#2 in the Holidays series
Word count: 6,655
Chapter 1 : December 19, 1880
“I don’t understand Johnny. Why are you doing this?” Murdoch was moving across the room with angry strides.
Johnny stood stiffly watching as his father worked his way through his anger. There had been so many similar scenes played out in the Lancer living room that Johnny could predict the pattern of where this conversation was going. Soon his father would pour himself a drink and settle into his chair by the desk and glare at him. Then the silence would start while Johnny tried to explain once again why his family would not be spending Christmas Eve at Murdoch’s house.
Once Murdoch was settled in at his desk and nursing his drink, Johnny took a deep breath and tried to square things with his father. “Look Murdoch, you’re welcome to come over to our house Christmas Eve, even spend the night.” He stopped at the raised eyebrow look he got from his father. “You could come for breakfast Christmas day?”
Murdoch shook his head and replied, “Are you still coming over for Christmas day dinner?”
Johnny bowed his head, he knew making this move was going to cause problems with his family, and while he wished he didn’t have to choose, he had made up his mind, “Of course. We wouldn’t miss being with our family on Christmas.” He waited for Murdoch to reply, and when his father just nodded and started looking through the mail, Johnny rose. “I’ll get back to work then. See ya tomorrow.”
Johnny rode toward home as the sun was starting to set in the west. The sun was in his eyes so he raised his hand to shield them letting him see the approaching rider better. As he got closer, he could easily recognize his brother heading home.
“Hey Scott.” Johnny called in greeting.
His brother nudged his horse into a trot and quickly pulled up with a smile. “Hi Johnny, Heading home?”
“Yeah. I got all I could get done on those broncs. I’ll finish them off tomorrow and then they’ll be ready for that auction in Green River.”
“Sounds good brother.” Scott took off his hat and wiped out the sweat band before replacing it back on his head. He measured his brother with a quick glance, “How’d he take it?”
Neither needed to ask who he was, as Scott was well aware that Johnny was going to break the news today to Murdoch that he and his family would not be joining them at the hacienda Christmas Eve as they had in years past.
Johnny looked at his brother and shook his head, “About how’d you’d expect, I guess.”
“Was he loud?” Scott asked.
“Not too bad. Disappointed mostly.” Johnny hesitated, “Uh Scott, you understand why were doin’ this, right?”
Scott looked fully at his brother, “I think I do,” he said slowly, “I just hope it’s not because of …well the way Caroline has been acting lately.”
Johnny smiled slightly, “No. Just when I married Sarita, I made a promise to her. She came from a strong Mexican family with lots of traditions. I promised her I’d do my best to make sure our children were raised the same way.” Johnny shook his head, “She has seven brothers….” He let his voice trail off at the thought of so many children in one household.
Scott chuckled at Johnny’s expression, “Well brother, you better be careful, the way you’re going you’ll have eight kids before you know it too.” Scott chuckled dryly as he watched the disbelief show clearly on his brother’s face.
Johnny looked down and combed his fingers through his horse’s mane. “Well anyway…we want to start our own traditions and trying to get to midnight mass after Christmas Eve supper at the house is just too much. I told him we’d be there Christmas day, like always.”
“You’re still coming on the 23rd, right?’ Scott asked.
Johnny rolled his eyes, “I guess there’s no getting out of it. But brother no matter how old I get, you’ll always be older. Happy Birthday Scott.” Johnny waited until Scott grinned, and with a matching one, Johnny turned his horse and headed for home as Scott chuckled.
“Thanks Johnny.” Scott turned and headed for home anticipating the special dinner Caroline was making for him.
Scott opened the heavy front door and was greeted by a rush of warm air and the smells of his favorite foods mixing with his father’s pipe tobacco.
“Papa!” Elizabeth called as she ran across the room to give her father a hug.
He picked her up and gave her a big kiss on her cheek. “Hi there Princess!”
