He was cold. So cold and scared—and scared was a feeling Johnny tried to avoid. He didn’t know what was frightening him, simply that he was afraid. His eyes refused to open, the lids too heavy to move, and he fought the panic this realization brought him.
When he finally forced a slight crack through his weighty eyelids, he saw only darkness. He was completely surrounded by velvety blackness, silent and empty except for the tiniest ray of light. That small glow seemed to hang like a single star in an endless ebony sky. He stared at the sliver of light, strangely drawn to it.
Something was wrong, very wrong. But what? His brain didn’t seem to be working right. There were tantalizing wisps of thoughts floating through his head like swirls of campfire smoke, if he could only grasp them, connect them… But he couldn’t catch them or put them together and he lay still, the ground cold and hard beneath him, lost in the endless darkness. He couldn’t think, couldn’t untangle the jumbled thoughts in his mind and he had the sensation of smothering in the dark void. The panic swelled again. Where was he? What was happening to him?
“Stay calm,” he ordered himself, forcing in deep relaxing breaths.
He wanted to face this situation, whatever it was, on his feet, but he couldn’t sit up, much less stand. His strength had deserted him and he caught his lower lip between his teeth waiting for a telltale stab of excruciating agony to offer a clue about this frightening weakness. But none came and all he felt was a floating sensation, unsure that he could even feel his fingers and toes. He fought unsuccessfully to move until he was overcome by the need to simply lie still and take comfort from that fascinating twinkle of light.
He stared at it, wondering what was wrong, why he couldn’t get up if there was no physical pain. He pondered this for some time, his thoughts scrambled and unclear, until he realized suddenly that he was alone, totally alone. And that same uncanny sixth sense that had kept him alive so many times in the past whispered urgently that he had to leave this place. That trusted inner voice cried at him to get out, one way or another, if he wanted to live, to see his family again. But how could he escape when he couldn’t move?
His family. Johnny smiled at the thought of his family. Just the sound of the word seemed to warm his heart. How wonderful to have a family! It wasn’t so long ago that he had no one, belonged nowhere. Now he had a big brother, a father, and a little sister and he belonged at Lancer with them.
Today was Christmas Eve and he needed to find Jelly and Scott so they could start home from Morro Coyo. Teresa would be so disappointed if they were late for the special dinner she’d planned. She and Maria had been baking for days, preparing the breads, cookies, cakes, and pies they claimed holiday tradition demanded. And who was he to argue with the necessity of creating so many tasty sweets? If they got home early enough, he and Scott might be able to sneak some of that bounty from under the watchful eyes of the ladies.
He was ready to head home. He had no time to be lyin’ around in wherever this place was. He struggled to sit up, to call to Scott, but the light pulsed, blinding him, surrounding him with brilliant brightness before fading entirely, leaving him limp, senseless, and exhausted in the suffocating darkness…
The fire blazed cheerfully as Murdoch Lancer eased himself down onto the couch, stretching out his long legs and sighing in contentment. He felt giddy, like a youngster anticipating the arrival of Santa Claus, but he made no attempt to stifle the broad grin that lighted his usually stern visage. He was simply too happy. His sons and Jelly would be home from town soon and they would all gather at the table for Teresa’s celebratory feast.
Murdoch shrugged away a niggle of guilt. He was relaxing here by the warm fire and there was work to be done—a cattle ranch had no notion of Christmas Eve. But regardless, he had concocted a myriad of excuses that required him to remain here at the hacienda, loathe to miss even one second of time with his loved ones in the bright, holiday atmosphere of the great room on this special day.
Glancing over his shoulder, he admired the festive table covered in holiday linens, garland, and sugared fruits, the fine crystal and china sparkling in the sun. The decorations on the table matched those covering the rest of the great room and his smile grew wider, remembering the sight of Teresa, Scott, Johnny, and Jelly squabbling delightedly as they worked together to adorn the great room. They’d bantered back and forth, acting like children, even coaxing him to participate in their revelry. The warmth that washed over him from the memory lit him like a candle and he admitted that he was looking forward to this evening and Christmas day as much as any child in California.
Christmas had for so long been a time of painful memories, but this year it would mark the birth of a new era. For the first time in more than eighteen years, he would have a family Christmas, one shared with his two sons, the ward who was like his daughter, and old Jelly, as much a member of the family as any of them.
Sipping leisurely on a glass of brandy, he stared contentedly into the fire, contemplating the prospect of a real family Christmas, accepting just how much it meant to him. After all these years, his dreams of sharing a great cattle empire with his sons were coming true. This Christmas would be a time of joyous celebration and giving thanks for the fulfilment of those dreams. It would be the first of many.
The sound of galloping hoofs yanked him rudely from him ruminations, replacing his contented smile with a slight frown. There was only one horse and it was galloping frantically, as though pushed to the limit of its speed. A chill of foreboding swept over him and he scrambled to his feet, running toward the door.
“Boss, Boss!” Jelly’s chestnut careened into the courtyard, neck lathered and flecks of foam flying from the bit. Jelly hauled back on the reins savagely, sliding the horse to a sudden halt and flinging himself from the saddle.
“Jelly! What happened? Where are Scott and Johnny?” Teresa ran through the door, wiping her hands on her apron, her eyes wide with fright, instinctively understanding that the manner of Jelly’s arrival could herald nothing but bad news.
Murdoch grasped Jelly by the shoulders, sudden fear causing his heart to contract painfully. Something was very wrong. “What’s happened, Jelly? Who’s hurt?”
Jelly took a deep breath, looking quickly from Teresa to Murdoch. “It’s Johnny, Boss. It… It’s pretty bad. You need to come with me right now.”
Teresa covered her mouth in horror, then squared her shoulders. “I’ll pack a bag for Murdoch and Scott, Jelly.” She noticed Walt hurrying over from the barn to investigate Jelly’s uncontrolled entrance. “Walt, please saddle horses for Murdoch, Jelly, and me.”
The tall wrangler nodded quickly, grasped the reins of Jelly’s exhausted horse, and ran back toward the barn.
Teresa turned back to Jelly. “Jelly, is Scott all right?”
Jelly nodded. “He’s fine, just a bit shaken up is all. Honey, you go get them bags packed, okay? We need to git on back to town.”
