The Good Shepherd
The Bible, CEV
“Here, take this, too.” Tim Haskell held the small crate up to the younger man.
“Where am I going to put it?” Scott Lancer complained, releasing the reins from his gloved grasp. He gestured to the snugly tied, tarp-covered wagon bed behind him. “I’m already overstuffed.” It was indeed full, and all items had been carefully packed and arranged to fit by his own hands into an angled mound that came level with the seat.
The apron-covered mercantile owner shrugged. “Teresa said she wanted apples for a pie, so here are the apples. And she said she wouldn’t take them bruised, so don’t bruise ‘em. Just put ‘em under your feet there.”
Scott grumbled but took the crate and put it in the prescribed place. Acceptance of them dictated care and so he carefully nudged it to one side to avoid kicking it. If Teresa wanted unblemished apples then he’d do his best to see that she got them, especially if it meant she was planning apple pie – his favorite – for Christmas dessert. He cast one more blue-gray glance over the loaded wagon, then remembered something. “Is that it?” he prompted the middle-aged Tim. “Nothing else?”
“Nope.” Tim shook his dark head, his broad face clean shaven but already sporting a dark shadow of whiskers in the early afternoon. “And it doesn’t look like you’d have room even if there was something else.”
“Those books didn’t come in?” Scott asked gently, hopefully. “You checked?”
Haskell raised his thick hands submissively. “Nothing, Scott, sorry. Was they going to be a Christmas gift?”
“No.” Scott checked his sigh. It wasn’t Tim’s fault. Shipments from the east this time of the year were unreliable due to the weather. He was lucky to have his Christmas gifts to the family, purchased locally and in the case of one particular item, ordered from San Francisco, stowed behind him. The books, well, he’d been looking forward to receiving them and reading at least one of them over the holiday. “Just as well, I guess,” he said to Tim, trying to quell his increasing disappointment. “Won’t be much time for them, anyway – too much to catch up on as it is.” His foot bumped against the crate and he reflexively shifted it back. A niggle of worry burbled in him; it wouldn’t be easy to keep those apples protected against a jouncing wagon over a road rutted from the recent winter rains.
“Sorry,” Tim said again.
“It’s all right.” Scott looked up; the pale winter sun, already slanting toward the washed out, afternoon sky, had now been swallowed by a fresh collection of clouds. He buttoned up his short jacket, resettled his hat on his fair hair, then took up the reins. “Guess I’d better go. Looks like we’re in for some more weather.”
“Be careful, then – road can get slippery if it rains,” Tim warned, and Scott knew it was more out of concern than instruction for his young customer. The Haskells were friends of the Lancers. Tim stepped back to the boardwalk and stuffed his hands under his apron to warm them. “And Merry Christmas to you and everyone. We’ll see you at the New Year’s dance?”
“We’ll be there.” Scott waved and clucked to Admiral and General, as he’d named the brown-colored draft team, and headed out.
“Hold it!” Val Crawford sprinted from the sheriff’s office toward him, a stack of colorful blankets loaded in his arms. “You need to take these.”
“Val, I already have blankets for the bunkhouse,” Scott began, drawing the team to a quick halt. They pulled at the traces, eager to be off for home. <<Me, too>> Scott thought. Already he could feel the drag of those clouds within him. <<No rain – not today…>>
The sheriff, rumpled and unshaven as always, stepped up and held them out. “Johnny wanted ‘em. Christmas presents.”
Johnny, his brother and Val’s best friend. Looked like little brother had made a generous contribution to the welfare of Lone Crow’s children, who often brought the blankets to Val to sell. But there really wasn’t any room in the wagon, and his feet were already holding those apples. “And where do you propose I put them?” Scott demanded. He gestured to the neatly tied tarp behind him. “I’ve already packed.”
“Oh, you can make room,” Val scoffed. He stepped up onto the near wheel. “Here.” He thrust the blankets over to Scott and unknotted the strings holding one end of the tarp.
This time Scott did sigh. “You could have brought them out tomorrow.”
“Might not make it tomorrow.” Val got both hands working, and Scott saw his meticulous arranging quickly undone. “Got that last bank robber to find and the sheriff from Cross Creek thinks he’s close by. Heading out after this to join his posse. Here, you’ve got all sorts of room in here. Give ‘em back over.” He grabbed the blankets back from Scott, folded them together and shoved them into the space he’d made, then pulled the tarp back over the bumpy mess. “There. Hell, boy, why’d you wait so long before getting all these supplies? Jelly still down with the grippe?”
“He’s better,” Scott nodded. Sickness had run through the bunkhouse a few weeks earlier and Jelly had been the last to catch it. “Sam wanted him to stay in bed one more day.”
Picking up the waiting supply order had not been voluntary on Scott’s part. He’d had Sheridan all saddled and was stepping into the stirrup, albeit only a fraction behind the others thanks to the extra sweet roll Maria had offered him on his way out the door, when Jelly came out of the barn leading the draft team, weaving on his feet. Reminding him of Sam’s orders to stay in bed had only aggravated the grizzled handyman, who insisted that the supply order not be left another day. The rest of the hands had already left, and those who’d stayed behind had injuries that prevented them from filling a wagon. Murdoch Lancer, electing this day to stay home and work on the last of the ledgers, had offered to do it, but Scott would not allow him; his father’s back simply did not have the strength, and the recent rainy weather made his old injury painful.
So Scott had unsaddled Sheridan and hitched up the team, and instead of repairing the dam on Fork Creek with his brother Johnny, he drove to the Green River Mercantile. Not that he really minded making the trip at all; the day had started sunny and the team had moved swiftly along the road to town. Loading supplies into a wagon would be drier and warmer than shoveling rocks, mud and brush from a coldwater dam. But the voluminous collection of supplies had taken more than an hour to retrieve and tally, and another hour of rearranging to make them fit in the wagon bed had him just as sweaty as if he’d taken up a shovel. And the oncoming rain meant he’d be just as wet. So far the only advantage was the apparent lack of mud.
He wouldn’t have considered those books if he’d been out at the creek. But he wasn’t at the creek, he was here in town, and those books were long overdue. Was it so much to ask, that the transportation system operate regularly? Scott refrained from another sigh. It looked to be a long, wet ride back home. Well, as long as he got there. He had a Christmas tradition – an important one – to keep…
Val’s gaze drifted toward the sky. “Weather’s coming. Why don’t you ask Charlie to stow this wagon at the livery and come back for it after Christmas?”
It sounded tempting, reasonable even. He could just leave it all and go home, beat the rain and start his quiet celebration ritual, the one he’d practiced for the past seven years. But he didn’t even need to look back at the disarranged load to know what he had to do. “We need it all, Val,” he said to the sheriff, “that’s why I’m here.”
“You’ll be getting wet, then,” Val predicted, slapping his friend on the knee. “There’s rain up there.”
Scott refrained from looking at the clouds. Rain – he hated walking in it, riding in it and working in it, even sleeping in a dry bed with it tapping on the walls and windows. Too many bad memories came with it, and today of all days he did not want those bad memories to press on top of the melancholia he was already nursing. It was Christmas Eve, and all he wanted was to get home to the house freshly cleared of illness and now gaily decorated, sink onto the sofa before the fireplace, fill himself with liquid holiday cheer and wait for the others to go to bed. Then when he was by himself he’d invite his past to his side to toast those he’d lost, to honor the memory of their lives with his own. He’d made it a personal tradition to celebrate the end of the evening this way. Somewhere in between the carols, the contemplation of a baby savior and the gifts, he would sit alone and remember with fondness and sadness. He’d spent Christmas Eve this way ever since his return from the War, and he rather liked being alone to contemplate the passing year and accept the memories that he allowed on this one night. But the rain would not do, not at all.
He shook off his longing again. “Hope you can make it tomorrow,” he told Val, thinking instead of the cold, wet night his friend was going to spend searching for a robber.
Val smiled as he stepped off the wheel. He patted his stomach. “I’m still full from Thanksgiving, but I’ll see if I can’t swing by. It’d be a shame to miss all that good cooking from Maria and Miss Teresa.”
He was a small thin boy, his cheeks smudged with dirt, his mop of black hair awry. He stood barefoot in the rutted road, faintly shivering in a threadbare shirt and pants of indiscernible color that had been rolled many times to accommodate his size. A small gray goat on a rope lead bleated as it stalked about him. But despite his ragged appearance, the boy’s dark eyes peering out from a double fringe of thick lashes were merry, and his smile was wide.
“¡Buenas dias, señor!” he called up to Scott and waved.
Not more than eight or nine, Scott judged, drawing the team to a rattling halt. His foot pressed against the apple crate to keep it from sliding away from him. Friendly enough little fellow but alone. Scott glanced about but the road and the area on either side were empty in the dreary afternoon.
“I’m heading to Spanish Wells to meet my family,” the boy explained, stepping up to the wagon. “They sent me to buy this fine little cabra.” He patted the circling goat. “My little sister, she needs the milk. You wouldn’t be going to Spanish Wells, would you, señor?”
