each other and trust each other. By comparison, Murdoch felt like a surly supervisor rather than a father. He certainly knew how they felt about him at this moment.
Well, he’d told them that first day that he called the tune. And he’d sung plenty in the past six months, trying to teach them and tell them the way of running a ranch this size. About the planning and the timing, the endless hours, the grit and the sweat. About the weather and the failings of human beings. Of excess and waste, too little on some days, too much on others. There was no win to this work, no victory to claim. The land ruled supreme, and man could only try and work within the fickle hours and the sharp presence of nature – hot sun or cold rain. It never changed.
His sons were good, hard-working men, but they didn’t know enough about this life, maybe would never know it all. He’d tried to cram it all into their minds and they’d learned a lot, but their instincts, though stronger, were still not complete. They’d begun to recover the losses caused by Pardee’s raids earlier in the year. They were operating at nearly full capacity and were making payroll, though there always seemed to be little left over for extras. Even now Teresa was silently mending clothing that was too worn for the task. But for those errors the boys had made…
Splitting a work crew into two details that left the downed section of fence unattended and cattle scattered, requiring a day to recover them. A contract that hadn’t been haggled down enough before being signed. Surveying completed later than expected, backing up scheduled brush clearing. A string of mares two days off feed before the vet was called, delaying their sale to the buyer. And then the infernal weather, damned relentlessly rainy, causing rockslides and mud bogs that flattened grass and endangered cattle and horses, too. Lancer was an established ranch; it didn’t need these fresh growing pains. And he’d let them know it – he’d let them all know it. And they resented his complaints, resented his hardheadedness, and resented him.
Murdoch glanced at them again – they weren’t looking at him. “Well?” he prompted them. “How about it?” Then he wondered if that, too, didn’t sound like a command rather than the invitation he’d been attempting.
Scott moved first, finally buying into the half-hearted truce. Scott, the negotiator, the liaison. Well-mannered and agreeable, learned and intelligent; that much he knew about his eldest.
“Sounds like a good idea, sir,” Scott said with a light grin, rising from his chair. He carefully placed the book he’d been reading onto the center of the cushion. “Red or white?”
“What’s the difference?” Johnny spoke up, a trace of insolence in his voice. He opened his eyes but directed his gaze to the fireplace. “So long as it tastes good the color don’t matter.”
Murdoch wanted to remind his younger son to take his boots off the arm of the sofa but refrained. At least the boy wasn’t wearing his spurs. Then Johnny did take his feet off and slowly sat up, shooting Murdoch a glare at the same time. Murdoch hid his frown, wondering if he’d showed his displeasure on his face, or if his youngest was a mind reader. They were tenuously civil at best tonight. At least they hadn’t argued at dinner, though his youngest hadn’t said anything during the meal, even when Murdoch had turned the topic to the day’s work results. Johnny had just nodded at his dinner plate. After the meal he hadn’t escaped to his room but silently settled onto the sofa and watched while Murdoch requested Scott to review the ledgers and identify an entry that was without a receipt. He’d quietly watched Scott for most of the evening, come to think of it, as if waiting for some word from his older brother that would let him leave the room. Even now, Johnny looked like he was preparing to call it a night. But after a couple more glances toward Scott, he stretched out again and turned away.
“Fine.” Scott rubbed his hands together and arranged his features into that neutral look of pleasantry with the smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “My choice then.”
“Wait a minute, now.” Murdoch stood and held back the grunt as his back protested. A year and it still acted up, especially with the weather so cold and damp. “Since it was my suggestion, I think I should be entitled to the selection.”
Scott’s eyes raked back over him and he immediately felt his mistake. But then Scott smiled again and inclined his head. Next to him, Johnny turned back over and stared. “I shall thus defer to age and wisdom,” Scott averred, winking at Johnny and presenting a little bow. Teresa smiled, but Murdoch’s glance went to Johnny’s watchful gaze.
“Not too much sass, young man,” Murdoch warned, waggling a finger at Scott, trying to promote the introduction of the lighter mood. Johnny was still giving him a steady, unreadable look, with no trace of a smile. <<Sees right through it, of course,>> Murdoch noted sourly. <<He doesn’t play these sorts of games.>>
“Just a little holiday spirit,” Scott responded, holding out a hand to point the way to the hallway and the wine cellar.
“Yeah, to go along with the holiday cheer you’re deciding over,” Johnny added with a smirk over his veiled gaze.
“Says the man unconcerned over the color of the grape,” Scott laughed.
“Don’t worry,” Murdoch assured them both, moving down the hallway, trying to keep any real authority from his voice – how did a father sound when he was trying to josh with his sons? “I’ll pick a very palatable vintage.”