She smiled at him as he used one hand to smooth down her blond curls. “Happy Birthday Papa.”
“Thank you honey. What’s that I smell? Have you and your mother been cooking?” Scott carried her into the living room and smiled at Murdoch who looked up from his newspaper.
“Sir.” He said by way of greeting and sat down with his daughter on the couch. He tickled Beth until she was giggling, “Tell me what’s for dinner?”
Through her giggles and squirming, she gasped, “I can’t! It’s a secret!”
“Come on you can tell me, I won’t tell anyone.”
“Scott Lancer! Using our daughter to try to find out what you’re getting for your birthday dinner is just not acceptable!” Caroline stood there with her hands on her hips trying to look stern.
Scott took in her posture, the firmly set mouth slightly twitching, the hands on her hips, the stained apron, and strands of her honey colored hair escaping from the combs holding her hair up and he smiled. He moved Elizabeth to the couch next to him and reached over and caught one of Caroline’s small hands in his and pulled her down on top of him and gave her a quick kiss before releasing her.
She quickly stood up, and glanced quickly at Murdoch who was watching over his raised newspaper with amusement, then back at Scott as the color rose in her cheeks. She pushed a few stands of hair back into place, and whispered, “Dinner will be ready in a few minutes.” As she fled the room, Scott chuckled.
“Son, one of these days you’re going to push her too far.” Murdoch chuckled.
Scott stood and smiled at his father’s words, “It keeps things interesting.” He poured himself a whisky and poured one for his father. “Princess, why don’t you go see if your mother needs any help.”
“Yes papa.” The little girl headed off to the kitchen as Scott handed one glass to Murdoch and he settled in the chair near the fire. He shifted in the chair to get more comfortable. “Saw Johnny this afternoon. He said he told you about their plans for Christmas Eve.”
“He told me.” Was all Murdoch said as he took a large gulp of the fiery drink.
“Look, I know you’re disappointed but it’s not like we won’t see them at all over the holidays.” Scott tried to reason with his father as he had done so many times in the past.
“Scott it’s not a matter of seeing them. It’s a matter of family and having the family stick together.”
“Johnny and Sarita want to start some of their own traditions and it’s always been hard for them to come over here on Christmas Eve and then head into Morro Coyo for midnight mass and then come all the way back here to spend the night. Their house is closer to Morro Coyo.” Scott pointed out.
Murdoch didn’t respond and Scott didn’t feel like pressing the issue any farther. He took a final swallow of his drink and stood up. “I’m going to get cleaned up.”
Scott sat at the end of the table and gave Caroline a look which she responded to with a smile and a demure drop of her eyes. “The beef stroganoff was wonderful, and to top it off with this wonderful apple crisp was perfect. Thank you.” His eyes included his daughter.
“I helped peel the apples and mix the flour and sugar. Didn’t I ?” her gray blue eyes beseeched her mother’s own blue eyes for confirmation.
“You sure did honey. I couldn’t have done it without you. Why don’t you gentlemen retire to the living room for brandy, and we’ll bring your birthday presents.”
Elizabeth clapped her hands, “Oh goody, I can’t wait until you open mine! Papa will you open mine first?” The girl practically skipped into the living room and waited anxiously for the adults to join her.
Scott settled into his chair by the fire and took the offered package. He turned it over and over in his hand, he held it up by his ear and shook it. “Is it a clock?’ he asked seriously.
“No!” Elizabeth answered with a giggle.
Scott shook it again, “Well, it’s too small for a pony…” he smiled at the look on his daughter’s face.
“Open it!” She cried.
“All right. If you insist.” Scott opened the package and found three crisp handkerchiefs with his initials neatly embroidered in the corners. “Did you do this?” he asked his daughter.
She smiled and nodded “Mostly all by myself but Aunt Sarita helped me some.”
Scott felt his heart overflow with love for his precious girl and he reached out to hug her. “Thank you honey.” He said into her golden curls.