The damp air swiped Scott’s cheek, fingers of wetness luring him home with the warm promise of brandy and the obedient flames of the fireplace. He was heading toward Spanish Wells since the main road led that way, but not going into the town; the turn off to Lancer curved east and away from the hamlet. He really didn’t have the room or the time. As it was he was going to get home after dark. And there were a lot of supplies behind him to unload.
Scott looked over the boy again. The youngster looked cold, had to be with those bare feet on the ground. The sun had been hidden by those swelling clouds for close to two hours now and the temperature had noticeably slipped. The gray chilliness had worked into Scott, into the space below his wrists left bare by the edge of glove and the start of shirt cuff. Just a small patch of exposed skin, a tiny irritation that could not compare to the feel of damp cold earth pressed against bare flesh. Guilt rattled him; how could he have forgotten the feel of that penetrating ache all the way to bone? How could he forget the generosity of those who shared what they could ill afford to spare?
The boy was still watching him, though some of the friendliness had slipped from his black eyes. Beside him the goat bleated into the grayness of the afternoon. It was Christmas Eve, and there was just this little boy, wondering if the man with the wagon was going to Spanish Wells.
Duty rose within the man with the wagon, quelling any notions of personal wants. It would only be a little out of his way. What little boy didn’t deserve to be with his family for the holiday? And though it would be dark when he arrived home there would be plenty of hands to unload the wagon. “As a matter of fact, I do have an errand to do in Spanish Wells.” Scott affected a grin. At the boy’s wide smile he set the brake and reached down. “Climb on up.”
“What about Pepita?” the boy asked, hesitating.
Scott considered the goat; she was a little on the small side, but there really wasn’t much room for more than the boy beside him. “Tie her to the side of the wagon,” he suggested. “I think she’ll keep up.”
The boy’s smile returned. He quickly accomplished the task and then clambered up over the wagon wheel to the seat beside Scott. “Thank you, señor,” he said and held out a grubby hand to shake. “I am Natalio and I thank you for the ride. My family will be very grateful.”
Scott shook it. “I’m Scott Lancer and you’re welcome. You’ve an unusual name, Natalio.”
“I am named after La Navidad – Christmas!” the boy declared proudly with a thumb pressed to his thin chest.
A little boy with a Christmas name. Appropriate, given the day.
“Señor, are those apples?”
Scott followed Natalio’s gaze down to the crate of polished fruit, saw the look of hunger that crossed the boy’s face as he licked his lips. No telling when the waif had last eaten. He pulled one from the box, knowing Teresa would not complain about feeding a hungry, young stray. And it was only one apple; there’d be plenty left for Christmas dessert. “Tell me if they’re any good,” he said to Natalio with a warm smile.
The boy pulled a chunk of firm flesh into his mouth. “Delicious, señor!” he exclaimed, wiping at the juice that dribbled over his chin. He took another bite and shivered in the damp breeze. Silently Scott slipped out of his jacket and set it about the shaking shoulders. “No, señor, you will be cold,” Natalio protested.
“It’s work driving this team,” Scott told him, though nothing could be further from the truth. Admiral and General were a steady and completely reliable pair, and well knew the way home. “You wear it for now.” The boy nodded and slid his arms into the drooping sleeves. Sighing happily, he settled back against the seat and munched on the apple. With a glance at the gathering, black-bottomed clouds, Scott moved the horses forward again.
“Señor! It’s Pepita – she can’t keep up.”
Scott slowed to a stop and peered over the boy’s dark head to the goat below; she was panting a little. His gaze went back to his covered load – had it shifted, pressed closer to him, urging him home? “Natalio, there’s no room up here.”
The boy’s face filled with worry as he looked at the goat and then back to Scott. “She’s a little goat, señor. I can hold her.”
Scott shook his head. “She won’t sit still.”
“She will for me, and she is tired. Please, señor?” Natalio pleaded.
Scott swallowed his consternation. Home beckoned strong again with the alluring image of warm flames and brandy; he could almost feel the double warmth, the internal glow of liquor upon organs and the external heat of firelight upon skin, the coziness of flickering flames insulating him against the darkness, filtering the memories. They were closer to Spanish Wells, but not by much. And the rain was going to erupt from those clouds at any moment. The goat wasn’t a pet like a dog or cat. It really didn’t belong up on the seat. And there really wasn’t any room.
Sensing his companion’s hesitation, Natalio shrugged out of Scott’s jacket and stood up. “Let me off, señor. I will walk with Pepita. It can’t be far now.”
Guilt kicked him hard; he hadn’t specifically excluded the goat when he offered the ride. And it was a small goat. Scott caught the boy’s arm. “You’ll have to hold her still.”
The thin face again broke into a smile. “I will! Pepita minds very well, don’t you, Pepita?” The little gray goat bleated loudly in response.
While the boy climbed down, Scott loosened the tarp and reached beneath to one of Val’s blankets. One blanket – Johnny had ordered too many, anyway. “Wrap her in this,” he told Natalio. The goat plucked an apple from the crate and took a bite. Grimacing slightly, Scott handed the rest to Natalio. There were still enough apples for a pie – and Teresa would understand.
It was a penetrating drizzle, silvering the air in front of him, ushering up a ghostly mist from the road edge that drifted into the path before him, washing out any color left to the afternoon. Scott sighed. The wetness seeped in under the back of his collar where it dribbled from his hat brim, no matter how many times he had adjusted it. He grimaced as a fresh trickle hit that sensitive spot just below the hairline and shivered. He really didn’t want to spend Christmas Eve in town, though he had a bottle of single malt scotch, a holiday gift to Murdoch all the way from San Francisco, somewhere in the wagon that would suffice for his annual toast to his fallen brethren. A hotel room would be better than a camp under this wagon because once they stopped it would likely be too dark to continue on. Lancer had made it this long without these supplies, so another day would not matter. And he’d be more than happy to get out of this damned rain. Ruefully he thought of Val’s suggestion to stow the wagon in Green River.
He glanced down at his passengers. Natalio and Pepita were dozing beside him, the boy warmed by Scott’s body heat and the goat in his lap. He’d curled his bare feet under him and slumbered peacefully, what with two apples in his belly, and two for the goat as well. Poor kid--
Admiral tossed his head and General followed, shaking the reins in Scott’s gloved hands. He quickly called a ‘whoa.’ Someone was standing up ahead, head bent down against the rain.
“Now what?” he said aloud with rising irritation. One boy and a goat were enough. He couldn’t take on any extra cargo. It was getting late; he needed to get home, or to town; he needed to get someplace, any place, warm and dry.
It was a young woman, a very young woman with a thin, patched shawl covering her dark head. She held a baby in her arms, a tiny sleeping baby with a crown of dark hair, wrapped in a swaddle of ragged blankets.
A woman and a baby on Christmas Eve, looking for…?
“Por favor, señor,” she called. The look on her tired face was wary, but there was a plea in her dark eyes. “I am looking for the rancho Tabor, do you know it? Is it far?”
“Quite a ways, ma’am,” Scott said, lifting his hat in greeting. Cold water promptly hit that spot again but he held back his wince. Even so, the bad memories of that rainy Christmas started to stir, the year the holiday had meant so much because he’d had so little, he and those he’d befriended – those that he’d lost just months later. He needed this night to honor their spirit and their faith. Just this one night, this one time each year…
The young woman’s dark eyes went over the wagon and saw that there was no space. “Would you show me the way, señor?” she asked, making his guilt loom. “I am to meet my husband – I am very late.”
How could he not give her a ride? The baby was small. It was raining. It was Christmas Eve. And she rather looked like Mary of the Bible on the flight from Egypt. Scott moved; Natalio’s head popped up and Pepita bleated with complaint. “I can give you a ride, ma’am,” he said to her. “We’re headed that way.” Well, Tabor’s ranch was on the other side of Lancer, but if they went directly to the Lancer hacienda and not Spanish Wells then maybe they could send someone to alert the anxious families – and get this damned wagon parked and unloaded. Then he could have his fireplace and his brandy and his darkened memories.
Her head dipped. “Gracias, señor.” She indicated the child sleeping in the chill and bleak afternoon. “We are grateful.”
Scott set the brake, secured the reins and jumped down to help them. Natalio, his lap full of Pepita, slid over. “I know the Tabors,” Scott said. “Who would your husband be, ma’am?”
“José Morales,” she said.
José – Joseph. Scott shifted uncomfortably. A woman with a child and a husband named Joseph. Hadn’t Tabor just hired a new carpenter? No, just a coincidence, another one. A strange and disconcerting one. Scott took her elbow; he was almost afraid to ask. “I’m Scott Lancer, Señora…?
“Isabella Morales,” she returned, clutching the baby in the crook of one arm and using the other hand to grab the wagon seat and pull herself up. “And our son, Teodoro.”
Isabella, not Mary or Maria, and Teodoro, not Jesus. For a moment he had thought…Scott shook his head at his imagination, though if he next found three old men bearing gifts he might reconsider his state of mind.