She wasted no more time, whirling and hurrying toward the stairs.
Murdoch’s grip on Jelly’s shoulders tightened painfully. “Tell me!” He barked.
“You know that ornery old longhorn bull Cyrus Grimly drove all the way up from Texas? Well, he brung it to town fer the vet to look over. Some of the boys in town tied firecrackers to its tail an that old bull went wild! Boss, he started bellerin’, then he run right through the fence and went chargin’ down Main Street.” Jelly paused, a stricken look on his face as the events replayed in his memory.
“I suppose Johnny tried to stop it!” Murdoch snapped bitterly, fear for his youngest son prompting an angry reaction. The boy was impetuous and reckless. It would be just like him to try and bulldog a rampaging bull.
“No, Boss, that ain’t how it was. Scott and Johnny were walkin’ along the street, admirin’ that dress fer Teresa they just had to go pick up in town today. Scott, he didn’t see what was happenin’ an Johnny shoved him outta the way. But that bull hooked back around and butted Johnny ‘fore Scott could pull him outta the street. I figger that musta knocked Johnny out, ‘cause he didn’t even try to get away when the bull charged him.” He broke off again and dashed a hand across his eyes.
Murdoch shook him slightly. “For God’s sake, Jelly, what happened?”
“It trampled him… right there in front of half the town. It happened so fast, none of us had a chance to move ‘fore it was on him. But that’s not the worst…”
Murdoch closed his eyes. “The horns…”
Jelly hung his head. “Yeah, Boss, it gored him. Woulda killed him outright, but Scott jumped on a horse at the hitch rail and roped it, dragged it offa Johnny. Doc Jenkins is workin’ on Johnny now. It… It don’t look good, Boss. I’m sorry.”
Murdoch stood in stunned disbelief, his mind refusing to accept Jelly’s story. It wasn’t possible. It just couldn’t be. Scott and Johnny were coming home and tonight they were having a family Christmas Eve celebration. The table was set, the wine chilling in the kitchen, the great room adorned in festive garland, a huge Christmas tree with festively wrapped gifts…
Jelly put his arm around his friend’s slumping shoulders. “C’mon, Boss. Let’s go inside and get your hat. Then we’ll go see about Johnny. I know I said it don’t look so good, but you know I got a big mouth and my foot’s in it more’n not. That Johnny boy, he’s mighty tough, a real fighter, and Doc Jenkins is the best. It’ll be okay.” He led the bigger man toward the hacienda.
Murdoch allowed his friend to shepherd him into the house, his knees strangely weak. At that moment, dazed and unable to think clearly, he was grateful for Jelly’s steadying hand and comforting presence. He covered his face with one large hand. “Oh God, Jelly, I can’t lose him again. Not now…”
“We ain’t gonna lose him, Boss.” Jelly squeezed the knotted shoulders as he handed Murdoch his hat. “Why, that boy wouldn’t move his camp for a prairie fire! He ain’t about to let no little ole bull beat him.”
“Jelly’s right. We’re going to think good thoughts and pray and he’s going to be all right. Now let’s go take care of Johnny and Scott.” Teresa hurried down the stairs, carrying three carpetbags she’d managed to pack while changing into her jeans.
Murdoch straightened immediately, drawing strength from her conviction and quiet competence as he had so often done in the past. “You’re right, sweetheart. That’s exactly what we’ll do.” He took the carpetbags from her, offering his arm to her small hand.
The worried group mounted the horses Walt held for them and galloped toward Morro Coyo, each reflecting on the remarkable young man who always seemed to walk in sunlight, regardless of the weather. And each of the grim-faced Lancer family members prayed in his or her own way that the sun would not set on Johnny Lancer.
His heart pounded painfully and his back protested the jarring as he urged the big bay pinto to an even faster pace. He wished he was already in town, at his son’s side where he longed to be, even while he dreaded what they would find when they arrived at the doctor’s house.
“Think good thoughts!” Teresa’s hand touched his arm, her voice sharp with determination. He turned his head toward her and nodded, a tiny part of him smiling at the thought that he could never hide his true feelings from her. She smiled back as he gritted his teeth and forced himself to think of happier things.
The books… He’d been working on the books when Scott, Johnny, Teresa and Jelly wrestled the big tree into the great room, pleased at the tale the neat columns of figures told about the health of the ranch. His family’s arrival shattered the peaceful afternoon and his self-congratulatory mood, filling the air with the sweet, tangy aroma of pine and the sounds of their good-natured banter, the music of Johnny’s spurs, and Jelly’s contented grumbling.
His demands for quite and frustrated admonishments against their childish behavior fell on deaf ears. He’d acted angry, secretly savoring their unbridled joy. Suddenly Teresa and Scott appeared at his desk, Teresa tugging his arm while Scott deftly removed the pen from his hand, closing the big ledger firmly.
“If you’ll join us, sir?” His oldest son softened the command into a request and his father couldn’t resist the twinkle in Scott’s eyes, the silent plea on Teresa’s face. He allowed himself to be swept into their world of high spirits, joining the chorus as Scott’s deep baritone led them through Christmas carols while Teresa directed the placement of the decorations.
Scott and Johnny teased Jelly unmercifully about his singing voice and the older man flushed with pleasure at their attention, even as he pretended to be furious with them. Jelly snatched up his cap, swatting Johnny across the seat of his pants, threatening harsher retribution to “the smart aleck,” and Johnny’s wicked laughter warmed his father’s heart.
His boy was happy and that meant everything to Murdoch. Johnny had known so little happiness in his life; his childhood filled with physical and emotional hurt. Yet Johnny had survived, growing into a compassionate and loving man despite his unhappy circumstances. His outward show of cynicism hid a soft heart and Johnny tried valiantly to help all those in need, constantly getting involved with other people’s misfortunes.
If only someone had been so willing to help his son, Murdoch mused. He knew that Johnny had experienced hunger, abuse, bigotry, and God only knew what else. Johnny himself said very little about his past, choosing to hide his experiences from his family. In the aftermath of that chilling time when they almost lost him to Pardee’s bullet, Murdoch questioned the boy about the scars on his body. Johnny’s reply was simple, but adamant, “It don’t matter now, let it lie.” But it mattered to Murdoch and he hoped Johnny would one day realize, perhaps when he had children of his own, the need of a parent to know and understand his child’s pain.
