Word count: 2,625
A lone rider approached the small cabin on the northern border of Lancer. The Patrón of the great rancho kept these line shacks and barns well stocked for man and beast. He never minded when a weary traveler would use the cabin as evidenced by the fact the door was never locked. When asked why he did that, he replied, “You never know when the stranger may be an angel.”
This particular traveler knew he was no angel. Instead he had a heavy heart and needed the isolation and peace the remote cabin offered.
The weather had turned cold and snowflakes dusted the ground and trees. It wasn’t much further and soon he and his horse would be under cover. A warm fire for him and a dry stall for his horse.
This wasn’t the hoped-for Christmas, and he sure wasn’t surprised to again find himself alone. He knew better than to hope, it had been a hard learned lesson from early childhood.
He stopped in front of the barn and looked back from where he had come, shaking his head he dismounted and led his horse into the barn.
Johnny gave his beloved Barranca a pat, “I know it’s not your stable but at least it’s warm and dry.” One more pat and he left his horse to enjoy the sweet oats. Leaving the barn, he slowly made his way through the accumulating snow to his home for the next week or so.
When he reached the cabin door he stomped his feet, no point dragging in snow, he felt cold and wet enough. There were logs and kindling already in the fireplace so he would be warm soon enough. Once the fire was blazing he turned to the stove to start a pot of coffee.
While waiting for the coffee to boil he took a biscuit from his saddle bag, pulled a chair next to the fire, and… and the hurt came back.
Teresa’s constant nagging about the decorations, where to put ornaments on the tree, scolding him for every mistake, and finally screaming at him for taking a cookie, it was too much. He had to get away. What hurt the most was Teresa’s, “You are ruining Christmas and I wish Murdoch had never brought you home.”
The hiss from coffee boiling over pulled him from his thoughts, he grabbed a towel and yanked the pot from the stove. After pouring a cup he resumed his place in front of the fire, at last, he was warming up.
Well, it wasn’t the first Christmas he had spent alone. He was used to his own company. This was a lot better than sleeping in some hayloft, he’d done enough of that in his past. A past he thought was past. He found out had a brother and it turns out a father who really did want him. Unfortunately he also had a so-called sister that obviously didn’t want him. A fact she had made abundantly clear and in no uncertain words.
The crackling and hiss of the fire was having a calming effect but it didn’t take the hurt away. He was missing Scott and Murdoch, but there was no way he was going to spoil their Christmas so staying here was for the best. Teresa would be happier with him gone and that would make things easier on his brother and father.
A cold and weary Scott had retuned from checking the herd in the south pasture to be met at the door by an irate Teresa. She was listing all the things Johnny had done wrong, how he ruined their Christmas plans, and that she was glad when he rode off to who knows where.
Livid at Teresa’s behavior and that it had driven Johnny from his own home, Scott cut off her tirade with, “So much for our first family Christmas that I’ve longed for since arriving at Lancer.” When she started to open her mouth he held up his hand. “Johnny deserves this Christmas and he should have it in his own home, and it’s your nagging and selfishness that is ruining everything.”
When she stared to cry he turned his back, he knew what he needed to do. First he went to the kitchen to have Maria pack food and treats. There he found a crying Maria, she had heard everything. “Juanito is gone, you find him and bring him home.” She also told Scott what horrible things Teresa had said to his brother.
After reassuring her, he headed to his room and packed warm clothes. On the way to the kitchen he stopped in the great room. He grabbed a bottle of brandy for him and tequila for his brother, this should help the conversation. He pointedly ignored Teresa’s glare.
“Jelly let Murdoch know what happened and that I’m going after Johnny.”
“Ya know where he’s a goin’?” Jelly was fuming after hearing the sorry tale.
“His ‘get away’ spot, the north line shack.” Scott took his horses reins, “Sorry Ulysses but we need to find my brother and your stable mate.” He mounted and headed north.
Murdoch was tired, hungry, cold, and every bone seemed to ache. As pulled the wagon up to the barn. Jelly ran out to help him unload the last of the Christmas stuff on Teresa’s list. Surprised to see Barranca and Ulysses weren’t in their stalls, Murdoch added his box to the pile and turned to his helper, “Jelly, where are Scott and Johnny?”