“Gift from God,” Natalio said, beaming at the baby as they settled in beside him, and Scott nearly choked on his calm; the child might as well be named Jesus if this was the translation. He didn’t look up, didn’t dare. He was feeling a little funny. Maybe he was sick… “Is he your miracle, Señora Morales?” the boy continued.
“Sí, hijo,” Isabella smiled shyly. “We are very honored to have been blessed with a son.” She pointed to Pepita. “What a fine cabra you have.”
“Would you like to buy her, señora?” Natalio quickly asked. “For your niño? I am not asking much…”
Startled, Scott looked up with a frown. “I thought you said that goat was for your sister?”
The boy swallowed and a look close to guilt came into his eyes. “The money would be just as welcome, señor,” he said, but his voice had thinned.
“I am afraid that I cannot accept your generous offer,” Isabella said to the awkwardness as she gently bounced the now fretting baby in her arms. “Perhaps if you see us in the new year…”
Scott balanced on the wagon wheel and unfastened the tarp, telling his overactive imagination to settle down. A kid named after Christmas, a young family with a baby – Gift from God. Gifts – gifts, wise men, no room at the inn…
It was just a collection of coincidences, nothing more. It was just his irritation working against his guilt. The kid needed to get to town for some reason – it didn’t matter if the goat needed to be milked or sold. The woman wanted to find her husband – so she said. As long as they got to one place or another he could sort it out then. Quickly Scott worked to re-arrange some supplies, creating a mess even bumpier than Val’s, then tied the tarp back up against the rain. “Okay, Natalio, I’ve made some room for you to sit back here. But don’t let that goat into any cornmeal or the cook will take a broom to me.” <<And probably burn my dinners for a week,>> he added to himself, thinking of Maria’s vehemence with a wince he could not hold back.
Scott smothered the curse that reached his lips. The road was getting slippery from the rain and the wheels were taking on mud. The horses were starting to strain against the harnesses to keep the wagon moving. He urged them forward again, then glanced at his passengers, trying to ignore his own clinging shirtsleeves and the chill that the wet material gave him. The rain – he grimaced. That old holiday wavered before him and he tried to ignore it. But it persisted. The cold, clinging rain; the mists and the mud, the chills and feverish cries of men, including his own; thin voices singing, others joining in, holding thin and grubby hands, vowing never to forget, promising to bring messages to loved ones. Promises…he’d made and kept plenty since that rainy Christmas night, always tried to share what he had in the remembrance of those he’d left behind in that place. He didn’t mind his newfound companions riding with him. It was this rain, this damnable rain and the slices of reality that kept coming to mind.
Natalio had squirmed under the tarp with Pepita, and now only two dark eyes and a mop of black hair peered out from under the oilskin. Probably the driest of them all, Scott surmised. Beside him Isabella huddled over her baby cocooned inside her ragged shawl, and only smiled when Scott glanced at her. He’d offered her an apple and she’d accepted two. There might still be enough for a pie, or if not that, then a tart or a cobbler. He hoped Teresa would understand. Scott looked at Isabella again. She looked younger than he first thought, closer to Teresa’s age, and too young to be left by a husband. There was no ring on her finger, but they likely could not afford one. Too young, Scott mused again, and then thought of Natalio trying to sell his goat to her. Something wasn’t right about that, either, a little boy alone with only a scarce mention of a family.
Admiral snorted and General did, too, pulling the reins through Scott’s gloved hands. Someone was standing in the road.
“Again,” Scott groaned. The wagon was already looking like an overcrowded stage, but he knew he could not deny another wet stranger. He pulled the team to a halt and they readily stopped, rattling the traces, shaking their great heads and splattering water.
“Seems you’re in luck,” Scott called to the fair-haired, curly-headed young man whose hands were wrapped around himself. At least it was only one man, and he wasn’t old or bearing any gifts that Scott could see. Still, after the coincidences he’d already encountered…
The younger man looked a little unwell, or perhaps it was the weight of his saddlebags that made him hunch to one side. “Need a ride?” Scott asked.
The man only nodded at him.
Might as well give in and get this over with, Scott decided, as his imagination danced uneasily again. “What’s your name?” he inquired.
The eyes looking at Scott narrowed with confusion. “Gabriel.”
The angel. Of course. It couldn’t be something simple like Davy or Billy, but Gabriel. Well, it fit with the others. Scott glanced over at Isabella and her son; thank goodness that baby had already been born. Then he thought that perhaps he hadn’t escaped that fever that had hit the ranch; maybe it was working in him right now. Except there was no bright star in the east that he could see, just rain. Not that this story was exactly following that of the Bible, but it was uncomfortably close. Hell, they even had a goat – what was next, the finding of a stable? Joseph the carpenter appearing in the gloom? Those wise men, or perhaps shepherds with a flock?
His head spun a little; he felt uncommonly giddy. “So what is the good news, Gabriel?” he could not resist asking.
The boy straightened and a gun came up in his hand. “No good news, I reckon,” he said, cocking it. “I’d like one of your horses, mister.”
Scott’s head settled with a lurch. No good news, indeed. And through the dim afternoon he could see a bloody hole in the boy’s side. The stranger certainly didn’t look like any outlaw; he was hatless and coatless; he didn’t wear any rig on his hips, and his shoes had laces. No, not a cowboy or a rancher, either. Farmer, maybe. Down on his luck, more than likely. “I need both horses to move this wagon,” Scott said, appraising the pale, wet face. “Why don’t you climb up--?”
“I said a need a horse, mister!” Gabriel shouted then winced. “And I’ll take your gun, too,” he added in a quieter tone.
“You’re hurt,” Scott tried. “You won’t get far in this weather. My ranch is not far…”
The younger man shook his head and cocked the gun, straightening with another grimace. Natalio had climbed out from the tarp and was now looking over Scott’s left shoulder at the man. Isabella was absolutely still, Teodoro clutched close to her chest. They stared at the desperate stranger, fear emanating from them. In the silence Natalio shifted; his small hand came up to clutch at the back of Scott’s elbow, his little fingers trembling. Admiral snorted, and General pawed at the mud under one great hoof. The baby squeaked and Isabella strengthened her grip on him, but Scott could see that she, too, was shaking.
“I need to move on – unhitch this horse,” Gabriel ordered in a renewed voice. He adjusted his aim and the barrel of the gun wavered at them.
Scott’s irritation erupted. Heat surged through his limbs, made his fingers curl tight around the reins. It was cold and raining and he wanted to get home. He hadn’t asked for this collection of strangers, but he was willing to help them, to overlook his petty wants and attend to their needs. But he would not be threatened by this kid, and he was not going to give up a horse to this stranger. Even so, he quickly sucked back some of his temper and forced it into outward calm. He had the woman and the children to consider. He couldn’t let them get hurt.
“Stay here,” he murmured to his passengers, working Natalio’s hand from his elbow and giving it a squeeze. He shoved the brake into place, secured the reins and jumped with a splash into a mud puddle that welled up over his feet. The rain broke over him, drummed on his shoulders and battered his hat, cold and stinging. Keeping his gloved hands in sight, he moved toward the traces. Gabriel followed his action with the wobbling barrel of the gun, unsteady on his feet. “You’ve lost blood,” Scott commented, working at a buckle on the harness.
“Give me your gun first,” Gabriel countered. “Belt and all. And don’t test me, Mister. I’ll shoot – I’ll shoot everybody.”
One shove and the boy would be off his feet. One shove. It wasn’t going to take much to upend him, but there was the gun to watch for; an upward bullet could strike Isabella, Teodoro or Natalio. Scott stepped away from Admiral. As expected, Gabriel followed his movements. Scott pivoted again; now he was parallel with the wagon. Better positioning in case that gun went off. With his left glove Scott loosened the thong holding his holster against his thigh, then worked at the buckle securing the belt to his hips. The boy before him blinked and swayed. He looked like he’d walked a long ways, and had fallen more than once. But he was desperate, Scott reminded himself. Reckless and dangerous, too. Pain often gave a man unbelievable strength, he knew; he’d felt its power on more than one occasion. So he’d have to be careful with this fallen angel that had appeared in front of him.
“Give it here,” Gabriel commanded when the belt dangled from Scott’s left hand.
Scott nodded. “Sure…”
At the last moment he flipped the gunbelt up between them, lowered a shoulder and rammed the weakened boy. Gabriel yelped; the gun went off, the echo blasting through the rain and gloom. The horses started; dimly Scott heard Natalio holler a command for them to stop before he and Gabriel went down into the mud. They flailed, arms and legs kicking and flopping. Scott wrested the gun from Gabriel’s grip and then gave the rising boy a punch to the jaw; Gabriel groaned and went still. Breathing fast, Scott thanked the being surely watching over him and his new brood, grabbed his gunbelt back and lifted himself off the younger man. Angel, indeed. Bank robber, more likely, and there was no whimsy in that conclusion, just pure logic. None of this strange day was a fantasy, in spite of all the coincidences.
“¡Dios!” Natalio exclaimed, peeping over the side of the wagon. Behind him Teodoro had awakened and was crying. Natalio pointed. “He shot you, señor!”
