Dec. 23, 2016 entry in the Lancer Advent Calendar. This is an AR story that takes place before ‘Unexpected Events on a Trip’. Xover with Laramie.
Word count: 2,120
The weather had turned unexpectedly cold for southwest Texas catching the three friends unprepared and out in the open. Val looked up frowning when he felt a snowflake hit his nose, “Just what we need.” He was hoping the cold wouldn’t bring snow, and he definitely wasn’t looking forward to Jess’ and Johnny’s belly aching.
“Damn Val, what’s your next idea for a safe place to hide out?” Johnny shivered as he pulled his collar up.
“Quite yer bitching Madrid this weather ain’t normal and it ain’t my fault.” Val brushed off the snow accumulating on his shoulder.
Hiding his grin and not wanting to get into the argument, Jess looked around to get his bearings. Dang, there was something familiar about the area. Then it occurred to him, “Hey y’all knock it off, I remember a cabin near here.”
Eager to get out of the snow ,Johnny pulled Amigo next to Traveler, “Yeah, how near?”
“West of here about a mile,” Jess pointed toward a forested area. “Wasn’t fancy but was sturdy and had a stove and fireplace.” Jess tighten his jacket and clicked Traveler to pick up his pace.
“When was that Jess?” Johnny nudged Amigo to kept pace with Jess. Val hoped Jess was right and spurred Renegade to follow the boys.
“Y’all won’t believe it, but it was around this time last year. First time in a long time I didn’t spend Christmas in some saloon.”
“So Jess, was it snowing then?” Johnny sneered at Val.
Val glared back, “Just ride smart ass.”
“Naw, but it was colder than a witch’s…” Jess stopped when he received a smack on the back of his head from Val. “Hey, that hurt.” Jess shot the attacker his best gunfighter glare, which was ignored.
Deciding to drop it the boys rode on in silence to avoid pissing Val off any more than they already had. He was the one person they didn’t want to get on his bad side. They liked Val and trusted him but knew he would turn into big brother and hand out punishment when pushed too far.
With the snow starting to pile up, it was slow going but finally Jess pulled up Traveler and pointed toward a clearing, “There it is.”
“ ‘Bout time, thought maybe ya forgot where it was.” Val spurred Renegade past the boys and toward the cabin.
While Johnny settled the horses in the lean-to, which thankfully, was just big enough to protect the horses. Jess checked out the near-by creek to make sure it wasn’t frozen over and then gathered some wood. Since Val was still unhappy with the two smart alecks they let him go in the cabin and check things out.
Val hauled the saddle bags and bed rolls into the cabin and dropped them by the door. What he found was a single room with and empty cabinet next to a dry sink, a table with one chair, and broken mess in the corner that had once been a bed. “Oh well, better than nothin’.” Next he checked the stove, it looked okay but would need cleaning out. He decided the fireplace should come first.
After the horses were bedded down Johnny grabbed two of the saddles and carried them to the front porch. He was returning with the third one when Jess arrived carrying the firewood.
A tired and cold Jess kicked the door. “Hey open up.” Both men were eager to get out of the snow.
“Bout time ya got back.” Val grabbed some logs and tossed them in the fireplace. Then he broke some of the smaller branches for kindling and started the fire. “One of ya going get that stove going, or do I have to do everything?”
“Okay.” Johnny held up his hands and moved to the stove while Jess looked for a bucket to get some water from the creek.
As the sun went down it continued to snow; Val guessed it must be up to a horse’s belly. The cabin had finally warmed up, and with some food in their stomachs the men settled in for the night. Each stretched out on the sleeping bags Val had spread in front of the fireplace.
“Sure feels good to finally get warm. Maybe we should’a stayed in Mexico instead coming up here.” Johnny rubbed his hands together soaking in the heat from the fire.
“Naw, not after ya pissed off those rurales.” Val scrubbed his whiskers and chuckled, “Ya don’t want it that hot.”
“Hey that ol’ villager…”
“Relax Madrid, I didn’t say ya should’a let the rurales hurt him, ya did the right thing stoppin’ them.” Val chuckled, “Ya just shouldn’t done it in front of witnesses.”
Jess relaxed, sipping his coffee and enjoying the banter between his friends; grateful he wasn’t Val’s target. He was also grateful to be in the warm cabin and not out in the snow.
Satisfied his actions were justified Johnny turned to his silent friend. “So Jess what’s the story about how ya come to know about this place?” Reaching into his saddle bag he pulled out a bottle of tequila.
“I had to lay low and heal up after gettin’ paid off with a bullet.” Jess shuddered at that memory.
Val and Johnny nodded in understanding and didn’t pursue the matter.
After a few minutes Val cleared his throat, grabbed the bottle took a swig, and handed it to Jess. “Merry Christmas amigo at least this time yer here with friends.”
Val pointed to Jess. “So since it being Christmas let’s celebrate. Tell us a good Christmas memory.”
Jess took a swig off the bottle and handed it to Johnny. Damn you Val, he didn’t have happy Christmas memories. They were dirt poor and a tree and presents weren’t as important as scraping together enough food to keep from starving.
But, then there was that one year…
“I was around thirteen and Ma had been real sick. We didn’t do much celebrating anyway, never had money for presents.”
Yeah, presents didn’t seem important when you were scared your Ma was gonna die.
Val noticed Jess’ faraway look, “It’s supposed to be a good memory.”
