Word Count 1,890
A Schmaltzy Christmas WHI/WHN for Chase A Wild Horse
Under the glow of a full moon I arched an aching back and focused weary eyes towards the white-washed hacienda which stood out like a beacon of light in the darkened valley below.
Even at this late hour I could see smoke still curled lazily from the chimney and everything looked to be the same. It was as if time itself had stood still. For all was as I’d left it and then imagined, night after night since I’d left Lancer months before.
I felt Barranca quiver under me. He recognised these pastures where he’d run as a colt, and I sensed he also remembered the comfort of his stable down below. Eager to return he grew restless and started dancing with impatience. I put out my hand and gave him a soothing pat on the neck.
As my touch calmed him I returned my gaze to the place I’d once considered home, allowing my thoughts to wander back to the reasons for me leaving. Scott’s voice was still etched deep into my memory as I recalled him trying his best to persuade me to change my mind on that fateful day.
“It’s the only good thing that’s ever happened to you in your whole life and you’re gonna get up and walk away from it. And all for nothing. But I guess that’s all you got going for you from now on.”
My pigheadedness stopped me from answering. Instead I just shook my brother’s hand and watched as he disappeared out of the saloon without a backward glance.
How could I have known because of the fatal shoot-out I had with Stryker’s kid, Scott was soon to come close to being killed himself? Even now the thought of him suffering such a fate due to my stupid determination to hold onto that damned wild horse sent a shudder of remorse through my body.
Luckily the bullet wound to Scott’s shoulder hadn’t proved to be too serious. Yet despite the fact I wasn’t openly blamed for the clash against the rest of Stryker’s gang, I could well imagine what my brother and father were thinking though neither admitted it out loud.
I attracted trouble like a magnet. No one on the ranch would ever be safe and free of danger until they were free of Johnny Madrid. Time I was long gone. It would be better for everybody.
Truth be told I’d had the self same notion. So determined not to risk my kin’s lives again, I packed up and left before sun-up the next day.
I didn’t even have the decency to tell anyone of my plan as I made my hurried departure. Just a hastily scrawled note was placed by the side of my brother’s bed as he slept, explaining why. My lying excuse any future I had no longer included Lancer so there was no point me sticking around while there were other places I still needed to go.
Reluctantly I left behind the pocket watch Murdoch pressed in my hand on the morning the whole sorry business with the wild horse started. To my mind I didn’t deserve such a treasured gift. Not when two men, my old friend Wes included, had died and Scott nearly paid the ultimate price for my stupid, selfish behaviour.
For several months I drifted around. From a young age I’d been used to loneliness so it didn’t bother me much as I convinced myself I was content to ride the trail alone again.
I hired out my gun a couple of times, but never needed to fire it in anger. It seemed my reputation was enough to make those I was up against more than willing to back down before a drop of blood was shed. For that I was truly thankful. The killing instinct inside me seemed to have diminished somewhat since my brother’s words constantly repeated in my head.
“You’ll be dead before you’re thirty. But when you go you won’t even leave a small ripple.”
Coming close to death so many times in the past, the idea of dying didn’t frighten me much. But being alone when it happened, well, since I’d had a taste of family life, can’t say it appealed at all. Fact is I missed Murdoch and Scott and when the time came to meet my maker, would sure rather one or both of them were by my side.
Wishfully hoping I’d got it wrong about them not wanting me around, I figured I might have made a big mistake. So knowing there was only one way to find out, I swallowed down my pride and headed back to Lancer.
Yet since arriving I’d been sat on the crest of the hill for half an hour, unable to make myself move an inch closer. My mouth had become dry with apprehension. After deserting those I held most dear without a word of goodbye, would they still want me back? For the life of me I was uncertain and didn’t know the answer.
With a curse I pushed back the fear of rejection from my mind and instead tried to think positive. I still legally owned one third of this land and had a right to be here whether welcomed or not. So with that bit of reasoned argument spurring me on, I gathered up the reins and gently kneed Barranca forward down the road.
Riding up to the hitching rail, I pulled to a halt and swung stiffly to the ground. I secured my horse and felt a cold uneasy sweat around my temples as I headed towards the front door and cautiously opened it.