She looked into his eyes, “Do you really like them?”
“Yes I do. Very much.” He hugged her again.
Later that evening, Scott and Caroline held each other gently in bed. Scott watched as her eyes slowly closed as she relaxed into his arms. “Thank you for the great birthday.” He whispered. “Thank you for making me so happy.”
Her eyes opened as the corners of her mouth raised slightly, “I know it’s too soon to be hopeful, but the doctor said everything is going well and today is one day longer than the last time.”
Scott drew his wife closer to his body, relishing her softness and allowing her to warm him. “I don’t know how or why, but something tells me this time, everything will be alright and by this time next year we’ll have another son or daughter to love.”
In a small voice, Caroline replied, “I hope so. I hope…” Scott’s finger on her lips stopped her raising her doubts and fears. She relaxed as his strong arms wrapped around her making her feel safe and secure from the world. “I love you.” Any further words were drowned out by his lips against hers as they were wrapped up in a world of just the two of them.
Chapter 2 : December 23, 1880
Scott glanced down at the pinto pony trotting next to him and his heart stretched when he saw the dazzling smile on his daughter’s face as she bounced along on the back of the pony. They had only been riding for about thirty minutes, but he didn’t want the children to get too tired.
He glanced over at his brother who was sitting deep in the saddle as Barranca jogged smoothly next to Enrique and his pony. Both men had put neck ropes on the ponies just in case they needed to help their children control their sometimes headstrong mounts.
Calling a halt at the fork in the trail, Scott waited for Johnny and Enrique to pull up. “I think this is far enough for today.”
“Oh come on Uncle Scott. We just got goin’.” Enrique complained.
“Please Papa? Just a little while longer.” Elizabeth begged.
Scott looked to Johnny for support and from the look on his face, he wasn’t going to get it. Giving in with good grace he brokered a deal. “All right, we’ll ride another 15 minutes out, but you all have to promise to be on your best behavior at the dinner table tonight.”
Three sets of sincere blue eyes looked at him earnestly and promised that they would. “And that means eating your vegetables without complaint too.” Scott added.
Scott heard his brother chuckle as Enrique protested. “Do I have to? I don’t like em.”
“They’re good for you and besides, if you eat them your father will eat them too.” Scott had to bite his lip to keep from bursting out in laughter at the look on Johnny’s face.
“Thanks brother.” Johnny said quietly.
“Anytime, brother.” Scott responded.
“How ‘bout we lope on up to that grove of oak trees. It’s nice and gentle and then we can start back.”
“Let’s go!” Enrique yelled tapping his heels against his pony’s side to get him moving.
Scott held back while Johnny and his son started up the gradual incline leading to the trees. “Ready honey? Hold on.” He started his horse in a slow lope and looked down at his daughter as her pony increased the speed of its pile driver trot.
“Daaaddy….” Elizabeth called as she held onto the saddle horn with both hands.
“Kick him Beth.”
“I’m trying…. He won’t lope.” She complained.
Scott slowed his horse and gave the pony a slap with the end of his rein which had the desired affect. For one brief moment, he was afraid it was too much as the pony suddenly surged forward, but it quickly slowed to a rocking horse lope which had Beth smiling with pleasure.
As Scott and Beth joined Johnny and Enrique at the top of the hill, Enrique whopped, “That was fun! Let’s do it again!”
“No…no.” Johnny chuckled at his son’s enthusiasm. “We better start back. I was warned that bad things would happen to me if we were late.” He looked at Scott with just a hint of a smile, “You said once that I wouldn’t live past 30, and if we’re late, that just might come true.”
Scott chuckled but as they started back to the ranch, he mulled over those words he spoke so many years ago.
He rode mechanically, his right hand holding his daughter’s lead rein and his mind went back 10 years to a time when Johnny and Murdoch had argued. Johnny left seeing no future for himself at Lancer.