Scott looked; there was a bloody rent in his right sleeve, just below the crook of his elbow, where a few minutes before Natalio had been holding onto him. “Just a graze,” he reported, examining the long gouge in his forearm. “Natalio, dig under that tarp and find me some rope to tie him up.”
“Are you all right?” Isabella had moved to the near side of the wagon to see. She hushed the baby and held him to her shoulder, her brown eyes wide.
Natalio popped back up. “Are you going to drag him behind the wagon like the useless dog that he is?” he declared with obvious admiration for Scott and disgust for Gabriel.
“Yes, I’m fine, and no, nothing quite that dramatic,” Scott told them. He strapped his gunbelt back on, then ruefully brushed at his muddy shirtfront and thighs. He looked like he had worked on that dam with Johnny; the only difference was that Johnny was likely already washed and warm and dry, he thought with a spurt of envy. So much for an easy ride to town – so much for getting home this day. So much for tradition. “We’re taking him with us.”
“All the way to town?” Isabella asked with a frown.
Scott removed the bullets from Gabriel’s gun, deposited them into his shirt pocket, then handed it up to her. “Put that on the floor by your feet. No, not to town. We need to find shelter for the night. The mud is too much for the team.” <<And the rain is too much for me,>> he added silently to himself.
Natalio jumped down, dragging a coil of rope behind him. “¡Dinero!” he suddenly shouted, pointing again.
Sure enough, a stack of paper money curled from the edge of the loosened saddlebags that Gabriel had been clutching. Val’s bank robber, certainly. Scott snagged them from the puddle into which they were sinking, secured the buckle and handed them up to Isabella.
Natalio’s eyes were wide as he followed the transfer of the bags from Scott to Isabella. “That’s a lot!”
“Yes, and it belongs to the good people who put it into the bank he robbed,” Scott told him shortly, frowning at the boy’s all too eager excitement over the money. Probably more than the kid had ever seen, Isabella too, for that matter. He watched as the boy stared again at the bulging pouches Isabella was now carefully fingering. A mighty big temptation sitting there in the girl’s hands.
Well, it was going straight to Val. That would make the lawman smile, being handed a Christmas present like that. If they ever made it home in time for Christmas.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d just put that on the floor by the gun,” Scott told Isabella in a quiet voice, hoping he could trust the girl. Isabella nodded and quickly dropped the bags out of sight.
Pepita took advantage of the delay to pull at some muddy grass beside the road. Scott left Natalio to look after her while he tied Gabriel hand and foot. Then he examined the wound in the boy’s side. The bullet had passed through and there wasn’t much he could do except thrust his bandana against it. He hoisted the younger man over his shoulder, hauled him to the back of the wagon and laid him on top of the bumpy tarp. Another order had Natalio fishing out more of Johnny’s Christmas blankets. Scott flung one over the moaning robber and then climbed back to the wagon seat to slip another one over Isabella’s shoulders. She nodded with gratitude and passed him the gun and saddlebags. Scott hefted them but they still seemed as full as when he’d first picked them up. He placed the empty Colt inside one of the bags and then put them by his foot, next to the depleted crate of apples, for safekeeping. Natalio collected a refreshed Pepita and climbed back on board, then peered over the seat to stare at the saddlebags now nestled below.
“That sure is a lot of money,” he commented again.
Scott did not reply. Praying that no one – wise men or shepherds included – would next come out of the rainy darkness and seek direction or worse, a ride, he moved out for what he hoped was the last time.
Raindrops seeping down the sagging rock chimney made the flames sputter and smoke, but the heat and light, however meager, were welcome. Funny that Scott couldn’t recall noticing this shack before this afternoon, but there it was, four good walls, most of a roof and a lean-to with just enough room to shelter the horses. And at this point Scott wasn’t going to contemplate the oddities of his luck. Or compare the space to a stable where a holy child was born and men of all class and age paid homage. Already he and his companions matched that description. And if his luck did hold, there would be no other visitors at the splintered door tonight. Though he’d surely welcome his family if they showed. But they would not appear in this rain and darkness. Murdoch Lancer would wait until daylight, growing alternately angry and worried, before searching for his errant son. Not that said son was lost – just maddeningly waylaid.
They’d parked the wagon close to the door and dug into it, splashing through the mud and rain to unload enough to make the evening comfortable for both humans and animals. Though Teresa was probably going to have something to say about her eaten apples, and Johnny about his Christmas blankets. Maria, too, was going to question the open sacks of cornmeal, flour, sugar and coffee. Jelly was not going to be happy to find his rope used and muddy. Murdoch’s new shirt would have to be replaced; it was going to bandage Gabriel.
The young outlaw was still tied up, now to the dilapidated iron bedstead, but had not complained. Pale and wary, he watched as Scott approached with the collection of items in his hands. Isabella followed behind with a greasy, blackened oil lamp, and some rainwater she’d collected and warmed in a discarded pail found in a corner. Earlier she’d retreated to a corner of the room to nurse her baby, her back to them as she fed her son. Scott kept Natalio busy unpacking and sorting supplies, feeding the fire and gathering up what they could use so he could get Gabriel onto the only bed, a listing, rusted affair with a half gone mattress. Natalio now cradled a fed and sleeping Teodoro in his lap and crooned happily to the squirming infant; Pepita had been tied to the far corner of the room. The saddlebags of money and the gun, sans bullets, Scott had stashed deep in the wagon under an unopened sack of grain until he could get to them later.
“That wound needs attention,” Scott told Gabriel, crouching on the splintered floor beside the younger man. When there was no response, he continued, “What happened?”
“You saw the money,” Gabriel spat back, his green eyes bright with pain. In the muted light of the lamp his golden curls looked almost like a halo about his head. A wounded, misguided angel of sorts.
“Yes, I saw it,” Scott nodded. He laid the shirt-bandages on the edge of the drooping mattress and his Christmas gift to Murdoch, the bottle of single-malt, imported scotch, beside them. “What happened?” he asked again.
“Nothing,” Gabriel snorted, then closed his eyes and turned his head away. He had barely a beard on his chin; young, then, somewhere close to Isabella’s age. As Scott unbuttoned the bloody shirt the younger man said, “Nothing ever happened on that farm, so I just left. Met some fellers and they took me on, bought me a horse and gear, drinks in the saloons. We had a lot of fun.”
“Water,” Scott said to Isabella, and she came forward with it, watching silently The bullet had plowed between two ribs, but the bones didn’t look broken. The entrance and exit wound, a couple inches apart, had bled well and looked fairly clean. “Guess that fun got more serious,” Scott commented, wringing out one of the bandages and carefully washing off the dried blood.
Gabriel nodded. He rolled his head back and opened his eyes, but kept his gaze on the shadows hovering on the opposite wall. “Asked me to hold their horses while they went to the store for supplies,” he said softly. “Only it wasn’t supplies, it was money, and it weren’t a store. They robbed the bank and gave me the bag to hold. And then everyone started shooting – ow!”
“Sorry.” Scott opened the scotch and silently apologized to his father. “Take a couple swallows of this before I continue.”
The young man suddenly looked every inch the farmer that he was. “What – what are you going to do?”
“Drink first,” Scott ordered, putting the bottle to Gabriel’s lips.
So the younger man drank and coughed, moaned and writhed, and Scott held him to the thin mattress to keep him from bleeding more. “Are they waiting for you?” he asked when the other man had quieted.
Gabriel tossed his head and wiped a shaking fist over his watering eyes. He looked up to Scott, guilt and shame mixing with the plea in his stare. “I think they’re all dead,” he stammered. “I ran… No one’s come after me.” He bit his lip and swallowed hard. “I don’t want the money, mister. I want to take it back, all of it. That’s why I wanted your horse. If – if I don’t make it--”
“You’ll make it,” Scott interrupted, adding a dose of the liquor to the cloth he’d been using. “Slightly scarred, but you’ll make it. I can turn you over to the sheriff of Green River tomorrow.”
“But, señor,” Isabella spoke up from behind him, “I must get to--”
“The sheriff will be at my house tomorrow,” Scott told her, half turning to speak. “We’ll head straight there in the morning, and get messages to your husband and Natalio’s family.”
Isabella frowned at him but did not reply.
“I don’t want the money,” Gabriel said again, redirecting Scott’s attention. He clutched Scott’s arm, scraped the forgotten graze under the ripped fabric of the sleeve. Scott sucked in a breath as the untended wound suddenly snarled to life. Carefully he lifted the trembling fingers away. The younger man stared at the bloody sleeve and his face crumpled. “I didn’t want this to happen,” he blurted. “Please, mister…”
“Take a breath and lie still,” Scott advised, then pressed the alcohol-soaked rag to the boy’s side.
“There’s no family in Spanish Wells, is there?” Scott asked Natalio.
Startled, the boy looked up from where he had been petting the goat. He blinked back the look that had jumped into his eyes. “Yes, there is.”