The house was strangely quiet when I entered. From the light of an oil lamp I noticed the familiar Stetson, coat and gun belt belonging to my brother hanging from pegs on the wall. At least Scott was still here and hadn’t disappeared back east to Boston.
Removing my own hat I fiddled nervously with the rim while making my way into the large sitting room. However no faces looked over towards their uninvited visitor. Slightly puzzled I checked the grandfather clock and could see it was well past midnight. No wonder the place was silent and deserted.
For a moment I debated what to do next. Wake everyone up and alert them to my presence? Though tempted I decided against it. Instead I felt the need to familiarise myself with the room where I’d first set eyes on my father after arriving on Lancer what seemed a lifetime ago.
Walking slowly around my finger tips glided across the dining table as I passed, and I recalled the many relaxed and light-hearted meals shared on its polished surface. Unable to stop myself, I sighed happily at the pleasing memories.
I spied a bottle of Murdoch’s best brandy standing on a tray. Knowing it was only usually brought out for special occasions I dropped down my hat and poured myself a more than decent measure. I raised my glass in a soundless toast and took a swallow of the golden liquid. It flowed easily down my dried out throat and tasted good.
Continuing to stare about me, I couldn’t help but notice a sweet-smelling spruce about eight feet tall had been planted in a deep-sided container and stood in front of the French window. Nearly every branch was decorated with small glass ornaments, silver ribbon and candy sticks. It was a truly beautiful sight and for a moment I was left in surprised confusion.
Realisation however soon dawned. Of all the times to arrive back it would seem I’d chosen Christmas.
I took another sip of my drink in silent celebration. Wasn’t this supposedly the season to extend good will to all men? Giving a wry chuckle I wondered if that would include me.
In such a peaceful setting I stared thoughtfully at the tree as I drank back the remainder of my brandy and set the glass down. The liquor settled heavy in my stomach. Who was I kidding? I wouldn’t have been missed, nor would I be welcomed back like some long lost prodigal son or brother. Considering the violent past I’d had, there was no way I could ever fit in around here.
My mind was made up in an instant. The wisest thing to do would be to leave right now and never return. Better that than be discovered and…and what? Shown the door? I hoped I was wrong but sure as hell didn’t figure on sticking around long enough to find out.
A loud crackle from burning wood shook me from my miserable thoughts and I looked towards the fireplace where a banked up fire still spread its warmth. I frowned, intrigued by the sight of four brightly coloured knitted stockings hanging down from hooks secured to the mantelpiece.
I’d heard of a custom where similar were left out on Christmas Eve. From what I remembered they were supposedly filled with longed for presents by some mystical being who’d descend down the chimney before the first light of morning. Not that I’d ever witnessed or been included in such a joyful tradition during my years growing up in Mexico.
Guessing Teresa must have been busy I smiled at the image of her sitting in the corner with needles and wool, clicking away during the long, winter evenings. Deeply fond of my father’s ward, I felt a pang of sorrow to think I’d never see her again.
Intent on retracing my steps towards the front door I began to turn. However out the corner of my eye I noticed each Christmas stocking had a different initial sewn onto the side; M, T, S and J. A lump formed in my throat to think I hadn’t been forgotten after all.
A hand-written note had been pinned to the top of the first three empty stockings. Though the fourth, which I reckoned was mine, appeared to be already weighted down with something inside. Mystified at the sight my curiosity was now aroused and I made quickly towards it.
Pushing my hand to the bottom I pulled out the valued time-piece I’d left behind. I stared at it for a few moments, strangely heartened by the sight. I opened the lid. Holding the watch to my ear I could hear the sound of rhythmic ticking. It was good to know it still worked. I also noticed there’d been an inscription added on the inside of the cover and studied the skilfully engraved words.
A gift to my son Johnny Lancer
From a proud and loving father
Taken aback by the heartfelt sentiment I swallowed hard and clicked it shut. After all the problems I’d caused him, I could hardly believe the old man had gone to so much trouble for me.
My gaze wandered towards the three pieces of paper on the remaining stockings, each short and simple request identical and clearly written for anyone to see. With legs feeling weak and the watch clutched tight to my chest I sank down in front of the hearth. My heart pounded hard as I wiped a hand across moistened eyes and read each one again and again in disbelief.
All we want for Christmas is Johnny returned.
Please find him and bring him home to where he truly belongs.
~ end ~
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