Scott had found him in the saloon nursing a drink and he’d tried to get Johnny to come home, square it with the old man. But Johnny refused. Scott remembered his anger when Johnny said he was going south to hire out his gun. Then he felt shame as he remembered his next words, ‘You’ll be dead before you’re 30.’ Johnny’s indifference chilled him when he replied, ‘It comes to us all don’t it brother?’
As they rode home, those words and the feelings they invoked nudged at him. He wanted to tell his brother he had been wrong. Johnny would leave more than a ripple. With a shrug as he realized they were approaching the pasture leading into the ranch yard, he focused on the here and now. Today was a day the family looked forward to for a long time. He knew Johnny didn’t see what all the fuss was about, but for Murdoch and Scott, there were many times they worried over whether Johnny could make the transition from footloose gunfighter to a family man. That Johnny had done it was a testament to his Lancer stubbornness as there were many times he could have given up easily.
Today was a day to celebrate and even though his brother didn’t have a clue, his family was going to mark the occasion in style.
Sarita pushed a lock of dark hair out of her eyes as she stirred the sauce. Elena had been helping her prepare the family meal. They were having a prime rib which had been roasting slowly all morning. The smells were filtering though the house and twice Murdoch had poked his head in the door to comment on how good it smelled.
They were also having some of Johnny’s favorite Mexican dishes, which she knew he’d enjoy.
“I’m going upstairs to check on the children.” Sarita said as she wiped her hands on her apron. “Please keep an eye on that sauce for me.”
Upstairs Sarita was relieved to hear no sounds coming from the children’s room. She eased the door open and smiled at the sight of the two children sound asleep. She moved closer to the bed and saw that Juliana’s face was slightly flushed. Sarita frowned as she felt her daughter’s forehead. She felt slightly warm and Sarita hoped she wasn’t coming down with something. For good measure, she felt Cristian’s forehead, but he felt cool much to her relief.
She quietly left the room hoping they’d stay asleep for another hour so she could get a bit of rest also before Johnny and Enrique returned from their ride. She knew Caroline was resting as well, and she had a brief thought of laying down herself, but the table still needed to be laid and the candlestick holders polished before dinner tonight.
She walked into the living room and smoothed out the tablecloth on the dining room table. She could see a couple of wrinkles in the linen cloth that had been missed when it had been pressed that morning. Smoothing at them didn’t get rid of them and with a sigh she moved the salt and pepper shakers over them and hoped no one noticed.
As she reached for the candlestick holders, she froze as she felt herself being watched. She turned and took in a deep breath as she felt her face flush. “Murdoch, I did not know you were back.”
“I returned a little while ago, my dear. Don’t worry I won’t be in your way while you work.” Something about the tone of his voice caught her attention.
She watched him walk slowly to his leather chair by his desk and heard the leather groan as he sank slowly into it. Part of her wanted to talk to him and part of her wanted to flee into the safety of the kitchen.
Taking a deep breath, she walked into the living room and faced Murdoch. She squared her shoulders and waited until she had his attention. “Murdoch, I know you are disappointed in our decision not to come over for Christmas Eve. I hope you can understand why this is important to us.” She stopped waiting for his reaction. He just looked at her with just a raised an eyebrow which infuriated her. She took a deep breath to calm herself before continuing, “I hope you will not take this out on Johnny as it was my desire to do this, not his.”
Murdoch looked at her with a frown, “I’m sure, my dear, you are not without your charms where my son is concerned, but he is a man who can stand on his own two feet. I have no doubt that this is what he wants too.”
Sarita closed her eyes for a moment and prayed silently, ‘Dios, give me strength.’ She faced the man who had terrified her in her early marriage and saw a lonely old man and a rush of affection came over her in spite of his words. “Murdoch, Johnny has no intention of keeping you out of our lives. Why don’t you come with us to the Posada?”
“No…I don’t think so.”
“What about after mass? We’re going to have a wonderful supper to celebrate. I know it will be late, but you could stay over and have Christmas breakfast with us too.”
