This story was so much fun to write because we were working together. We want to thank Carmela for all the care she took with editing the story. We really appreciate it. And thanks to those at Lancer Writers who read the story in chapters and gave us feedback. It means a lot to us.
We appreciate all feedback.
The Marys wish you a very Merry Christmas(or what ever holiday you celebrate) and a joyous, prosperous and healthy 2013!
Word count: 14,340
“Damn rain!” growled Murdoch Lancer as he stepped down from his horse. He didn’t mean it. He knew each drop of rain, each snowflake in the high country, meant grass for his cattle and water through the long dry season.
Swearing was a release for the knotted tension in his gut. It was the same every year. His vaqueros and their families were celebrating the Christmas season, but he was remembering loss -Scott’s birthday, the anniversary of Catherine’s death, Johnny’s birthday, Christmas. Each day reminded him that his family had been destroyed; his sons were growing up unknown; if they were growing up, if they were still alive.
When Murdoch handed him the reins, Cipriano gave him a worried glance. He walked part way to the hacienda then turned back to look towards the rough track that led to Morro Coyo and Green River. No sign yet of Paul and Teresa. He regretted his decision not to go with Paul to Sacramento to fetch Teresa from boarding school as he had the past several years. It would have been good to get off the ranch for a week or so.
“Damn rain,” he muttered again trying to quell the fear of Paul and Teresa running into trouble on the road.
Under the porch roof he stopped and peeled off his worn Macintosh.
Carlos, a boy in his early teens, took it from him with a cheeky grin. “Nice weather for duck!” said the boy in halting English.
Murdoch forced himself to smile. Carlos was just a little older than his Johnny. The mop of unruly dark hair reminded him of his boy. But the eyes were a lively brown not sparkling blue.
Watching the boy walk away, Murdoch wondered if Johnny would be as tall.
From the day he discovered them gone Murdoch had searched for Maria and Johnny. He’d spent a small fortune on detectives, going so far as to hire one from the famous Pinkerton Agency in Chicago. A few times the detectives picked up their trail but it always went cold. The Pinkerton found Maria last summer. She’d been dead six months and buried in a pauper’s grave in Magdalena de Kino, a small town in Sonora south of Nogales. When he’d first read the report, Murdoch had felt a piercing grief. Beautiful, vital, fiery Maria dead. He’d been angry with her for so long and now she was gone. But the first report gave him hope of finding Johnny. Mexico was full of dark haired boys but few of them had eyes as blue as Johnny’s.
The trail went cold.
Paul thought there was a chance Johnny would find his way home now that Maria was dead. Murdoch feared Johnny didn’t know where home was. He was still a boy; now he was alone. How would he survive? How could he survive?
Wearily, Murdoch entered the house. He hung his soaked felt slouch hat by the door. He unbuckled his holster and slipped the buckle over a hook. Slowly he walked into the great room, his wet boots squeaking, leaving small puddles of water on the polished floor. As if by magic, a little girl appeared with a rough piece of woven cloth, got down on her knees and wiped the floor.
The great room was filled with odd shadows and dark corners. His heavy leather easy chair was pulled close to the fireplace which was ablaze. His housekeeper, Mariah, was standing next to the chair holding a steaming teapot. It was rare in the past twenty years that Murdoch returned home cold and wet and Mariah was not waiting for him beside the warming fire.
He sat in a chair near the door and pulled off his boots. The little girl finished her wiping, picked them up and disappeared through the door to the back of the house.
Murdoch rose and padded in stocking feet to the narrow table where the crystal decanters of scotch sat. He poured the good, but not best, scotch into a heavy mug. His best scotch was nectar of the gods, never to be tampered with. He crossed to Mariah who poured hot water into the mug. A slice of a somewhat wizened lemon was added.
Murdoch sat in the chair and leaned back. He took a sip of the toddy and gave Mariah a small grateful smile. He was tired, but for the first time since daybreak he was dry and warm.
Nineteen years after her death Catherine was still taking care of him. Mariah was a wonderful cook and a hard worker. But it was Catherine who’d taught her the finer skills of housekeeping. How to set a beautiful table, how to prepare a guest room with flowers and clean linens, how to welcome a tired and unhappy man home.
The old woman nodded. She stirred up the fire. She didn’t speak. She knew that the Patrón was quiet and distant today; more so today. Today was the birthday of La Señora’s little boy; the little boy now grown-up having never seen his true home.
The Patrón would have a hard night. It would be better if Señor Paul and Teresa would come. She pushed away her own worry for the travelers. She missed little Teresa’s voice and light step in the house. And the rare smiles she could bring to the Patrón’s face.
Stiffly she straightened and glanced at him. He was staring into the fire, into the past perhaps. In an hour Mariah would bring him some supper. As she walked back to the kitchen she looked out the window towards the road. Señor Paul would take no chances with Teresa’s safety. There was little hope they would travel in this weather. The Patrón would be alone with his thoughts; thoughts that seemed even grimmer this year than in the past.
Left alone, Murdoch stretched-out his long legs and let the fire dry his socks. A TALE OF TWO CITIES sat on the table at his elbow. He opened it and removed a much handled envelope. From the envelope he took a sheet of heavy writing paper.
Just as he could recite the words of each of the reports about Johnny, he could recite the words on the paper. He read them again in hope they would change.
I am writing on behalf of my uncle Harlan Garrett with news of his grandson, your son, Lt. Scott Lancer. Scott has been listed as missing as of the end of October after a skirmish with rebel troops in central Virginia. We have great hopes that he is alive and taken prisoner. Every effort is being made to obtain his whereabouts.
I know you have had little contact with Scott over the years. He is a good boy; you and Catherine would be proud to call him son.
Murdoch remembered Charles Lowell, a cousin of his first wife. Catherine was very close to Lowell and his sister -Rosemary he thought her name was. When last he heard, Lowell had taken his father’s place as Harlan Garrett’s partner.
The letter arrived three weeks ago. It had sat in the small box with his name on it in the Morro Coyo stage office for several weeks waiting for someone from the ranch to come to town. It was the letter that changed his plans to go to Sacramento with Paul. He found he didn’t have the heart to do anything but work; work was how he had always dealt with pain.
Each time over the years when he had tried to make contact with Scott, he had received a polite but extremely formal letter in thanks for the small gift he’d sent. There was no space in his son’s life for him. He realized now that in his heart he had not given up hope that someday Scott would want to know him.
Scott was nineteen today, if he was alive. His son was old enough to be a lieutenant in the Union Army, to fight, to be captured, perhaps killed. Murdoch had never known him; had seen him only once as a child. Scott was a total stranger; even more so than Johnny. How could a simple blood tie create such an intense fear at the very center of his being for a boy he didn’t know?
Where were his sons? Were they alive? Would either see another birthday?
Murdoch stared into the flames, but there were no answers there.
Scott was shivering. He hated that he was shivering. He couldn’t help it. The day was dark and fine rain was falling. It chilled the bare skin of his back; the cold penetrating to his bones.
Snow is not this cold. Snow. It must be snowing at home by now. Will I ever see snow again?
One of the guards had pulled him roughly from the evening roll call line. He’d been pushed into the muddy yard beside the crude barracks he shared with the other prisoners; his tunic torn from his back. Now he stood, his face to the barracks wall, waiting. Waiting for the crack of the whip he’d seen in the guard’s hand; waiting for the pain of his skin being flayed.
He was scared; scared of the pain, scared his courage would fail and he would fall to his knees begging. Why more scared now than during a charge into the guns of the enemy; than in hand-to-hand combat? Was it because there was time to think, to imagine? Or was it that he had no control? If he tried to run it would be cowardliness. As a prisoner he could do nothing but stand and take it.
Holding on to his dignity was all Scott could hope for.
“I said stand down, Sergeant!”
The voice was low, raspy and commanding. A voice accustomed to being obeyed.
“He’s one of them, Colonel,” shouted the sergeant. “He’s one of Sheridan’s cavalry. Do you know what they’re doing in the Shenandoah?”
“Yes, Sergeant, I know what they’re doing,” came the answer. “You stand down.”
Scott knew the sergeant. A hard man for a hard job, but not in Scott’s experience wantonly cruel. There was no colonel in the camp. He didn’t know who his savior was; if he was a savior. Perhaps the colonel had something worse than the whip in store for him.