“Whatever that means,” came Johnny’s retort.
It felts like a bullet between the shoulder blades.
Murdoch opened the door to the wine cellar and stepped through with the ease of memory and a lot of relief. The chilly air, redolent with the smell of cork, damp wood and faint wine fragrance cheered him as he reached for the lamp and matches on the small table located just inside the door. The match light wavered in the stirred air then he caught the flame inside the lamp.
He smiled down at the bottles and barrels faintly outlined below him. Wine was often the drink of choice at dinner, but there had been little occasion to select something special, something extraordinary for a celebration. They’d already spent a few holidays together, Independence Day and Thanksgiving among them. But Christmas, this first Christmas, especially, should be treated special. It was supposed to be the season of sharing and giving, of peace and love and wonder. Though they hadn’t exactly given or shared much in the past six months, unless you called an old man’s opinion “sharing.” And while there’d been some moments of wonder, there really hadn’t been much peace. Well, it was Christmas, and any liquor would do to quell the tempers that weren’t quite put into place.
He took the first step, lamp held high to light the stairway descending to the floor below. Red, he mused. A good hearty red—
His foot came down too hard, threw his weight off. His ankle – the one holding his bad leg – promptly turned.
His back instantly spasmed. He cursed and went down, tried to grab for the railing and missed. He plunged forward, arms swinging to catch himself, to catch anything. The lamp slipped from his grasp; it crashed before him and shattered. He smelled the leaking oil, fell on top of glassy shards, smothered an emerging flame. He rolled and flopped, limbs flapping and flying, his body thudding in an odd rhythmic fashion as it hit each stair. One cheek hit a riser – he felt skin split. His wrist snapped under him, sending a lance of pain clear to his shoulder.
With a great and final tumble, his feet struck the packed, earthen floor. His legs folded and he flopped back onto the stairs and thankfully stopped. But the respite was all too brief. Before he could take a breath the dark and the cold swooped down, paralyzing him. And then the blackness came.
Crackling and smokiness greeted him, with a pulse of heat following. Instinctively he understood the danger and tried to move away, but everything was sluggish, as if he were mired in the mud made by the recent rains. Over the noise and the smell he heard shouting and then the sound of splashing water – some of it splattered on his cheek. There came a hiss and a damp odor that made him cough.
They rushed down the stairs, the vibrations conducted through the wood penetrating him, hurting him. Their shrill voices blended together so that he could not distinguish one from the other.
“Murdoch, can you hear me?”
“Easy! Be careful…”
<<Scott…Johnny…>> He tried uttering their names again but it hurt too much to speak.
They crowded closer; he could feel their collective breath on his skin and the warmth of their bodies as they pressed against him, could smell the heat of their fright. Their touches were careful but it still hurt. Brightness now washed over him, the glare painful in its own right.
“Dammit, he’s bleeding. Dammit!” Johnny’s voice, frantic.
“Toward me, watch his arm, I’ve got his head…” Scott, quickly authoritative.
<<Don’t bark at your brother, son…>> Murdoch tried to tell him.
There was a scrunching, crunching sound as they turned him. The pain eviscerated him; his head and his arm took on their own agony – they had to be falling off…. Sweat instantly soaked him. The sheer pain was killing him.
<<Hurts – I can’t breathe – I can’t – I…>> But his words wouldn’t come.
They jostled him some more and he shouted at them to stop, but the words only gurgled in his throat. Still they worked in that brightness, touching him, lifting, pressing, and peering. Then someone was surrounding him; he could feel a thigh and a knee against him.
“Get Cipriano and Isidro – we can’t lift him by ourselves.” Scott again, his voice now vibrating out of his chest and into Murdoch’s left ear.
“Don’t argue, Johnny. I’ve got him; I won’t move him any more. Send for the doctor.”
<<Listen to him, son. He’s right.>>
“Dammit, go now!” Scott shouted at his brother and the sharp voice made Murdoch wince.
<<I’ll be right back.>> Johnny, slipping into Spanish, squeezing his arm, the one that hurt so bad. He couldn’t move it, couldn’t move anything. Then why did it hurt so much? And why were the smells – oily, salty, sweaty, and smoky – so strong?
Another step on the vibrating stairs, another someone leaning over him, soft in their presence. A light touch to his cheek, fingertips cool and trembling. “Oh, Scott, he’s…”
<<Teresa, oh, dear girl.>>
“Water and bandages, Teresa. He’s going to need those. Can you do that, right now?”
<<Yes, tell her what to do, ask for her help. You know how to make her listen, son. She will; she’s a good girl…>>
She went back up the stairs, the reverberations from her steps skewering him again, pulsing against his disjointed ribs. The risers pressed into his hip and shoulder, hard and rough. Something came against his gashed cheek, ignited a fresh fire there. He squirmed and tried to pull away.