“There is!” the boy exclaimed indignantly, but his cheeks had gone ruddy in the thin firelight that had crept to this corner of the room. “My mama and my papa and my little sister – she needs the milk.”
Scott kept his tone deliberately soft. “Then why did you try to sell the goat to Mrs. Morales?”
The boy fidgeted, his fingers dancing over Pepita’s leash. “I could – we could use the money… to – to buy a cow.”
Scott crouched before the boy, laid a hand on the thin shoulder; it was quivering beneath the frayed fabric. “Where is your family?”
Natalio shrugged him off then pushed at him. He dropped Pepita’s leash. Quickly he crossed to the sagging door, yanked it open and stepped out into the rain. Scott followed and quietly closed it behind them. They stood side by side, staring into the black, windy dampness. The boy said nothing and neither did Scott. Together they watched the shadows, listened to the wet moan of the wind. Still Scott waited for the truth.
After another long minute of staring, shoulders hunched, little fists curled tight at his sides, the youngster began to speak. “There was a fire,” Natalio said to the blowing, dripping darkness before them. A trace of firelight from the cabin’s only window slipped across his profile, giving him some form. One of his hands went to his chest, as if holding back his heart. “I was bringing the cow in from the field and I saw the smoke…I ran, but there was nothing left…nothing. The neighbors took me in but the father – he beat me for no reason.” He sniffed back some tears but straightened and turned to look squarely at Scott, his black eyes glittering. “So I left. I’ll be all right, señor. You can just take me to town and you don’t have to help anymore.” He dropped his gaze to his feet. “I didn’t like that man hitting me.”
Scott reached down and ruffled the dark hair. “I can’t say as I blame you,” he said, thinking of another dark-haired little boy who had also been orphaned so young. “I know some good families in the area. Would you let me talk to them, introduce you to them? Maybe you could--”
Natalio swiftly shook his head. “N-no, señor,” he replied. “You have done too much already. Pepita and I will be fine. We will go to Spanish Wells and--”
“You can’t go off alone,” Scott counseled kindly. “And we aren’t going to Spanish Wells tomorrow, we’re going to my ranch. And you can meet some good people there, people who will want to help you. All right?” He frowned at the nervousness growing in the boy’s face. “You can trust me, Natalio,” he said, holding out his hand to shake.
The boy flinched and tried a smile but it was shaky. “All right, señor,” he said, reluctantly accepting the hand; his fingers were cold. “I will go to your rancho first.”
Scott smiled at him and nodded. “Then it’s settled.”
The boy squirmed out of his grasp. “Señor?”
Natalio bit his lip. His eyes searched Scott’s, debating. “What is it, Natalio?” Scott asked with concern.
The boy shook his head and broke eye contact. “Nothing.”
Scott thought of prompting him more but refrained, sensing that he was already feeling threatened about going to the ranch. Perhaps he was a runaway, and his story had been made up, though it seemed sincere enough. He only hoped the youngster wouldn’t decide to run away.
“Mrs. Morales has made some tortillas,” he told the boy. “Why don’t you ask her for one?”
Natalio nodded but didn’t move. Scott left him, hoping that he would follow.
Scott turned back. “Yes?”
“Tomorrow is my birthday,” Natalio told him shyly. “Do you think I might find an iglesia, a church, to honor the niño who shares my day? My mama would want me to do that...and there are some other things I need to do there. She told me…”
Thin trust, but trust nonetheless. Something burned at the back of Scott’s throat at the thought of this youngster, who had so little, ignoring his own birthday to celebrate that of another. Surely all little boys, all children, looked forward to something on their birthday, but this child didn’t have much hope for gifts. Scott cleared his throat but it was still hard to swallow. “Yes,” he worked out over it. “I think we can do that for you. Happy birthday to you, Natalio.”
The boy shook his head, some hesitation still on his face. “Not until tomorrow, senor.” His hand went to his chest again as if to grip something inside his shirt.
“All right,” was all Scott said.
“And what about you?” Scott asked Isabella quietly.
She turned from where she had been baking the last of the tortillas, a look of surprise in her eyes. “Me, señor?”
“Yes, what’s your story?” Scott folded his arms over his chest and stared down at her. “José, he’s not your husband, is he?”
She opened her mouth as if to protest then closed it. “He will be,” she said. “As soon as we can marry.” She gestured toward the baby sleeping nestled in one of the bright blankets beside her. “Teodoro is his son.”
Scott uncrossed his arms and sat on a rickety stool she’d placed near the hearth. “How old are you?” he asked, leaning forward, hands clasped between his knees.
Her chin lifted and trembled. “Old enough to marry.”
Scott’s blue-gray stare bored into her. “How old?”
Isabella’s shoulders slumped; she sighed and looked away. “Seventeen, señor,” she replied quietly, one hand twisting into her skirt. The garment was thin, Scott noted; the hem had unraveled and was stained by dried mud where it had dragged on the ground.
Scott nodded to acknowledge her admission. “Did José tell you to meet him?” he continued. “Or was that your idea?”
Her head came back up, her brown eyes eager. “No, señor, we had it all planned. We wished to marry, to be a family. But my father, he forbid it.” She spoke faster, ready to get it all out. “He sent me away to the convent, to have the baby and to give him up. But I couldn’t.” Her gaze strayed to the child. “He is my son and I could not leave him. José sent me a message to meet him at Tabor’s rancho. I love him, señor – we are a family. Please do not take me back.” She grabbed his hand, brought it to her lips and kissed it. “Please.”
A boy who needed a home and a girl who needed a husband, and a young man who needed a doctor. How in the world had he collected such a bunch? Well, it didn’t matter. Tomorrow they’d go to Lancer and sort it out there.
Scott quietly worked out of her grasp. She dropped her gaze, murmuring an apology. “We’ll send for José and see what he says,” he told Isabella.
“Not the sheriff?” she asked nervously, looking back up, though her stare was hesitant. “I am a runaway, maybe even like Natalio.”
Yes, that was likely, the more that he thought about it. “I know the sheriffs in the area,” he told her. “They aren’t unreasonable men. But it’s late and we can’t do much about any of it now. We’ll take care of things tomorrow.”
“Gracias,” she murmured with open relief.
Scott sighed and got back up. A check on Gabriel found him sleeping and warm, but not hot. Natalio had burrowed in some blankets on the other side of the hearth, Pepita close to his side; only a mop of black hair glinted in the dwindling firelight. Donning his damp hat Scott headed outside. The rain had stopped; stars were blinking sleepily through thinning clouds and the dripping had hushed in the darkness. Well, that was one good thing. Maybe he’d sleep tonight.
The horses were dozing and not uncomfortable; grain had been picked up with the supplies and he’d given them each a measure, a tiny Christmas present in exchange for their steadfastness. The tack was still damp, but it would have to do. If the rain held off then much of it would dry on the road home tomorrow. He wasn’t sure how far they were from either Spanish Wells or the ranch, but he wasn’t going to waste a side trip to town. Murdoch and Johnny were no doubt worried and would be up early to search for him, which meant that some of the vaqueros would not be celebrating Christmas with their families but accompanying their patrón in service. Scott hung his head at the thought of that burden he’d now caused. Frustration curled his hands into fists. Damn the rain and the darkness. Damn the sickness that had hit the ranch, damn the need for these supplies, damn the time it took to load them. Damn this time of year – damn every damned thing. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It should have been all so easy, just a ride to down to pick up supplies. Then he let out his irritation with a deep sigh that loosened his fists and his spine. He rested his forearms against the top of the wagon bed, added his forehead to it. It was done; he couldn’t change anything now. It could have been worse. Right now they had shelter from the weather, heat for food and warmth, and a place to sleep. The wagon and animals would carry them again tomorrow, and then he’d be home.
Home. What home did a lonely little boy, and girl with a baby, and an injured outlaw have? Slowly Scott straightened. Well, for this one night they had one, however leaky it might be.
He felt around the wagon bed, dug up the saddlebags and slung them over one shoulder. He thought of reloading the gun but did not. One loaded Colt – his own – was enough to be responsible for.
He stepped out of the lean-to and raised his face to the night. A damp breeze blew back at him and the dripping surged again. Memories rose up out of the misty shadows, vaporous and undulating. Scott resisted; not here – this was not the place to welcome them. But they neared, undeterred by his reluctance, waiting to be acknowledged. He saw them, saw their hollow faces, their transparent smiles, their burning eyes and white limbs. God, how he missed them, even looking like this. Then they shifted, transformed to men so young, so bold and dashing – had he been one of them once? They floated before him, awaiting his salute of them. But he couldn’t do it here, not in this place lacking all honor and decorum. They deserved so much more from him, and tonight he just couldn’t attend them, not in this miserable place, not while others were under his responsibility. Others, he now realized, who needed the same sort of care he had once given these comrades. So he refused his specters and headed back to the cabin. And yet behind him they waved, locked in their eternal time and space, unaffected by his decision. <<Good-bye,>> he heard them gaily call. <<Another time, Scotty-boy – Good-bye…>>
“I found a shirt for you – yours is ruined.” Isabella held up his Christmas present to Johnny, a new green shirt to replace that infernal faded pink one his brother coveted. Might as well; he’d passed out just about everything else and his was a muddy, soggy mess. “There are bandages left for your arm.” In her other hand she held Murdoch’s scotch, the bottle more than half empty. At the mention of his wound he glanced at it. The shirtsleeve had stuck where the blood had dried. The gouge itself was red, but a scab had begun to form. “There is some food left – some tortillas, and coffee. You have not yet eaten,” Isabella finished, nodding to the hearth, and he wondered if she’d fed herself.