Johnny… The lost boy he had searched for so desperately and futilely… So many years and never a trace of the child or his mother until the day the Pinkerton agent brought him the news. At long last, his son had been identified and he sent up a silent prayer of gratitude as he opened the report in triumph… only to witness his jubilation fade to horror at what he read.
His laughing, sweet, mischievous, blue-eyed cherub had grown into a notorious gun-for-hire—Johnny Madrid, a gunman mentioned in the same awed breath with John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, and Ben Thompsen. He shivered with revulsion and loathing. No son of his could possibly be a killer-for-hire, but the stark words mocked him in black and white and he hardened his heart against the soulless gunfighter.
To be perfectly honest, he’d brought the boy home to Lancer because he needed the gunhawk’s fast gun. He didn’t expect Johnny to stay, didn’t want him to, treated him with aggression, giving no quarter or trust. He’d expected a ruthless killer, not the boy who looked at him with such need, such longing. The startling blue eyes seemed to beg, “please want me…”
He was so damn young! So like his mother… And Murdoch reacted by pushing harder and harder, refusing to give an inch, so afraid the boy would hurt him like his mother had. But despite his cold shoulder, Johnny stayed. Thank the Lord, Johnny stayed, and slowly Murdoch was able to peel back the veneer of the cynical gunslick to uncover the exasperating, passionate, fun-loving, softhearted, gentle, and vulnerable boy beneath. It had been a long, hard road, but he and Johnny were finally building a relationship and he couldn’t imagine life without his youngest son…
“Oh Johnny, fight it for me. Please, just hang on. I’m coming as fast I as I can. Just please, hold on, son…”
Alone in the suffocating emptiness, Johnny opened his eyes to memories of his family. He smiled, remembering the joy, the pure fun, of their Christmas preparations. His recollections of Christmases past were mostly unpleasant and he eagerly anticipated his first family Christmas celebration, drinking in all of the sights, smells, sounds, and stories Scott and Teresa shared with him. How many times had he watched other children enjoy the holiday season with their parents and siblings? Always the watcher, the one left out, the unwanted boy on the outside looking in, wishing in vain for a place to belong, a father who cared what happened to him…
But this year would be different. Now he had a family, a family who wanted to celebrate with him, to tease him and pet him and love him. People who cared about him, about how he felt, about what happened to him. They fussed over him like mother hens with one chick, asking him questions he didn’t want to answer and helping him chase away the black dogs of shame and unworthiness that had been his constant companions for as long as he could remember. Although he feigned disinterest and sometimes anger at what he called their hovering and nosiness, he secretly reveled in their attention and he knew that they knew it.
If only they were here now, they could tease him all they wanted, fuss over him as much as they pleased. He desperately wanted to see them, hear them, feel the warmth of their love. He didn’t know why, but they loved him, his family, just as he loved them. But he was stranded here in this frigid darkness, unable to move or call out to them and the empty loneliness chilled him to the bone, dragging him down into a swirling vortex of loss, sorrow and oblivion…
“I just don’t know, Murdoch. The next twenty-four hours are critical. His internal injuries are serious and he lost so much blood that even with the transfusion from Scott, he’s very weak. The wounds inflicted by the horns are severe and required extensive and delicate surgery. Frankly, it’s a wonder that he made it this far. And so much can still go wrong.” Sam Jenkins gripped his friend’s slumped shoulder compassionately, wishing he had better news for the tall rancher. But he knew Murdoch wanted the truth and he gave it to him straight. “I’ve done all I can. It’s up to Johnny now.”
Jelly stepped forward, “He’ll fight it, Doc. You’ll see. Johnny ain’t no quitter.”
“No, Jelly, he’s not. He’s young and he’s strong and stubborn. That’s in his favor. Plus he has all of you in his corner.” Dr. Jenkins smiled encouragingly at Jelly.
Scott stepped forward, his face still pale from the ordeal of the transfusion and the shock of the accident. “But you’re still worried, Sam. You don’t like his chances.” Scott turned the last statement into a question.
“I won’t lie to you, Scott. It’s touch and go and we’re in for a long fight. Johnny has quite a concussion on top of his other injuries and I’m concerned that he might not wake up at all. All of you need to talk to him, try to bring him around. If we can get him awake, get some fluids and nourishment into him; it’ll help his chances. Just keep talking to him, don’t let him drift away.”
Murdoch straightened, “We will, Sam. Teresa and I will sit with Johnny now. Jelly, please take Scott over to the hotel and get some rooms for us. I think we’re going to be in town for some time.” He turned to Scott. “No son, don’t argue with me. You’re out on your feet and still weak from giving blood to your brother. You need rest, Scott. You’ll get your turn later and I’ll let you know if there is any change.”
Scott started to speak, thought the better of it, and nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Jelly put an arm around Scott’s waist. “C’mon, boy. Let’s go find you a bed. Murdoch and Teresa will keep Johnny safe.”
Scott went with him, turning at the door. “Take care of him, Murdoch.”
“I will, son.” Murdoch tried to smile, but was only capable of a grimace. As Jelly closed the door behind them, Murdoch turned back to Dr. Jenkins. “Let’s go talk to Johnny now, Sam.”
He and Teresa followed the doctor into the small room where Sam housed patients who needed full time care, both dreading what they would find inside even as they prepared to do battle for Johnny’s life.
He was so cold, shivering in the endless darkness. The loneliness was too much to bear. Where was his family? He yearned to be with them, gathered around the fire in the big hearth or at the long table. Anywhere but in this mysterious place of empty frozen blackness. If he could just stand it for a little while longer, his family would find him and everything would be all right. His family. Scott, Jelly, Teresa, and Murdoch…
Murdoch. How he had burned with hatred for the man, blaming Murdoch for his mother’s death and his own hard life. He’d spent countless hours devising painful deaths for the father he despised, the father who didn’t want him. But that man he had hated, the father he so scorned, didn’t exist. The Murdoch Lancer who was his true father was a man he now admired, respected, trusted, and yes, loved.
