I Heard the Bells
by  Janet Brayden


            The storm came up so quickly, that December 20, that nobody was prepared.  No one. Even the people in town were taken by surprise.  The wind just suddenly started howling and whipping around leaving chaos in its wake. 

            Farmer's, and rancher's wives alike, as well as every other female in town held tightly to bonnets and tried to keep their hair from flying in their faces.  It was a lost cause.  The wind shifted direction constantly seeming to blow harder with each change.

            Cattle and horses, spooked by the weather, fretted and many a person driving a team had to hold very tightly to the reins while riders struggled to keep their mounts from running away.

            At Lancer, Murdoch paced the Great Room anxiously.  His two sons, Johnny and Scott, were due back from Sacramento any time now.  They'd gone to finish their Christmas shopping since Baldomero's, and the other stores in the area, didn't carry what they specifically wanted for certain people.  They were bound to be caught in this storm and maybe in foggy conditions which were even more hazardous.  Accompanying them, on this trip, were Johnny's Prankster Posse, otherwise known as Kevin Millar, Rico Portillo and Willie Mays.  Kevin's father was one of Murdoch's best friends.  The thought of their boys being in trouble together bothered him a lot.  The Millars had been in the valley since Kevin was a youngster but all five of the young men were traveling through an area they weren't familiar with.

            Against his wishes they'd wired him that they were "taking a shortcut" and would be back by Christmas Eve.  It was only the 20th now but it worried him to see the driving wind, and rain, of the sudden storm not knowing if the boys would be able to find shelter somewhere or if they were still out in the bad weather. Not knowing where they were, in terms of progress on their journey had him nervous.

            "You're worried about them, aren't you?" Teresa asked her guardian.

            "Not really," he said.

            "Yes, you are," Teresa told him.

            "Maybe a little," he conceded.

            "Don't worry, Murdoch.  They know what they're doing.  Kevin has spent most of his life in this valley and he's explored a lot more territory - with Rico and Willie - than he ever did on his own.  Even if Johnny and Scott don't know where they are the other three will."  She giggled.  "I think you might have to worry more about Scott being in jail for killing one of the others if they're giving him their usual hard time.  It's too bad neither Nathan or Frank could go with them."

            Nathan was Nathan Pruitt.  A young physician transplanted from Philadelphia he'd become one of Scott's dearest friends in a short time - partly due to their similar upbringing and their military service.  He was a tremendous help to Sam Jenkins, who was not exactly a spring chicken any more as certain young people - and their parents and their parents' friends liked to remind him.  Nathan did a lot of the treatment of patients on the outlying farms and ranches while Sam handled most of the work in the three towns and closer farms and ranches.  It was a good arrangement.

            Frank was Francis Scott Key III.  Distant relative of the man who had written the poem that was now the National Anthem - The Star Spangled Banner - Frank was a lawyer who had come into the Lancers' lives at a time when Scott had been falsely accused of murder.  Working hard in Scott's defense he had called in many character witnesses including General Philip Sheridan - Scott's former commanding officer.  Eventually, with Johnny's help, he'd uncovered the plot and exposed the guilty party - a former prisoner who'd blamed Scott for his permanent disability.

            Unfortunately neither man was able to get away at this time as their regular duties were keeping them too busy.  Sam Jenkins, the senior physician, was out straight with patients in the office while Nathan had been traveling all over the countryside tending to injured cowboys and such.  Frank had two big cases coming up at the county seat just after Christmas and was in the midst of interviewing witnesses and getting statements.

            Scott liked Johnny's friends well enough - when they weren't harassing him.  The three young men had brought out the fun loving side of his younger brother and helped him ease into life as a wealthy rancher's son - a far cry from his former profession as a gunfighter.

            Murdoch chuckled, "Yes, it is too bad that Nathan and Frank couldn't get away.  They'd be good company for Scott and the three of them could ward off the pranksters quite nicely."


            "I'm sorry, fellas," Kevin said.  "I didn't know the weather would turn bad like this or I wouldn't have suggested this shortcut." 

            The five young men stared in dismay at the rock strewn path that lay before them.  The heavy rain had swept sand, and rocks, down from the top of the canyon making it very hazardous.  There was no way they could go that way but to go back meant losing ground and time.  They were anxious to get home to their families.

            "It's not your fault, Kev," Johnny told his buddy.  "This storm just kind of came up out of nowhere - kinda like those nor'easters that Scott talks about."

            "Yes," the older Lancer agreed. "Just like that.  It was pleasant enough when we left Silver Creek this morning.  The only thing to do is to try and find some shelter and think things out.  We still have a map of the area that we can study to find another route."

            "I agree with Scott," Willie said.  "Any idea where we can find shelter?"