“No. I don’t think so.” He said shortly not even giving it consideration.
Sarita felt her anger boil over at this stubborn old man. She stood up and began her tirade, “Why must you be so stubborn? You are like a mule do you know that?” At this point, she was pacing back in front of the desk, her arms punctuating her words.
Not giving him time to answer, she continued, “Ever since I have known you, you’ve been judging me. I know you disapproved of Johnny marrying me. Was it because I am Mexican or because my family is poor?”
That got Murdoch’s attention, “Absolutely not, young lady.” He said firmly. He lowered his voice, “If you want to know the truth. I was afraid.” At the surprised look on her face, he repeated, “Yes afraid. When Johnny went to the Santa Ynez Valley to deliver those mares to your father, we’d had an argument before he left. Looking back, it wasn’t even important, but in those days, he and I bumped heads over almost anything. When we got word he’d married you after only a week, well what was I to think?”
She pondered on how close to the truth Murdoch was. Johnny had been angry with his father back then and he’d considered her father’s offer to stay on their small horse ranch and train horses. That he’d come back spoke volumes to her on just how much Johnny loved his father. Sarita looked at the man in front of her. In spite of his gruff ways, she’d grown to love the old man and she had a flash of insight. “So that is why you were so hard on us. I always wondered if when you saw me you saw Maria. Johnny said I was nothing like her.”
“You reminded me a lot of her. Willful and fiery. You’ve got a tongue and a temper much like Johnny’s mother and frankly I was afraid for the two of you. You barely knew each other and you were both so young.”
“Murdoch, it’s been over 7 years. What do you think now? Do you think I’m going to up and leave my husband like your wife did? Is that what you still think of me?”
“No. I can see how much you love him and he you. It turned out to be a good match. I…er…I just wish you’d reconsider moving back into the house. I know it was because of me Sarita that you felt the need to move. I put too much pressure on you and for that I had no right.”
“Murdoch, I appreciate your offer and we both know what caused us to make the choice to leave, but you need to understand that we’re happy. We like having our own house and you’re welcome anytime.”
Murdoch frowned and spoke slowly, “I’ll try to come to terms with it, but just remember the offer still stands. Anytime you need anything, you come to me.”
Sarita smiled with genuine pleasure at the new understanding she felt toward her grumpy old father-in-law. She leaned over and gave him a kiss on his cheek. “Gracias.” She left the room quickly so he wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes.
Johnny leaned back in his chair and wished he could let his belt out a notch without drawing attention to himself. He was stuffed with all his favorite foods and his father had brought out a bottle of wine he had been saving for a special occasion. While Johnny didn’t particularly like wine, he had to admit this one went down real smooth.
He looked up at the sound of his brother tapping a crystal glass with his knife. “I’d like to propose a toast.” Scott waited until everyone had taken up their glasses. For this occasion, space had been made at the family table for all the children except Cristian who had been fed earlier and put down to sleep. The three children held up glasses of milk imitating their parents, which brought a smile to more than one face.
“Now some of us doubted that this day would ever come. It seemed many times as my dear brother Johnny pulled one wild stunt after another that it was a miracle he survived another year. In fact….” Scott stopped for dramatic effect to make sure he had everyone’s attention, “It’s a miracle Murdoch and I survived through some of his antics.” He stopped and held up a hand as he saw Johnny was getting ready to protest, “Need I start listing them brother? Jumping on top of a train, antagonizing a bull, betting Frank you could ride Barranca at a lope standing on his back….I could go on…” He waited and fought a smile at his brother’s expression.
“That’s alright Scott. We don’t have all night, and everybody’s arms gettin’ tired from holdin’ their glass up so long.”
