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Disclaimer: Lancer and their characters are not mine just love to write and read about them
Many thanks to Janet and Barb for fixing my mistakes and the suggestions which improved the story. Any remaining mistakes belong to me.
Word count: 9,195
Johnny wondered what it would be like this year. He had always been on the outside looking in – no matter if it was on the Mexican side or the Anglo side – nowhere to fit in.
There was certainly a lot of hustle and bustle at the ranch. Teresa was up to her ears in flour and holly and evergreens. She said this would be the best Christmas ever and wanted a piece of everybody’s “traditions” included so they could enjoy our old memories and make new ones.
Johnny was certain that Teresa wouldn’t understand that he really had no Christmas memories. At least, not the kind she was thinking of and that was the problem. How could he explain to his family that he had not celebrated Christmas without it spoiling the celebration for them? He could make up a story, but he was never very good at lying. He also knew that even if he could convince Teresa with a good story, Murdoch and Scott were sure to suspect that it wasn’t true. He couldn’t deal with the thought that they might be upset for him or pity him. Johnny shared very few stories about his past for a number of reasons. Most were just too painful – the only time he thought about them were the times they came unexpectedly, usually in the form of a nightmare. He avoided stories of his life as Johnny Madrid because he feared that his family would feel differently about him if they knew a lot about his former life.
“Don’t know what I’m gonna do about this, but I can’t do anything right now,” he said to himself. With a deep sigh, Johnny got up from under the tree, remounted Barancca and rode on to finish checking the line shacks on the northern boundary of the ranch. There had been a few windstorms over the past week, and Murdoch wanted to make sure the line shacks were intact.
“Are you sure it’s him?”
“As sure as I can be, being the rumor was he was killed in Mexico. If we hadn’t heard that he managed to escape and was up in the San Joaquin area, I woulda been convinced we’d lost our chance. Need to get closer to make sure, but I don’t want to give us away. Let’s just follow for now and see where he’s going. There may be a better chance when he stops or camps for the night.”
It was a bright, crisp day. The air held just enough snap to remind you that it was winter but not so cold that all you wanted to do was finish up your chores and get to the fire in the great room. The sky was a cloudless blue and the sun bounced off the stream that bordered Johnny’s ride to the line shack. The only sounds were the birds answering each other and the rustling in the underbrush of creatures running from one place to the other.
Johnny rode on – still with Christmas on his mind. This was supposed to be a good time of the year. “Let’s see,” he mused, “when was Christmas a good time for me?”
He found himself going back to a time when he was about 7 years old. It was Christmas. There were in one of the towns on the Anglo side of the border. It seemed that everyone but him had somewhere to go and somebody to be with. His mother had gone off to the saloon, telling him that she would be back with food and “maybe a Christmas surprise.” That was about 6 hours ago. It was getting to be midnight and no sign of his mama. Johnny didn’t want to go back to the tiny room his mother had found for them. It was cold and smelly and he was a little afraid of the rat he was sure was living there too.
As he stood in the shadow of the saloon, listening to the loud music and false laughter coming from inside, he heard the sounds of the church bells. The church bells. His mama would bring him to church every once in a while and tell him that it was always a safe place for him to go. Johnny hesitated. Should he leave the place where his mother told him to wait? “Well, would she even know I was gone” the child thought with unusual bitterness? He headed out toward the sound of the bells. As he got closer to the church, he began to lose his nerve. There was a steady stream of people headed toward the church for Midnight Mass. If they saw him, they’d know he didn’t belong there. Should he leave? “Well maybe I’ll sneak around the side and no one will notice,” he thought.
So the seven-year-old went around the side of the church and settled in next to a low window where he could see in, but hopefully, no one would see him.
The church was bright with candlelight and simply decorated. Johnny could see a man and a woman holding a child standing in the back talking with the priest. They were dressed funny and Johnny wasn’t sure what that was all about. The pews were full and his heart ached as he noticed families – parents and children together – waiting for Mass to begin.
“I wish Mama was here.”
“Where is your mother, child?”
Johnny hadn’t realized he had spoken out loud and jumped up at the sound of the strong, male voice.
“I’m, I’m sorry, I’ll go,” he stammered.
“Now, now, there’s no need to go anywhere. I’m Father Michael. I was just getting ready to go in and join Father Paul in Midnight Mass when I saw you. Are you lost? Do you need help?”
Johnny looked up at the man and saw only friendliness and concern in his eyes. The fear he had felt when he first heard the man’s voice was beginning to disappear.
“No Father, I’m not lost. I was just waiting for Mama and she was taking long, so I decided to come over to the church. Is that alright?”
The priest took a closer look at the child. He knew this boy was new to town; he had never seen him before. It was obvious that the boy was of mixed heritage and he wondered if this was the child of the woman that the town gossips had complained about to him.
“Of course, it’s alright, child, but if your Mama can’t be here right now, why not come into the church with me for Mass? We can talk after the service is over.”
Father Michael watched the struggle on the child’s face and was pleased when the decision was made to go inside.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“I’m very glad you’ve decided to spend Christmas Eve with us, Johnny.” The priest smiled down at the small child and led him inside the church.
“Can I ask you something, Father?”
“Of course, Johnny. What is it?”
“Why are that man and lady dressed so funny?”
“Man and lady….oh, you mean… well, they are portraying Mary and Joseph for the Mass. Do you know about Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, Johnny?”