“No, don’t move.” Scott again, soothing; Murdoch felt his son’s long arm come across his broken side, a palm holding him secure. “He’ll be back with help. We’re going to get you upstairs. Breathe now, breathe for me. Just hang on. …”
Hang onto what? One hand was numb, the other pulsing with an incomprehensible pain. His face hurt and his head pounded. He couldn’t see, not really. He couldn’t move. He could barely breathe, but he did so, because Scott asked him to and it seemed like such a small request, something he could do to please his son. He wanted some approval from both of them, some indication he was doing all right by them …
<<The wine,>> he thought distractedly as the darkness shrouded him again. <<I never got the wine…>>
There were dark, rustling shadows whispering to themselves as they stood close to him. He thought he felt his bed, and recognized the curve of his pillow; it was familiar and yet strange at the same time because there was such empty grayness surrounding him that he felt adrift.
Murdoch tried opening his eyes, tried moving, but nothing happened. Nothing but fresh feeling now working over him. He was stiff and tight, wrapped and aching. Bandages, splints, blankets were on him and around him. And banging pain flowed from ribs to wrist, then upward over his head and face. It hurt to breathe, hurt to feel, just plain hurt.
“You’re one lucky fool.” Sam Jenkins, hissing like a snake, the anger in his voice barely suppressing his worry.
Lucky? Was he even alive? But the voice was a comfort to this pain and emptiness. Sam was here with his bandages and medicines. He’d fix things, like always. It wouldn’t take long – a few cuts, a few scrapes. The boys could handle things for a few days…
Murdoch let himself drop back to the pain-free darkness and rested there for what seemed like a just a little while. But then the voices were back, seemingly floating over him in the cocoon of darkness he was bedded in.
“Sam, how is he?” Scott, his voice distinctive by the quick words and the clear enunciation.
“Fractured his wrist, broke two ribs. Damn near broke his head but I guess that’ll always be too hard to do more than dent. Still, he’s managed a concussion. Sorry about that bandage work across his face – it’ll have to do until that gash closes. I’m hoping to avoid stitches there. Plenty of bumps and bruises, abrasions. His back isn’t good; we can try compresses to reduce the spasms, though lying quiet will help.”
<<Sam, you’re worrying them more…>>
“…watch him, make sure those ribs haven’t nicked a lung…the concussion – no telling when he’ll come to…”
“He’ll be all right, though?”
Sam’s hesitation was heavy. “Head injuries…”
“But he’ll be all right?” Johnny, his voice quick with demand.
“It was a bad fall, John…we’ll have to wait…”
“Sam, don’t you know? Is he going to wake up?”
“Johnny, take it easy…Sam?” Scott, calm, his voice low with control.
<<I’m here,>> Murdoch tried to tell them, but the words would not get up past his tongue. And he couldn’t see them, just hear them. And he could feel, dammit, he could feel everything.
“So, this ain’t what I expected, old man.”
Old man – Johnny. Murdoch tried to open his eyes, but they would not give. He tried turning his head to the sound of his son’s voice, but that, too, didn’t work. His fingers wouldn’t flex either, when he tried to reach out. He was trapped inside this impenetrable darkness – how long had it been? He was alive, he had to be. But what was wrong with him? He could hear, he could feel, but he couldn’t move. <<Get me out,>> he shouted, but his lips remained frozen. Then his mind exposed his pain and it started to hurt all over again, but he couldn’t even groan, even though it was working all over him, swelling and pounding. It hurt, so much. He’d only moved that one time in the wine cellar and now his bones ached from being in the same position for so long – hours? Days? The blackness rose higher around him, choking him. He tried to claw at it, rip it away but it held fast, filling him to bursting, suffocating him with its thickness…
“Christmas, huh?” Johnny’s voice came to him again and he turned his fear to it, felt a connection with his son’s presence that eased him. He could hear Johnny, could sense him nearby. If he could only touch his boy and pull himself out of this void… “Big holiday, here, I guess,” Johnny continued, and Murdoch gratefully listened. “You throw a big fandango, get everyone together and offer a bonus – they’ve all been talking about it. Give a little extra something to all them hard-working vaqueros out there in that bunkhouse. They know it ain’t going to be much this year, but they’re grateful all the same. You all go to church, too, I figure – heard Teresa and Maria talking about that some. Maybe offer some prayers to dry up all this rain. We could use some better weather – it’s hell to work in. I guess you know that – I ain’t telling you anything new…”
Murdoch heard a rustling as Johnny shifted; the boy wasn’t much for sitting or standing still. “Haven’t paid much attention to La Noche Buena in years, not like I bet you have,” said Johnny. His voice took on an edge. “What’s so special ‘bout one little niño being born in a stable, anyway? One little niño. Saving the world, huh? Can’t see that. That’s one helluva responsibility, ain’t it?”
