Trilogy by Elin Jackson, December 2014
AU series: From the Harry Potter June Challenge: A Very Frosty Christmas (1) and the sequel: A Christmas Missed (2)
L * A * N * C * E * R
It had been two years since Johnny had witnessed the fancy Christmas Party at Lancer. Every time he thought about the Ol’ Man and his perfect son living in a nice big house with plenty to eat; the old anger he felt that night came back to haunt him. Last Christmas he had been tempted to go back and announce, ‘Johnny Madrid is home’, but he was working a range war and the money was too good to give up.
This year was different, he was so very tired, tired of fighting, tired of constantly watching his back, and worst of all tired of being shot. He realized there was no getting out of the game with the reputation he had built, at least getting out alive. So there he sat on that same ridge he had camped out on two years ago, looking down on the same hacienda all decked out for another Christmas Party.
Sitting out in the open, the cold wind whirled around him. He shivered, grateful that this time he had a heavy jacket. He lightly touched his spur to Amigo’s side and the horse slowly made its way down the ridge to the road. Johnny smirked when he pulled up under the fancy arch wrapped in greenery, “Yep it’s gonna be some kind of fandango.”
L * A * N * C * E * R
“Murdoch.” Scott saw the far away look in his father’s eyes and called again, “Sir, are you alright?”
Murdoch shook his head and focused on his older son. “Sorry Son, just lost in thought.”
“May I ask what had you so deep in thought?” Scott was sure he knew but felt compelled to ask anyway.
“Today is Johnny’s birthday, Maria and I thought he would be a Christmas baby but he arrived two days early.” Murdoch had that faraway look again, “I remember coming down to the Great Room on that Christmas morning and sitting in this chair.” He patted the leather. “I told him that one day soon I would bring his big brother home and you boys would grow up together.”
“I wish it would have worked out that way. I always wanted a little brother.” Scott grinned, “To boss around.”
Murdoch smiled at his son’s comment. “I wish it too, but…” Then he turned to stare into the fire until he had his emotions under control. He cleared his throat. “Is the yule log ready?”
“Everything is ready for the guests’ arrival tomorrow evening. Cip has the fireworks set up and Maria and Teresa have all the food prepared.” Scott shook his hand. “I tried to sneak some cookies but got caught.” He held up his wounded appendage showing the red mark from Maria’s spoon.
Murdoch laughed, “Maria’s kitchen is off limits this time of the year, Son. You’re lucky it was just a swat.”
The two men sat in silence, both wondering where Johnny might be and wishing he was home where he belonged. However, Murdoch had an additional worry after reading the latest report from the Pinkertons.
Murdoch took a deep breath as he leaned back in his chair, then let it out slowly as he leaned forward. “Scott… I need to tell you something about Johnny.”
L * A * N * C * E * R
In the barn yard, Cip was leaning on the top rail of the corral watching the new horses the vaqueros had rounded up the day before. The palomino stallion was magnificent. He would make a good stud for the herd el Patrón wanted to start. He turned when Walt pointed to a rider coming into the yard. He waited for the stranger to pull up at the corral. “Señor?”
Johnny stayed mounted but leaned one elbow on the saddle horn. “I’m lookin’ for Lancer.”
The Segundo looked the man over and stopped at the gun tied low on his right leg. “We don’t hire gunfighters.”
“Ain’t lookin’ for gun work.” Johnny looked over at the corral when he heard the stallion nicker. He had never seen such a beautiful horse and it took his breath away.
Cip scowled when he saw the gunfighter staring at the stallion. “That’s a valuable caballo, pistolero.”
“Yeah, it is.” Johnny schooled his expression to hide the longing and turned to face the man. “So is Lancer around?”
“El Patrón is a busy man. What do you want?” The older man didn’t try to conceal his animosity for the gunfighter.
Johnny straightened in his saddle. “Tell him Johnny Madrid wants to talk to him.” He always enjoyed the shocked looks he got at that announcement.