“Oh, yeah, Mama told me all about them and why there is Christmas. I just didn’t think they dressed so funny.”
Father Michael began to laugh and put Johnny in the sacristy so he could be at Mass but not feel alone sitting in the pews.
After the service and when all the parishioners had returned to their homes, Father Michael asked Johnny to come to the rectory to get something to eat. Johnny, however, was thinking about his Mama. What if she came home and he wasn’t there? She would be worried and he didn’t want that to happen. So Father Michael gave him something to take with him and Johnny ran back to the small room where his mother would be waiting.
She wasn’t there.
The memory of that empty room came back to Johnny like a shot and he was brought out of his reverie and to the present.
“Barranca, you’d think that kind of pain would go away,” he said sadly.
Johnny knew that Father Michael had come looking for him the next day. He saw him walking up to the room as he and Maria were leaving with the “new papa” she had met on Christmas Eve. He wanted to call to him to let him know he was okay and that he was glad for the Christmas Eve that had been given to him, but he knew that this would not please his mama, so he turned his head as they rode away.
“Well, maybe Midnight Mass is a tradition I can talk about,” Johnny thought, “I’ve gone every year since then.” He felt a little bit better and urged Barranca into a trot toward the line shack.
“I think we should let him know we’re here.”
“Surprise Johnny Madrid! You’re asking for a hello from a barrel full of lead boy! Let me handle this my way, we’ll meet up with him soon enough.”
Johnny finally reached the shack and climbed down from Barranca. He stretched, looked around and then got to taking care of his horse.
“Maybe, we’ll spend the night, amigo. I’m kinda tired and I’m not looking forward to a ride back tonight. How about you? Wanna rest in this wonderful shed we have here for you?”
The horse’s head bent and nuzzled Johnny’s chest. He laughed and bedded Barranca down for the night.
The cabin was in good shape and there was still daylight left. He could make it back to Lancer, but all the holiday activity there was wearing on Johnny and, even if he now had something he might be able to contribute, he still wasn’t entirely comfortable with the emotions of the holiday. His family wouldn’t expect him, and they knew that he might choose to spend the night at the shack if there was fixing up to do.
“Looks like he’s settling in for the night. Let’s go and let him know we’re here.”
“Hold on boy. I’d rather see him in the light of day. Let’s make camp here. We’ll be ready for him in the morning.”
“Murdoch, I’m going to meet Johnny tomorrow morning. If he stayed overnight there must be more to do up there than we thought.”
“Well, son, there is a lot to do here too. Teresa is going overboard this year for Christmas and while I approve, it involves some extra work,” answered Murdoch. The rancher was sitting at his desk finishing up some paperwork and so didn’t notice the exasperated expression on his son’s face.
“Murdoch, don’t you think that Johnny’s been awfully quiet lately?”
“Quiet? No, I don’t think I’ve noticed anything unusual. Do you think there is something wrong?”
“I’m not sure, but I think he’s been off his feed. He was very quick to volunteer to be the one to go up to the shacks. I’ve been wondering if he wanted to be away from the ranch for a while.”
“I think it might be Christmas,” his son replied.
“Christmas! I’d think he’d be happy for Christmas this year, at home, with family. I just never understand what makes that boy happy,” sighed Murdoch.
“I just think he’s not sure what’s expected of him or how we will celebrate. To tell you the truth, Murdoch, Teresa’s overwhelming me a bit with all her plans for the holiday.”
“I guess she wants this to be perfect for our first Christmas together. Maybe I should speak with her,” said Murdoch.
“No, don’t spoil things for her. I’ll ride up and meet Johnny, see what’s going on. Maybe I’m all wrong,” answered Scott.
“All right, son. Go ahead, make sure things are okay – remember Christmas is only two weeks away, so whatever needs to be taken care of has to be done by then.”
Scott was glad for an excuse to be away from the house for a little while. As pleased as he was that they would all be together this year, Teresa was totally obsessed, and it was beginning to be a little annoying. She was trying too hard. Scott wondered why – what was driving her so. Christmas had always been, well, almost routine to him.
There would be a dinner on Christmas Eve. Sometimes friends of Grandfather would be there, sometimes not. After dinner, Grandfather would call the servants into the dining room, give a speech and hand each one an envelope. Everyone was then given off until the day after Christmas. Grandfather was actually quite generous with that at Christmas time. He said it was the right thing to do, especially since he and Scott would be out for most of Christmas day and they could handle the house by themselves for 24 hours.
The next morning, he would awake and go down to breakfast. After eating, he and Grandfather would admire the tree the servants had decorated. They would open gifts and then go to church services. Only after he had grown a little older and started spending Christmas with friends and their families had he seen some of the joy and good feeling of Christmas that people always talked about.
Teresa wanted one of his “traditions” to include this year? Well, maybe the pinecone decorations for the tree. What made him think of that?
Scott smiled, remembering being about 10 or 11 and sneaking down the stairs the night before Christmas Eve. The tree was always in the living room behind closed doors while the servants worked on it. Scott quietly snuck up to the double doors and slowly pulled one of them open, determined to get an early peek at the tree. All of a sudden, he felt a firm hand on his shoulder.
“Master Scott, may I help you?” It was James, head of the household staff.
“I’m sorry, James. I just wanted to peek.”