            "I saw a cave about a mile or so back," Rico said.  "I think it's big enough for us all to get into - for a little while anyway."

            Following Rico's directions the group headed back toward the cave the young Mexican man had seen.  He was right, it would do for a very temporary shelter - for the men but not the horses.  It wasn't big enough for the horses and none of the young men were willing to leave their mounts out in the storm without some sort of shelter.

            Scott took the map out of his pocket - fortunately it was wrapped in oilskin as a precaution.  The five of them gathered around and studied it.

            "It looks to me," Scott said, "that if we take this left fork it should bring us within a couple of miles of Spanish Wells.  Probably on the old road between Spanish Wells and Morro Coyo."

            "It looks like it," Johnny agreed.  "The only problem is knowing what the trail is like."

            "We'll just have to take a chance.  We have families expecting us home by Christmas Eve and I, for one, don't intend to disappoint them."

            That being said the young men climbed into wet saddles and turned their horses westward.  Man and beast, alike, all were miserable and the visibility was poor.  The wind driven rain beat down on them and got under the collars of the slickers they wore.  The horses, also, were miserable and more than one of the normally placid mounts plodded through the rain, mud and wind with their backs humped and tails held tightly against their hindquarters and flanks.  Barranca, normally a light golden color, was so wet that he looked like a light bay. 

            About ten miles down the road the group came to a crossroads.  The signpost was broken - apparently by the storm winds - and the direction arrows, along with the names of the towns, was missing.  Scott took the map out only to have it torn out of his grip by the vicious wind gusts.  Before any of the boys could dismount and chase after it it was a mile away.

            "Ai, yi yi!" Rico exclaimed.  "What else could go wrong?"

            "Do we have any idea where we are?" Willie asked.

            A defeated Scott answered, "No, I'm afraid not.  Following a map is one thing but following signs that aren't there is a different matter."

            "There must be a way to figure this out," Kevin said.

            "We're supposed to be headed southeast," Johnny said, "but it's hard to tell if we're going in the right direction when you can't see the sun."

            "We'll just have to take a chance that we're headed in the right direction," Scott said.  "I think I remember the map pretty well."

            "Lead on, Brother," Johnny said with a salute.  "Maybe we can find shelter somewhere along the way - for all ten of us!"


            The storm raged on.  All hands at Lancer, and the other ranches in the area, were kept busy doing temporary repairs that would be made permanent once the storm had blown itself out.  There were a lot of shingles blown off of roofs and more than one door would need new hinges - on some of the smaller buildings - or new framework in the doorway, but they did what they could. 

            There was also a matter of keeping the fires in the fireplaces under control.  It took constant vigilance to ensure that no sparks flew off of the hearth to ignite fires in the carpets at Lancer, and elsewhere, when the wind blew down the chimneys.

            Murdoch sat at his desk, a good deal of the time, staring out the window that looked out over the main road into Lancer.  He kept hoping, and praying, that he would see his boys - with or without Johnny's pals - come riding down that road any minute.

            Teresa tried to reassure him that all would be well, but even she and Maria were getting worried.  The older woman could be heard praying "Hail Marys" and imploring the saints to look over the young men.  Teresa, herself, never stopped praying for their safety either and she knew that Maura Talbot and others would be as well.  Padre Felipe was probably on his knees even now, in the sanctuary at the mission, praying for them and lighting candles.


            "Are you sure we're headed in the right direction?" Kevin asked Scott.

            "No, I'm not," the blond replied, "but there aren't any signposts or familiar landmarks from the map."

            "No place to take shelter either," Johnny yelled over the wind.  "We might as well keep going."

            All of the young men were miserable.  Pants clung to them like second skins, hindering their movements.  Rain had dripped down behind their collars and tricked down their backs adding to their discomfort and the wind had caused all of them to lose their hats at one time or another so now their hair was plastered to their heads.  Home would be a wonderful place to be if they could only get there.  Pesky younger siblings or no, all of them were dreaming of a place in front of a warm fire with a hot drink of some sort - even a bit of Murdoch's brandy though it wasn't Johnny's drink of choice - would be nice.  Follow that up with a warm bed and Christmas morning with the family gathered around the tree and they would be ecstatic.

             Getting home was the problem.  They were completely and utterly lost with no way of knowing how close they were.


            Christmas Day found the boys close to home but still unaware of where they were.  The storm was still raging and the countryside still unfamiliar.

            All of them were exhausted and barely able to stay in the saddle.  They'd had no sleep for two days and were drenched, hungry and cold.  The rain had soaked right through their canvas rain slickers after a while. 

            Resolutely the group clung to the horns on their saddles and kept moving.  Scott's face, as well as that of Kevin who was as fair as he was, was gray with fatigue.  His fingers were numb from cold and he could barely feel his feet.  He knew the others must be in the same condition.