It hadn’t been easy, but Teresa had forced him to discover the truth about his mother’s departure from Lancer, casting doubts on his long-held beliefs about his father’s actions. Slowly he submitted to the truth and it opened the gates, starting the long, painful journey to reconciliation. His father had been so tough to get to know, but Johnny eventually realized that Murdoch had built a wall around himself, a barrier against further pain. The man was afraid of being hurt again, of experiencing the kind of pain that losing his sons all those years ago had put him through. Johnny understood this instinctively because he was equally adept at building such walls. And with this new-found understanding came acceptance of Murdoch’s attitude and actions.
Johnny knew that his father found it difficult to express himself to his sons. Murdoch struggled at being a father because he had been robbed of the chance to learn how when they were boys and it didn’t come naturally to him now. The man had no experience and no one to teach him to be a parent. The lessons he would have gleaned from experience, trial and error had he raised Scott and Johnny were lost forever. But the man never quit trying. He made mistakes, but in his own way, he tried to bridge the gap that divided them, to atone for his errors. It had all been so new to each of them, but slowly, and despite the harsh words, cold silences, and cruel accusations, they had grown closer, gradually tumbling the walls altogether.
“Johnny! Stay with me, son. Please.” The voice startled him out of his reverie. It was Murdoch, but he sounded so strange, so far away. In some unexplained fashion, his father’s voice seemed to be coming from that peculiar light that glowed so enticingly. He tried to concentrate on the voice, but he still couldn’t make himself think, he could only vaguely comprehend the thoughts that seemed to flow of their own free will.
“Johnny, Johnny, look at me.” It was Teresa’s soft voice. Lovely, knowing Teresa. He remembered the first time he had laid eyes on her beautiful face. He sensed her warmth and kindness and knew it would be hard to remain indifferent to such a loving soul.
Yet that had been his plan—take the old man’s money and run. But he couldn’t do it and a major part of the reason he didn’t just leave was Teresa. From the very first, she knew who he really was and not what he pretended to be. She had loved him even then, like a sister loves a brother, and that knowledge shook him to his core. His heart responded and he returned the feeling, although it had taken him a while to admit it. Was it really so easy to love someone?
“Johnny! Johnny, please come back to us!” Boy, Teresa sure sounded upset. Something must really be wrong.
“Where are you, honey? What’s the matter? Are you hurt? Teresa, answer me, please.” He heard the words in his head, but when he tried to shout no sound came out of his mouth. Why couldn’t he respond? Why could he hear, but not see or speak or move?
“We love you, Johnny. Please stay with us. Open your eyes, Johnny!” Teresa sounded closer this time and that darned light was definitely growing brighter.
Johnny was getting frustrated and angry. The floating sensation disappeared suddenly and he felt a stabbing pain flare in his head, a swath of agony radiating up from his belly to his side, scorching into his shoulder and arm. His entire body began to throb unmercifully. He wanted to cry out, to moan with the torment, but he couldn’t make a sound.
“So much for not feeling any pain.” He tried to move, seeking a more comfortable position, but something held him in place. Unseen hands? Why couldn’t he move? The panic returned and he gasped, attempting to breathe deeply and calm himself.
“Johnny, can you hear me, brother?” Scott.Yeah, that was Scott. His clever brother would have an explanation for what was happening to him.
“Hey, Boston, you gonna tell me what’s going on?” Again he tried to speak, but the words still would not come.
He didn’t understand what was going on, where he was, but the thought of his brother was comforting, so he let his mind wander. Scott, his brother. He had been stunned to find out he had a brother. He’d always wanted one, but never in his wildest imagination had his brother been some fancy Eastern dude. The way Scott was dressed the first time he laid eyes on him, boy, he was just asking for trouble. But the dude was his brother and he realized that his mother had not only deprived him of a home and father, but also a brother. Johnny felt emotions he was not willing to admit and certainly did not want someone to feel for him. No Boston dandy was going to get under his skin, win his trust. Johnny Madrid didn’t need anybody.
Scott said that they ought to be able to get along. But Johnny didn’t want to get along, had no desire get to know Scott. Yet he had been unable to stand against that calm, steadfast caring and his barriers soon crumbled.Scott accepted him as he was, trusted and believed in him. There was nothing Scott wouldn’t do for him.
At first, Johnny had been afraid to believe his brother could care about him. They were so different, raised so far apart and in such starkly different ways, one showing his feelings so easily, never afraid to bare his heart, the other hiding his feelings behind a wall of cynicism in order to avoid hurt and betrayal. And the things Johnny Madrid had done—how could a fine man like Scott, a war hero, care about someone with a soul so blackened? But Scott made no secret of the way he felt about his brother and like it or not, Johnny Madrid had a brother who loved him.
That pesky little four-letter word kept cropping up whenever he thought about his family. Johnny Madrid was wary, resisted using that word, couldn’t accept the vulnerability it brought, but it was easier for Johnny Lancer to acknowledge that he loved his family. Well, there it was. He had finally admitted it. His father loved him, might not say it and might not always show it, but in his heart Johnny knew Murdoch felt the unconditional love of a parent for a child. Of course Teresa loved him. And Scott. If there was anything left in this world that could hurt him, it would be knowing Scott did not care about him. But he did. His brother loved him the same as his father and Teresa and Jelly did. And he loved them, too, fiercely and completely. Had a devil of a time saying it to them, but at least he could admit it to himself.
“Time to wake up, Johnny boy. Daylight’s a wastin’. Wake up now, boy.” Jelly. That was Jelly and his voice was quivering the way it did when he was unhappy or wrought up over something. What was wrong with Jelly?
Johnny hated to see his old friend unhappy. He was such a kindly old soul, would do anything to help a body. You couldn’t help but care about Jelly. In some ways, Johnny felt closer to Jelly than he did to his father.
“What is it, Jelly? What’s wrong? I swear I’ll make it right. Don’t you fret now.” But he still couldn’t speak or move and the pain was growing worse, ripping him apart.