“This boy is your prisoner. Show him you are a Christian; show him mercy,” said the colonel wearily.
Scott waited, still shivering. Not daring to hope.
“You can turn around now, Lieutenant.”
Slowly Scott turned. The sergeant was gone. The man standing in the yard was tall; he wore a gray greatcoat that was missing a few brass buttons and a once white slouch hat with an insignia Scott thought was a Virginia cavalry unit. The deeply shadowed face was thin with a neatly cut gray streaked beard. The coat’s left sleeve was empty. He leaned heavily on a black cane with an elaborately embossed silver head.
“Your tunic is there,” he said pointing with the cane. He waited while Scott picked up the garment and pulled the welcomed if meager warmth of the scratchy wool over his chilled body.
Scott drew himself up to his full height and squared his broad shoulders. He looked straight at the colonel; silent, waiting.
“You look like your mother.”
Scott stiffened, his blue-gray eyes narrowed.
“But that look is your father,” said the colonel with a soft laugh. “Of course he was much taller. One of the few men I remember having to look up at.”
“Who the hell are you?” Scott demanded angrily. He forgot his dignity in his astonishment at being addressed in so familiar a manner.
“Hopefully, someone who can do you a little good; a very little I’m afraid. Come. We’ll see if we can find something warm to drink.”
Warily, Scott followed the tall, limping figure. Other prisoners eyed him suspiciously. The guards snapped to attention when they saw the colonel; they ignored Scott. The colonel led him to the small clapboard house that served as the camp headquarters. Once inside, they went into what must have been the farm family’s “good” room.
There was a Franklin stove in the corner. Scott was drawn towards it like iron to a magnet. He didn’t know what was in store for him. But whatever it was, it was good to be warm for a few minutes.
A soldier appeared and helped the colonel off with his hat and greatcoat. As Scott watched, the colonel sat awkwardly in a wing chair and extended one leg in front of him.
“Thanks, Mac. Bring us a hot drink.”
“There’s no coffee, no chicory, sir. I’d have to get into your stores,” said the soldier with a sidelong glance at Scott.
“That’s all right. Make it strong and hot.”
“Yes, sir. Are you-”
“I’m quite all right.”
Once the soldier left, the colonel turned to Scott. With the same apologetic tone as a host regretting not having better to offer a guest, he said, “I’m afraid all we have is chicory but it’s better than boiled potato skins. Will you sit?”
“No,” Scott responded sharply. He wanted to be insolent. This man was not his superior officer; he owed him no military courtesy. But the colonel had a natural authority and he was being so pleasant Scott found it impossible to be rude. “Thank you. I want to know what’s going on. Who are you?”
A racking cough shook the colonel’s thin frame. Once it passed, he spoke. “To explain I have to tell you a story.”
“A long time ago I was sent north to go to school. This was back in the thirties. The abolitionist movement was growing; Garrison was in full voice. At Harvard a boy with a thick Virginia accent was suspect. In my case those suspicions were well founded; I come from a planter family, we hold, well, held slaves. Lonely and homesick, I was about to give up and run home when the boy who lived across the hall took pity on me. He was from Boston. Charles took me home to dinner. He introduced me to his cousins, the Misses Garrett.” He paused. His gaze drifted away from Scott, it softened, a smile lightened his expression. “They were lovely , Catherine and Alice. Of course they were determined to convert me to the abolitionist cause. At the same time,they were so kind I felt at home with them. I kept coming back. Even your grandfather, Mr. Garrett, got so he could understand my accent.
You never knew your Aunt Alice, of course. She was . . .” his voice faded. He was quiet for a moment, staring over Scott’s shoulder into the past. “Well, I loved her. I was willing to do anything needed to obtain Mr. Garrett’s permission to marry her; even stay in Boston to practice law. We had such happy plans, Alice and I. She died the fall of my last year at Harvard. I was almost your uncle.”
“You’re Yancy Beuler,” said Scott slowly. He wasn’t sure. The gaunt, ill man sitting in front of him looked nothing like the dashing southern gentleman he’d met as a child. Scott remembered him with thick, chestnut hair worn long over his collar. He’d been tall and athletic. Next to the sober Yankee businessmen in his own family, Yancy Beuler had been a debonair figure.
“Cousin Charles’s friend. You sailed up the coast in a sloop named the Alice May the summer of ’56. Grandfather, Cousin Charles, Thomas, Daniel and I sailed with you to Halifax and back.”
A memory of impossibly blue skies and rocky shorelines made Scott close his eyes briefly.
“That’s right,” the colonel nodded. His smile grew broader, making him look a little more like the man in Scott’s memory. “I didn’t think you would remember that; you were just a little boy.”
“I remember the boat. It was a beautiful boat. You let us swab the decks.”
“You and Daniel were the most willing deckhands I ever had. Charles wrote a year or so later that he’d had a boat built.”
Scott nodded. “Daniel pestered him constantly. He fell in love with sailing on that trip to Halifax. We named her the Maiden of Boston. She’s yar,” he said with something like a happy sigh and a grin that made him look like that bright ten-year-old the colonel remembered.
“I was sorry to hear Charles’s son Thomas was killed. Do you know anything about Daniel? Charles and I wrote six or seven times a year for over twenty years but now-” he shook his head sadly.
“Daniel is in Washington at the Quartermaster’s headquarters.” Scott continued to talk about his family in Boston. The words came out so easily. The colonel listened closely and asked a few questions.
Finally Scott asked, “What are you doing here, sir?”
“I saw the name S. G. Lancer on a list of prisoners taken in October. Lancer isn’t that common a name. I was coming this way and thought I’d take a look. I knew as soon as I saw you,” he said smiling. “You are Catherine’s son. I can’t do much for you, Scott. They’ve stopped the prisoner exchange. Mr. Lincoln figures we will run out of men before the north does. I’ve two blankets I can leave you and some food. I know you prisoners aren’t being treated very well. There isn’t much to go around. We’ve women and children to feed as well as the men.”
The soldier returned carrying two cups. He set them both on the table next to Beuler. He glared at Scott as he left the room.
“I’m sorry about Mac,” said Beuler reaching for his cup. “He got word his farm was burned to the ground in September. His wife and children are homeless. That sergeant heard much the same about his home, maybe worse.”
For the first time Scott looked away from the colonel. He stared down at the floor. What they were doing in the Shenandoah was good military strategy. But it seemed he could still smell the smoke of burning crops, houses, barns and businesses, still see the faces of displaced women and children.
Scott took a deep breath and looked up. He lowered his voice as he said, “The general thinks bringing the battle to the farms and the families of the men will shorten the war.”
“Break our spirits, you mean? Perhaps it will, God knows we’re all tired. But we are a stubborn lot,” said Beuler with a wry smile. He coughed again from deep in his chest. “I’ve spoken with the commander here. I don’t know if it will do any good, but I’ll leave orders about how the prisoners should be treated. I wish I could do more for you.”
“Why?” asked Scott in astonishment. “I’m the enemy.”
“Yes, I suppose you are.” Beuler looked closely at Scott. He saw a boy whose dirty, torn uniform was a little too short at the ankles and wrists as if he were still growing when it was issued. Long greasy hair that might be blond fell across his forehead; his cheeks were covered with pale stubble. Wary, intelligent gray-blue eyes returned his gaze.
Beuler took a ragged breath in and blew it out. “You’re also the nephew of the woman I loved with every fiber of my being. Charles didn’t have to befriend me. He could have shunned me like the rest of them. If he had I would never have known Alice, I would never have experienced the happiest time of my life. Given his politics, your grandfather could have refused to have me, a slave holder, in the house. Perhaps this is a way of repaying him. And I was very fond of your mother so I suppose I want to help you for her sake.”
Scott bit his lip. He was reluctant to ask the enemy for a favor, however, he couldn’t help but remember how much he’d liked this man when he was a child. “Can you send word to my grandfather that I am alive?”
“I can try,” Beuler responded with a nod. He knew messages were smuggled in and out of Washington every day. The trick would be to get his original telegraph to someone who could get into Washington. Then he gestured towards the second cup. “Drink that while it’s hot.”
Scott crossed the room. Warm now thanks to the stove. He couldn’t help but wonder if it was the last time he would be warm. The barracks had no stoves and the damp rose from the bare ground. He picked up the cup. The chicory tasted nothing like coffee.