“Fine then, now where was I? Oh yes. I remember where I was going with this. We all wondered if this day would ever come. So what was the change? What made the difference and caused this wild, footloose cowboy to settle down? There’s only one answer to that and I think it’s appropriate that we give credit where credit is due.” He paused once again and enjoyed the look on his brother’s face as he braced himself for wherever his older brother was taking this. “So tonight I propose a toast to Sarita, for putting up with his stubbornness, his antics, and for making my brother happier than I’ve ever seen him in my life.”
There was a slight pause and then Murdoch raised his glass to Sarita, “Here, here.”
Everyone raised their glasses and toasted Sarita much to her surprise and Johnny gave her knee a little squeeze. He was rewarded with her special smile reserved only for him.
Scott took the floor once again, “So brother, tonight I wish you a very Happy Birthday and many more to come.”
The Lancer dining room rang with the sound of family wishing one of their own a Happy Birthday.
Chapter 3 : Christmas 1880
Johnny heard Sarita stir as he got up from their warm nest in front of the fireplace in the front room. As quietly as he could he stirred the warm embers, and added enough kindling to coax the flames. He watched as they licked the dry wood and waited for them to take hold. As they began burning through the fuel, he added another seasoned oak log and carefully closed the grate.
Turning, he sank back down into the hollow where his body had rested next to his wife. He arranged to blankets over them once again and watched as the morning sun fell across Sarita’s face. Her long dark hair was spread over her pillow and Johnny had to use all his self control to keep from waking her.
His heart thrummed with happiness as he thought over the past evening’s festivities. The children had all taken a nap the afternoon before, even Enrique who felt that at six, he was too old. Once the children were asleep, he and Sarita had taken a rare siesta as both knew they’d be up until 2 or 3 in the morning.
He saw his wife stir once again fighting against waking up, and he smiled as the old rooster crowed off in the distance as he’d been doing for the last hour. He knew he should get up and start his chores. The stock needed to be fed and turned out, but somehow, he just couldn’t bring himself to get up and lose the contentment he felt.
His thoughts were interrupted when his wife sleepily whispered, “Buenos dias, mi corazón.”
He smiled and leaned over giving her a kiss gently at first; leaving her with a promise for later, “Feliz Navidad, Querida.”
Her smile left him breathless for a moment as he reached for her, but sounds of small feet upstairs reminded him they would soon be joined by their noisy brood.
“I’ll hold you to that, my husband.” She replied. Her eyes sparkled with love and a spirit that caused Johnny’s heart to soar.
“You can collect anytime, mi esposa” Challenge met and answered.
As the sounds of doors opening upstairs got louder, the couple righted their night dresses, and prepared themselves for the arrival of their children. Long moments went by when they realized the children had been corralled upstairs by Sarita’s parents.
With a chuckle, Johnny stood up and helped his wife to her feet. He gave her another kiss and an affectionate pat on her bottom. “We should get dressed…quick.”
Together, they quickly donned their clothing as the front room was warmed by the now roaring fire. As Sarita left to start breakfast, Johnny added another oak log and began folding the covers.
He sat down on the couch, pulled on his boots, and ran a hand over his cheek. ‘I can get by for a few hours without a shave,’ he thought as he had shaved just before heading into town last night. He’d shave when he cleaned up to go to his father’s house later in the day. Shrugging on his coat, he headed out to care for the stock, hurrying to get warm in the still frosty air.
Johnny filled the last hay rack for the few horses in the corral by the barn. Over the last month the corral had been pretty full of horses he’d been training to get the extra money for Christmas. While he was a one third owner in the largest ranch in these parts, cash money was still hard to come by. The cattle market had been down this last year and most of the meager profits had been plowed back into improvements.
He’d taken advantage of the dry weather since Thanksgiving, and the lighter winter work load, to gentle and train a dozen horses that went to the sale last weekend. He smiled in satisfaction that Aggie Addison had paid fifty dollars each for two good young cutting horses he’d started. The rest brought thirty five dollars a head. With four-hundred fifty in folding money, he’d been able to purchase gifts for his family and bank the rest. Most of which would be used to enlarge the house. He hoped the weather would hold and he’d be able to round up another dozen and get them trained and sold before the spring work load started.