James looked down at the boy. He was always so solemn and well-behaved. It was too bad that he didn’t have more contact with children his own age.
“Well, I won’t tell if you don’t,” said James. Would you like to come in and help?”
“Can I?” Scott asked with excitement in his voice.
“You can help with one ornament and then it’s back to bed for you,” said James with a smile.
Every year after that, until the war, Scott would search the tree until he spotted the pinecone ornament he had made. It always made him smile to see it on the tree.
The war changed all that; he seemed to lose interest in decorations and trees. Maybe it would be a good idea to tell Teresa about the pinecone ornament, maybe he could start Christmas all over again. Scott smiled again as he got ready for bed. If Johnny was in the mood, he’d tell him about the ornament tomorrow when they met up.
“Are you going to be in the posada, Juanito?” asked the curly-haired, dark-eyed child standing in front of Johnny.
“I don’t know. I haven’t asked Mama yet,” he answered.
“Well, ask her. The twelve days start the day after tomorrow,” Cecelia said.
“I will,” answered Johnny.
“Mama, can we be in the posada?” Johnny asked with some hesitation.
“The posada! Haven’t we had to look for shelter for real enough times, nino? Why should we play-act it just because it’s Christmas!” Maria answered.
They had been on the Mexican side of the border for about two months now. Maria had found work at the cantina and they were living in a very small house, not much more than a large room, right outside town.
Johnny had actually started going to the small school the nuns were running at the mission and seemed to be making some friends. Maria would often watch him sleeping and vow that she would stick this town out, work hard and give him the life he deserved. She prayed to God for the strength to care for him as he should be cared for, knowing she had failed so many times in the past.
“Why is the posada so important to you?”
“I don’t know. Cecelia asked me if we would do it and I think I want to.” He looked up at her with hope in his eyes.
She looked down at her beautiful boy. “Okay, little one, sí, if you want to do this, we will”, she said with a smile
“Gracias, Mama, gracias, Ti amo”
“Ti amo, my little one,” Maria said as she pulled her son to her.
“Juanito, we have to start. Where is your mama?” asked Susanita.
“Can’t we wait a little? I know she’ll be here,” Johnny said with a worried look down the road. In his heart, he knew Maria would not be there. Last night she had come home late and talked excitedly about the man who had promised to take them to Mexico City – to a large hotel where she could find work. She lifted him up and twirled him around and he smelled the cantina smell and knew they would be leaving here soon.
“We have to go, Juanito. Do you want to walk with us?” Cecelia asked.
“No, I have to find my mama,” Johnny said and walked away from her and her family.
Johnny woke with a start, the sun beating into his eyes. Just a dream. Must be all this talk about Christmas. Better get up and tend to Barranca.
He walked out of the cabin toward the shed. As he walked, he heard a loud shrill cry. Johnny turned to look and froze as a large mountain cat, obviously wounded, charged toward him. There was no time to react. The cat jumped at Johnny, knocking him to the ground. He struggled against the animal but felt the large claw tear at his chest. Johnny tried to turn to protect himself, but his movement only seemed to enrage the cat which clawed even more viciously at his side and back.
The pain was excruciating and Johnny could feel the blood soaking his shirt. He tried to maneuver himself away from the animal and as he did was confused by the sound of a gunshot. He was trying to figure out what was happening when he passed out.
“Murdoch, why did Scott go to the line shacks? I thought Johnny was taking care of that,” asked Murdoch’s ward.
“Well, since Johnny didn’t come home last night, Scott thought that there might be more damage to the line shacks than we anticipated and Johnny might need some help,” answered Murdoch.
“I was hoping he’d be around to help me get ready for Christmas. I’m afraid I won’t get done in time. There is so much to do.” Teresa stood before Murdoch wringing her hands, with a worried expression on her face.
“Teresa, come here. Why are you so anxious about the holiday this year.” Murdoch asked gently.
“Anxious? What makes you think I’m anxious,” she asked.
“You’ve been running around decorating, baking, wrapping presents like this is the last time we’ll ever have Christmas,” Murdoch said. “Tell me what’s going on.”
“Oh, Murdoch, I want this to be the best Christmas we’ve ever had. The boys are here, everyone is safe, Pa…..”
Teresa stopped with a gasp. Why had she said “Pa?” Her father had been dead for over a year, this would not be the first Christmas without him. She turned to Murdoch with tears in her eyes.
“Darling, come here. I miss him too,” Murdoch said softly. “Is all this to help you forget that your father won’t be with us?”
“Murdoch, I don’t know why I said that, but I miss him.” Teresa sobbed.
Murdoch took her in his arms. “It’s alright, Teresa, he is always with us. He loved you so and he was the best friend I ever had and the best man I ever knew. Relax. We’ll all get through Christmas together. It will be alright.”
Scott had gotten an early start and was riding up into the line shack when he heard the shot. He urged Remmie on and came upon two men hovering over his brother. Scott drew his rifle and pointed it at the strangers.
“What are you doing here? What happened to my brother?” he yelled as he rode up to them.
“This here your brother? You better come quick – he’s been attacked by a wild cat,” answered one of the men.
Scott could see that they were trying to stop the bleeding and no guns were drawn. He jumped off Remmie. He blanched as he looked at his pale, inert brother, who seemed to be bleeding from everywhere. Over to the side Scott could see the dead body of a mountain lion. He did not understand why these two were here but he needed to focus on Johnny and to get him safe.