Cip nodded, “Wait here, I will ask if el Patrón has time for you.” He marched off toward the house, he couldn’t help worrying about el Patrón's and Señor Scott’s safety.
L * A * N * C * E * R
“A gunfighter!” Scott downed his drink in one gulp, “And a famous one. My God, Murdoch…” He stopped, unable to continue his tirade when he saw the desperation on his father’s face.
“We have to find him, Scott. I can’t lose him again.”
“But how do we find him? You have a name but that report is months old; he could be anywhere.” Scott wasn’t sure how he felt about having a gunfighter for a brother but he would never break his father’s heart by voicing his misgivings.
“I told them to contact him and offer him money to come see me. I don’t know why he is using Madrid.” Murdoch sighed and rubbed his temples. “Maybe he doesn’t know his real name. Maybe Maria changed their names so I couldn’t find them.”
“Well, Sir, I hope they can find him and bring him home, for your sake.” Scott looked directly at his father. “However, I want you to be careful because if he does know his real name; I can’t help but wonder why he never came home.”
L * A * N * C * E * R
A knock at the French door interrupted the father son talk. Scott rose and answered the door. “Come in Cip.” He noticed the man seemed uneasy. “Is something wrong?”
“Sí Señor Scott, I need to talk to el Patrón.”
“Certainly.” Scott stepped aside for the man to enter.
“Patrón, a man wants to talk to you.” Cip stood beside Scott and nervously twirled his hat in his hands.
“Who is he? We aren’t hiring this time of the year.” Murdoch thought it strange that someone would even be looking for ranch work during the winter.
Cip moved further into the room. “He isn’t looking for work.”
“Oh.” Scott moved to Cip’s side; he was suddenly concerned by the older man’s demeanor. He turned toward his father. “Sir, do you want me to talk to him?”
“No, Son. Cip tell him to come in.” Murdoch moved to his desk.
“Sí Patrón.” Cip stepped back as Murdoch walked past him. “Patrón, the man is a gunfighter.” Cip was dreading the reaction that news. He knew his boss didn’t like pistoleros after what had happened to Señora Catherine.
“Who…” Murdoch started to ask, but was interrupted by a new voice.
“That’d be me.” Johnny leaned against the door frame.
Murdoch dropped back into the chair too stunned to talk. The gunfighter in the doorway was the image of his lost wife, Maria.
Scott and Cip turned in unison to stare at the intruder, then Scott turned back to his father. “Sir, do you know this man?”
“Yeah.” Johnny smirked, “Guess he does.” He straightened and ambled into the Great Room and began looking around.
“Patrón…” Cip nodded his head toward the door.
“Sí, Cip. Gracias.” Murdoch was grateful for the loyal vaquero’s understanding.
L * A * N * C * E * R
“May I ask who you are?” Scott moved to a position between his father and the gunfighter.
“Yep, ya can ask, but why don’t ya ask him?” Johnny pointed at Murdoch, who continued to stare at his long, lost son.
Scott glanced over his shoulder but when he saw his father’s face, he moved to the man’s side. “Murdoch…” He grabbed his father’s trembling shoulder.
Murdoch turned to face his older son, “I’m alright. It was just a shock.”
The gunfighter laughed, “Yeah, I bet it was.” Then he abruptly stopped and continued roaming about the room.
Scott stayed beside his father, as a buffer, should the gunfighter become violent.
Finally Johnny stopped in front of the desk and picked up the paper weight and tossed it up and down in his hand. “Guess ya didn't expect the half-breed you tossed out to show up on your doorstep.”
Rage overtook shock as Murdoch jumped up from the chair. “I didn’t throw you out.” He was shaking with rage. “Maria took you and ran away in the night.”
“You’re lying,” Johnny shouted and moved toward his enemy, while still clutching the paper weight.
Scott blocked his father. “He’s not lying.” But he stopped when he felt his father’s hand rest on his shoulder.
“It’s alright Scott.” Murdoch stepped from behind his older son. “Johnny, I’m not lying.” He held out his hand, “I swear Johnny, I didn’t throw you out. I’ve been hunting for you.”