“Just wait, I’m getting there.” He shook his head at his impatient friend. “Anyway, all us kids were just sitting by the fire while Pa was taking care of Ma. It was cold that night but we sure were grateful it wasn’t snowing.”
That ol’ shack they called home may have had walls and a roof but it didn’t keep out all the cold wind during the winter.
Jess growled at Val’s huff. “Do you want hear this or not?”
“Yeah, but so far I don’t hear any good part.” Val glared back at Jess.
“Anyway, before being interrupted.” He smacked Val’s leg. “Someone was knocking at the door so I got up to answer it. I was hoping it wasn’t the man who owned the land coming to yell at Pa for getting behind in his work.”
“Was it?” Johnny stuck the bottle between his legs and leaned toward the fire rubbing his hands again.
Jess grinned at Johnny and his need for heat, “Nope, it was the Navarro’s. They knew Ma had been sick so they brought Christmas to us. Señora Navarro had cooked up a real feast. We sure didn’t go to bed hungry that night.”
Val patted Jess’ shoulder, “That’s a good memory.”
Then he turned to Johnny, “Okay yer turn.”
Johnny grinned and passed the bottle to Val. “Well, I can tell y’all it sure wasn’t cold and snowing.”
“Get on with it Madrid.” Val cuffed him on the ear.
“Damn Val that hurt.” Johnny rubbed his injury, he sure hated it when Val went all big brother.
He leaned back on his saddle, “Mama was working at a cantina, the old couple who owned it were real good to mama and me.” He smiled at first then it turned to a frown, “Not the villagers, they looked down on us, ‘cause of me. They didn’t want mestizos in Las Posadas…”
He closed his eyes to hide the hurt. When in control he sat up and looked into the fire.
Val and Jess waited to give Johnny time to composed himself.
“Señora Gomez would feed me and the Señor would let me sleep in the kitchen while mama worked.”
I always felt safe there and had fond memories of them, they were like abuelos. When mama said they had to move he had pleaded with her to stay. She finally had to drag him away.
“That night he closed the cantina early. After everyone cleared out he woke me up, and he took me into the bar.”
Johnny’s face softened; his friends waited patiently for him to continue.
“There was mama, Señora Gomez and a Piñata. It sure wasn’t anything fancy but it was all mine. The Señor handed me a stick and told me to hit it. When I broke it open there was some candy, an orange, and a toy. Mama wouldn’t let me eat any candy, she said we eat first then candy. The Señora made tamales, red beans and rice, and had a glass of milk for me.”
It was a good night. Mama was happy and hugged him after he busted open the Piñata. They went to bed with full stomachs that night.
Maybe Val had had a good idea about reliving good times after all.
“How old were ya?” Val nudged Johnny’s foot and passed the bottle back to him.
Johnny took a drink. “Around seven I think.”
“Okay Val your turn.”
The older man scratched his chin and stared into the fire while his friends waited.
“Well, guess it’d have to be while I was a Texas Ranger. I had just brought in a prisoner and was sent to San Antonio to rest up and heal from being shot.”
Val shook his head and rubbed his shoulder. That bastard had killed his own wife and kid, sure sorry I missed that hanging.
“Bein’ as it was almost Christmas the head Ranger, Matt, and his wife, Lucy, insisted I stay with them. They had two little boys and a dog, and those two kids sure did keep me busy. Always asking questions, wanting to ride my horse, and hear stories about being a Ranger.”
Still miss those kids, they were a real nice family.
“Christmas Eve was real special, Lucy served up turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, and the best bread I ever tasted. They always opened presents on the Eve so we gathered around the tree to watch Sam and Billy open presents. They even had a gift for me.”
When he closed his eyes he could still see the excitement on those smiling faces.
“What was it?” Jess whispered.
“What…?” Val mentally shook himself. “Oh… it was a carving of their dog, with his name scratched into it. Said they didn’t want me to forget Max.” Chuckling at the memory of the little dog, “Like I ever could, that mutt would sneak in at night and plant himself next to me in bed.”
Truth be told he kinda liked Max and he did warm up the bed.
“Matt and Lucy gave me a new shirt, Lucy said my old one was ready for her rag bag. I had to rescue it when I was ready to leave. She wasn’t kidding about using it for a rag.” Val sighed, “Christmas morning we all went to church. They sure were a nice family.”
“So is Matt still a Ranger?” Jess was curious.
“No, he was killed a few years ago.”
Val bowed his head, that’s when he buried his Max. It was to painful to look at the carving and know those boys didn’t have a daddy anymore.
No one spoke, they just stared into the fire.
“Well, guess we better turn in. Tomorrow we need to chop some more wood and find some game. Looks like we’ll be here awhile.” Val pulled his blanket up to his chin.
Johnny snuggled into his blanket making sure his feet were near the fire.
Jess grinned at Johnny’s maneuvering to keep warm, then turned onto his side and tucked his blanket under his chin.
Outside the wind howled, and the snow continued to fall, but inside the cabin the fire crackled in the fireplace and a golden glow lit the small room. The three figures on the floor watched the flames each lost in their own thoughts. Slowly their eyes closed and the last sound two of them heard before drifting off to sleep was…
“Merry Christmas amigos, glad I’m not alone this time.”
~ end ~
Merry Christmas to all my Lancer friends, Elin.
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