<<He’s angry,>> Murdoch thought. Some sadness crept up over his self-worry and tamped it down, staving off some of the pain and filling it instead with a growing heaviness in his heart for his son’s honesty.
“But I know enough about being poor,” Johnny said, his voice lower. “That ain’t your fault, I guess. Mama…well, I grew up believing what she told me about you kicking us out like we was useless dogs, like we didn’t matter. I didn’t know what else to believe. We didn’t have much back then. Wasn’t much to celebrate some years…ah, hell, why go back over that?”
He paused; Murdoch heard him swallow hard, and felt a lump rise in his own throat. She’d filled the boy with lies – why? Why do that to a boy? Had she hated her husband that much and for so long? Why hadn’t she just left the boy behind? Little to celebrate Christmas with… Fingers of guilt curled tight. <<Son, I’m so sorry. I should have loved her more. Then maybe…It’s been lonely here, too, for too long. And now…>>
“I wasn’t going to come.” Johnny sighed. “That Pinkerton agent pulled me out from under those rurales and I was glad of it. Got back over the border and collected a few favors. Then I thought about what you did and what you owed me.” He shifted again. Even though he wasn’t wearing spurs Murdoch could tell he was walking – his voice dimmed a little and a boot scuffed where it stepped off the rug.
Murdoch’s fear followed. <<Come back,>> he tried to call.
When his son’s voice next came it was muffled, as if his head was in his hands. “I figured you owed me plenty, old man, for all those years of dusty, dirty living. I figured you owed me a lifetime. So I was going to…” He cut off and quickly blew out a breath.
<<Going to…kill me?>> Murdoch finished silently and felt a ripple work down his spine. He’d known Johnny’s seething anger the moment the boy stepped into the room behind his brother that day last spring. And it had been a cold, dangerous ire behind that blue stare. Those eyes, their startling color piercing him, reeling him back twenty years, coughing up the old fright, anger, guilt and desperation. Not his son but some gunhawk named Johnny Madrid planted before him. Murdoch had seen the vengeance in the boy, half expected Johnny to act on it.
“Bet you didn’t know I’d been here before…couple years back. I knew who you were – Mama didn’t keep that any secret.”
Murdoch wanted to move – had he? <<You came – here?>> he tried to say.
“Sat up on that ridge and watched this whole place. Thought about coming down and showing you just who I was.”
<<Why didn’t you, son?>> Dammit, why couldn’t he move?
“Wasn’t ready, I guess,” Johnny answered aloud. “Or maybe just a little afraid.” Murdoch heard a small smile in his son’s voice. “Two years ago I wasn’t much but pride on the outside. Guess you never expected to hear that, huh? If you can even hear anything I’m jawing about. Dammit, why haven’t you moved?”
Murdoch’s fear bit at him. <<I can – I can hear…>>
“That listening money.” Johnny was moving again; Murdoch could hear the collection of bracelets around his wrist tapping together. “I tell you, I figured it would get me into a fancy place far away from everyone. I wasn’t planning on staying here. I figured you didn’t much want a son, just wanted to pay me for my services to get rid of your troubles, especially since you knew I was Madrid. And Scott – well, he sure looked like a better prospect, didn’t he? But you…” He came closer – Murdoch felt him near again and his own desperation eased a little. “You listened to me. You offered me a third of all this, everything that you built and put together.” The tapping stopped. “I never owned much, and never this much. And you just sort of handed it over; you didn’t even know me. And I know you didn’t exactly trust me. Hell, I didn’t exactly trust you. You surprised me, old man; you surely did. I came to throw down on you and you changed it all around.”
Murdoch again tried to open his eyes, to move his head, but nothing complied. He wanted to see, to speak, to do something. He was so useless laying here, seemingly dead. Then he wondered if he was going to die, if he wasn’t dying already, dying in front of his son, gasping and rattling. <<No, not that…>>
“I didn’t know what else to believe.” Murdoch heard Johnny sigh again, felt the past rise up between them. “I loved her – I believed her. She wasn’t a bad woman, Murdoch. She didn’t say much good about you, but there was a look to her when she said your name…She and my stepfather tried to raise me good – I guess I was a little wild…I hope you don’t hate her…well, she’s gone now.”