The cold was gone, replaced by a vicious heat. For a moment he wondered if he’d gotten careless and let himself be captured by Apaches. The Apache were fond of roasting their captives over a bed of hot coals, laughing at their screams of anguish. His entire body was on fire, as though he was suspended over a burning pit, and the agony was unbearable. What a stupid, useless way to die! His last thought before the pain and darkness took him again was the hope that Barranca had escaped from the Apache warriors who would surely eat him.
“Sam, for a second he seemed to try to speak. And his head moved. Is he coming around?” Murdoch moved from his place at Johnny’s side to allow Dr. Jenkins access to his patient.
The doctor examined Johnny carefully and thoroughly, shaking his head at the heat emanating from the boy’s body. “Well, he’s not as deeply unconscious as he was earlier and the wounds are no worse. No sign of peritonitis and I believe the internal bleeding has stopped. These are all good signs, but I don’t like this high fever. It’s not unexpected, but we need to bring it down as quickly as possible. He just doesn’t have the strength to fight it. I’ll get some more ice. You keep talking to him, Murdoch—wherever he is, he’s listening or we’d have lost him.”
Teresa took Sam’s place at the bedside, gently wiping Johnny’s drawn face with a cold cloth. The fever was scary, but not nearly as frightening as Johnny’s earlier iciness and chalky pallor. She’d dealt with his fevers before. They were an enemy she knew how to face. But she couldn’t accept the deathly chill that had gripped Johnny in the first hours of their vigil. He who had so burned with life lay still and cold as death and she knew the terror of a loved one who could do nothing but pray. She soaked the cloth in the cold water, wringing it out carefully and wiping the perspiration from Johnny’s shoulders and chest, keeping up a constant flow of soothing talk, begging him to wake up.
Murdoch stared at her dully. He was totally exhausted, aching with tension and despair. Teresa, Scott, and Jelly had tried in vain to get him to sleep, even for a short time. But he wouldn’t leave Johnny. He knew it was unreasonable, but he simply felt that no one else could keep his son safe. Death stalked the small room, reaching out to claim his boy with eager hands, and Murdoch knew that he alone could keep the greedy apparition at bay. He was Johnny’s father so it was up to him to guard his son.
It was only a few hours ago, although it seemed like years, that he had been anticipating a different kind of Christmas, a joyous celebration with his new found family. Last Christmas had been so difficult with Teresa grieving for her father, Murdoch for his best friend, and as on every previous Christmas, for his wives and two lost sons. The future had appeared blacker than ever, no ray of hope, no sign of what was to come, the loss of all he had worked for a distinct possibility.
It was Teresa’s urging that finally forced him to bow to the knowledge that he couldn’t hold on to Lancer alone. He needed help, needed his sons. So he sent for them, praying that they would come, that he would have the chance to love them at home where they belonged instead of from afar. And they came. They saved the ranch and stayed, working side by side despite the storms and difficulties of building relationships between men whom were strangers to one another. The one thing he had never prayed for, the one thing he felt would never happen even if his sons did return had finally come to pass: his sons loved him. He didn’t know why, but they did and his heart rejoiced.
And now his youngest son was fighting for his life in the early hours of Christmas morning. His Johnny, the boy he’d despaired of ever reaching, the son with whom he’d finally found a common ground, the young man he was so proud to call son. It just couldn’t end like this. Not now. Not after he had found his son after more than eighteen years of searching, not when he was beginning to understand and solve the riddle that was Johnny. No! He would not let him go.
Murdoch moved closer to the bed and lifted his son’s limp hand, squeezing it tightly. “Johnny! Listen to me, son. You’ve got to try. Please, John, please try. Try, boy.” He laid his trembling hand on Johnny’s burning forehead, bowed his head, and prayed.
The tiny sliver of light glowed brighter; it seemed to be drawing him toward it. Somewhere behind that light, his family waited. He knew he had to move toward their voices. They needed him, something was wrong and he had to make it right. His father’s voice sounded so strained. He hoped he hadn’t done something to upset Murdoch. He certainly had the knack of angering the Old Man, but he didn’t mean to. He needed to talk to Murdoch, square things, make his father happy. But something held him back; keeping him suspended in this alien place.
Suddenly a light brighter than anything he had ever seen banished the darkness, filling him with a peace such as he had never known. He was engulfed in pure love and it was an awesome, humbling experience. He didn’t know where he was, only that there was no shame, bitterness, hate, pain, or ghosts here. Nothing could hurt him here in this tranquil sea of peace. He drifted, welcoming the light that seemed to reach out to embrace him.
But maybe there were ghosts… He could make out the familiar faces of people who had loved him. There was his mother, young and beautiful, her hair loose and flowing like a black cloud, her eyes dancing with life and joy. There was Pablo, his wise old eyes bright with laughter, smiling with acceptance and love. Johnny tried to move, desperate to get to them, to touch them once again, but he still couldn’t budge and they remained out of reach. He wanted to scream with frustration. Why couldn’t he talk to them?
“Juanito, why are you here? It is not your time.” His mother’s voice…
“You must go back, little one. Your time is not yet. You have things to do, places to go, people who need you. The birds still sing for you, Johnny mio. You will see us another time.” Pablo, dear, wise old Pablo… His magical hands motioning for Johnny to go back.
He struggled to reach out to them, speak to them, but no words came. The light surrounded him, cradled him and somehow, he knew that he was being given a choice. He had a decision to make…
“Johnny, open your eyes, brother. I need you.” The anguish in his brother’s voice broke Johnny’s heart.
“Johnny, please wake up. Stay with us.” Teresa was crying and he couldn’t bear her tears.
“Johnny, you wake up, boy. You don’t wanna be ruinin’ Christmas, do ya?” Jelly’s voice still quivered with grief. He needed to do something about that. Never could stand to see Jelly unhappy.
“John, son, please try. I can’t lose you again.” Murdoch sounded so desperate. Why didn’t Scott do something? Their father didn’t deserve that kind of unhappiness. But Scott was too busy calling out to him to worry about the Old Man. It was up to Johnny to help Murdoch.
His family needed him. He didn’t want to hurt them, but this warm, accepting light would free him of all his pain, heal his heart and cleanse his soul. He could see his mother again, and Pablo. They looked so happy, so peaceful, and so content. If he could only remain here just a while longer…
Somehow he knew that he had to make a choice. But there really was no choice—he needed his family more than they needed him. Yet he wanted more time to bask in this healing light, to be close to those he had loved and lost. It would be so easy to stay with them.