“No, she said you didn’t want a Mex wife and a half-breed son.” Johnny’s mind was whirling and he didn’t like the big man standing so close.
Murdoch pointed to his desk. “Let me show you to reports. I’ve had the Pinkerton’s hunting for you. Please son, I’ve wanted you since the day you were born and I always wanted you back here where you belong.” He reached behind his back and pulled Scott forward. “Where you belong, where you have always belonged with me and your older brother.”
Johnny dropped the weight on the desk and backed away from the two men. “No, she wouldn’t lie to me.”
Murdoch stepped forward but stopped when he suddenly faced a gun. It had been so fast he hadn't even seen the boy make the move. “Johnny, please sit down and talk to me.” His voice croaked with tension.
Confused and feeling he was losing control, Johnny holstered his gun and turned toward the door. “No… I shouldn’t have come here.”
“Please Johnny, don’t go. At least listen to my side.” Murdoch was desperate to keep his boy from leaving and was grasping at straws when the idea hit him.
Johnny continued to the door but stopped short when he heard…
“Today is your birthday.”
Johnny whirled around, “What?”
Understanding hit Murdoch like a punch to the stomach, “You didn’t know?”
Scott watched his brother and knew Murdoch was right.
“Didn’t Maria celebrate your birthday?” Murdoch moved a cautious step toward his son. “Johnny, please talk to me.”
Johnny bowed his head, and hoped the room would stop spinning. With the Madrid mask firmly in place he looked up and faced his Ol’ Man. “Dios, we barely had enough to eat. There ain’t no birthday celebrating when you’re poor. She… well, it never seemed important.”
Murdoch took another cautious step. He didn’t want Johnny to bolt so he was going to take his time. “Do you know how old you are?” He wasn’t sure he wanted an answer.
“Ain’t never had a barkeep refuse to serve me.” He bragged to hide the fact he had no idea his actual age, his mother like to change it every time they moved.
Murdoch was saddened by the answer but saw it as an opening to try to ease the tension in the room. “Well, Son, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. You are twenty-one today.”
The gunfighter stared up at his father then burst out laughing. “Damn Ol’ Man, you do have a sense of humor.”
Scott and Murdoch gaped at each other, surprised by the sudden genuine laughter. “Well, Son, I do have my moments.” Murdoch chuckled. “Johnny, would you please sit and talk to us?” He motioned toward the sofa. “Would you like a drink?”
Johnny hesitated, he didn’t want to appear too anxious, “You gonna throw in something to eat with that drink?” At Murdoch’s nod, he moved to the sofa and plopped down.
“Scott, would you ask Maria for a bowl of her chili and some bread?”
“Certainly, and maybe I can sneak a few cookies for us.”
Murdoch moved to the drinks cart. “What would you like?”
Johnny was again looking around the Great Room, still amazed at the size and how good it smelled with the pine scent in the air. Answering Murdoch’s question, he called over his shoulder, “Tequila.”
Murdoch poured a glass for Johnny then poured a scotch for himself. He carried the drinks to the sofa and handed Johnny the tequila then sat in his leather chair. The two men sat in silence and sipped their drinks. Johnny savored the expensive liquor, seemed the Ol’ Man could afford the good stuff.
A few moments later Scott carried in a tray and handed it off to his brother, but retrieved the plate of cookie and placed them on the table. “Maria wasn’t happy about giving up cookies but I explained we had a guest.”
“Get yourself a drink, Scott, and join us.”
Murdoch watched his younger son eat. It was obvious the boy was hungry and it broke his heart; he wondered how many hungry days the boy had experienced. “How is it?”
“Muy bueno,gracias.” Johnny stopped eating long enough to answer. He knew he was eating too fast but the hunger had taken over and the chili was like he preferred it, hot and spicy.
When Johnny finished eating, Murdoch held out a plate. “Cookie? Or would you prefer some more chili?”
“I won’t turn down another bowl.” Then he grabbed a cookie and looked it over. “Ya got any milk?”