“Colonel,” he said hesitantly. “You said you knew my father.”
Beuler nodded. “Murdoch Lancer.” He watched Scott closely. For the first time he sounded as young as Beuler knew he was.
“I’ve never met him.” Why am I asking about him? What difference does it make now? he asked himself even as he leaned closer to hear what the colonel would say.
“Yes, Charles told me of your sudden appearance from California -what eighteen, nineteen years ago now. I can’t tell you a lot about your father. I can’t remember now how your mother met him. He was very tall and strong. He was working on the docks as a blacksmith waiting to take passage to California. He was well spoken but we all struggled to understand him because his brogue was so thick. Someone, probably your grandfather said his brogue made my accent sound almost American. He was intelligent, well read -not what one normally expects of a blacksmith. I seem to remember his saying his father had been a schoolmaster. He talked about California as if it were paradise. I liked him. More importantly, Catherine was clearly deeply in love with him. It was hard on your grandfather when she went with Murdoch.”
“He’s never forgiven him. No one in the family ever speaks of my father,” said Scott with a touch of defiance. He looked away again. He drained his cup then glanced at Beuler saying, “Sir, I’ve lost track. What is the date, please?”
“I have to think for a minute,” answered Beuler running his hand through his thinning brown hair. “Days run together. It is, ah . . . December 19th.”
Scott laughed lowly to himself. “Thank you, sir.”
The soldier Mac came in carrying the colonel’s greatcoat and hat. One of the guards came to the doorway. Scott understood his reprieve was over.
“I wish I could stay longer,” said Beuler struggling to his feet. “I wish I could do more, but I’ve orders to see through. There on the chair are the supplies I spoke of.”
“Thank you, sir.” said Scott picking up the supplies. When he’d first been captured, he would have proudly refused to accept the help. But the weather had turned cold and damp. Those blankets could save his life.
Beuler limped to the door then turned back to Scott saying, “Your father was strong. The sort of man who survives. You remember that, Scott. You survive.”
Johnny pulled the thin blanket around himself a bit tighter and tried to think of anything but the bitter cold. It was hot during the day, but desperately cold at night when there was no fire and no food to warm his stomach. He wouldn’t allow himself to think of how long it was since he last ate a meal. It did no good to dwell on it. He had learned long ago to close off his mind to such things. He felt lucky just to have found shelter for the night.
He had been on his own for so many months it was getting harder to visualize his mother now. It was her he thought of when he wanted to distance himself from physical discomfort. He would try to remember her when she was well and happy, at her best. Like when she was singing and playing the guitar. And when she was laughing and dancing around the room with him, with her long dark hair flying behind her, and a bright fire in her eyes. Or when she would put her hand on his face and call him her Niño Hermoso. (Beautiful boy)
He wouldn’t think of the other times, when she was angry and unpredictable, when she had slapped him and yelled, then cried and pleaded for forgiveness. He didn’t understand why she would change so much. When he was a young child he thought it might be his fault, or the fault of his cruel gringo father who had thrown them out. Later he thought it might come from a place deep inside her.
It no longer mattered. What he could not block out was the sight of her dead, with her dark eyes empty and her body so still. It haunted his dreams and broke into his rare moments of peace. She had been his whole world. Now she was gone and he was completely alone. No one knew who he was, and he meant to keep it that way.
They had been living in Magdalena de Kino, south of Nogales, after running from Sam. He had begun to use his fists and his boots against them both. It had been bad enough finally for Maria to pack them up and run in the middle of the night. She took him to the little village where she tried to get work at a local cantina. Either her charm was fading or she was too tired to use it, and Johnny was forced to find what food he could for them. Whether by begging or stealing, he was willing to do what was needed. The padre at the mission was kind and there was often enough to fill his stomach. But he couldn’t get his mother to eat no matter how hard he tried to prepare it to her taste. She was weak and her cough was bringing up specks of blood. Johnny didn’t know how to help her and he finally brought the padre to their little house. He only shook his head and said a prayer. His mother was dead within a week. Johnny had just passed his 13th birthday.
Johnny was taken to an orphanage run by the nuns of the village. He was not popular among the other children with his strange blue eyes, and even less so with the nuns. He felt a new anger inside that he fought to control. But they sensed it and brought it out of him with their many rules and restrictions. He was used to being the man of the house. He was used to freedom. The children taunted him. He tried to remember the words that Sister Celestine gave him, which still comforted him. But he no longer felt like a good strong boy. He felt weaker, and goodness seemed to have left his world.
One night he was sent to see Madre Superiora. Johnny wondered what offense he was to be punished for now. But the nun only had questions for him. She asked for his full name and birthday, the names of his mother and father, and where he was born. Johnny said he only knew his and his mother’s names. His mother’s name was Maria Luna Aliva. He was simply Johnny. He did not tell of the man named Lancer and his birth in California. Johnny knew she had never mentioned his father to anyone. He knew about Lancer only due to his mother’s ranting. He never dared ask her anything about him. It would only upset her. It never occurred to him to think of himself as Johnny Lancer.
Johnny knew he had to run. His mother had warned him about Murdoch Lancer trying to find them. The nun’s questions could mean only one thing- that Lancer was trying to find him again. He knew he had to do everything he could to avoid capture. His father could not take him. His mother stressed that to him more than anything else. Many times they had run together to avoid being found by the angry, wicked gringo. Johnny couldn’t stay in Magdalena another day.
He packed up what little he had and ran from the village before the light of day. Maria had taught him how to run, and no one saw him go. He knew to travel lightly and quickly. Before long he was far enough away from the village and the orphanage for his heart to beat normally. Now he only needed to figure out how to survive on his own. Hard as it would be, he hoped it would be a better life for him than the one he left behind. His only regret was leaving the little spot in the churchyard that held his mother’s body. He promised himself he would return someday.
Since that day,Johnny had been surviving by his wits. He sometimes was shown kindness, mostly by women who took pity on a skinny hungry boy with a stunning bright smile. But most people either ignored him or were cruel. There were times he tried to befriend other kids like him, but he came to realize he did better on his own. He was small and quick, and able to talk his way out of a lot of trouble. When he had to be he was a fighter, and sometimes managed to give as much as he got. It became harder for him to trust anyone. He would see other children on their own like him, but most had at least a brother or sister to be with. He would have given anything for an older brother.
His biggest problem was finding food. The border towns were poor, and people didn’t have much to spare. He had to find a way to make money. He saw the different jobs people had but couldn’t imagine himself in any of them. How could he ever have enough to have a home, or even enough to eat?
He had managed to travel to Nogales just before Christmas, thinking he might find more food there. He was starting to be noticed around the town. He often slept in the open, but this cold night he had decided to sleep in a small building he knew of behind the saloon. He hadn’t eaten much all day. He’d only found some thrown away scraps. Dios, he was hungry! Just as the feeling began to overwhelm his defenses Johnny heard the sound of the door opening. He saw the shadow of a big man in the doorway. And he was holding a belt.
“I told you to stay out of my shed you little Mexican shit!” The man spoke in a low tone as he slowly walked towards Johnny with the strap above his head.
Johnny sprang up, yelling “Huele como mierda!!” (You smell like shit!). He dodged and tore past him. His quickness must have startled the man. Johnny managed to run out into the alley and around the corner into the street, with his pursuer right on his heels. Johnny could hear the sound of the man closing in behind him. He feared he couldn’t keep ahead of him, his normal speed affected by his weakened condition. And then the unthinkable happened.
He didn’t look up. He just waited for the belt to hit his backside, willing himself to not cry out in front of the people near him on the street.
“Put that belt down or I’ll use it on you, Barkeep.”
Johnny turned around and saw a man who seemed to have stepped out of nowhere. He was dressed all in black and had an ammunition belt across his chest. Johnny saw he had on a black hat and a gun belt riding low on his hips and knew he was a pistolero. He had seen men like him before and knew to stay out of their way. He didn’t think he’d seen this pistolero before.
The barkeep lowered the belt when he saw who was talking. He kept his thoughts to himself as he turned and hurried back into his saloon. The pistolero came over to where Johnny was lying in the street and reached down, easily picking him up by his shirt with one hand.
“What’s your name, muchacho?”
Johnny looked right into the gunman’s eyes and saw no emotion in them. He mirrored the look. The man put him on the ground and threw his head back and laughed a hearty laugh.