<<She’s gone.>> Murdoch wished he could say something because the unhidden pain in his son’s voice was plain. <<We tried to make it work, son. I should have tried harder…>>
“I blamed you – for everything – for a long time. Covered up a lot by doing that. Always thought some dinero in my pocket was the best about living – well, I was wrong. There’s more, ain’t there? It’s different when folks care – you and Scott and Teresa. And after Pardee…I know it was you taking care of me. I woke up sometimes and saw you there. You gave me a name to defend, gave me a place to belong. And you didn’t have to – you could have just handed it over to Scott or died with it in your hand…but you didn’t. You gave some to me – hell, you gave me a lot, even gave me a brother.” He let off a little chuckle. “Scott’s pretty hard-headed, ain’t he? Some of that Lancer stubborn got into him good. I didn’t figure him for much in the beginning. But he sure showed us quick. He’s a good man. He works plenty hard, harder than most. There’s a lot to admire in him. I know he hasn’t showed you much, but give him time. He’s tough, a lot like you…
“Anyway, I ain’t planning on attending any family funerals soon, so you’d better wake up and start telling us what to do,” Johnny said. “Me and Scott, we can’t run this place. We don’t know it all – probably will never know it all. I need more time to learn to be in charge of folks. I don’t do so good there; never had to think about the consequences of my own doings. But the vaqueros, they look to me to make decisions – me. And some of them are older than me. I guess I’m doing all right – nobody’s quit lately.” He laughed a little, then stopped. “Horse herd is doing good, real good. I know you ain’t asked much about it. I lined up a buyer and he’s already paid. I was gonna surprise you at Christmas. Got a real good price, something to add to the bank account. I know it’s been a tough month – Scott showed me the books, explained it to me.”
Beneath his closed eyelids Murdoch winced. Yes, they all knew what a tough month it had been – he’d made sure that they’d all known.
“Christmas,” said Johnny. “Hell, old man, there ain’t no joy in it if you’re not here to celebrate. I figured you’d never lay down, not where folks could see, anyway.” His voice was directly above now. “It scared me, seeing you in a heap at the bottom of those stairs; I thought you was already gone. We didn’t need that stupid wine, anyway.” His voice went quickly harsh. “Dammit, old man, don’t you decide to die. You can’t. It’s not fair…” He sat in the chair by the bed; Murdoch heard the heavy squeak as he put his weight into it. His hand came onto Murdoch’s, his palm warm and callused. He squeezed Murdoch’s fingers. His voice when it next came was close to Murdoch’s ear, his breath warm on the skin. “I need you, dammit. I need…”
Something splashed onto the back of Murdoch’s wrist, warm and moist.
“Por favor, Mur—Papa…Despierta…wake up.”
Helpless to respond, Murdoch could only collect the dampness of his son’s tears.
A sigh – Murdoch could feel the dejection.
“No, nothing.” Johnny. “Sam, it’s been hours and hours. He needs…”
“We can’t do anything, John.”
“We’re watching him.” Scott.
“Good – that’s good. It’s best not to leave him alone.”
“It doesn’t look…?”
“It needs to be soon, Scott.”
Singing, no humming. A quick but familiar tune. It took him back to Boston, to Katherine, to a cold winter season of snow and frost and breath that turned to vapor before their faces. Back to dirty slush in the street, to dampness and also to warmth, her warmth and her love for him.
“…tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy…” Yes, he knew the song, only who was humming it?
The tune broke off. “Sorry, that’s the only one I can think of.” Scott. “Played it endlessly each season, much to the dismay of my piano teacher; he preferred more stately hymns…Adeste Fideles…”
Murdoch heard him move across the room, his stride longer, surer than Johnny’s. Dark out, he guessed, but he really didn’t know because it was dark where he was, endlessly dark. And still he could not move. The pain snarled, grabbing up his panic. Quickly he attached himself to his son’s voice and presence to keep it from taking over.