Shocked that a gunfighter drank milk, Murdoch and Scott looked at each other. “I’ll take care of it.” Scott recovered and headed for the kitchen.
“I didn’t expect you to be a milk drinker.” Murdoch smiled and grabbed another cookie.
“Didn’t get milk much when I was a kid, less I stole it.” Johnny bit into the cookie and savored the sweet treat.
A few moments later Scott showed up with the glass of milk and another bowl of chili and handed them to his brother. “The chili’s hot and the milk’s cold.” He smiled at his brother, “Enjoy.”
“Gracias.” Johnny dug into the second bowl.
Murdoch and Scott sat sipping their drinks and nibbling on cookies while trying not to stare at their hungry boy.
Finally the chili was eaten and the young gunfighter leaned back with a cookie and his glass of milk. “That was real good, haven’t had spicy chili like that since I left Mexico.”
“Maria is a good cook.” Scott toasted Johnny with his glass of scotch.
Johnny looked at Murdoch, the unasked question obvious by his expression.
“Maria has been cook and housekeeper at Lancer since Scott’s mother and I bought the place.” Murdoch paused a moment. “She also helped Dr. Jenkins deliver you, Johnny.” Satisfied that he had managed to surprise his younger son, again.
Johnny caught himself before he betrayed his shock. “Well, that explains why the chili was so good.” He patted his stomach. “Only a Mexican woman would know how to use spices like that.” He swallowed the last of his milk.
“Would you like another glass?” Scott pointed to the table. “There are still some cookies.”
Before Johnny could answer, Murdoch asked, “Scott would you ask Maria to join us?”
“Yes, Sir.” Scott rose and headed for the kitchen.
A few moments later a woman rushed from the kitchen followed by a grinning big brother.
Before Johnny knew what was happening he was being hauled up from the sofa and hugged for all he was worth. All the while the woman spoke in rapid Spanish; Johnny being the only one able to follow what was being said. Maria released him then pulled him back into another rib-crushing hug.
Murdoch cleared his throat to stop the laugh. “Maria has missed you, Son.”
Johnny managed to gasp out, “I noticed.” Then his face was pulled back down and Maria continued kissing his cheeks.
“Maria, please let the boy breathe.” Murdoch gently placed his hands on her shoulders.
“Sí Patrón.” Maria smiled as she released her captive and turned toward Murdoch, “Our niño is home.” After crossing herself and dabbing at the tears on her cheeks, she turned back to Johnny and pointed her finger at him. “Now you will stay home where you belong.” Everyone in the room heard the order in the little woman’s voice. Confident she had been taken seriously, she picked up the tray and returned to the kitchen.
“Please Son, we have always wanted you here where you belong.”
Johnny saw the honesty in his father’s express and heard it in his father’s voice. Overwhelmed by the emotions that were warring inside him, he couldn’t help but wonder why. Why had he had been lied to? He had always had a home. Then he wondered, why hadn’t his mother told him about Scott? There was so much he needed to know.
Murdoch moved closer to Johnny but fought the urge to touch his son. “It’s getting late, please stay the night so we can talk some more tomorrow.”
Johnny looked up at his father but unsure of his voice he just nodded.
“Good. I’ll show you to your room.”
“I have a room?” One more surprise for Johnny to absorb. A surprise that didn’t go unnoticed by the other men in the room.
“You always have.” Murdoch was so relieved that he almost sighed when his boy hadn’t bolted. “Get a good night’s sleep and tomorrow I will answer any questions you have.”
L * A * N * C * E * R
After his father had left him alone, Johnny roamed the bedroom. He opened the wardrobe and found baby clothes-his clothes, he realized. He then moved over to the window, and in the light of the full moon, he saw the corral where he caught a flash of gold. For several minutes he watched the stallion and wished he owned a horse like that.
Johnny crossed the room and listened at the door, when he didn’t hear any movement he slipped out and down the stairs. He cat-footed it through the Great Room and slipped out the French doors. Once out on the patio he waited in the shadow with his back to the door and looked around to make sure no one was in the area. Once he was sure he was alone he slowly walked toward the corral.