Isabella cleaned his arm and he added the scotch to it, hissing at the wallowing pulse of pain that resulted. She bandaged it with the leftover strips of shirt, then he retreated to a corner to change into Johnny’s shirt; it was short in the arms but welcome. Still chilled, he moved closer to the hearth and accepted the blanket she offered and helped himself to the food. He thought of those books he’d ordered and longed for them, and longed for the comforts of home on this night, the decorated house, the fragrance of cooking that promised a fine meal, the collection of gifts, his family and friends. The fireplace and brandy, waiting just for him...
“Thank you, señor, for your generosity,” Isabella said softly to him.
Scott edged away from some of his selfish feelings and took a sip of the coffee she’d made. It was hot but not too strong, close to the way he liked it, and the flavor eased some of the churlishness hovering about him. He shrugged at her. “You needed help.”
“Yes, but you could have passed by – others did. But you did not. You offered a ride, and you shared what you did not have to share.” Isabella gestured to Natalio and then Gabriel. “The boy could have spent the night alone and scared and lost. And that man, he could have died.” She then glanced down at Teodoro. “It was cold and wet, and my baby might have suffered if not for your kindness.”
“It wasn’t like that,” he interjected as his guilt kicked him in the backside.
“But it was, señor. We would all be lost if not for you.” Isabella’s head dipped. “So thank you, señor. I am sure the others are as grateful as I am. And I – I…” She blinked rapidly and her lips trembled a little. She reached into her skirt, into a pocket. Scott watched as she withdrew a packet – a banded stack of the stolen money. “I will understand if you wish to send me back to the convent,” she whispered, handing it to him with a shaking hand.
He looked at it, then at her. “Why?” he asked, holding it between them.
Her shoulders lifted in a shrug as her gaze went to his hand. “All that money…it would buy so many things.” She wiped at her glistening cheek. “But what I have is enough.” She glanced again at her son. “I only asked for a ride, señor, and you gave me more than that. It would be wrong to repay your kindness by stealing.”
Again that spot burned at the back of his throat. “There’ll be time to discuss that tomorrow,” he said to her.
Isabella nodded silently. She rose and put herself beside Teodoro, pulled the blanket up to her chin and closed her eyes.
Scott finished the coffee and the tortilla, added some old wood to the fire, checked on Gabriel and Natalio again but both were sleeping deeply. He paced a little, thinking of Isabella’s words to him. He was no saint, he reminded himself, not in the way she had painted him. He hadn’t wanted to stop and help any of them; he’d just wanted to get home. But here he was, his nobility tarnished by his selfishness, and his punishment justified. Scott wrapped the last of Johnny’s blankets around his shoulders and tried for a comfortable position on the floor, the saddlebags under his knee for protection. Though he doubted Gabriel would try and move, or that Isabella would steal again. But there was Natalio…
The quiet dark slipped up over him, comforting, soothing. He was no longer wet and he’d filled his belly. He was too tired for those books, anyway. And his faded friends, well, hadn’t they once all shared what little they’d had on a Christmas Eve just like this? Nate and the little flag he’d sewn from rags, James and the bread crusts he’d been hoarding. His own candle stub that George had managed to light against the rain. And Paul, who had drawn that picture on a sack with a piece of charcoal. And they’d said a prayer, and Aidan had sung in his wonderful tenor voice and they’d all shared tears of togetherness and yet loneliness.
So long, long ago.
Something – the snap of a cooling log in the hearth – brought him awake. His hand went to the Colt still tied to his thigh, eased it from the holster. His breaths quieted as he stared into the darkness and listened. Someone was moving about; soft steps tread on the scarred floor, retreating. A groan of wood and a rush of damp air followed. Whoever it was, was leaving. Scott glanced to his left and made out two forms, large and small – Isabella and Teodoro. Carefully he turned to his right, strained to see, and glimpsed a foot poking out from the ragged bed frame – Gabriel. It was the boy, then. Maybe he only needed to relieve himself. Still, Scott tossed the blanket aside and eased himself over to the door. From the farthest darkened corner Pepita bleated softly at him.
Scott carefully opened the door, muting its moan, and stepped outside. The darkness blew at him, rustling wet leaves and grass. “Natalio?” he called but there was no answer. “Natalio, are you here?”
He didn’t mean for the boy to bolt; he’d just wanted the truth to better help the youngster. Scott looked and listened a few moments more, but there was nothing but the breeze in the blackness. Well, he had no real authority over the boy. And once he’d caught the youngster in his lie, Natalio had become edgy. Scott sighed, and then reluctantly made his way back inside.
It was almost light when he heard the door open, felt the sweep of early morning air into the room. Scott rose up on one elbow and peered into the purple-gray gloom. Natalio crept back inside; he was shivering. As Scott watched, the boy cocooned himself in his discarded blanket and lay down not far from Isabella’s sleeping form – and quietly sobbed himself back to sleep.
“Scott! Hey, you in there?”
The shrill but familiar whistle came again, stirring everyone inside the room. Scott yanked the blanket off his mud-dried legs and rolled to his feet. “It’s my brother,” he told the others as he made for the door, one hand brushing his hair into place and the other tossing the saddlebags over his shoulder.
He stepped out into a brightened world of dampness and receding mists. A group of mounted men stood before him in the cold, freshened wind, vapor clouds from their breath rising about their faces. Accompanying breath steamed around the horses’ muzzles as they blew softly. Murdoch sat there on his big roan Toby, the frown emptying from his face. Beside him Johnny was grinning atop Barranca. Four others waited quietly behind. Scott accepted the snap of guilt for driving these men, his family included, out of their beds on Christmas Day. But he was relieved all the same, and suddenly very glad to see them, to know he was close to home and far from his brooding imagination of last night. To know that he belonged to a place with his father and brother, that he was worried over, looked for. Soon he’d be at the big house, among friends and family. And then he thoughts of his companions and the little they had. While he was glad he should also be grateful, and so a silent prayer of thanks went out from his heart for all he had and for what he could share.
“Run into trouble?” Murdoch called down to him with an appraising look, an unspoken inquiry about injury evident in his tone.
“You could say that,” Scott nodded as Isabella, with Teodoro, and Natalio crowded the doorway. He gestured to them. “I picked up some passengers along the way, got too late with the rain to continue. We found this place to ride out the storm.”
Murdoch looked to the vaqueros behind him. “Let’s get this wagon backed up and the horses harnessed.” He turned back to Scott. “Anyone else in there with you?”
“A wounded man,” Scott reported.
Murdoch’s brows rose and Johnny leaned ever so slightly forward, his hand going to the Colt on his hip. His brother’s glance went over the woman, the baby and the boy. “He related to them?” he asked, taking in more than his gaze let on.
“No. I came upon them separately. Help me get him to the wagon and I’ll explain.” Scott slid the saddlebags off his shoulder and tossed them to his father. “Hold this, would you? It needs watching.”
Murdoch caught it in one big fist and draped it in front of him. His eyes were questioning but he did not ask, or comment.
Johnny swung down off Barranca in that easy way of his and ambled forward. He grinned again and pointed at Scott’s chest, his blue eyes still raking in details. “Nice shirt. Pick that up in town?”
Scott returned the smile, although his had an edge of wickedness to it. “Yes, I did. It’s yours. Merry Christmas.” He turned and went inside, laughing quietly at the look of surprise that had hit his brother’s face. Quickly Johnny’s boots followed and caught up They crossed the threshold together, elbows rubbing comfortably against each other, and Scott thought again how grateful he was to see his family, to be with them, to belong.
“Who is he?” Johnny asked, peering at Gabriel’s pale face.
Scott gave him a sidelong glance and gestured. “Val’s bank robber.”
“He’ll need a few days of rest before he can travel,” Dr. Sam Jenkins said to Scott and Murdoch, straightening up from Gabriel’s bedside. “As long as there’s no fever he should recover quickly.”
“Good.” Val was propped in the doorway, more wrinkled and scruffy than usual, the saddlebags of stolen money slung over one shoulder. At the stares turned upon him he straightened and entered the room. “I’ve been all over the county looking for him and I’m glad he’s going to stay put for a few days.” He held out a set of handcuffs. “Do you mind, Mr. Lancer?” he asked Murdoch. “Just until the doc says I can take him to the jail.”
Gabriel sent Scott a look of mixed fear and guilt. He opened his mouth but Scott overrode him. “Val, what’s this?” he asked, stepping up to the lawman.