“No, please, I’m not ready yet.” he pleaded. Then the light swelled and pulsed with painful brightness, the voices seemed to merge, echoing as though from far away, and his head exploded in agony, turning his world to black, thrusting him back into the darkness.
Darkness again, yet a different kind of darkness. And pain. A screaming, red hot agony that robbed him of breath, forcing him to catch his lower lip between his teeth in a futile attempt to bite back a moan. The fiery pain overwhelmed him and he couldn’t help himself, whimpering like a child. He struggled to orient himself, momentarily panicked as a vague memory of Apaches and torture flickered across his brain.
He felt hands on his face and shoulders, another hand squeezing his. There were voices, but he couldn’t understand them through the red haze of torment. They ran through his ears, but he couldn’t hold on to them. He wished the world would hold still, let him think for a minute, figure out where he was and what was happening to him.
His fine-honed survival instincts kicked in, taking stock of his surroundings, recognizing that he wore no gun belt, and worse, no pants or boots. He was in a proper bed, yet it was not his own. He fought to sit up, but was unable to even lift his hand from the bed; his muscles didn’t seem to understand the signals coming from his brain. His head weighed about a thousand pounds. The effort cost him dearly and he heard himself cry out, his voice weak and raspy.
Something cold and wet stroked his face and forehead. There were voices, but he couldn’t unravel them. Large hands tenderly raised his aching head and he felt something hard against his teeth, a wetness on his tongue. He tried to refuse it, instinctively knowing that it contained the hated laudanum. But he was too weak to fight and lay helplessly while the bitter liquid trickled slowly down his parched throat. The callused hands gently settled him back against soft pillows and he heard the voices again, but the pain was still too fierce for them to penetrate.
The medication slowly began to tame the unbridled agony that savaged him. At last he was able to force his heavy eyelids open and then came the battle to focus. It took everything he had, but finally he could make out the figure beside him in the shaded lamplight. His father’s face was haunted, the lines etched more deeply than Johnny remembered, dark circles standing out starkly under his eyes. Was that a tear on Murdoch’s cheek? Johnny tried to speak, reassure his father, but could only manage a weak croak.
A radiant smile illuminated his father’s face, smoothing the harsh lines of worry. “Oh, thank God! Johnny, you scared me to death.” Murdoch’s hand squeezed his warmly and the other huge hand smoothed the sweat-matted fringe of dark hair from his forehead.
“What’d I… do this… time?” Johnny managed to whisper through lips that still didn’t want to work right.
“Oh, Johnny,” Teresa sobbed, dropping to her knees and wrapping her arms gently around him. He wanted to comfort her, but his left arm was strapped securely to his chest and Murdoch gripped his other hand tightly, as though he was afraid to let go. What was wrong with his father?
“You all… right… Old Man…?” Johnny panicked as his memory suddenly returned. “Wh…Where’s Scott?” The bull… He’d pushed Scott out of its path, but where was he now?
“Scott!”Johnny tried to shout, struggling to get up, to help his brother, but he just didn’t have the strength to move, defeated by the weakness this time instead of the pain. Murdoch’s strong hands easily controlled his feeble thrashing.
“Easy, son. Don’t try to move. You have to lie still.”
”Here, Johnny, I’m right here. I’m fine. Please stay still. Everything is all right, little brother.” Scott soothed, resting his hand gently on the damp forehead, smoothing the dark hair. Murdoch relinquished his hold on his youngest son and Scott took his place. “Almost gave up on you, boy,” Scott grinned tiredly, but his eyes showed their concern.
Johnny forced his eyes to focus on his brother’s face. “You okay, B… Boston?” He tried to sound casual, but his weak voice betrayed his feelings.
“I am now, brother. I am now.” Scott’s eyes were bright with relief and unshed tears.
Another face swam into view, the gray whiskers familiar. “’Bout time ya woke up, boy. There’s work ta be done. No time fer ya to be lazin’ ‘round.”
“Right here, Johnny. Don’t you worry, old Jelly’s gonna fix ya up, boy. You gonna be fine.” Jelly’s hand patted his shoulder softly.
“M… Murdoch? What h… happened…” He was so tired and he couldn’t manage more than the merest whisper. But it was wonderful to be with his family again. He wanted to savor their presence, didn’t want to give in to sleep just yet.
“You were trampled and gored by a bull, son.” Murdoch cleared his throat, unable to keep his emotions in check, a rare but welcome event in Johnny’s eyes. “You had us real worried, boy. We didn’t think you’d come around. Doc Jenkins told us to keep talking to you and we’ve been talking ever since.” The gruff voice couldn’t disguise the love and relief in his father’s eyes.
Johnny wanted to smile, but he just didn’t have the strength. He knew his father would have talked forever and a day if need be.
“I heard you… Old Man… prattling on… no rest… for the wicked… they say… just came back… tell you all… shut up…” His voice trailed off weakly and he knew he was fighting a losing battle with his heavy eyelids, but he had something else he needed to say. “Want… go home… for Christmas. Wanna have… Chris… mas… Lancer… Please…”
Sam Jenkins drifted into view. “Now you listen to me, young man. And the rest of you, too. I know how much spending this Christmas at Lancer as a family means to you all. I realize you were looking forward to it. I’m sorry, but it just can’t happen now. Johnny, you’re lucky to be alive and if we move you, you’ll start to bleed again or stick one of those broken ribs through a lung. No, you’re going to be flat on your back in this bed,” Sam pointed vehemently at the bed where Johnny lay, “for at least the next week. Then we’ll talk about when you can go home. No arguments!”
The doctor’s eyes swept round the room, seeking any signs of dissention from the others before coming to rest on Johnny. “Now, you’re going to drink some broth and go back to sleep, Johnny. Until I tell you differently, you have only two jobs: sleep and drink. Understand?”
“’kay. But no more… laud… num…”
“I know you don’t want it, Johnny, but you’re too sick not to have it. You won’t be able to heal unless you’re comfortable and with your injuries, I can’t keep you comfortable without laudanum. I won’t give you any more than absolutely necessary, but I do insist that you take what I give you.” Johnny grimaced at Sam’s “no nonsense” doctor’s voice and turned pleading eyes to his father.