“You look like a little Mex but your eyes aren’t from around here. Where are you from boy?” When Johnny didn’t answer, the pistolero put his hand on Johnny’s thin shoulder and asked him if he was hungry. Johnny managed to nod his head and with that the man grabbed his hand and led him down the street and into a small cantina.
“I bet you like tamales, right?”
Johnny ate fast. His new benefactor tried to slow him down, worried he would get sick. He found out the man’s name was Jairo Salas. As Johnny ate, the man told him he came from a place far away across the sea when he was a child, and he was now a gunman, a pistolero. He told Johnny that although he was a very bad man he did not believe it right to hurt women or children. He said he was angry at the barkeep for trying to hurt him now of all times.
Johnny finally stopped gulping down his food, looked up and asked why.
“Why what, chico?”
“Why should he not hurt me now?” Johnny asked.
“Because it’s St John’s Day. Almost Christmas.”
Johnny went back to his food, smiling a little, thinking how he hadn’t realized he was now 14 years old. Almost a man he thought. He wished he wasn’t still so small.
As Johnny ate his dinner Jairo Salas thought he would like to do more for the boy. He knew what it was like to be young, hungry and alone. His parents had come over to the new country and had died when Jairo was just a little older than Johnny. But he was a much bigger boy than this one, and had friends who taught him how to defend himself with a gun. This boy reminded him of someone he didn’t allow himself to think of very often. He had a younger brother Cristian who died when he was only 13. His eyes were dark brown, but there was something about this boy that made him think again of his lost little hermano.
Cristian was a handsome, spirited boy as well.
“Why are you alone, Johnny?”
Johnny looked up again from his meal and gazed at the pistolero.
He knew better than to give Señor Salas much information. He hardly knew him at all, though Johnny was impressed with how he had saved him from a beating and now gave him good food. And Salas said he didn’t believe in hurting women and children. He had told Johnny a lot about himself. Johnny had a sense the man was not out to hurt him, but he had learned the hard way not to trust too quickly.
“I like it that way, Señor.”
Jairo could see the boy didn’t trust him. That didn’t surprise him, as it was obvious he was on his own and had been for a while. He made an impulsive decision.
“Well my small little man, I have an idea for you to think about. I will give you food and shelter if you agree to take care of my horse and my things. But if you steal anything from me – you will regret it.”
Johnny looked at him without showing any of the shock he felt inside.
“Si, Señor Salas, I would do that for you.”
Jairo smiled. He liked this boy. He would find out more about him, and perhaps keep him under his guidance. He would do it in honor of his brother. And in honor of his parents, who brought him to this land only to lose their lives too soon, far from the city of their birth, Madrid.
Harlan Garrett looked up from the papers on his desk. In the doorway of his office stood a woman in her late forties. She wore a fashionable ensemble of dark lavender trimmed in fur; the skirts so wide they touched the door frame on either side.
“Rosemary. Come in, my dear,” he said coming to his feet. “Alex!”
As the woman moved into the room, her place in the doorway was taken by an adolescent boy. “Yes, sir?”
“Tell Mr. Lowell Mrs. Clark is here,” said Garrett handing the boy a folded piece of paper. “And then take this down to the telegraph office.”
“Yes, sir,” said the boy with a sharp nod.
“Alex, it is cold out. Wear your hat and scarf” said Garrett gruffly.
Sitting down and arranging her voluminous skirts, Rosemary watched the boy go. “He’s the brother of your clerk who joined the army.”
“Yes,” Garrett nodded his gray head. “Tom. He was our boot boy at home. Scott convinced me to make him an office boy. We’d just made him a clerk when the first call up came. Damn waste. He was a clever boy. He’d have gone far. Alex is a good boy. There is a younger brother who is our boot boy now. He looks just like Tom did a few years ago.”
Rosemary knew the story. But she listened as if it was the first time she’d heard about the brothers who had each in turn become boot boy in her uncle’s Beacon Hill home. These days they often had conversations like this. They wanted to talk about Scott but there was nothing new to say. Her nephew Daniel was in Washington. He had talked to everyone who might possibly know what happened the day Scott and his men disappeared. Bodies had been found. They had all been identified. Scott was not among the dead. The only logical conclusion was that he had been captured. But whether he had been wounded or where he had been taken, no one in the Union Army knew.
“Rosie, what are you doing here?” asked Charles Lowell walking into the room and leaning down to kiss his sister on the cheek. The siblings looked much alike, fair, blue-eyed and round-faced.
“I came to be sure that Uncle remembers he is coming to dinner tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” queried the older man, puzzlement twisting his eyebrows. He often took Sunday dinner with his niece but rarely during the week.
“Yes, Uncle, for Christmas dinner. Today is Christmas Eve.”
“Is it really?” declared the older man as he sat down again. “Good Lord.”
“Uncle, how is it you can keep the schedules of half the trains in the northeast in your mind but forget Christmas?” asked Charles leaning against the edge of Garrett’s cluttered desk.
“The trains make us money. I still contend Christmas is a pagan holiday that the descendants of good Puritans should ignore.”
Rosemary cocked her bonneted head and said quite firmly, “Even so, you are joining us for Christmas dinner tomorrow.”
The truth was Garrett wanted to stay home and lock himself in his study. Christmas had been hard enough last year with Scott in the army and too far away to get leave. This year, not knowing if he was alive, the idea of a celebration was inconceivable. But he wasn’t the only one who was suffering. Charles had lost a son. Rosemary had been a widow a little over a year. Others in his dead wife’s family and in his own had been deeply affected by the war. This was the time to bind together. Past losses had taught Garrett the value of family.
“I suppose I must if I am to eat tomorrow. Mrs. Hudson and rest of them will expect the day off, it has become a tradition,” he grumbled. Another tradition occurred to him. The memory of his grandson solemnly passing out the Christmas money to the household staff nearly took his breath away. Scott would be furious with him if he neglected to prepare the small velvet bags of gold coins. Garrett cleared his throat. “By the way, do we have any gold coins in the office?”
“Yes, I got some yesterday, enough for your staff as well as ours,” said Charles pleased that his uncle had remembered the gifts on his own. He had not been looking forward to reminding him.
Rosemary looked at her brother. “You, Evelyn and Charlie are coming of course.”
“Of course, but I’m afraid we won’t make a very jolly party.”
“How is Evelyn? I tried to get her to come for a drive on Tuesday but she said no.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.” Charles grimaced. “Some days she doesn’t leave Thomas’s room. She won’t let me take the mourning wreaths off the doors. I don’t think it is good for Charlie to be surrounded by all that black crepe.”
Charles had three sons. The eldest, Thomas, had died well over a year ago from wounds received at Gettysburg. His wife, Evelyn, was still wearing deep mourning. She had turned their son’s room into a shrine.
It was a curious thing how death could make even a spoiled rather unpleasant boy into a paragon of virtue. Before he was three and twenty, Thomas had caused his parents both embarrassment and heartache. While at Harvard College he was constantly in trouble for public intoxication and gambling. He had also fathered at least one out of wedlock child. Garrett had been dreading his joining the family business because he was lazy and unreliable. Now he was dead. His mother, a sweet, gentle if not very clever woman was drowning in her grief.
“I’m glad to see you put off the black, my dear. A year is long enough even for a widow to wear mourning. That gown is very becoming.”
“Thank you, Uncle,” said Rosemary. She’d worn black for her husband for a year and a day as was expected. Black was all too common a color in Boston these days. It had been a great relief to order a few dresses in half mourning colors.
“I don’t suppose Constance and Daniel could get leave?” asked Garrett. He was thinking of other Christmas Days spent in Rosemary’s elegant townhouse. There was always too much rich food, too many children running about, too much noise-laughter and singing. An exhausting day for him. Scott had loved every minute. Last year Christmas had been different–gone were the gay silk gowns replaced by black bombazine. There’d been empty places at the table. This year there would be more empty places.
“Constance’s letter last week was heart breaking,” answered Rosemary thinking of her daughter who was working as a nurse in a large hospital camp in Maryland. “She says more of the patients are dying of pneumonia than from their wounds. In the summer it was dysentery. It is all very bleak. She couldn’t possibly get away. She’s planning a Christmas concert for the men in hopes of raising their spirits.”