“Johnny, Johnny, can you hear me?” he whispered anxiously into his brother’s ear. There was no response.
“I think you need to get him to a doctor right away,” said the younger of the two men standing over Johnny and Scott.
“Go into the shack. There’s a medical kit under the cot. We need to stop this bleeding,” said Scott as he gently turned his brother, checking on the injury to his back.
The younger man ran to the shack and returned with the kit.
They watched as Scott wrapped the bandages around Johnny’s wounds. His brother moaned with pain at each touch, but he did not wake up.
Scott finished and sat back on his heels, looking down at his brother. There was some bleeding through the bandages but not too much and he hoped that the pressure was working and that the bleeding had been slowed till he could get him to Sam.
Scott turned his attention to the two men. He realized that one of the “men” wasn’t much more than a boy, maybe 15 or 16.
“We need to get him into the line shack,” Scott said. The three gently lifted Johnny and carried him into the shack, and put him on the cot.
A decision needed to be made. His brother needed Sam and needed him fast, but right now, there was no way to get Johnny to him safely.
“I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing on our land, but right now, I need someone to get to my father, let him know what happened, get a wagon up here and a message to the doctor to meet us at the ranch,” said Scott.
“I can go, Pa,” the younger of the two said.
Scott looked at the boy’s father and saw the short nod of his head. He turned to the boy- “You need to go to the Lancer Ranch…”
“I saw that name when we were riding here. I can find it,” he said with confidence.
Scott said, “It’s about an hour’s ride. We’re at the northern end of the ranch. Follow the stream back to where it forks off to the left. You can see the arch at the entrance to the house from there. Murdoch Lancer is my father – tell him we need a wagon and to send someone for Sam.”
The boy was moving to his horse before Scott was done talking.
“I can get there in less time than that,” he said.
“Be careful, Josh. You won’t help Johnny if something happens to you,” his father cautioned.
“I will,” the boy yelled as he rode away.
Scott turned again to Johnny. “Johnny, Johnny, wake up, brother. Can you hear me?”
There was no response.
Scott sighed and covered his eyes.
The boys’ father spoke. “My name is Frank Ford. I’ve been looking for your….for Johnny Madrid for a couple of months. Me and my son followed him up here yesterday but decided to wait until this morning to meet up with him. We were riding up to the shack when we saw the cat pounce. I rode in close and got off a shot but not before—” the man stopped, not knowing what more to say.
“Why were you looking for Madrid,” Scott asked with some suspicion.
“Well, first maybe you’ll tell me who you are and who your brother is? Maybe I’ve made a mistake. I was looking for Johnny Madrid and as far as I know, he never had a brother,” answered Ford.
Scott sighed. Who was this man, and why was he looking for Johnny? Usually, someone looking for Madrid only meant trouble. But this man and his boy didn’t seem to pose any threat and Scott realized that he should be grateful to them for shooting the cat. Otherwise, Johnny would be dead.
“Mr. Ford, this is my brother, Johnny Lancer. I’m Scott Lancer. This is also Johnny Madrid, but he doesn’t go by that name anymore,” explained Scott.
“Well, Mr. Lancer, when I knew him, he was Johnny Madrid and helped my family out at a really bad time. We had a very small farm down around the New Mexico/Texas border. It was myself, my wife Abigail, Josh, and our new baby girl, Cassandra. Well, one day, about three years ago, this skinny, tired boy came riding to the ranch asking if he could water his horse and bed down for the night in the barn. My wife had just given birth to Cassandra and they were both doing poorly.
We didn’t have a doctor around and there was no midwife around to help Abby. I wanted to tell this stranger to move on, but Abby convinced me that letting him rest wouldn’t do any harm. He was very polite, but when he got down from the horse and I got a good look at him, I noticed his gun and knew he was a gunfighter.
“I have to tell you, Mr. Lancer, it was a strange feeling. I knew this had to be a dangerous man, but he was so quiet, kinda shy and grateful that it just didn’t fit. Anyway, the next morning, he asked if there was anything he could do around the farm to help out – sorta as payment for letting him stay. Cassandra had gotten worse during the night, so I sent him off to tend to the milk cow so I could stay behind and help with the baby. It didn’t do any good – we lost Cassandra that morning.” Ford paused, remembering the pain of losing his daughter.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Ford,” Scott said softly.
“It’s Frank and thank you,” he answered. “Anyway, we lost the baby. I was very bitter and felt like giving up on everything. The farm was real hard work; it was a struggle to make it go. Abby wasn’t recovering from the childbirth and I was at my wit’s end. She needed someone to take care of her, Josh needed someone to take care of him and the farm needed taking care of.
“Johnny stepped right in, took care of the farm ‘til Abby was feeling a little better and looked after Josh the whole time. I’m not sure we could have gotten through as well as we did if he hadn’t stayed around to help.”
“What made you come looking for him?” asked Scott.