“The doctor’s right, son and I agree with him. None of us want to see you hurting so you’re going to have to take the medicine.”
Johnny felt a flash of defiance at this unwelcome flouting of his wishes. Who were these men to tell him what to do? They knew he detested laudanum! Couldn’t he make his own decisions? He wanted to rebel against their orders, but he was too tired to fight them and there was such concern on his father’s face. Concern and worry for him… He drifted off for a moment, rousing again when Scott lifted his head, cradling his neck and shoulders gently.
“Easy, Johnny. Try to drink this for me.” His brother’s hands were gentle, soothing, and Johnny drank obediently, grateful that Scott understood his need to rest between sips. He hated being so weak, but knew that he could trust Scott to take care of him.
Slowly, Scott managed to coax the entire mug of broth down his brother’s throat. It took some time, as Johnny had to rest, sometimes dozing, between the small sips. At last, the mug was empty and Johnny felt the cool hands position him flat on the bed, pulling the blankets up over his shoulders. His brother’s hand trailed over his forehead, lightly combing the silky black hair with his fingers.
Scott stared down at pale young man on the bed. With mussed hair, pain-drawn face, and cheeks flushed with fever Johnny looked about ten years old. A rush of protectiveness and love for his brother washed over him and he felt immeasurably older and wiser. Scott met the boy’s glazed blue eyes and spoke in the sternest voice he could muster. “Little brother, if you ever scare me like that again, I promise you, you won’t be able to sit down for a week.”
Johnny stared at his brother wide-eyed. He’d never seen such a serious look on Scott’s face. “Gosh, he really means it,” Johnny thought as his remaining strength drained away. He realized that he was about to lose the battle for consciousness and struggled to reassure Scott before exhaustion took him. “S… sorry, Boston… I don’t… aim to… not for long… time any… way…”
Johnny drifted off to a deep, healing sleep, warm with the knowledge that he had made the right choice. He had been able to come back to his family this time, but he knew that the next time he encountered that peculiar light he would not be given a choice to return to those he loved, at least not in this world.
The family worked diligently throughout the morning and into the afternoon, reassembling the tree and festooning the small room with the Christmas decorations Jelly and Scott retrieved from the hacienda. If Johnny couldn’t have Christmas at Lancer, they were determined to bring Christmas to him. The work brought a welcome catharsis, helping them cope with the tension and stress generated by the accident and Johnny’s devastating injuries.
Murdoch remained at his self-appointed post beside his injured son, willing the boy the strength to keep fighting, to maintain his tenuous hold on life. Twice during the long afternoon, Dr. Jenkins awakened Johnny and Murdoch helped him swallow barley water and strained broth.
Johnny was too ill to focus on anything beyond attempting to do as he was bid and drink, lapsing frequently into unconsciousness. But he was holding his own and Murdoch silently encouraged his boy’s efforts, attempting to convey his support and concern through the touch of his hand. His back protested vigorously and he sagged with exhaustion.
Teresa noticed Murdoch’s change in posture immediately; hurrying to his side and wrapping a supporting arm around him. “He’s going to be just fine, Murdoch. This is Christmas, a time to celebrate hope and faith and the greatest love of all. Don’t you dare give up on him.”
Murdoch leaned against her for a moment. “Of course not, darling. I’m not giving up on Johnny.” He watched as Sam softly entered the room, whispering something to Scott that sent his oldest son hurrying out the door.
The doctor moved over to the bed, observing Johnny’s breathing and listening to his heartbeat then examining the heavily bandaged wounds and palpating his abdomen. After what seemed an eternity, Dr. Jenkins looked up at Murdoch and nodded. “He’s stronger Murdoch. His fever is down, heart rate and respiration have improved, the internal bleeding has stopped and still no peritonitis. He’s not out of the woods yet, but he’s moving in the right direction.”
“Thanks Sam…” Murdoch broke off as Scott came back into the room, a bemused expression on his face.
“Sir, I think you’d better go outside.” He gestured toward the door.
“I don’t want to leave your brother, son.”
“You need to see this, Murdoch.” Scott stared toward the window where Jelly stood open-mouthed, gazing out into the street.
“Go on, Murdoch.” Sam was making annoying shooing motions, a smile on his face.
Murdoch glared at them angrily. What could they possibly think was more important than sitting with Johnny?
“Boss? You need to… well, just look.” Jelly gestured blindly at the window.
Intrigued in spite of himself, Murdoch allowed Scott to take his place at Johnny’s side, relinquishing the limp hand into Scott’s firm one. He hurried to the window and stared out into the street in astonishment. What looked to be the entire population of Morro Coyo was clustered around the window, obviously sharing in the Lancers’ vigil although it was Christmas afternoon. He fumbled with the casement, finally managing to open the window with Jelly’s help. Charlie Poe and Abe Saxon, the blacksmith, stepped forward.
“How’s the boy, Murdoch?”
Murdoch had to swallow several times before he could speak. “He… he’s holding his own, Charlie.” He felt Charlie’s weathered hand on his arm, squeezing compassionately.
Abe stepped closer. “We’re all prayin’ fer him, Murdoch. That boy o’ yours, well, he’s real special. Ain’t a person out here that he ain’t helped some kinda way. An it ain’t just the help, it’s the way he gives it, not charity, but a helpin’ hand, lettin’ a man keep his dignity. Johnny, he cares ‘bout folks, knows just what to say an do. All of us, we got together and decided we gonna sit right here ‘til we can wish that boy a Merry Christmas. If there’s anythin’ we kin do, anythin’ a’tall…”
Murdoch stared at Abe, Charlie, and the other familiar faces crowding around the window, offering support and love for his youngest son. Here was the harvest of the seeds that Johnny Lancer unknowingly planted every day of his life. His mixed-up boy who thought he was unworthy, that his life didn’t matter. The whole town… He tried to speak, but couldn’t force his voice past the constriction in his throat.
Jelly recognized his friend’s difficulty and stepped in. “We sure thank alla ya. Johnny’s sleepin’ just now, but we’ll tell him you’re here. An please keep them prayers a’comin’. They seem to be helpin’.”