“It’s funny. I keep expecting to see some snow out there, though, of course, it can’t possibly snow this far south. But the rain is more than enough.” Murdoch heard the faint tapping at the window. Still the same evening, then – or was it? Then he thought of snow again, and of Boston and of Katherine. How many years had it been since he’d seen snow? Up in the mountains a few times, but no storms like there had been back East. Or back home across the ocean, half the world away, it seemed now. Snow – part of his past, part of those times of hardship and yet of excitement, too. Snow was part of his youth, when he believed the world was his to own and that there was no problem too big to resolve. Then he’d left the snow season behind and it all had changed…
“I only missed two Christmases.” There was a pensive sort of tone to Scott’s voice that brought Murdoch back to the hazy present. “Both courtesy of the United States government. One I expected, but the other one…it was cold, even without the snow – rather like here. But utterly miserable.” He stopped and Murdoch felt his son’s tension climb up over the memory. “It was no holiday,” Scott said to the quiet room. “The only thing we could celebrate was the fact that we were alive, when most of us should have been dead.” He shifted, and Murdoch heard him approach the bedside. “And some of us wished we were dead,” he continued in a very low voice. Then his tone strengthened again. “We sang – I can’t remember exactly. I was down with the ague at the time. Someone brought me a piece of blanket and sat beside me, tried to keep me warm – they saved my life. We passed that tattered blanket among us until it fell apart…we had a few things to share, tobacco, paper, a piece of bread. Some of the men had letters – they shared the news with us…it was all we had that year. By March it was worse…”
That awful year in war prison – still so much unknown about that time in his son’s life. Still so much about Scott’s whole childhood he didn’t know. Guilt stabbed Murdoch, and the pain freshened. He didn’t think he cried out but Scott was swiftly back to the bedside, leaning over him – Murdoch felt the closeness and the worry and tried to touch it – he so wanted to.
“Murdoch? Can you hear me?”
<<Everything, son – I can hear you – please…I’m trying…>>
“Easy now. You’ve been badly hurt…Murdoch?” Scott’s hand, larger than Johnny’s but just as warm, touched his shoulder, then long fingers brushed his cheek. Murdoch tried to turn toward it, make his mouth work, find something to see – he so desperately wanted to see his son. Scott called his name repeatedly, but there must have been nothing. After a while the hand patted Murdoch again.
“Just rest, then. Sam says that you need that at least.”
<<No, no – I’m here, don’t let go, don’t…>>
The chair squeaked with familiarity as Scott sat back and sighed. The room went silent again and the rain slowed at the window to something gentle, almost pleasant. Murdoch concentrated on the pain, tried to move again, but there was nothing except Scott’s quiet breathing and the light rain. A tremor ran through him – would he be trapped in here forever? A man could not live like this without food or drink. He’d waste away and die – is that what they were all afraid of? Had his body started to wither, to take on that wasted look of death?
“Grandfather wishes you Christmas health and cheer – his words.” Scott, speaking again. Murdoch clung to the words, fought to keep from sinking further into the blackness. “I received a letter today. Of course, if he had known…well. He’s made repeated inquiries regarding my stay, believing that it must all be temporary. I surprised him by agreeing to come here.” He chuckled a little. “I surprised myself. We argued about it, and said some unpleasant things to each other.
“Growing up…well, I didn’t think about it early on – not having a father, I mean. No one questioned it and I didn’t, either, for several years. And it wasn’t a subject encouraged. Until that year Grandfather gave me that figurine and said it was from you…I made a Christmas wish that year.” He snorted. “It seems silly now, I don’t know why I even…Anyway, it didn’t happen, that year or any other. But there was that figurine…”
<<I know it – the horse…I thought a boy might like a horse – my boy…You brought it here…>> Murdoch felt some of the darkness press further in on him – it would be so easy to give into it. <<No…>> He found a thin stream of energy and held onto it, lifting himself closer to his son’s voice. As long as Scott kept talking he’d be all right – his son’s presence held him up out of the encroaching blackness.
“I wondered if you had moved on, found another wife, had children, thought you might have. And I’m glad. Johnny is a gift to be thankful for.” A smile crept into Scott’s voice, one Murdoch could envision as indulgent. “He’s a good man, Murdoch. I’m sure you’ve noticed how he’s trying…”
<< I know…I know you all are trying. It’s me, demanding too much. Oh, God, Scott, please…>>
“He’s very worried about you,” Scott continued. “He won’t sit or even stand still, knowing he can’t do anything to fix it. He’s afraid that you–” He broke off quickly, shifted and moved, stepped away and Murdoch’s senses followed.
“We kept to the short day, as agreed,” he said after a moment. “Maria and some of the other women still insist on the fiesta tomorrow, and Cipriano says you’d want it to go on so we’re going to hold it. Johnny and I will do our best to act in your stead. “
<<Tomorrow is Christmas…you’ll do fine, son. You know what to do – help your brother…>>
It went quiet. Murdoch waited but the silence lengthened. Had he slipped off again – was it a different time, day? Where was Scott? Had he only dreamed of his son’s conversation? <<Where – how? I need to see…>>
“Grandfather – he didn’t speak of her often,” came Scott’s voice, very soft now. “Or of you.”
Her…of whom was he speaking? Frantically Murdoch tried to think, but the blackness he was floating in was distracting. A woman…who? Then he knew, and it filled him with memory, and a pain beyond the physical.