“Daniel has leave, but he sent word that he thought he should spend Christmas with Constance at the hospital. They are both so-” Charles broke off.
“Distressed about Scott,” finished Garrett. “It is good they will be together. He wants them to be together.”
Rosemary noticed he was always careful to speak of his grandson in the present tense. She felt tears welling in her eyes. Every loss was heartbreaking. But to lose Scott, for Uncle to lose his last child, his miracle child-oh, but it was so hard to remember life was in the hands of a loving God sometimes.
There was a commotion in the outer office. Charles went to the door to see what was causing it. He was nearly knocked down by the office boy Alex running into the room.
“What the devil are you about, boy?” shouted Garrett coming to his feet.
Alex stood in the middle of the office doubled over, hands on his knees and breathing hard. He still wore his scarf and hat. “Mr. Eppes,” gasped the boy, “said to run, to get this to you as fast as I could.” He held out a yellow telegraph.
Rosemary and Charles exchanged a glance. They both knew it was illegal for the telegrapher to divulge the contents of a telegram. That Eppes would go so far as to urge the boy to rush back to Garrett meant there was something of importance contained in the telegram.
“Well, give it to me,” demanded Garrett with his hand out.
Rosemary watched with alarm. She had never heard a quaver in her uncle’s voice nor seen his hand shake. She stood and went to him.
Garrett stared at the paper the boy placed in his hand. He had opened thousands of telegrams over the years. But this one-this one would either bring him great hope or destroy the future.
“My spectacles?” he asked. “I need them. I-”
“Shall I read it, Uncle?” asked Charles quietly. He had gotten a telegram after his son was wounded. Although the weeks that Thomas had lingered had been horrible, at least he, his wife and the rest of the family had had a chance to say good-bye. If Scott was-well, standing here was doing them no good.
“Yes,” nodded Garrett. He felt foolishly grateful. He found himself gripping Rosemary’s hand.
Charles took the telegram and unfolded it. He scanned the contents quickly. “He’s alive.”
Garrett turned to him with tears in his eyes.
Charles swallowed hard. “The telegram is signed YB. It says he saw Scott in a prison camp. He’s unhurt. He’s strong.”
“Thank God,” breathed Rosemary. “Who is it from? Do you know who YB might be?”
Charles nodded but before he could answer Garrett murmured, “Yancy Beuler, Alice’s Yancy. God bless him.”
Unobserved, Alex went into the outer office and whispered to a clerk, “Mr. Scott’s alive.” A few moments later the employees of Garrett and Lowell erupted in loud hurrahs. In the inner office, Scott’s family sank to their knees in thanksgiving.
The children of Nogales had their final day of Las Posadas without the participation of one boy this Christmas Eve. Johnny watched the procession, then the breaking of the piñata, from a distance.
Johnny could not bear to think of last Christmas, with his mother so close to death. Some days it felt like a long time ago. But on this Christmas Day it seemed like only yesterday he was with her. How easy it was to remember her! She smelled like sweet flowers. No woman could have been more beautiful when she was at her most vibrant. He was always so proud of her beauty and her sense of fun. He remembered the way she looked in her mantilla at midnight mass, with her dark eyes smiling at him under the lacy veil.
He missed her. He missed being her child. Even though she made him grow up fast, with her constant demands and chaotic life, she still had loved him and treated him as her beloved son.
Now he had no one.
But now he was 14. He knew it was time to be a man and put away childish desires. He returned to the stable where he had a new place to lay his head. Jairo Salas had been true to his word and set Johnny up in a small room beside the horse. It was warm and dry and it was more than Johnny had in months.
He liked Señor Salas. So far he had given him food and trusted him with his horse. He showed him his gun and told him that someday he might teach him how to use it. Johnny would like that. He would like to carry one like a pistolero someday. He would fear no one if he had a gun like that. He would be safe from everyone. He would be powerful like Jairo Salas. Even he himself could hurt people if he thought it was right. But never women and never children. No, never that. He would be strong and bad, but he would have honor.
And if the evil gringo father ever found him he would be able to defend himself.
Johnny patted the muscular back of Cristo, the horse he was now to care for. Johnny always liked horses, but had never been as close to one like this. He wanted to own such a horse someday. He wondered if he ever would.
Johnny always had a great attraction to horses. He couldn’t remember when it started. He remembered how he pestered Sam to let him ride his horse, despite fearing it might set him off. He once overheard his mother saying it was all the horses at Lancer that made him this way, but she would talk no more about it. When he questioned her she became very angry, threatened to strike him if he didn’t leave it be. He wondered if she feared he would be like his father. So he kept quiet.
But he couldn’t stop his feelings for horses. He could tell he had a way with them. He didn’t get to see many, other than the ones owned by Sam and his friends. He had been able to sneak a few rides on horses left to graze. He knew to always talk softly and have treats for them. He could ride them bareback, sticking to them no matter what they did. He loved the feeling of the powerful animal under him. He loved the speed and the danger. But he also loved the animals themselves and marveled at the depth in their eyes. He wondered what they thought about when they looked at him.
Cristo was the most beautiful horse he’d ever seen. He was a gleaming black gelding with intelligent eyes and high spirits. He wondered what it would be like to ride him. How fast he must be! But for now it would have to be enough to stroke him and care for him. Johnny felt something stir inside him as he touched the big horse.
Johnny decided it would be ok to sit on Cristo. He seemed well trained and should not mind a small boy like him on his back. He climbed up the side of the stall and gently lowered himself on the horse. It was magnificent!
He felt a sudden breeze as the door to the stable opened. In a few long strides Jairo pulled Johnny off the back of the horse and roughly threw him out of the stall.
Johnny knew he would be beaten and sent away. He dipped his head, wondering how he could have been so stupid.
Then he looked up at the pistolero, thinking ‘I will take it like a man.’
Salas glared down at Johnny, his voice firm but soft. “If you ever get on that horse again without my permission I will take the skin off your backside, boy!”
He saw the anger in Jairo’s eyes, but also saw that he made no move toward his belt. Johnny lowered his head, but then found himself again being lifted by his shirt.
He looked straight into the eyes of his new friend.
“Do you understand me, Johnny?”
Johnny slowly nodded his head.
Jairo Salas watched as the boy’s eyes filled with tears.
Then they both smiled.
Paul O’Brien was an impulsive man; he fought hard, gambled recklessly and loved deeply. There were only two aspects of his life about which he was always prudent. The first was his job as foreman of Lancer. The second and the more important was the welfare of his eleven year old daughter Teresa.
It was a good plan. Paul and a ranch hand named Franco brought a wagon into town. Paul went on to Sacramento while Franco stayed in Green River collecting a wagonload of supplies. Once Paul returned with his daughter, they would take the supplies back to the ranch. A good plan – until the skies opened up.
When Paul and Teresa finally arrived by stage in Green River after being delayed repeatedly on their way from Sacramento, all Paul wanted to do was get home to Lancer. He knew the road. It would be in no condition to travel by wagon until the weather had been dry for several days.
Teresa fought tears when he told her they would have to stay in Green River for Christmas. Although she had come to like school, Teresa was only at home on the ranch. She loved Christmas; loved the traditions of the vaqueros’ families; and she loved the Patrón.
Paul was sorry; he hated disappointing his daughter. But he was more concerned about Murdoch. Only the need to fetch Teresa was a strong enough reason for him to leave his friend after the letter from Boston. Murdoch had read the letter and then handed it to him. They rarely talked about the boys or wives but they didn’t have secrets from each other. Paul knew the news that Scott was missing, hopefully captured not dead, had settled in Murdoch’s guts like rotten meat.
The loss of Murdoch’s sons had always been a source of great sadness for Paul. He’d loved Catherine Lancer; their chance meeting on the dock in San Francisco when he was nothing but a ragged waif had changed the course of his life. Her death had broken his heart. That her tiny baby had been snatched away still made him ball his fists in anger. He would never understand why Murdoch had waited so long to go to Boston to claim the boy or why Murdoch had left him there. Paul would have stolen him away in the dark of the night.
A child stolen away was what Johnny was. Paul had never known Scott, but Johnny he had carried on his shoulders as a little one. The boy wouldn’t remember. He’d been so little when the witch carried him off.
Knowing the joy his own child gave him, Paul could only imagine the depth of sorrow Murdoch felt. At least in the past he’d known where Scott was. Now both boys were lost; perhaps never to be found.