Murdoch let Jelly lead him back to Johnny’s side, hanging his head in shame. How many times had he been aggravated or down right furious with Johnny, certain the boy was off wasting time, shirking his work, even drinking in town when in actuality, Johnny had been lending a hand to someone in need. “Oh son, maybe someday I’ll learn to give you the benefit of the doubt… I swear I’ll do better if you’ll just get well…”
Johnny moaned softly, “S…Scott?”
“Right here, Johnny.” Scott bent close to his brother’s face. “I once told you that when you were gone, you wouldn’t leave a ripple. Well, Johnny, I was right. Ripple doesn’t even begin to describe it, little brother, tidal wave is more appropriate.”
Johnny gazed blearily at his brother, trying unsuccessfully to work out the meaning of this strange speech.
“Hello, son.” Murdoch waited until the fever-bright eyes managed to focus on him. “It’s Christmas, boy, and there’s something I want you to see.” He glanced at Sam, silently asking permission, smiling when the doctor nodded. “Scott, sit him up. Gently! Jelly, get a blanket ready. Teresa, support his side and shoulder.”
“Be careful!” Sam admonished.
Murdoch bundled Johnny into his arms, handling him as if he were a priceless piece of crystal. Johnny gasped and whimpered at the strain the movement placed on his ribs and the angry punctures in his side. “Shh. Just relax, son. It’ll be all right.” Murdoch soothed. Jelly and Scott tucked the blanket around Johnny and Murdoch easily carried him to the window, holding him gently while the townspeople surged forward at the sight.
“You have some friends who want to wish you a Merry Christmas, son. They’ve been here all day. They’re quite concerned about you.”
Johnny struggled to understand what was happening, seeing the throng of people, but not really comprehending what Murdoch was saying. He recognized Charlie Poe and tried to speak to him, but he was still too weak. Charlie clasped his hand and squeezed.
“You get better, Johnny. All of us are thinking about you, boy.”
Johnny gave him a feeble smile, still unable to make any sense out of what was happening. He tried to lift a hand, acknowledge the many voices calling out to him, but lacked the strength to do it. Why were all these people here? And just where was here, anyway? Oh, yeah, Doc Jenkins’. Did someone say it was Christmas?
As if in answer to his question, Abe led the crowd in a chorus of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The group sang from their hearts, calling out good wishes to the young man who went out of his way to ease life’s burdens for them. They were touched when he blushed and hung his head in the gesture that was so typical of Johnny when anyone tried to thank him.
At the same time they were appalled at the alarming weakness and the pale, drawn face, the heavy bandages swathing his chest, shoulder, and arm. Many of them had witnessed the frightening incident first hand, watching the grisly scene in horror, helpless to prevent the unfolding tragedy. And all of them wished to offer their young friend the same support and solace he always gave so freely.
“That’s for you, son from people who care about you. They wanted to make this Christmas special for you, John.” Murdoch turned away from the window and carried his precious burden back to the bed, tenderly lowering him onto the mattress.
Johnny lay quietly for several minutes, gathering his strength and glancing about the room, noting the tree and decorations. His face lit with a tired smile. “You brought… tree… decorated room… for me?”
“For you, Johnny.” Teresa assured him. “We all wanted to enjoy our first Christmas as a family and since we can’t have you at Lancer with us, we decided to celebrate Christmas right here with you.”
“Th… Thanks… All those… people… what…”
“Those are people whose lives you’ve touched, son, people you’ve helped. They chose to give up Christmas at home with their families in order to be here with you and show how concerned they are. You know; it takes a very special person to create that kind of devotion. I’m so proud of you, John.” Murdoch brushed away the tear that trickled from the corner of Johnny’s eye.
“We all are, little brother. Proud and very thankful to have you with us.” Scott squeezed Johnny’s good shoulder.
“Amen to that,” Jelly added.
“Gonna cel… brate? You eat… dinner?”
“Yes. We’re all staying right here with you, Johnny. You just go to sleep whenever you need to; we’ll be here. We’re not going to leave you alone. But first, you need to drink your Christmas dinner. It’s not as tasty as ours will be, I’m afraid.” Teresa carried a cup of barley water to the bed.
“Rather have… choc… cake…” there was a hint of a twinkle in the blue eyes.
“Yes, and so you shall, when you’re stronger. Now, drink!” She handed the mug to Scott.
Johnny lay back in Scott’s arms, periodically sipping from the cup and reveling in the presence of his family. They must have slipped him some more laudanum because the pain was bearable and he had that detached, floating-outside-yourself feeling. He dozed, drifting in and out of wakefulness, vaguely aware that his family was taking turns pillowing his head and shoulders, helping him swallow the nourishing liquids Sam wanted him to drink. And some part of his mind noted that Sam periodically examined him, asking him questions.
He was content to be with these people he loved, the family who loved him, to let them take care of him and keep him safe. His family carried on with the Christmas celebration, enjoying a bountiful feast, opening gifts, singing and talking, always making sure to include him in the conversation, but requiring nothing of him save his presence. He drowsed contentedly through the afternoon and evening, hovering at the border of awareness and the fuzzy twilight world of semi-consciousness.
From far away, he heard Sam say something about “out of danger,” and Scott’s ecstatic toast, the heartfelt “here, here” response of his family, but he was too worn out to really understand. He felt his father’s hands lift his shoulders tenderly, positioning his head to rest against the broad chest. A drop of something warm and wet fell on his face.
A long forgotten memory surfaced, his head pillowed on that same rock hard chest, a rocking horse, a bright metal star reflecting prisms of light, his father kissing his forehead… He’d felt safe and loved then, too. Johnny turned his head, burrowing it into his father’s shoulder. He felt Murdoch’s lips brush his forehead, the big hand lightly stroke his hair, heard the deep voice, strangely husky, “Merry Christmas, son.”
Johnny smiled sweetly, marshaling the strength to reach his hand up to touch his father’s wet cheek. The effort left him exhausted and he drifted into sleep, clutching the memory of that long ago Christmas, entwining it with his fuzzy impressions of the satisfying afternoon. His eyes closed, but he still managed to whisper against his father’s stalwart shoulder, “…rry …smas, Papa.”