“I don’t know much about her, I’m afraid to say. I thought perhaps you might – if I was to ask…Well, I would like to know more if you were willing to discuss…He once mentioned her gentleness. But I would rather believe she was strong, to leave home and travel, to rely on her convictions…”
<<She believed in me,>> he tried to tell his son. <<We wanted so much – for you…>> Oh, God, why couldn’t he say anything? Why couldn’t he tell Scott what the boy needed to know?
“I have some of her things – I left them in Boston for safekeeping. Grandfather seems to treasure them so. He loved her – I suspect you did as much, sir.”
<<And you, too, son. I should have tried harder for you. And then time…and bitterness – and stubbornness…I’m sorry…>>
“Anyway.” Scott’s voice faded still. He must have turned toward the window. He wasn’t one for closed rooms and drawn shades. How had he managed the crowds of the city after the War? Was he happier here? Or was he thinking of returning home?
“You’ve done well, sir. Very well. I know our agreement accommodates forfeiture or death, but I’d rather not be executing those clauses so soon – on the holiday. Quite frankly, sir, I’m not sure about my share of the responsibility. This is a big ranch, bigger than I expected. There are so many things to consider. Oh, bookkeeping, payroll, supplies and shipments I can understand. But the rest…I don’t know how you do it, Murdoch – I don’t. It will take years to understand it all, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to exercise my right to that time. And…”
He stopped again, pulled in a breath and shifted – Murdoch heard the squeaky chair once more. “I’d like to get to know you better. We have a lot of years to…well, you’re my father, sir, and there are some things…”
Scott’s hand came back to his shoulder, squeezed. “Oh, Murdoch, not now – not now,” he whispered tightly.
“It’s taking too long, my friend.”
Sam. Murdoch heard a click like the one made by a watch cover snapping closed. He wanted to hear more, but it seemed his hearing was fading in and out, in and out. And he was so tired now. What day was it? What night? And then it didn’t seem to matter as much as before. He was so tired…
“I can’t give them false hope.” Sam sighed heavily. “They can accept any changes – paralysis, blindness, deafness…but not death. They need you, Murdoch. There hasn’t been enough time for them. I know you’re a fighter, I know you won’t quit. But it’s hard to wait…”
<<Sam – help. I can’t…>>
“Don’t give up.” Sam’s hand came down heavily on his shoulder. “Don’t give up.”
<<Don’t give up…help me – my sons – where are Scott and Johnny? I need…>>
Singing again – soft and sweet, familiar. “When angels bending near the earth…” Had his time come, stiff and cold and silent? “…with peaceful wings unfurled…” He tried to rise up out of the darkness but exhaustion shrouded him. Slipping back seemed so much easier.
Now? How could it be? No, this couldn’t be his time, not by a stupid fall down the stairs. By a fall from a horse, maybe, or even a bullet – hell, a stampede wasn’t out of the question. But not this.
“…days are hastening on…”
<<Please, no singing – please I need…>>
And it did stop. There was nothing for a moment, nothing but the blackness breathing in him, waiting patiently to take him back. Then a soft noise – a cry, and another one. Someone sobbing. A soft small hand touched his cheek, then a slender arm was flung across his chest; softness tickled his chin.
“Oh, Murdoch, please…” urged a choked voice close to his neck. Teresa. “Please wake up.”
<<Teresa…honey, don’t…>> he wanted to tell her.
“You’re all I have,” she cried into him. “There’s no one else… I’m afraid. A year ago and you made it then. I stayed right by your side and you fought and fought and you won, Murdoch. You have to win now. Please, oh please…”
<<I can’t – I just can’t – I’ve tried. >>
“It’s all right, querida.” Johnny, only why did his voice sound so far away? And why did this tomb of blackness seem even darker, and now colder? “We’ll take care of each other. We’ll manage.”
“Johnny, no! Don’t talk like that!” she admonished in a horrified voice.
“Teresa.” Scott’s gentle urge. “Why don’t you get some rest? You’ve already done so much…”
“No, I want to stay Scott, please.” Her voice was fading now, too. The blackness within him was shifting – he could see grey mists, could feel frigid air. He shivered – or thought he did.
“Por favor…” Murdoch strained to hear the voice of his housekeeper, dear Maria, but his body was slowly being drawn deeper through the black mistiness. And the energy was leaking out of him, leaving behind a wispy trail behind him that slowly disappeared. Moment by moment he was fading. He knew he was leaving them.
“Perdón. If there might be time…to pray? For him?”
Teresa was crying again.
“Me, too, Señor?” Was that Cipriano? And others, now crowding into the room; he knew them even though they didn’t speak their names, even though he could not see them. His most loyal vaqueros and servants, Juanita and Isidro, Emilio and Hector and Jose…they were all here, for him.