Dr. Sam Jenkins was happy to put Paul and Teresa up for a few days. Teresa’s spirits rose when she saw the tins of homemade candies and cakes the doctor’s patients had given him. After a very hearty supper, they walked to the small clapboard church at the other end of the dusty street.
Paul was Catholic. Not a very devout Catholic. But he did manage to attend the small church in Morro Coyo that dated from Spanish time occasionally; always on Christmas Eve. There was no Catholic church in Green River. He made do.
He felt a swell of pride as Teresa slipped her hand into his. When he was eleven he’d been a cabin boy on a four-mast. He was always wet and usually cold; most of the time his clothes were little better than rags. His daughter wore thick wool stockings, heavy leather shoes, a plaid dress and a neat little cape with a hood.
Too bad the Protestants didn’t have candles to light to the Virgin. He had much to be thankful for and many to pray for; especially Scott and Johnny Lancer. Johnny wasn’t much older than Teresa; Paul knew how hard it could be for a boy to take care of himself.
If it was blasphemous for a Catholic to go to a Protestant church, then it must be scandalous to go from Christmas Eve service to a whorehouse. The thought never crossed Paul’s mind. He tucked Teresa in for the night with promises of Christmas surprises; thanked Jenkins for watching out for her and headed to The White Rose.
The saloon was smoky, noisy and crowded.
Paul spotted Rose La Femme standing at the doorway that led to the rooms in the back. Paul wasn’t one to judge what anyone did to survive; he thought no less of an honest whore than he did a doctor. It was a hard life, often an ugly, dangerous life. Rose had told him a little of her story-that she’d run away from home to marry, that her husband had been killed in the gold fields. He’d filled in the blanks from there. For him, her graceful ways made her a lady whatever her profession.
She wore a dress of red silk with a white ruffle at the neck. Her reddish gold hair was piled in ringlets on her head. She smiled a little sadly when she saw him.
“You couldn’t get through to the ranch?” she asked when he reached her through the crowd.
“No,” he shook his head. “It might be dry enough to go by horseback, but it wouldn’t be safe with the wagon especially full of supplies.”
“I’m sorry. Teresa must be disappointed.”
“Aye,” he nodded then a sly grin appeared on his face. “I could cheer her up if I brought her to see you in the morning.”
“Paul, we are not talking about this again. She can’t come here. A saloon is no place for a child,” she said severely.
Paul shrugged. He wanted his daughter to grow up with nice ways. Rose had the nicest ways of any woman he’d known since Catherine Lancer died. He understood that Teresa shouldn’t be exposed to what went on in the saloon, but he didn’t see why Rose couldn’t join them for a meal at Sam’s.
“Murdoch will be anxious about the two of you.”
His expression grew grimmer. “Murdoch has a lot to be anxious about these days.”
“No word?” Rose asked. Her attention had shifted to the crowded room. His words brought her gaze back to him. “No word about either of them?”
Paul shook his head. “I left more than a fortnight ago so I can hope he’s had some word. I collected our mail today. There was nothing. Maybe something came to Morro Coyo. Murdoch gets mail both here and there. Sam would know if there’d been a telegraph. It’s always been this way about Johnny. I thought when Murdoch heard Maria was dead the detective would find Johnny. But there were no blue-eyed boys in the orphanage when he searched it. Johnny’s disappeared again without a trace. Scott, well, he’s always been so very far away, but until he went in the army Murdoch always thought he was safe. Now-” Paul shrugged his broad shoulders.
Rose had known Murdoch for a long time. He had never spoken of either of his sons. It was common knowledge that his wife had run off with their son about ten years ago. Not many people knew that the beautiful Maria had been his second wife. And that he and his first wife had also had a son.
Out of loyalty Paul rarely spoke about Murdoch’s life. But he had told Rose about Catherine Lancer. Catherine had been very important to him; at first Rose thought he’d been in love with her. Then she realized his feelings were much deeper. In some way he thought of Catherine as his savior; unlike Murdoch he loved to talk about her; to remember her. He knew Rose was discreet.
For a few minutes they were quiet. Rose looked over the saloon. A busy night always meant hundreds of details to keep track of. When she glanced back at Paul, she realized he was looking at the poker tables. Paul didn’t often gamble; when he did he was all in until he won big or lost everything in his pockets. When he gambled he drank steadily. Normally none of that worried Rose. Paul would sober up and go home-winner or loser. But tonight was different. Little Teresa must be very unhappy about not being at the ranch for the vaquero families’ party. Teresa would wake in the morning looking for her father. Paul would be angry with himself if he did anything that further spoiled her Christmas.
“I saw you and Teresa get off the stage,” Rose said laying her hand on his arm. “She’s gotten taller. I was afraid you’d be stuck in town tonight. Pansy has been waiting tables all night.”
His face brightened, his eyes searched the room until they came to a brassy blond in a purple dress. Pansy was his current favorite among the women. There were advantages in being friends with the madam. He rarely had to share a woman’s time during the night when he came to The White Rose.
Pansy turned towards them. She saw Paul; smiled and winked.
Afterwards, tired from the long trip from Sacramento, Paul slept for a while. When he woke, he was disappointed to find the place in the bed next to him empty. He stretched and dressed. The saloon was still full but the mood had changed. There was something forced about the laughter. These were the men who had nowhere to go for Christmas. Cowboys and miners looking for a drink, a warm room and a little company.
As he walked in, he saw Rose sit down at the beat up piano. He didn’t know the song she played but others did. Many drifted towards her, some singing, most just listening. She played for a long time, some of the songs quiet as lullabies.
The poker games were still going on. Paul bit his lip trying to decide whether to join a game or head back to Sam’s.
Paul turned quickly around. Hargis , the storekeeper, was walking towards him. The tail end of what looked like a nightshirt was sticking out from under his coat.
“Something wrong?” asked Paul, aware that the room had grown just a little quieter.
“I just got a telegraph for Mr. Lancer. I’m bound to get it to him as quick as I can. The lines have been tied up all day because of people sending Christmas greetings. Don’t know when it started from back east. I reckon that the fastest way to get it to Lancer would be to give it to you.”
Paul took the folded sheet of paper Hargis held out to him. He frowned, staring down at it. It was rare that Murdoch got a telegraph. Normally when he did, it was from Sacramento and dealt with politics or ranch business. It wasn’t likely to be anything he needed to know immediately.
Paul’s head jerked up. He glared at Hargis. “Did you say back east?” he demanded.
Hargis paled. His store was the post office and the telegraph office for the little town. “Did I? Damn. Must be because I’m so tired,” he muttered. “You know I can’t say nothing about a telegraph.”
“Something wrong, Paul?” asked Rose when she appeared at his side.
“I don’t know.” He balanced the paper on his fingertips. “It might be bad news or it might be good. Whichever way, I’ve got to get it to Murdoch quick. Ball?”
A man at one of the poker tables looked up. “What do you want, O’Brien?”
“That gray you bought off the ranch last month. Is he rested?”
“He’s been in the barn all day,” responded Ball with a shrug. He looked back at the cards in his hand.
“I’ll give you-”
“I don’t want to sell that horse,” interrupted Ball, “He’s the best I’ve ever had.”
“Paul, what are you thinking?” asked Rose pulling on his sleeve.
“I’ve got to get home. I can’t trust the road is dry enough for the wagon besides it will take all day. The horses I’ve got in town are draft crosses for the wagon not for riding. I need a good horse. I broke that gray; I know him.”
“What about Teresa?”
“I’ll take her with me.” His face relaxed; he laughed saying, “I’d never hear the end of it if I didn’t.”
“Is that safe?” she asked anxiously, then she shook her head. Paul wouldn’t take a chance with Teresa. What she needed to do was help him. “Of course it is.”
Ball’s attention was focused on the pot in the center of the table. Rose leaned over him and whispered in his ear. At first Ball looked startled, then a slow smile spread over his face.
He looked up at Paul. “You got a man in town to bring your wagon out to you?”
“Yeah, Franco. You’ll find him at the cantina.”
“All right, you can take the gray. I’ll ride out with Franco when the road’s dry. Anything happens to that horse you’ll have to find me another one just as good.”
“I will.” Paul sent Rose a puzzled look.