“Well, Abby never did get her strength full back and she passed on about 8 months ago. I decided to sell out and join my brother up in Seattle. Josh and I were clearing out the house when I found a note Abby had written to Johnny. Told Josh about it and he made me stash it in my saddlebag before we left. I don’t know why exactly. I guess the letter was just a connection to Abby. I had heard that Johnny had been executed by the rurales because he had helped in some revolution or something. I really thought he was dead. Anyway, the further north we came, the more rumors we heard that Johnny had escaped. I promised Josh we would try and find him, if we could, on our way to my brother’s place. Everywhere we stopped, Josh would ask if anyone knew anything about Johnny Madrid. When we were in Stockton, we heard he was in this area, and so that’s why we ended up here. It was just dumb luck that we saw him riding as we came up the trail from Morro Coyo. I knew it was him just by the way he sat the saddle. Could have called out to him then, but I wanted to wait until the morning… maybe if I had called him then, this wouldn’t have happened.” Frank looked over at Johnny with regret.
“I’m just glad you came when you did. You save his life, you know,” Scott said gently.
“That kinda remains to be seen, doesn’t Mr. Lancer?” Frank replied.
“It’s Scott and I know he’s going to be alright,” said Scott with more conviction than he felt.
Johnny could hear voices. He was confused. //Wasn’t he at the line shack? Hadn’t he come up there alone? Who was talking? Why did he feel like he was on fire? One of the voices – soundedfamiliar, Scott?// Scott? Was he talking out loud?
“Hold on, brother it’s me. I’m here. You had a little run in with a cat. How are you feeling?”
It was difficult to speak – “a cat?”
“Yep, looks like he was wounded in a fight with another animal and decided to take it out on you,” answered Scott. “Don’t worry though, he’s dead.”
“Nice shooting, brother,” Johnny said weakly.
“Not me, a friend of yours took care of him, Frank Ford?”
Ford, Ford, the name sounded familiar to Johnny, he couldn’t quite place….oh yeah, now he remembered.
“Josh,” he said with a small smile.
The young man galloped into the ranch and pulled his horse up before a little old guy who was pitching hay into the barn.
“Hold up there, young fella. What’s your hurry?” he asked.
“I need a wagon and a doctor up at the north line shack and in a hurry,” Josh yelled.
“Who are you? What’s going on?” Jelly asked.
“Johnny’s been hurt and he needs help,” the youngster yelled back, impatient with the questions.
“Jelly, what’s going on?” Murdoch had heard the commotion.
“This here boy is saying Johnny’s hurt up at the line shack, Boss,” answered the handyman.
“Hurt, how?” Murdoch felt panic rising.
“Cat attacked him; we need a wagon, and the man up there said to have the doc meet us at the ranch,” Josh explained.
“Jelly, get the wagon ready. Send Frank into town for Sam but tell him to go directly up to the shack. It’ll be faster,” Murdoch ordered.
“Come on, boy, the wagon will follow,” Murdoch said as he mounted his horse and headed off toward the shack.
Johnny was awake. He was in a great deal of pain, but he was conscious. He was still confused about what had happened. The last thing he clearly remembered was waking up alone at the line shack and getting ready to go out to take care of Barranca. He didn’t understand why Scott was there or why Frank Ford was there, and he was too much in pain to try and figure it all out.
“How are you doing, Johnny?” asked Scott, the concern evident in his voice.
“Had worse, Boston,” his brother answered. “Want to tell me what happened?”
“Well, since you didn’t come home last night, I figured there was more work than we thought, and so I told Murdoch I was riding up today to give you a hand,” Scott began.
“Wanted to get away from all the hubbub, too, huh?” interrupted Johnny.
Despite the pain, Scott knew he was in, he could see the teasing in Johnny’s eyes.
“You were feeling that too, little brother?” asked Scott and was rewarded with a nod and the effort to smile from his brother.
“Anyway, heard a shot as I was riding up and came upon you on the ground, a dead cat alongside you and two men, well a man and a boy standing over you. I tell you, brother, it’s never dull around you,” said Scott as he felt Johnny’s brow, hoping that he wouldn’t find the fever that usually accompanied any injury Johnny suffered. Scott sighed as he realized that this time wasn’t to be any different and a fever was indeed brewing in his brother.
“Don’t, don’t … understand why… Frank is here.” Johnny was beginning to fade.
“Hey now, we can talk about that later. Try to get some rest.”
Frank had stayed outside, wanting to give Scott some time with his brother. He also wanted to keep a lookout for his son. It was coming up on about two hours since Josh had ridden off. He had been a little hesitant about sending him off in strange country but he knew there was no choice.
There was no sign of his son and he went back into the shack and asked how Johnny was doing.
“He’s in a lot of pain and I think a fever’s starting. I hope that wagon gets here soon,” answered Scott.
As he spoke, they heard the sound of horses coming. They went to the door and saw Josh and Murdoch riding up.
“Scott?” Murdoch’s question hung in the air as he dismounted.
“He’s hurt, Murdoch. Cat clawed him up pretty good and I think a fever’s starting, ” answered Scott. “Where’s the wagon?”
“It should be here soon. I sent Frank into town for Sam and told him to meet us up here. Where’s Johnny?”
Scott led Murdoch over to his son. By this time, the fever was evident on Johnny’s face and there was additional bleeding through the bandages.
“Johnny, Johnny, can you hear me, son?”
//More voices – who was that? Sounded like the old man. What was Murdoch doing here. Everytime I fall asleep somebody new is here when I wake up.//
Johnny struggled to open his eyes but the effort was too much and he fell back into a fevered sleep.
“We need to keep him cool, Scott; Sam should be here soon,” Murdoch said, looking around for a canteen of water.