“Johnny rode out earlier and Scott followed later.” Jelly used his pent up anger to haul another box from the wagon bed.
“Do you know why?” Something was up, Jelly was mad about something and Murdoch wanted an answer. “What’s up, I want to know why my sons aren’t here.”
Jelly added the box to the pile inside the barn door, dusted his hands on his pants, then faced Murdoch. When he finished telling the events of the day, Murdoch looked like he was going to explode.
When Murdoch entered the kitchen, he found a still distraught Maria, it was obvious she had been crying earlier. When she looked up the tears fell again. He rushed to put his arm around her, “It’s going to be alright.” He hoped.
Before he could continue reassuring the cook…
“It’s about time someone came home, I’ve been doing everything by myself.” Teresa glared at Murdoch’s concern for the cook and not her, “Your sons have deserted me.” Planting her hands on her hips, “Johnny was absolutely useless, he just messed up everything I asked him to do. Then because I scolded him for stealing cookies he just tossed the cookies back on the plate and left.” She paused, why wasn’t he rushing to her side? “Well?”
“Teresa you know Johnny is unfamiliar with American Christmas traditions—” but before he could finish his explanation.
“Well, he can learn.” Teresa sported a world class pout and she raised her arm, “Then Scott takes off and left me here with all this work. They are so selfish.”
Murdoch was seeing a Teresa he didn’t like. He and Paul spoiling her didn’t do her any favors, or them.
“We don’t need all this fuss, all I wanted was Christmas with my sons—”
“Well, fine, you go spend Christmas with them.” Teresa turned on her heels and started to leave when a large hand clamped on her arm.
“I have had enough Teresa, you had no right to talk to Scott and Johnny the way you did, this is their home. You have done nothing but gripe, nag, and demand. Well, no more. Since you are so unhappy here with my sons I will arrange for you to go to school back east.” He help up his hand for silence. “You can stay with your aunt. I will make the arrangements after the first of the year.” He turned to Maria, “You are in charge until I get back.” To Teresa, “You should start packing.”
He left the two shocked faces and went to his own room to pack for a trip to the north line shack.
It was almost dark and the snow was really coming down when finally he saw the shack. Even happier to see smoke from the chimney, hopefully that smoke signaled coffee on the stove and a fire in the fireplace. He nudged Duke to move a little faster when…
“Hey ol’ man what ya doing out in this weather?”
Murdoch startled, nothing gets by his younger son. When he felt calm enough to answer, “Just wanted to spend Christmas with my sons and since they aren’t home I had to come to them.”
Johnny stepped from the trees and grabbed the reins, “Get down and get in by the fire.” He nodded toward the shack, and shook his head as Murdoch slowly dismounted. “You are one crazy ol’ man.”
“Thanks son, and I’m not crazy.”
Murdoch limped to the porch to be greeted by Scott and ushered inside. “Thanks son, hope there’s some hot coffee.”
“Yes sir, sit down and I’ll get a cup. How about some biscuits?”
Murdoch slipped out of his coat and rubbed his hands together in front of the fire. “Contrary to my younger son’s opinion, I am not crazy.” He accepted the cup of coffee, cradled the cup in both hands, and sat in the chair nearest the fire.
Scott poured two more cups and joined his father. “Guess you heard what happened?”
“Yes, and Teresa had no right to say those things to Johnny.” Murdoch took a sip of coffee. “And believe me, things are going to change.”
Scott was relieved the tone of his father’s voice indicated his anger was directed at Teresa and not them. “Guess that means I’m not the peacekeeper tonight.”
Suddenly the door opened and a cold blast entered the room along with a shivering figure.
“Close the door.” Two voices yelled.
Johnny slammed the door, “I sure hope one of those cups is for me.” Not waiting for an answer he grabbed a steaming cup and held it under his nose.
“So why are y’all up here instead of all comfy at the hacienda?” He moved to stand in front of the fireplace, “Teresa get after you two about me not decorating right?” He cautiously sipped his hot coffee and whispered, “Guess I ruined Christmas?”
Neither men failed to noticed the dejected look on Johnny’s face.
“Johnny, please sit down.” Murdoch waited till both his sons sat opposite him. “I want to say some things and I want both of you to let me have my say without interruption.”
Two heads nodded acceptance.