As he walked back toward the house, he could see the two fireplaces billowing smoke and he knew Sarita would have a feast waiting for him, as well as a steaming cup of her rich coffee. He smiled as he thought of the look of shock and surprise on Sarita’s face as she saw her parents come out of the old mission church after midnight mass. Sarita and her mother, Marisol both had tears streaming down their faces as they hugged each other tightly.
Sarita’s father, Tomas had gripped his hand tightly as they congratulated themselves on keeping the secret right to the very end. Tomas had not even told his wife they were going north until the very morning they had left, and Johnny had managed to keep the whole thing a secret from Sarita even though she was a little suspicious when he straightened up their bedroom and changed the sheets, remaking the bed fresh that morning.
Johnny stopped outside the kitchen under the shelter used as a porch and scraped the mud off his boots before entering the warm kitchen. Amid greetings of welcome, both young and old, he found his place at the round table and smiled at the assembled brood. The family clasped hands around the table as they bowed their heads. At the whispered amen’s, they each made the sign of the cross and before long the table was filled with huevos rancheros, beans, rice, bacon and ham.
Johnny lifted his coffee cup to his lips and his eyes caught Sarita’s and once again, Johnny felt the contentment he always felt when looking into her eyes.
Caroline smoothed her dress once and for a moment would have sworn she felt a slight bulge. Her blue eyes filled with tears as she felt happiness and hope battle with fear and pain. She had held on to this pregnancy longer than any of the other times and she felt just fine, but she was still afraid to feel hope. She was afraid to experience the joy she knew her sister in law was experiencing as a new life grew inside her. She and Scott had longed for another child for so long that Caroline was afraid to allow too much hope to grow in case her body betrayed her once more and left her devastated.
Shaking off those thoughts, she looked around the table as the adults leaned back in their chairs, full from the feast that adorned the Lancer table. She had found Mr. and Mrs. Verdugo to be pleasant company and had taken pleasure in keeping the secret of their visit.
Murdoch had written to Tomas inviting them to stay a few days at the hacienda and Sarita’s parents had accepted. Johnny had no idea of his father’s invitation and Caroline knew just how surprised and happy he’d be with his father’s generosity.
Murdoch had been grumpy about the changes imposed by Johnny, but a few days ago, he’d become if not content, at least resigned to the new family traditions. She and Scott had wondered about his mood as Murdoch was not a man to change easily. Rather than look a gift horse in the mouth, they decided to take it with the spirit it was given.
Caroline caught Scott’s eye and he nodded slightly. She cleared her throat and spoke just loudly enough for all to hear, “Shall we retire to the living room for coffee and dessert?”
“Can we open our presents now?” Elizabeth asked hopefully from the children’s table.
“What do you think Murdoch? Is it time?” Scott asked trying to keep a serious look on his face at the hopeful looks from his daughter and niece and nephew.
Murdoch bounced Cristian on his lap and looked at the little boy, “What do you say Cristian? Do you want to open your presents?”
The little boy shouted “Si! And struggled to get to the floor to join his siblings in a mad race to the brightly wrapped packages.”
Johnny managed to be the first parent to his feet and he snatched a child in each arm and carried them like sacks of feed, kicking as he deposited them by the packages. He quickly corralled his three and spoke to them quietly, reminding them to mind their manners before they dove into the pile of presents, as the proud grandparents looked on.
Johnny leaned back on the couch and Sarita snuggled next to him as they watched Cristian rock back and forth on the wooden rocking horse Murdoch had made for him. He’d been galloping that horse off and on for the last hour and they figured he’d wear the little fellow out long before he outgrew him at this rate.
The children were out playing and Tomas, Scott, and Murdoch had volunteered to keep an eye on them. Marisol came out of the kitchen drying her hands on her apron just as Murdoch called to Johnny and Sarita from the French door.