“He’s the one who robbed the bank at Cross Creek. Johnny showed me, Scott.” He lifted one of the bags and pointed to Gabriel. “He’s the one we’ve been looking for.”
Gabriel’s gaze was piercing Scott, hot and afraid. “I won’t deny he had the money,” Scott said. “But your conclusion isn’t quite right.”
Val’s head came around and his look hardened. “And how’s that, exactly?” he snarled.
Scott gave Gabriel a slight smile then turned back to Val. “Gabriel, here, found that money and was on his way to bring it back to you,” he explained, to the combined stares of the others. “He got shot for his efforts, too, as Sam can tell you.”
“That ain’t how Johnny explained it.”
Scott now fixed a benign smile on his face. “Johnny must have misunderstood. I was there when Gabriel asked for help, Val. He told me was bringing the money back. He was pretty determined, despite those holes in his side. That’s a pretty good Christmas present to the folks out at Cross Creek, wouldn’t you say? Good news for them.” Behind him Murdoch made a sound, sort of a muffled snort and then a cough, causing Sam to eye him with concern..
Val stared at Scott, at Sam and the quieting Murdoch, and then his gaze finally settled on the younger man. “That how it was, boy?” he asked Gabriel. “You was bringing that money back? Them’s was your tracks we’ve been following for the past two days?”
“Yes, sir,” Gabriel answered, his lightly stubbled jaw set. “It’s like Mr. Lancer told you – I was bringing the money back. I – I found it.”
“Where you from?”
“Other side of Cross Creek – farm that way.”
“Any of that money missing, Sheriff?” Murdoch asked, apparently recovered.
“Some.” Val still stared hard at Gabriel. “About a hundred, judging by the way it was banded.”
One hundred, banded. Isabella had handed that much back over last night. And the saddlebags had been with Scott ever since. But there was a period while they’d been unloading the wagon, and he’d been tending to Gabriel, that it had been left unattended when she must have dipped into it. They all had known it was there, up under the seat, unwatched.
“Could have fallen out,” Scott offered to the silence growing in the room. “It wasn’t buckled when I first picked it up.” He wanted to glance at Gabriel but did not, even though he’d just uttered an absolute truth. The only truth for the moment.
“Maybe,” Val snapped.
“There was nothing on him,” Sam put in, much to Scott’s relief.
Murdoch gave his son a tiny glance then stepped forward and clapped Val on one wrinkled shoulder. “Then I guess it’s all resolved. How about a drink, Sheriff? You look like you could use a good chair by the fire. And then something to fill your stomach. Heard you were out all night in that weather. Come on – Sam, you, too?”
“Sure,” Sam grunted, taking up his bag. “You know, this was supposed to be a day to spend with friends, not a working holiday.”
“And we’re glad you came.” Murdoch herded the other two out the door but paused to look back at his son. “You sure you know what you’re doing?” he asked.
Now Scott did glance at Gabriel, but the younger man’s face had not changed; he looked terrified. “Yes, sir.”
Murdoch nodded. “Don’t be late to the table – Maria will punish us all.”
Scott laughed softly at that and nodded.
“Why did you do that?” Gabriel asked him when they were left alone. “You lied for me – why?”
Scott shrugged. Slowly he crossed his arms in front of him and gave the younger man his attention. “I’m not sure, exactly,” he said. Watching the younger man’s face work with confusion. “Maybe because it’s Christmas, goodwill to men and such. After all, those people at Cross Creek are getting their money back; I’d say that’s good news, thanks to you.”
Gabriel looked away, his jaw taut and his pale cheeks blooming with embarrassment.
“Where’s the missing hundred?” Scott prodded.
Gabriel looked back up and shook his head, a trace of dismay reappearing in his eyes. “Don’t know – I thought it was all there. Maybe I dropped it. The doc took all my clothes, just like he said.” Still, he looked worried.
Scott considered that and his own role in the handling of the money. He had told Val the truth, the bags were not secured when he first picked them up. And he had tucked the money deep into the wagon bed after they’d arrived at the shack, but for a time it hadn’t been in his sight…
Gabriel opened his mouth to speak but sighed instead. “Thank you, Mr. Lancer,” he said with gratefulness, plucking at the coverlet, eyes downcast again. “For all you’ve done – taking me in and seeing me tended. I ain’t deserving – I shot you…”
“And mostly missed,” Scott grinned briefly, but the other man only shook his head sadly. “What will you do now?” Scott asked him.
Gabriel looked up to the ceiling; there was a fresh glitter in his eyes. “Go on home, I guess. Don’t know what else to do.” His fingers continued to pick listlessly at the blanket covering him. “I expect I owe you some – for the doc ‘n all…”
“Do you know horses?”
The young man’s gaze sharpened onto Scott at the abrupt change of subject. Curiosity crept across his face. “Some,” he shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “Why?”
Scott released his arms from their folded position. “We could use someone to handle the remuda here,” he told the younger man. “We’ve got Jelly, of course, but he’s also our handyman and he’s stretched pretty thin these days. You could work off what you owe right here--” His blue-gray gaze went over the other man. “If you’re interested.”
Gabriel’s mouth went into an ‘O’of surprise for a long moment, but then he closed it and nodded. “I’d be interested,” he said cautiously. “For a time, anyway.”
Scott gave him a smile. “Good.” He moved off. “I’ll have a tray brought up to you – you must be hungry.”
He was at the door when Gabriel hailed him. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lancer.”
Scott’s smile quieted, but held as he turned back to respond. “Merry Christmas, Gabriel.”
Scott looked up from the warm flames cheering the fireplace to find Murdoch standing next to him, the dwindling bottle of single malt scotch in his hand. He sighed and gestured to the container with the glass nestled in his own palm. “Sorry about that.”
Murdoch smiled and tipped the bottle to pour a measure into Scott’s empty glass. “It’s better sipped than applied, but I guess it goes in just the same – and with the same results.”
Scott allowed a grin at that. “I owe you a new shirt, too,” he reminded his father. “I owe everyone a lot of things...”
Murdoch clapped him on the shoulder and kept his hand in place. “Easily replaced, son. What matters is that the boy is all right, the others, too.” He glanced back to the group of people chatting and laughing at the big dining table, Sam and Val, Johnny and Teresa and Jelly, Isabella and her intended José, called from Tabor’s ranch. Scott’s own gaze followed and he smiled at the group all celebrating the holiday. “And you,” Murdoch continued. “How’s your arm?”
“Sam checked it, said it won’t keep me from chores,” Scott reported.
Murdoch grinned. “I like the sound of that.”
They touched glasses and drank. Scott turned again to the hearth, but the tiny reverie he’d begun was gone, not that it had been that strong, anyway. Somehow the passing of the night had eased the urgency from his mind. The remaining memories of that bleak Christmas had faded into the chilly daylight, and the haunting good-byes of his friends from last night’s darkness now seemed somehow final. Today they barely stirred within him, reluctant to re-emerge from that place where he kept them. And he didn’t try too hard to lure them back, either.
“I know this wasn’t exactly what you had planned,” Murdoch told him, dropping his hand from Scott’s shoulder and following his gaze to the dancing flames. “I know you have a tradition…”
Scott waved a hand. “Maybe it was time to dispense with that,” he replied. “It’s really not much of a way to celebrate the joy of the holiday.”
“Well, you had other things to consider last night,” Murdoch offered.
A stab of renewed guilt made Scott draw himself back. He squared a look at his father. “I’m no savior, Murdoch. I didn’t want to stop, not at first. But they were in the road and needed help.”
“But you did stop, son, that’s the difference. So perhaps you’re not a savior,” Murdoch smiled. “Maybe something more along the lines of a good shepherd?”
Scott snorted but let the little laugh erupt. He glanced back at the dining table, and thought also of Gabriel. “I guess you could call them lost sheep,” he nodded.
“Well, there was that goat.” Murdoch’s own lips twitched into a smile. “I’m a practical man, Scott, you know that,” he continued, sobering a little. “I don’t see things that aren’t there. But what were the chances of you coming across a little boy named after the holiday, a woman whose name translates to ‘devoted to God’ and whose husband Joseph is indeed a carpenter at Tabor’s. Then there’s the baby – and Gabriel…”
“I already joked about his good news,” Scott interrupted with a deprecating smile. “Too many times. Wasn’t a particularly good idea the first time I did it, either. It does seem strange, I suppose. Kismet?”
Murdoch again patted him on the back and finished his drink. “Don’t know what else to call it.” Then he frowned. “Son, about that missing money…”
“Señor?” Isabella called. She approached with her intended, their arms linked with José juggling their son in is other arm. Her intended juggled his son in the other one, a huge smile on his face. “José will be taking me home now.”
“Señor Tabor has allowed her to stay at the ranch,” José added. He let go of Isabella’s arm to hold out his hand to Scott. “Gracias, señor, for bringing my woman to me. It is the best gift I have ever received.”
Scott shook it. “There could be an angry father to consider,” he warned. “And a wedding…?”
Both José and Isabella nodded. “Yes, and soon, for our little hijo’s sake,” said Isabella eagerly. “We hope to marry by the new year. Would you come, señor?”