She looked back with mock innocence; clearly pleased with herself. “I’ll get some food together for you and Teresa.”
The moon had risen bright and full when an hour later Rose carried a sack of sandwiches and pound cake up the street to Sam Jenkins’s house. She’d wrapped a woolen shawl around her head and shoulders against the cold. She was worried about Teresa being warm enough during the ride. She carried with her a quilt made of leftover bits of silk from the dresses the girls made for themselves.
At the house Sam was holding Teresa by the hand. The little girl was bouncing on her toes with excitement.
Paul led the gray up to them. He kissed Rose on the cheek as he accepted the bag. He turned and shook Sam’s hand. Teresa hugged the doctor and wished him a Merry Christmas. Then Paul picked his daughter up and lifted her to the saddle.
As he swung up behind Teresa, Rose stepped forward. She unfolded the quilt made of silk scraps and decorated with fancy embroidery. She tucked it carefully around Teresa’s legs.
Teresa looked down with wide dark eyes and smiled. “Merry Christmas, Miss Rose.”
It had been years since she’d spoken to Teresa. She’d thought the child had forgotten her. Rose believed she had cried out all the tears she had in her years ago. She was wrong, sudden happy tears flooded her eyes because the little girl had remembered her name.
“Merry Christmas, Teresa,” she said softly.
Rose stepped back to stand beside Sam.
Sam called out, “Be careful!”
Paul touched his hat, gathered up the reins and turned the horse. It broke into a lope as they headed out of town.
Scott appreciated the colonel’s gift but it presented him with a problem. He was the ranking, indeed the only officer, in his barracks. He had a duty to think of his men first. How could this unexpected bounty be put to the best use? There were a half of a ham, a dozen sweet potatoes, a bag each of horehound and peppermint candies. All of which would keep for a while. At the moment, the food in the camp was tasteless and meat was a rarity, but there was enough of it to keep them alive. That might change. So, wondered Scott, would it be better to share the food on Christmas Day as a sort of holiday treat or to try to save it against even harder times?
He wouldn’t decide until Christmas Day. In the meantime, he hid the bag of food in a hole he dug under his straw pallet. It wasn’t a good place, but there wasn’t anywhere else. He was sorry that he felt he couldn’t trust his men to fairly share this unexpected bounty. He knew there were some who would give up their ration to a man who needed it more and others who would beat a man senseless for a crust of bread.
There were two blankets, good heavy woolen blankets that kept the damp out. As soon as he got back to the barracks he decided to give one to Joe Murray. At fifteen, Joe was the youngest of the prisoners, a gangly farm boy from Indiana with wide blue eyes and a mop of brown curly hair.
The men responded to their imprisonment differently. Even the most battle-hardened was unnerved by being captured. Few showed fear. Joe did. Six months ago he was milking cows on his father’s farm. Now he was cold, wet and half-starved in a place he couldn’t find on a map. If he stepped out of line the guards would shoot him; glad to have saved his ration.
Although Scott himself was younger than most of the men under his command, they didn’t realize it. He tended to keep himself separate which was expected of officers. Even so he’d found himself drawn to the younger boy. An only child in an old man’s household, Scott had been fortunate to spend much time with cousins his own age. Nevertheless, he had always wanted his own younger brother. He supposed that was the reason he felt more responsibility for Joe than the other men did.
Joe discovered the blanket on his pallet at the end of the dreary day. His startled blue eyes met Scott’s as he said in wonder, “Where did it come from, sir?”
Scott had been thinking that while he owed thanks to the colonel’s decency for the blankets and the food; there was something deeper behind the spirit of the gift. Long ago his own family had shown compassion for a homesick boy far from home. Had they not, Colonel Beuler would never have recognized the name S.G. Lancer. Beuler remembered their kindness and he remembered the girl he’d loved. I was almost your uncle.
Scott’s sudden smile transformed his face so much that for the first time Joe thought of him as a comrade only a little older than himself. But his puzzlement only grew with Scott’s next words.
“Thank God. Thank my Aunt Alice.”
When they’d first arrived at the small prison camp after the nightmare of a two hundred mile march, Scott had placed Joe’s pallet next to his own. Under the best of circumstances young boys were often targets for the older men’s frustrations. It was hard to imagine circumstances worse than these. He had only his meager authority as an officer to protect Joe and himself from losing the blankets to physically stronger men. He prayed it would be enough.
Christmas Day dawned clear and crisp with church bells ringing in the distance. The touch of frost in the air brought thoughts of snowball battles on Boston’s famed Common and the lane to his great uncle’s Vermont farm sparkling with ice and snow.
Scott took heart that the normally watery cornmeal porridge was a bit thicker that morning; it may even have had some milk in it. Around noon a group of people appeared at the gate to the camp. It was led by a short, round man in a black old-fashioned frock coat.
Standing in small clumps, the prisoners watched the man negotiate with the camp commander. It took some time but finally the gate was opened. A few minutes later the prisoners were assembled and told The Reverend Mr. Nicodemas Weaver had come to hold a Christmas service. There were those among the men who had no interest in the service but most, Scott included, were glad of the diversion if not the spirituality of the gesture.
Afterwards, there was a meal laid out on a table created from rough planks set on sawhorses. Plain food: boiled fowl, ham, potatoes, turnips, carrots, cornbread with onions in it. For dessert there were pumpkin and dried apple pies and baskets of pecans still in the shell. Scott and the other officers told the men to save some for the days to come. Few heeded them.
As he ate, Scott closed his eyes and thought of the last Christmas dinner he’d shared with his family at Cousin Rosemary’s lavish table. He could see the long table covered with white damask and down the center,silver epergnes filled with frosted fruits, nuts and molded candies of light and dark chocolates. The candlelight was reflected off of crystal and china. Oyster stew, turbot a la Hollandaise, roasted goose with apple stuffing, cranberry relish, braised cabbage, lemon Bavarian in light as air French pastry and Charlotte Russe filled with chocolate cream. And the wines, white with the fish, red with the goose, his first glass of “after the ladies retired” port.
He and Daniel had taken the younger children skating on the pond in the Public Garden. Julie had been there wearing a blue coat, carrying a muff of white fur. Julie-but he wouldn’t think of Julie here.
Later they’d played charades-Grandfather had acted out The Headless Horseman. Scott would never forget the sight of his dignified grandfather galloping around Rosemary’s drawing room with his jacket pulled up over his head. As it had for years and years the night ended with the family gathered around the piano. Constance played song after song.
“It is a fine meal, ain’t it, sir?”
Scott opened his eyes and looked at Joe sitting beside him. The boy had a piece of pie in his hand. He took a big bite and chewed it with his eyes closed and a smile spreading over his freckled face.
Scott looked around the muddy yard. Groups of men were huddled together eating quickly with their hands. Even the guards were eating as if it was their last meal.
He’d always thought he’d known how fortunate his family was to have such plenty. Now he realized he couldn’t have known, couldn’t have imagined what it was like to be truly hungry, cold and afraid.
“Yes, Joe, it is a very fine meal.”
After night fell, back in the makeshift barracks, Scott surreptitiously put dozens of pecans into and retrieved the bag of peppermints from the hole beneath his pallet. He wanted to offer the men some sort of encouragement but he couldn’t trust his voice. Without a word he gave a peppermint to each man. Some muttered thanks; others were too surprised to say anything. By the time he settled onto his pallet and wrapped himself in the wool blanket the air around him was scented with peppermint.
“Stille nacht heil’ge nacht”
The rich voice of Sergeant Braun filled the cold, dark night. Braun was a large man; good with horses – bad with people. A battle-scarred soldier who never showed fear or any other emotion. If he were honest, Scott would admit he was a little afraid of the man. But his voice was beautiful.
The memory came from nowhere. A huge stranger in the house the day of his fourth birthday. For a long time he thought he might have imagined the giant; that the memory of his party and some bedtime story his grandfather told him had gotten mixed together. Almost by accident he discovered that his cousins Daniel and Constance also remembered the visitor. He was the tallest man any of them had ever seen.
A few times during his childhood Scott received small gifts from his father. They’d made him curious about the man. It infuriated his grandfather to talk about Murdoch Lancer so Scott’s curiosity had gone unsatisfied. Eventually he came to believe his father had no interest in him and his curiosity had turned into indifference or perhaps it was anger.