Leaning on the top rail, he watched the golden horse prance around the enclosure. The stallion shook his head and pawed the ground before slowly moving toward the strange man. Johnny started whispering in Spanish as the horse cautiously approached him. When the stallion stretched his head toward the stranger, Johnny slowly reached out and let the horse nuzzle his hand.
At the sound of someone approaching, Johnny spun and crouched with his gun drawn.
Murdoch stopped, his heart was pounding, and called out, “Johnny, it’s me.” He couldn’t believe how fast Johnny had reacted. One moment the boy was petting the horse and the next he was crouched with a Colt in his hand. It was the second time Murdoch had caused the boy to draw on him.
“Not a good idea to sneak up on me Ol’ Man.” Johnny stood, his heart was also racing and his hand shook slightly as he holstered his gun.
“I’m sorry, Son. I was in the kitchen hunting for something to eat when I saw you at the corral.” Murdoch watched Johnny move back to the horse.
“He’s really something. I’ve never seen el caballo this magnífico.” Johnny reverently stroked the stallion’s nose.
Murdoch watched in amazement as his son and the horse interacted. “Johnny, I have missed so many of your birthdays.”
“Don’t worry Murdoch, don’t miss what ya never had.”
“Well, I want to share this one with you. It would mean a lot to me if you would accept the palomino to make up for all the birthdays we have missed.”
Johnny’s mouth dropped open but quickly snapped it shut. “You mean it?”
“Yes, he’s yours.” Murdoch was enjoying being able to surprise his boy. Then to help ease the awkwardness he added, “And hopefully you’ll let me breed some of our mares with him.”
Johnny laughed, he also felt the need to lightening the mood. “Well, guess I could do that.” But still overcome by the generous gift, he bowed his head and whispered, “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Murdoch dared to place a hand on his son’s shoulder and was grateful when Johnny didn’t pull away. “Maybe we should go to bed, we have a lot to do tomorrow.” Murdoch turned and headed for the house while listening for Johnny to follow him.
“Murdoch…” It was quiet, almost a whisper coming from the corral.
He stopped and turned, “Yes, Son.”
“I mean it, thanks, nobody ever gave me…” Johnny bowed his head then turned to face Murdoch, “Well… thanks.” He moved to his father’s side as they walked to the house.
Johnny lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling. He couldn’t stop smiling; he couldn’t believe the stallion was his. Then the smile faded as he wondered why his mama had lied. The man was not the bastard she had claimed.
Exhausted, he turned onto his stomach and finally fell asleep.
L * A * N * C * E * R
Murdoch and Scott sat at the kitchen table enjoying Maria’s hearty breakfast. “It broke my heart that he has never had a birthday present.” He wanted Scott to understand why he gave the stallion to Johnny.
“That was very kind of you Sir. I hope for your sake he stays.” Scott poured a second cup of coffee. “Do you think we should wake him?”
“No, let him sleep in.”
A few minutes later they heard the sound of spurs coming down the back stairs. When Johnny entered the kitchen he was ambushed by Maria who hustled him to a chair.
Johnny sheepishly smiled at her, “Gracias.” He felt awkward with Maria’s fussing over him, and gratefully held up a cup when Scott offered some coffee.
Maria placed a plate of huevos rancheros, ham, bacon, and biscuits in front of him. “Eat,” she ordered then kissed his cheek.
Murdoch and Scott hid their smiles behind coffee cups.
Johnny glared at them. “Yeah, laugh all ya want, but I learned early don’t ever get a Mexican woman mad at ya.” He smirked at their expressions and dug into his breakfast.
“When you’re done we’ll go to the Great Room to talk.” Murdoch tried to keep the humor from his voice at Johnny’s comment.
“I’ll check with Cip for you, Sir.” Scott rose from the table. He needed an excuse to get out of the kitchen before he laughed at his little brother and Maria.
“Thank you, Scott.” Murdoch wanted to sit with Johnny, he was relishing every moment with his lost son.