“Go on, I’ll keep an eye on our little vaquero.” Marisol assured them.
Johnny and Sarita went outside a bit apprehensive wondering what Enrique had gotten into.
“Son, come on down to the corral for a minute.” Murdoch asked as he wrapped an arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “You too dear.” He smiled at Sarita.
Scott offered his arm and she threw him a questioning look as she threaded her arm through Scott’s and followed obediently to the barn.
“He’s a beauty Murdoch, Where’d ya get him?” Johnny said as his eyes took in the sleek dark yearling colt that was trotting around the enclosure. The colt had a slightly dished head, tiny tipped in ears, long neck set well back into his shoulders and a well muscled set of hind quarters. His color was black, flecked with silver and he had strands of white hairs in his mane and tail. In the middle of the wide, flat, forehead he had a small star of white.
As the colt drew nearer, he tossed his head, snorted at the assembled crowd and arched his neck as he held his tail up proudly. He stood stock still and challenged them with another snort and pawed the ground in challenge.
“He’s sure a proud one, isn’t he Johnny?” Scott remarked as he admired the colt.
Johnny hadn’t taken his eyes off the colt and jumped a bit when his brother poked him in the ribs to get his attention. He finally turned his eyes away from the magnificent colt to see his whole family standing there smiling back at him. Murdoch’s smile graced his whole face and his eyes were lit up in pleasure as he watched Johnny admire the colt.
“He’s a son of Marvelisio. He is our gift to you and Sarita. A fitting herd sire for your fine mares.” Tomas informed a stunned Johnny.
Finally finding his voice, he stumbled over the words, “Gracias Tomas. I’m honored.” Johnny was actually humbled that Tomas Verdugo, a great horse trainer of the old school had gifted him with a fine colt from his own sought after bloodstock of working horses.
Over the years, Johnny had learned a lot about training from Tomas and he’d been grateful for the friendship the man had given him. This gift was more than Johnny had ever imagined and he would make sure this colt grew up and made the Lancer name proud.
“What’re ya gonna call him Pa?” Enrique’s voice interrupted his thoughts.
Johnny’s blue eyes met his son’s and then turned once again to the proud colt. He thought a moment and watched the colt stride around the corral to challenge a few chickens which pecked their way into his territory. As they chuckled over the colt chasing the indignant flock back under the fence, a name came to him. He rolled it around in his mind for a moment.
“Victorio. That’s his name. Victorio.”
“Bueno. I like it.” Sarita held out her hand with a bit of green grass for the colt. As he walked over and stretched his neck out and carefully took the blades of grass, she talked to him, “Victorio. You will grow up to become a fine caballo for a great vaquero.” She smiled at her husband as she said it.
They started moving toward the house, but Murdoch stopped them and motioned toward one of the large outbuildings. “Before we go in, I want to show you something else.”
Johnny looked at his father with curiosity and then at his brother and raised his eyebrows at the look Scott gave him back. He’d long ago recognized his brother’s ‘butter wouldn’t melt’ look and he wondered what they were up to.
Murdoch threw open the doors with a look of satisfaction and motioned Johnny and Sarita inside. As their eyes adjusted to the dark, they saw two wagons backed into the barn laden with lumber.
“This is just a start. Scott and I decided that our Christmas present to you will be the new additions to your home. Since the weather’s holding, I’ve got the carpenters all lined up ready to start right away.” Murdoch stopped as he saw the genuine look of surprise and appreciation on the faces of his son and daughter in law. “Tomas and Marisol will stay the rest of the week here so the additions can start right away.”
Sarita reached Murdoch first and gave him a hug and a peck on the cheek. “Gracias Murdoch. This means so much to us. Gracias.”
Johnny walked up to his father and offered his hand, but was quickly pulled into a hug so that he could only whisper, “Thank you Murdoch.”
“Merry Christmas, Son.”
December 25, 2004
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