Frank walked over with the canteen and a clean rag and handed them to Murdoch.
“Murdoch, this is a friend of Johnny’s, Frank Ford. Josh is his son,” said Scott. He then explained why the Fords were at the line shack and how they had prevented the cat from mauling Johnny to death.
“I’m grateful to you, Mr. Ford. My son might not be here today if it wasn’t for your quick reaction.”
“No need for gratitude, Mr. Lancer. My family owes a lot to your son,” answered Frank. Just then, they heard horses. Sam and Jeb had arrived.
“Sam, thank God! I think a fever’s starting,” said Murdoch as he hurried the doctor into the room.
Sam did an initial assessment of his patient.
“Good job with the bandages, Scott, they seem to have slowed down the bleeding. You’re right about the fever. I’m going to need to clean these wounds out thoroughly, especially since they were caused by an animal, higher chance of infection,” said Sam. “It’s not going to be pleasant for him, Murdoch, but it has to be done.”
Murdoch nodded in agreement while his heart rebelled against the pain he knew his son would soon feel.
“I want to try and wake him and explain what I’m going to do, Murdoch. I don’t want to be in the middle of stitching the wound and have him awake and thrash around and rip them open. I’ll need someone to help hold him, but I’d like to talk with him alone if I can get him awake.” said Sam.
“Doc,” Frank Ford spoke up. Murdoch quickly explained to Sam who Frank and Josh were.
“Doc, if he wakes up, can we have a minute with him before you start anything?” asked Frank.
Sam looked to Murdoch for some direction. Murdoch nodded his head.
“All right, Mr. Ford, but it will need to be quick,” agreed Sam.
Sam then leaned over the cot, quietly calling to Johnny.
Johnny had been hearing distant voices and was fighting to regain consciousness. He needed to confirm that his father was actually there and now he was sure he had heard Sam -// how did everyone get here? This was a very confusing day.//
Finally, he was able to open his eyes; yes, there was his father and Scott both looking very worried and Sam was there smiling down at him but with that “doctor look” that Johnny had grown to know so well.
“How are you doing, Johnny?” asked Sam.
“I’m doing okay, Sam. How did you get here?” asked Johnny.
“Tell you about that later. Right now we need to do some work – you’ll need stitches and I’m going to have to clean those wounds. Do you understand, Johnny?” asked Sam.
“Yeah,” answered Johnny with resignation.
“Well, I’m going to get my supplies together, but while I’m doing that, there are some folks here who want to see you for a bit,” said Sam.
With that, he motioned Frank and Josh over to the side of the cot.
“Josh, never thought I’d see you again,” said Johnny but with some difficulty.
“Same here, Johnny. Seems like it was pure dumb luck that Pa and I came up on you,” answered the youngster.
“Okay, Josh, don’t tire him out. Johnny, I’m glad we found you. Abby had a letter for you that she must have written before she died. We found it when we were clearing out the house. Josh wanted us to take it and try to find you if we could. I’m going to leave it with your father so that you can read it when you get well,” said Frank.
“Abby died?” Johnny closed his eyes, remembering the small, pretty, gentle woman who had convinced her husband to let him stay that night. He remembered the sorrow of the baby’s death but the strength of the woman who ensured that her husband and son would be all right.
“I’m sorry, Frank,” Johnny whispered.
“I know, Johnny,” he answered.
His voice getting weaker, Johnny called out to Josh. “You remember what I told you?”
“I do, Johnny, I do,” the boy answered.
Johnny smiled weakly and nodded.
Sam came back into the room. Frank and Josh left.
“I’m about ready. Johnny, are you?” asked Sam gently.
Johnny nodded and then, “Sam?” It was barely a whisper.
“Sam, I’m tired of hurting.”
Sam paused and looked down at Johnny, who was now fading back into sleep, a sleep which he would soon disturb with what needed to be done. He was a little startled by Johnny’s remark. Johnny rarely complained. Sam felt a pang of sadness, thinking that Johnny’s “hurts” were more than just physical.
Frank and Josh waited while Scott and Murdoch helped Sam. Johnny, blessedly had passed out after just a few minutes of Sam cleaning out the wounds, so the doctor was able to work a little quicker, knowing that Johnny was not feeling anything. At last, it was over and Johnny was resting relatively easily. The fever was still there but Sam was hoping that it had been caught in time and it would not get out of control.
Scott and Murdoch went outside to where Frank and Josh had been waiting beside the campfire they had started, talking with the two Lancer ranch hands who had arrived with the wagon.
“How is he, Mr. Lancer?” asked Josh.
“He’s resting, Josh. As soon as Sam tells us we can move him, we’ll get him back to the ranch. He always does better when he’s athome,” answered Murdoch.
“Well, we’ll be heading out first thing in the morning,” said Frank. “I explained to Johnny that I had this letter for him from my wife. I’m not sure when she wrote it. I never told her that I had heard he had been executed in Mexico, so as far as she knew, he was still alive. I’m glad we were able to deliver it. I hope he’s going to be okay.”
“You are welcome to stay at the ranch for as long as you want,” said Murdoch. “I’ll always be grateful for what you both did for my son.”
“Appreciate the offer, but my brother is waiting for us to get to his place.”
“At least come back with us for a day or two, get some good table food and a solid night’s rest in a real bed before you head out again,” said Murdoch.