Scott placed his glass on the mantle, took up her hands and squeezed them. “I’d be mad if you didn’t invite me,” he said with a smile. Then he took a breath and eyed his father. “Isabella, there’s still some money missing from those saddlebags Gabriel was carrying. Have you seen it?”
Her head dipped, remembering, and a flush stole up the back of her neck. But then she leveled her gaze on Scott. “No, señor,” she told him in a strong voice, her color fading.
“You know that if you need anything you just have to ask,” Scott said, giving her hands an extra squeeze.
Isabella nodded. “Sí, señor, I know that.” She glanced around the big room, then at man who was to be her husband; he was looking indignantly at Scott. She murmured something to José in Spanish about not being mad at the fine señor asking such a question. Then her dark eyes went back to Scott, still calm. “But I did not take it. It would be wrong, señor, after you’ve already done so much…” Her gaze dropped and she fingered the green shawl Scott had been planning on giving to Teresa for Christmas. She’d appreciated the gift and the modicum of dignity it allowed her in front of his family, and had told him so when he’d offered it to her before they’d left the shack.
He believed her. “I’m sorry, but I had to ask.”
She nodded and then let a smile show, but her look turned shy. “There is something, if I could ask…?”
“Certainly,” he nodded, letting her retreat from his grasp.
“Señor, would you - might you – if at the wedding…I have no one to…”
“Yes, I’ll give you away,” he finished for her with a delighted smile.
She kissed him quickly on the cheek. “Gracias, señor. You have been so kind to me – to all of us...”
He didn’t reply, only looked over her head at Murdoch and saw his father’s eyes echoing the sentiment. Good shepherd, indeed, he half-smiled to himself. He’d had the means to offer assistance, that’s all. And they hadn’t been such strangers really, this young woman and her baby, that misguided young man in the guest bedroom—
And that troubled little boy, who now seemed to be missing.
“Over there,” Johnny pointed as they waved good-bye to Isabella and José. “Seems to be a sad little muchacho all of a sudden. What happened?”
“I think the big hand of guilt is squeezing hard,” Scott said, glancing at the boy.
Johnny looked over to Natalio again. “Yeah, it sure can hurt,” he said softly, a soft light of sympathy settling in his blue eyes. “Guess he’s learned a big lesson, huh?”
“I hope so. So, do you think someone here would be willing to take him in? By all accounts he has no one…”
Johnny let out a slow smile. “Careful there, big brother. You know how the old man don’t like strays.”
“He’s a good boy,” Scott said, watching the loneliness hover around the youngster, remembering an occasion or two of his own similar plight. “His heart is in the right place.”
Johnny nodded, following Scott’s gaze. “Well, he’s a cute enough little feller, seems eager to please. I’ll ask around while you talk to him.”
Scott nodded. “Thanks.”
“Oh, here.” Johnny let off one of his grins and pulled a paper-wrapped package out from behind his back. “Merry Christmas, I guess.”
Scott took it, one brow raised in puzzlement. “You guess?”
“Well, it’s not mine to give you. It’s yours – just open it.”
Scott tore the paper off and two leather volumes slid into his hands. His books, the ones he’d ordered. “How?” he frowned, running his fingertips over the fresh, new covers. “Tim said they didn’t come in.”
“He found ‘em after you left, gave ‘em to Val to bring up. Hope they’re all right – Val hadda carry ‘em in his saddlebag all night.”
“They’re fine.” And they were, new and clean, not even damp. An unexpected surprise, a little reward, he supposed. Seemed pretty selfish of him now to have wanted them so. Scott looked to Natalio again, then handed them back over to his brother. “Tell Val thank you. Can you bring them inside?”
Natalio was seated within one of the stone-lined gardens bordering the courtyard gates, petting Pepita and talking softly to the goat in Spanish; the animal was chewing contentedly on one large and leafy bush. Inside the courtyard, the vaqueros and their families continued to enjoy the annual Christmas luncheon hosted by Lancer. The boy, though, seemed uninterested in the festivities. Maria and Teresa had seen that he was washed and fed right after his arrival, and from some of Maria’s many relatives she had procured a change of clothes for the boy. He was now dressed in a right-sized shirt and pants, and even some boots. But for all the attention given him, which had initially produced a huge smile on his face, he was now looking and, Scott suspected, feeling very isolated.
“Hey, Natalio,” Scott greeted, slowing to a stop before the youngster. “Still lots of food inside the courtyard. Are you hungry?” The boy shook his head and did not look up. Scott stepped around a collection of potted plants, over the stones and squeezed himself next to him, knees up, back against the wall. “What’s bothering you?” Scott quietly asked him. “Are you feeling all right?”
Natalio hunched a little and turned aside. “Fine, señor,” he answered in a small voice.
“If I can help--”
“No, gracias,” Natalio said over his shoulder. “No.”
“We’re friends,” Scott reminded him gently, touching one thin shoulder. “You can talk to me, tell me what’s wrong.”
For a long moment the boy said nothing, just ground the heel of his boot into the soft dirt and picked at stray pebbles beside him, but he didn’t pull away. Scott waited.
“It’s bad,” Natalio finally said and sniffed back some tears. “I – I am bad.”
Scott held in his knowing smile. “How are you bad?” he prompted.
Natalio sniffed again. He wiped his running nose on a sleeve. “I have wronged you, señor,” he said in a clogged and shaky voice. “You must take me to jail, to that sheriff. I…” he hesitated and swallowed hard. Scott saw tears spill down his cheeks, clear and glittering in the afternoon light. “I am a thief, señor,” Natalio whispered to his upturned knees. Then he looked up to the goat. “Pepita – I took her, she was all alone like I was all alone. And…” His hand fumbled at his shirtfront, worked the buttons, and his fingers stole inside. “I took this, señor,” he said, withdrawing the banded money. With a trembling hand and a shameful face he held it out to Scott. “Yesterday, when we stopped at that cabin, when you were helping that robber. I – I wanted it, to buy things for me and Pepita. I tried to run away but it was dark and – and…” He shook his head, it head down and sobbed.
The air filled with the sound of his muted crying, mournful against the happy voices and laughter of the Lancer workers on the other side of the wall. Scott took the money and laid it on the ground beside him and smiled quietly down at the little boy, so brave and desperate and in the end, so honest. He gave Natalio a moment then slid a consoling arm about his small shoulders and drew him close. “The truth is always better than lying,” he told the boy, ruffling the dark hair, “and I’m proud of you for seeing the difference.”
“You had better call that sheriff, señor,” Natalio said in a voice still thick with tears. He spoke to his feet. “Thieves belong in jail.”
“Why don’t we just give Sheriff Crawford this money and leave it at that?” Scott suggested. The boy scrubbed a fist across his wet cheek and looked up, guarded hope working up in his eyes. “You gave it back, you didn’t keep it,” Scott explained.
“But I wanted to keep it.”
“And why didn’t you, then?”
“Because it was wrong,” the boy spoke softly.
“Yes, it was wrong,” Scott nodded. “So I’ll give it to the sheriff and we’ll call it even, all right?”
“What about Pepita?” Natalio asked with a frown.
Yes, there was the goat. “You can keep Pepita unless someone comes to claim her, then you’ll have to give her back,” Scott told him. “That would be the right thing to do. She may have been lost, and some family might still need her milk.”
Natalio nodded. “Yes, a little girl or boy might need the milk,” he agreed. He sat up but did not squirm from Scott’s arm. Determination gave his eyes a fresh sparkle. “I will give her back, like you said. But if no one…?”
“Then I guess she’s yours, free and clear,” said Scott. “All right?” That big smile came back and Scott matched it. “Hey, it’s your birthday, isn’t it?” he suddenly remembered.
Natalio smiled shyly and glanced away. “Sí.”
“Do you still want to go to town, to the church?”
“Can we?” The dark eyes went merry again. “On a horse, señor?” Natalio questioned eagerly. “A big one?”
“A big one,” Scott confirmed, thinking his own thoroughbred cross would do. He climbed to his feet and held out a hand for the boy to take. “Do you mind if I ask my brother to come along?” Johnny knew the padre of the Catholic church in Morro Coyo, and the priest might need a little of the Johnny Lancer charm to help explain why a little boy named Natalio had missed morning Mass on Christmas Day.
This was hardly the Christmas celebration he had planned, but maybe it hadn’t been his to plan, anyway. Maybe he’d controlled that too much over the years. Maybe it was time for a change.
The memories twinged in him, shifted and reshaped themselves. They would want him to be happy, he determined silently. They would want to be remembered as fathers, sons and brothers, not as ragged and weary men of little dignity. They’d want to be remembered not as a group of lost brethren, but admired as the friends and mentors that they had been. Not saluted in a darkened room with a glass of brandy, but honored in the full light of every day. And they’d want him to cherish their generosity, their giving and their enduring spirits, such as he had found in the optimism of an orphaned boy, the love of a runaway mother, and the remorse of a misguided young man.
Good shepherd, indeed.