            Suddenly, in the distance, borne on the gusty wind, he heard a noise that wasn't storm related.  He sat up straight and strained to hear what it was between gusts of wind.

            "Follow me, boys!" he exclaimed.  "We'll be home in no time!"

            "I think he's gone loco from the cold," Rico said to his friends.

            "Maybe," Johnny said, "but what choice do we have?  We can't let him go off without us!"

            Johnny and the Prankster Posse spurred their horses.  Unwillingly the four mounts picked up their pace to a jog as they followed the transplanted Easterner.

            "Scott!  Hold up!"  Johnny yelled.  "Where are you going?"

            "Home, Little Brother, home," was the answer.

            The others hadn't heard the noise that Scott was following but the horses ears pricked forward as they heard it dimly themselves.  Their slow walk had become a slow jog but now it was a faster jog.  Something had their attention and that something seemed to be good for none of them were nervous.

            "Look!" Scott pointed down the road. 

            The group halted for a moment and looked where he indicated.  There, ahead of them, was a sign pointing the way to Lancer.  The noise, Scott, had heard, became clearer and all of the boys heard it now. 

            "All we have to do is follow that sound," Scott told them.


            Half an hour later Murdoch saw them ride slowly into the yard.  Heedless of the weather he ran out to meet them.  Teresa was right behind him.

            "Johnny!  Scott!  You made it home!"  Murdoch reached up to help his elder son out of his saddle as Frank, Walt, Cipriano and a couple of the other hands reached up to help Johnny and the other boys.

            "Bring them inside," Teresa ordered as she ran ahead calling for Maria to bring hot coffee into the Great Room.

            Within five minutes all of the overdue travelers were settled in front of the fire with blankets wrapped around them.

            "Frank, have someone ride over to the Rocking M and let the Millars know that Kevin is here, at Lancer.  And send someone to the Mays and Portillos as well to let them know that the boys are going to stay here until the storm is over."

            Frank took it upon himself to head for the Rocking M while Isidro and Walt headed for Spanish Wells and Green River to let the other families know that their sons were safe and being taken care of at Lancer.

            Looking them over he said, "They all need hot baths and dry clothes.  Then a good meal and a good night's sleep."

            With a little help from Cipriano and a couple of the others, Murdoch got his sons and their neighbors' sons into a hot bath and dry clothes.  Then they were all given bowls of stew with some bread and hot coffee.  No questions were asked.  The most important thing was that they were home and there was plenty of room for Johnny's three friends to spend the night and go home the next morning.

            Christmas would be delayed for a day but all the families could rejoice that their missing sons were safe and none the worse for their adventure.


            The next morning Teresa, Maria and the mothers of the Prankster Posse combined their efforts to make a sumptuous feast large enough to feed the four families.  Rico had several younger siblings and Willie had two.  Kevin was the youngest son in a family of five children - the youngest being Kelly who, though normally a thorn in her brother's side, was happy to have him home. 

            After the meal everyone gathered in the Great Room to exchange gifts and hear the travelers' story.

            "So when the storm blew up we tried to find shelter," Kevin told all those gathered around the fire.

            "But there wasn't anything.  The overhang we found - kind of like a cave - wasn't big enough for us and the horses," Willie explained, "and the water kept pouring down the side of the cliff.  We were afraid there might be a landslide."

            "Sí, and Scott tried to follow the map but then the map - it blew away when we tried to look at it again."                      

            "So how did you find your way home?"  Murdoch asked.

            "It was the bells," Scott told his father. 

            "Yes, the bells at the mission.  When I heard them yesterday morning I knew we were almost   home.  I just followed the sound of the Christmas bells."


The end.



I Heard The Bells

 By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play

And wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men


And thought how, as the day had come

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along

The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men


Till ringing, singing, on its way

The world revolved from night to day

A voice, a chime

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good will to men


Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South

And with the sound the carol drowned

Of peace on earth, good will to men


It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent

And made forlorn, the households born

Of peace on earth, good will to men


And in despair I bowed my head

"There is no peace on earth," I said;

"For hate is strong

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men."


Then pealed the bells more loud and deep

"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!

The wrong shall fail

The right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men."


In 1861 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's wife died of burns sustained when her dress caught fire as she was putting curling papers in her daughter's hair.  The Civil War started that same year and he felt it was an additional punishment.  In March of 1863 he received a letter from his son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, stating that he felt called to join the Union Army.  In 1864 Charles was seriously wounded in the Battle of New  Hope Church (in Virginia) during the Mine Run Campaign.  On Christmas Day, 1864, he sat down and wrote this poem.  It was set to music in 1872.






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