L * A * N * C * E * R
Later in the morning, the three men had gathered in the Great Room. Murdoch wasn’t sure how to proceed with the ‘talk’. He didn’t want Johnny to think his was condemning Maria’s actions, but the not knowing was getting to him.
“Johnny, I hope you will stay here,,,” Murdoch signed and rubbed his chin. “I didn’t give you the stallion as a bribe, it was a birthday gift.”
“I didn’t think it was a bribe,” Johnny interrupted, seeing the nervousness of his father. “I did a lot of thinking after I went to bed last night.” He stood and moved to the drinks cart and poured a tequila, then returned to the couch.
“Look Murdoch, I don’t know if we can make it work but I’m willing to give it a try. I want to find out what’s true…” Johnny downed his drink and looked his father in the eye. “…I need to find out what is true.”
Scott watched his father and brother and finally realized he needed, no he wanted, to help keep his family together. He wanted his brother, he had always wanted the little brother that had been stolen from him. “Johnny, we will do whatever is needed to help make it possible for you to stay home.” He smiled at the expression on Johnny’s face, “Anything.”
L * A * N * C * E * R
Johnny leaned against his bedroom door and stared at the saddlebags on the bed. What was he going to wear at this fandango; he didn’t have any fancy clothes. Sighing he moved across the room and opened one of the saddlebags and pulled out his one spare shirt. He shook it out and held it up. It was wrinkled but at least it was clean. Then he picked up his bolero jacket and tried to wipe off as much dirt as possible. Frustrated he tossed the jacket on his bed. While he stared at his meager clothes, he jumped at a knock on the door.
Johnny crossed to the door and when he opened it he was surprised to see Maria. And why was she holding a box?
Maria smiled and patted his cheek as she moved into the room without waiting for an invitation. She stopped by the bed and shook her head at the discarded shirt and jacket.
“I don’t have anything fancy…”
Maria handed him the box. “For you niño. I always knew someday you would find your way home.”
Not sure what to do or say he accepted the box and stared at it.
“Open it Juanito. I made it just for you.”
Johnny swallowed the lump in his throat, “I…”
Maria stepped forward and pulled the boy into her arms and whispered. “Te amo, niño. Feliz Navidad.” Then she released him and slipped from the room.
Johnny sat on his bed and slowly he opened the package. When he saw the contents he sucked in a breath.
L * A * N * C * E * R
Scott and Murdoch stood on the patio welcoming the arriving guests. Both men continually looked over their shoulders, anxious for Johnny to join them.
“I hope he hasn’t decided to forgo the party.” Scott looked back into the Great Room. “He didn’t seem too sure about attending.”
Murdoch nodded. “He said he doesn’t like crowds.” Then he chuckled and added, “And he really doesn’t like his fun organized.”
Scott grinned. “I can imagine, or maybe I shouldn’t, no telling what he considers fun.”
Murdoch started to reply when another guest arrived.
“Well, Murdoch, another year and another great party.” The neighboring rancher toasted.
Murdoch nodded, the man was such a pest and never knew when enough was enough, but he had to invite the him. He was about to reply when the other man’s mouth fell open. Wondering what caused the man’s shock Murdoch turned, and a big smile took over his face.
His younger son stood at the entrance to the patio. He was wearing a white shirt with ornate blue embroidery, a bolo tie with a concho that matched the ones on his son’s pants, and a bolero jacket that was adorned with silver thread. Murdoch instantly recognized the outfit as the one that Maria had made two Christmases ago with the hope that her niño would return.
Scott moved to the new arrival and patted him on the back. “Glad you made it, brother.”
Johnny nodded and allowed his big brother to usher him through the guests to their father’s side.
A pleased Murdoch placed an arm around each of his sons’ shoulders. “Ladies and Gentlemen, Scott and I have an announcement.” He waited until he had everyone’s attention before continuing.
“This year my younger son, Johnny, has found his way home.”
Merry Christmas Lancer Lovers, December 2014