He told himself it didn’t matter. But maybe it did.
Your father was strong. The sort of man who survives. You remember that, Scott. You survive.
“Joe?” whispered Scott hoarsely.
“We are going to make it through this,” said Scott believing it for the first time.
“Yes, sir,” answered the boy.
After so much rain, the bright and clear dawn of Christmas Day was reason enough for a celebration.
By midmorning, the aroma of roasting meat wafted through the air around the hacienda. The kitchen was full of chattering women. The vaqueros, having tended to the stock were gathering in the barnyard, telling stories, tuning instruments, and showing off rope tricks. The children were everywhere, laughing, running, dancing.
Following Mexican tradition, the people of Lancer observed the nine days of Las Posadas before Christmas. On Christmas Eve they traveled to Morro Coyo to attend midnight mass. This year the road was too water logged for wagons so only those who could ride had gone to mass. The party on Christmas Day had little if any spiritual significance. It was simply an opportunity to come together to eat, to sing, to dance.
Murdoch came out of the main barn and stopped to watch several girls dancing. Their feet slapped the hard packed earth and they swung their colorful multilayered skirts. Thick dark hair flew in the clear cool air.
Maria. He didn’t want to think about Maria. But how could he not when the music was playing and girls were dancing with sheer physical happiness. It was how he had first seen her.
Maria had loved the Christmas Day party. He had thought she loved being the patrón’s lady. He could still see her, excited and beautiful, especially the year Johnny was born. She’d sat on the veranda holding the tiny baby; accepting the congratulations of the other women; glowing with pride in the beautiful boy.
He still didn’t understand what had gone wrong. He knew she’d been bored on the ranch, but after Johnny was born he believed she was happy. And then suddenly it had all gone wrong.
Now she was dead. He would never know what had really happened to destroy the life they were building together. He would never know why she had taken his son, his precious boy, his Johnny.
When he’d gotten word of her death, he sent money to the church in Magdalena de Kino. He’d asked them to put a marker on her grave and for a novena to be said for her. Murdoch wasn’t a Catholic; he wasn’t sure he was anything anymore, but her religion had been important to Maria once. It was so little to do for the woman he’d once loved so much. Cipriano had picked up a letter for him in Morro Coyo last night. It was from the priest at the church. It was in Spanish of course. Murdoch had deciphered the first paragraph enough to know the priest was thanking him for the money; probably asking him for more.
“Oh, Maria.” Murdoch took a deep breath and let it go slowly. It did no good to still be angry with Maria. She had done what she’d done. But Johnny- where was his boy?
And Scott? The son he’d never known. Was he like his mother?
Murdoch closed his eyes and thought about the little boy he’d seen for a few precious minutes. He had Catherine’s eyes; he would still have Catherine’s eyes. He was such a serious little boy; so formal, so polite. Was he still? Or were all the questions meaningless? Was Scott dead; another victim of the carnage of war?
The party swirled around him; twanging guitars, laughing children. He wanted to scream at them; to bellow, “What is there to celebrate?” But he mastered himself. He straightened to his full, impressive height and walked towards the house. Towards the quiet of the empty great room and his excellent whiskey.
The tower bell rang out.
Murdoch stopped in his tracks. At first he thought the man posted in the tower was simply ringing the bell to add to the celebration. Then he heard someone say “It’s Señor Paul!”
Murdoch turned around and scanned the horizon. He saw a horse and rider approaching at a steady trot.
He’d given up all hope of Paul and Teresa being home for the Christmas party. Cipriano, who’d gone to mass the night before, said the roads were a mire. But Murdoch knew how Paul sat a horse and it certainly looked like Paul. Why, why had Paul decided to leave the wagon, to leave-but no, Teresa was up before him on the horse. Why had they risked the bad road?
Murdoch found himself walking quickly towards the main gate. Others were following him. The horse broke into a canter.
Greetings were being shouted, but Murdoch was only interested in how mud splattered the horse and its riders were. That mud told of a hard ride.
Teresa was waving madly and calling to her friends in Spanish.
Paul brought the horse to a halt beside him. Teresa leaned down crying,”Feliz Navidad!”
Murdoch reached for her and she slid into his arms. The little girl wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed. “Oh, Patrón, I missed you so much!”
Murdoch felt some of the hopelessness drain away as he returned the child’s embrace. He set her on the ground and she ran to hug Mariah who she called Abuela, grandmother.
Murdoch looked up at Paul and said, “I thought we got rid of that horse.”
“We shouldn’t have. He’s a good horse,” answered Paul, deliberately staying mounted. He saw fury in Murdoch’s eyes. He knew he was about to get a dressing down for risking Teresa on the rain ravaged road. Being more than a head shorter than his friend, he took advantage of being on the horse.
“What the hell were you thinking?” growled the big man.
Paul reached into an inside jacket pocket. He pulled out the folded telegraph and handed it to Murdoch saying, “That you needed to see this.”
The party went on around them. Paul stepped down; a vaquero took the reins of his horse and led it away. Murdoch stood very still looking at the paper in his hand. Paul didn’t say a word.
It could be anything. He knew that. It could be a Christmas greeting from the broker who sold his stock. It could be. But Paul believed it was so important he was willing to ride over dangerous roads for hours and hours to bring it to him. Murdoch did too.
He couldn’t read it here in the midst of all these people. He walked to the French doors and let himself into the great room. Paul came behind him. Watching but silent.
Murdoch unfolded the paper and held it at arm’s-length. The storekeeper’s block printing came into focus.
SGL alive Imprisoned by rebels Unhurt
All his breath left him; his knees turned to jelly. He sat awkwardly in his desk chair; the paper still clutched in his hand.
“Murdoch?” asked Paul, his voice strained.
Murdoch looked up at his old friend’s anxious face. He tried to smile but somehow couldn’t get the muscles of his face to respond.
“He’s alive,” he rasped. “Catherine’s boy, he is alive.”
Paul’s face broke into a broad grin. “I knew he’d be tough, like her, like you. I knew he would be.”
Murdoch felt dizzy. Until that moment he hadn’t realized how desperately afraid he’d been.
Teresa had followed her father and Murdoch into the house with the intention of pulling them back to the party. She climbed up onto the wide desk and sat looking from one to the other. The expressions on their faces confused her. Her father looked happy but the patrón looked kind of wobbly. She glanced down and a piece of heavy paper caught her eye. It was covered in Spanish.
“Yes, little fairy?” answered Paul. He was pouring Murdoch a short glass of scotch.
Murdoch was sitting very still, staring straight ahead.
“Where is Nogales?”
“In Mexico, in the north near the Texas border.”
“Why is Johnny there?” she asked climbing down from the desk. She went to the window and looked out at the people gathering in the yard. Teresa had never met either of the Lancer boys but her father often made up stories about them for her.
“Johnny?” demanded Murdoch his head jerking up.
Paul handed Murdoch the glass. “What are you talking about, little one?”
“It doesn’t say anything about Johnny,” said Murdoch reaching for the letter.
Teresa came back to him, leaning against his leg she pointed at the letter. “Yes, it does, Patrón. There at the end. Juanito that’s Spanish for Johnny.”
“Can you read it?” asked Paul trying to make the request sound unimportant. He glanced at Murdoch and saw skepticism warring with hope on his face.
Teresa nodded vigorously; her dark curls bounced on her shoulders. She spoke very slowly, “It says the woman’s boy Juanito was seen by-sorry, Daddy, I can’t read the name or maybe it is a word I don’t know- anyway – on the Nogales road in November.” She looked up, “Does that mean Johnny is coming north? Coming home?”
“I don’t know, Teresa,” said Paul softly.
“I hope so. I wish Scott and Johnny would hurry home,” said the child with a dramatic sigh. “Oh, listen, Abuela Mariah is ringing the bell. It’s time to eat! Come on!” Teresa called over her shoulder as she ran out the French door.
Murdoch picked up the letter. He still held the telegraph. He looked up at Paul, his eyes oddly bright. “They’re alive. Both of them. Johnny and Scott are alive.”
“Well, of course they are,” exclaimed Paul with a deep chuckle. “It’s Christmas. A man ought to expect a few miracles at Christmas.”
Murdoch looked down at the two pieces of paper in his hand. It was still possible that someday he might get a chance to know his sons. He felt something coursing through him. It took a long time for him to realize it was joy.
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