Frank looked at Josh and knew that he would be happy if his father took up Murdoch’s offer and so he agreed to spend a night at the ranch.
About three hours later, Sam decided Johnny could be put in the wagon and taken to the ranch. Johnny had been restless and the fever was still an issue, but Sam felt that he would do better in his own bed rather than on the cot in the drafty line shack.
Murdoch, Scott and Sam carefully lifted him into the wagon. Sam wanted Johnny more on his side than his back so that the stitches could be protected. Scott climbed into the wagon to support his brother. Barranca and Remmie were tied to the back and began the journey home.
Teresa and Jelly had kept anxious watch and as soon as they heard the wagon approaching, they went out to meet it.
“Murdoch?” asked Teresa.
“We have him, Teresa. Sam’s here and taking care of him,” Murdoch answered.
“I have his room ready,” she answered and turned back into the house.
“Boss, how is he?” Jelly watched as Murdoch and Scott carefully carried Johnny from the wagon to the house.
“He was cut up pretty badly by a cat and he has a fever. Sam says the next couple of days will tell the tale,” replied Murdoch and Jelly could hear the worry in his voice.
The next two days were touch and go. Johnny’s fever would spike, go back down, and spike again. Sam, leaving word at his office where he could be reached in case of any emergency, had stayed at the ranch knowing that Johnny’s fever was dangerous and wanting to be close at hand to deal with it. Finally, there was a change. Johnny broke out in a sweat and his breathing became more regular. The next sign Sam wanted was Johnny waking up, being aware of his surroundings and able to communicate with his family. Sam was resting in the Lancer’s guest room when Scott came to him with the news that Johnny seemed to be waking up.
“Hello, Johnny. How are you feeling?” Scott and Sam heard Murdoch asking as they walked into the room.
“Seems…. like I’m a… little sore,” answered Johnny.
// A little sore // Scott thought. // That’s an understatement, I’m sure //.
“Do you remember what happened?” asked Sam.
“I remember what people told me happened,” answered Johnny.
“Well, that’s good enough,” smiled Sam. “I think you’re going to be fine. You’ll be really sore for a while and I don’t want you up and around just yet just to make sure that you don’t reopen those stitches.”
“How long?” Johnny asked.
“Oh, I think you can be up by Christmas,” laughed Sam, knowing that the week until the holiday would seem like an eternity to his patient.
Frank and Josh hesitated by Johnny’s door. Scott looked up, saw them and motioned them in.
“Looks like you have company, little brother. I’ll give you some time,” he said, smiling at the Fords.
“Hello, Johnny. Good to see you awake,” said Frank.
“Guess I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you two, thanks,” said Johnny quietly.
“Wish we coulda got there before the cat, Johnny, but I’m glad you’re going to be okay. We’re getting ready to head out and just wanted to say good-bye before we left,” said Frank.
“You sure you want to go? I know Murdoch would have work for both of you if you wanted to stay,” offered Johnny.
“I appreciate the offer but I’m looking forward to joining my brother; he says that the logging business is good honest work. I’m done with trying to make a farm go and with Abby gone, there’s no reason to stay around here, so we’ll be moving on”, answered Frank.
Johnny nodded his understanding.
“You take care Josh. You remember what we talked about?” asked Johnny again.
“I’ll always remember it, Johnny. I’m glad we got to see you again and your father has Ma’s letter for you when you are up to reading it,” answered Josh.
Father and son left Johnny alone with his thoughts.
“Yes, Johnny,” answered his father.
“Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve – do you think I could get to Midnight Mass?” asked Johnny.
“Are you sure you’re up to it, son, it’s only been a week. I don’t want to risk anything with those stitches,” began Murdoch..
“I’ll be fine, Murdoch. I’ll just be sitting in a pew!” said Johnny with a little more ‘edge’ to his voice than he meant.
Murdoch smiled. It was good to see his son’s spirit returning. “Well, I was thinking more about the ride to the mission and back, son. Sam’s due out this afternoon. How about we let him make the final decision?”
“Fine, with me,” answered Johnny, sure he could convince Sam that he was up to the trip.
“Well, Murdoch, from a strictly medical point of view, I’d rather he spend another day or two in bed, but from a psychological point of view, it seems that it’s important to Johnny that he does this and at this point, I think telling him he couldn’t go would do more harm than good.” Sam had just come from examining Johnny and was reporting to Murdoch on his progress.
“Okay, Sam, we’ll take him in. Do you have plans for Christmas Day dinner?
“If that’s an invitation Murdoch, I accept,” the doctor said with a twinkle in his eye.
The Lancers returned to the ranch after Midnight Mass, each with a unique reaction to the experience.
Teresa had been to Midnight Mass before with her father. She was happy to be there again and felt a connection to her father this night, this Christmas Eve.
Murdoch had initially been so worried about Johnny and the possibility that this might be too much for him too soon that he wasn’t reacting to the service at all. However, he relaxed as he realized that Johnny seemed fine and Sam was right – this was a good thing for his son.
When he was able to focus on the Mass, he remembered long ago attending the service with Maria. The memory of this night was bittersweet and didn’t have the hurt usually associated with memories of her. The most important thing to him now was that his sons were with him despite the hurt of the past.