My God, he was dying…He was moving away from them toward the waving mists and the beckoning figures that were moving there, figures he wanted to see again. He sensed the joy in their presence as they waited for him. But what was he leaving behind? How could he leave his sons, and Teresa? His sons, the new lights of his life, the lights that made him whole again after so many years of emptiness. He loved them fiercely, knew they loved him, too. <<Johnny – Scott…boys…>> But why couldn’t he turn back? The darkness was pulling him, luring him away…
“Padre nuestro, que vive en los cielos…”
They were kneeling by his bed, reciting the prayer in unison. Johnny and Scott – he thought he saw them standing on either side of him, bending close, speaking, their lips moving and their hands gripping him but he could not hear them.
He felt cold, so cold now, though there was an unfamiliar warmth emanating from the place before him.
Then something was wrong. He couldn’t breathe right. His heart was no longer beating within him. He couldn’t hear. Numbness made him heavy, yet lightness hovered beyond that veiled darkness.
<<No,>> he tried to utter on a last vestige of awareness. << No, I want – I can’t go…>> He struggled but a great weight was bearing down on him, flattening muscle and collapsing veins, swallowing him into nothingness.
“Dios…please…” he heard.
Even as his son’s voices slipped off, new ones were whirling inside his head, far-away familiar…
He opened his mouth and it filled with cloying emptiness, coating his teeth and tongue, tunneling down his throat, invading his compressed lungs, hardening them.
“God go with him…”
It was here – it was time. And in that last moment he instinctively reached out, grasped the hands now plucking at him, locked fingers with theirs. A shower of streaking light broke over him, lifted him up. Fireworks screamed before his eyes and it was cold and then hot – he was going, he knew, and he hung on for the ride. Up and up he went, and it felt like floating through water. He saw the surface above and clawed for it, his lungs hurting and then bursting. Cacophony surrounded him as he broke free. And it was all so bright and clamorous that he was stunned by the sheer power of it. It stood him up, balancing him with the noise even as he felt himself coming apart to join forces with it.
Then he collapsed.
Brilliant, aching light.
It was everywhere, on him, in him, insisting on attention. It hurt, too, drying his mouth, smarting his eyes, cleaving his head in two. Other parts of him were waking to its icy, painful fingers. His hands and feet were full of tiny needles, his back was aching, and his ribs stabbed his side with each breath. Elbows and ankles and hips throbbed. Bubbles of air were filling him, bobbling in his blood, inflating wasted muscle, pushing him to breathe-breath-breathe. But it was hard, so hard. And it hurt, dammit. It hurt so much…
He could feel the pain, feel the slender strands of energy it gave off. He sucked it in like water after days in the desert, felt it invade him, make him aware. Every part of him thrummed, and he was hot and cold and shaking and breathing through chattering teeth. And he had to move, and his fingers flexed – he felt them bend, aching and hurting.
But the feeling was almost as glorious as the light pouring down on him. Alive – he was alive. He moaned from the exquisite agony, sucked in a breath and turned his head further into the light, worked his eyelids. Sticky, gummy, they pried apart. Wonderful color greeted him, an incomprehensible swirl of brightness that almost made him cry out again for the joy it brought to him. An unbelievable gift…
He blinked and breathed – and saw their faces above him, anxious and yet so welcome to his swimming gaze. Johnny, dark hair awry, face haggard. Scott, blue eyes deep and probing…and Teresa right by his side, her cheeks red. Murdoch reached up, awash in awe that his limb complied and let his fingers travel over them – to squeeze Johnny’s shoulder, to touch a finger to Scott’s cheek, to pat Teresa’s dark hair. Yes, they were here, they were real, sleeves and skin warm and alive, just like he was alive.
Alive – he was alive. The paralyzing darkness was gone. Alive…
“Welcome back,” said a familiar voice and Sam Jenkins stepped into view, his face serious but his eyes hopeful.
Conversations came back to Murdoch, strong and clear. Johnny’s painful confession, Scott’s shy request, Teresa’s devotion…their collective love for him. Things he’d needed to hear because he’d so wanted to know. And somehow, this injury of his had given him these gifts from his sons and Teresa. He’d learned of their heartaches, their childhoods, their longings and their questions. And he knew that he had to take all of this and act on it, not immediately, but in the right time and with the right purpose.
“Merry Christmas,” he said in a creaking voice that he wasn’t even sure was his.
Johnny laughed first, covering his face with his hands as he sat back in the squeaky chair. Scott gave a small snort, smiling that far-reaching smile of his. Confused, Murdoch looked up to his old friend as Teresa hugged him.
“Close enough,” Sam nodded at him, dashing a hand against one eye. “Close enough.”
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