“First, Johnny, you did not ruin Christmas. Teresa had no right to say the things she said to you. Lancer is your home, it always was and it always will be your home.”
He clasped his coffee cup to calm his nerves so he wouldn’t sound angry. He didn’t want Johnny to think the anger was aimed at him.
“For years I hunted for you and your mother; in every village I looked for a blue-eyed boy. Finally I had to give up, I needed to take care of the ranch. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to look for you but I had to make sure I protected both my sons birthright.” He hoped Johnny would understand.
“Scott, I came for you on your fifth birthday. I wanted to grab you into my arms and take you home but… Harlan threatened to take me to court and place you in the middle of the mess.” Murdoch stared into his nearly empty cup. “There just wasn’t enough money to pay the Pinkerton agents and attorneys. You were at least safe and had enough to eat.”
He felt like he had let Scott down. How could his older son forgive being abandoned by his father?
“I did send letters and every birthday and Christmas I sent gifts, but I never received any response.” Old questions arose. “Always wondered if Harlan gave them to you or destroyed them.”
As much as it hurt, it was a relief to have it in the open. Maybe someday his sons would forgive him.
“I’m sorry boys that I failed you, I’m sorry it took so long to bring you both home.” Murdoch swallowed the lump forming in his throat.
“Sir, you didn’t fail us. You didn’t know where Johnny was or if he was still alive, you made the right decision.”
My older son always so pragmatic, I can always count on him getting to the point and understanding priorities.
“Yeah Murdoch, ya did the best ya could. Hey we’re all here now. Well, we are sorta here, you and Scott should’a stayed at the hacienda.”
Yep, Johnny always thinks everyone else is more important than himself. I need to start showing him he is important too.
“Absolutely not, we need to be together and it doesn’t matter if it’s here or at the hacienda.” Murdoch rose from his chair and picked up his saddlebag. He pulled out three bottles.
Both sons laughed and produced their bottles.
“Guess we think alike.” Johnny took a slug from his tequila.
Scott shook his head and brought three glasses from the cupboard and passed them out. “Johnny it isn’t polite to drink from the bottle.”
“That the way polite society does it?” He accepted the glass and filled it.
Murdoch sat back and enjoyed the playful banter.
“I think a toast is in order.” Scott raised his class, “To Murdoch, the tune caller, who built an empire for his sons.”
Johnny raised his glass, “Thanks Murdoch for finding me. And Scott for being the big brother I always wanted.”
Finally Murdoch raised his glass, “To my sons, Merry Christmas.”
After the glasses were drained and before more liquor flowed, Murdoch cleared his throat. “I want to tell you what helped me most during those years we were apart.”
“I have always believed God answers prayers, sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no, and sometimes wait. God’s answer to me was to wait, and now I know why.” Murdoch smiled at his boys. “You both needed to grow into the wonderful and honorable men you are today. For that I am thankful.” He was-is-so proud of his sons.
“This should have been the best Christmas ever, but instead it is beyond what I could have hoped for… it is the perfect Christmas, I am with my sons.”
Johnny winked at Scott, “Ya know Murdoch maybe we should do this every Christmas, sure would save Teresa a lot of yelling.”
Scott nodded agreement, “He has a point Sir.”
“Well, Teresa and I had a discussion about overdoing Christmas. This will not happen again. Teresa will be going to school back east and living with her aunt. Paul and I were wrong letting her always have her way. It is time she grew up and faced the real world and made her own way.”
Scott broke the silence, “I believe you made the correct decision, she is in a sheltered environment, it is time for her to grow up and learn to depend on herself.”
“I’m sorry Murdoch, it’s my fault, I should’a just done what she wanted then…”
“No, Johnny, this was long over-due, you are my son, both of you are my sons and both of you come first.” Murdoch reached out and squeezed his son’s shoulders. “Merry Christmas, this is the best one in a very long time.”
“Thanks Murdoch, hey, can we stay here till after the new year?” Johnny flashed the smile that could win over most hearts.
“Have to admit Sir, sounds like a good idea. Maybe we could even get in a hunt.” Scott too felt this was his best Christmas.
“Sounds like a perfect way to end the year. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than spend some quality time with my sons. Merry Christmas boys.”
~ end ~
December 24, 2017
A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all, Elin
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