Scott too, was a little worried that the wagon ride would be too hard on Johnny. His brother told him, in no uncertain terms, that he was ‘fine’ and to stop fussing. Scott laughed – glad that Johnny was well enough to be ornery. Scott had attended Midnight Mass before, with friends in Boston and fellow soldiers on the battlefield. Tonight he found the service particularly beautiful because he was with his family.
Johnny was very glad his family had agreed to his going to the Mass. For so many years, it had been what he did to remind him that there was a safe place for him if he needed it, that it was a constant in his life of uncertainty and that he could feel peace at least for a time.
Christmas Day, Johnny stayed in bed for breakfast. The trip had taken a little out of him, although he’d never admit it. His family knew it too, but they’d never bring it up to him. They all had just silently agreed that he needed his rest to be able to enjoy the Christmas dinner that had been planned and let it go at that.
There was also the matter of Abby’s letter. It had lain on the bedside table since the Fords had left. Everyone, except Johnny, it seemed, was consumed with curiosity about the contents of the letter but Johnny seemed reluctant to read it. Scott brought it up when he went up to pick up his brother’s breakfast tray.
“Enjoy breakfast in bed, brother?” teased Scott.
“I could get used to it,” Johnny replied.
“Seriously, Johnny, how are you feeling?”
“I’m doing okay, Scott, just a little sore. I’ll be fine for dinner,” answered Johnny.
“Good” …I see that Abby’s letter remains unopened, brother. Don’t you think you should see what it says?” asked Scott gently.
“I don’t know, Scott. It seems strange to read something from someone who died,” answered his brother.
“Well, the Fords went to a lot of trouble to make sure you got it. I’ll admit I’m curious about what it says. Don’t you think Christmas might be a good day to read it?” he asked.
“How about you read it for me?” Johnny asked. He hoped that someone else reading it would distance him a little from the emotion of it all.
“If you’re sure, I’ll be glad to,” his brother answered.
Scott went over, picked up the envelope, opened it and began to read:
I’m not sure if you will ever get this letter but I feel I need to write it. Maybe someday you’ll ride back this way and I’ll be able to give it to you, or maybe I’ll find a place where I can send it. Anyway, I hope that you’ll get it sometime.
It’s Christmas Eve. The house is finally quiet. Frank and Josh are in bed and I am finishing up for Christmas. Christmas always causes me to think over the year – the good and the bad. One of the good things was you being at the farm when you were. It’s been five months since we lost our precious baby girl. I don’t think I will ever forget the tenderness you showed when you helped Frank take care of burying Cassandra that day.
I am so grateful that you helped with the farm and let Frank spend time with me – it was so hard to let Cassandra go. Frank was such a comfort, although I knew he was hurting. Not having to worry about the farm chores getting done made it a little easier for him to spend time with me.
But the most important thing was the talk you had with Josh. Frank whispered to me the first night you came that you were a gunfighter and I knew that Josh was impressed with all that. I never worried about you being around, but I did worry that Josh might find your life exciting. You didn’t know, but I overheard you talking with him, explaining how hard a gunfighter’s life can be. I know you taught him, maybe without even knowing, that a gunfighter’s life is not one you choose and that a gun’s best use is in defense of your family. He’s a good boy, and he liked you so much – what you told him meant something. Thank you.
As I think of you tonight, my Christmas wish is that you find a place where you are safe and loved and at home.
Take care always.
There was silence as Scott finished reading the letter.
Finally, he spoke, “that was a beautiful letter, brother. You should be proud.”
Not hearing a response from his brother, he looked over and smiled to see that Johnny had fallen asleep again. Scott laid the letter back down on the bedside table and went downstairs to help prepare for their guests. He knew Johnny would read the letter when he was ready.
It was a happy group gathered around the table with the Lancers. Jelly, Val, Sam, Maura and Jim Talbot, and Aisling and Nuala Carlin were joining them for Christmas dinner. The table was filled with good food, the glasses with good wine and the guests with good conversation. Sam kept an eye on Johnny, who, despite still feeling really sore was at the table with his family, enjoying the day. Sam was satisfied that this was the best medicine for him at the moment.
Murdoch sat at the head of the table, not remembering when he felt more peaceful and content with his life. He tapped at the side of his dish with a fork and stood up to talk with his family and friends.
“I want to thank you all for sharing this day with us. This is the first Christmas we’ve had as a family since my boys came home and all of you here have shared the joy and … and the exasperation of these past few months.”
Everyone laughed, knowing the adjustments this “new family” had to make and were continuing to make.
“Teresa wanted us all to share a tradition this year and I think we’ve succeeded. There is a lighted candle in the window, waiting for the Holy Family – that is a tradition passed on to Teresa from her father whose family brought it with them when they came from Ireland.
“Last night, after Midnight Mass, the Lancer men brought the Yulelog into the house and placed it near the fireplace. This is a tradition from my homeland, one I did every Christmas Eve with my father and brothers. Our tree is decorated with pinecones. This is part of Scott’s tradition and a reminder of his Christmases as a child.
“Midnight Mass was Johnny’s contribution to the day and we plan to save a present each to open on the Epiphany, which is what we did when he was a baby.
“All of these traditions are important but the most important tradition is the one we start tonight. A family together, surrounded by friends, all of us safe, loved and at home, honoring the birth of our Savior. I raise my glass in a toast to you all. Merry Christmas.”
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One thought on “Christmas Past, Christmas Present by Sue”
I’ve read this. Fore and found it again. Lovely story.