A Christmas tale; a continuation to last year’s, The Night before Christmas - Lancer.
Johnny was finding out more than he wanted to know about Lancer’s Christmas traditions; the old ones and the brand new ones Scott had initiated with such enthusiasm. Yep. Old Scott had done himself proud, what with the reading the night before of Clement Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicolas.
The wagon load of snow had been a fun, too, the younger man thought. Even the part where Scott had scrubbed his face to a ruddy glow with the cold white fluff. Hell, even the Old Man had joined in, soundly beating his sons in the spirited snowball fight that had ensued. And after that --
Well, there had been enough snow left for old Murdoch to fashion something he called a snowman; right there in front of the hitching rail. It got kind of crazy after that; Teresa determined to dress the rotund creation; Scott’s gloves on the tree-branch hands, an old pipe of Murdoch’s in creature’s sculpted and smiling mouth, and Johnny’s hat -- his hat! -- perched atop the frozen head.
He’d dumped Teresa into the remaining pile of frigid flakes for that one, and the silly girl hadn’t even gotten mad. Nope. She just laughed at him and lay back, sweeping her arms and legs back and forth; up and down in a very unlady like fashion. Scott had helped her to her feet when she was done, grinning at the imprint she had left behind. Snow angel, he announced knowingly to his baby brother; another Boston tradition.
Snow angel, Hell, Johnny thought. Once Scott had made his wise declaration, Johnny had used the heel of his boot to form two horns atop the angel’s head. Teresa had not been amused.
That’s when the Old Man made a proclamation of his own. The sun had barely risen from its nest on the eastern horizon and was just peeking over the ridge. Without a proper breakfast -- there had only been sweet rolls and coffee that morning -- Murdoch had announced the family was going to church. The entire family would be attending Christmas Day services at the church in Green River. The Old Man had made a point of looking right at Johnny when he said the entire family.
Johnny debated arguing. Christmas with his family at home was one thing, but going to church…
And yet, here he was, decked out in the damned suit Murdoch had bought for him shortly after his recovery; wearing a white shirt and tie. The tie, he thought darkly, was as close to a hanging as he ever figured on getting.
The Lancer Family had their own pew. Right down in front. Johnny’s first instinct had been to run. Murdoch had pretty much taken care of that idea. He had herded his family into the church with all the skill of an experienced cattleman; Scott taking point, and he and Teresa bunched up behind like they were being led into the delousing chutes.
Now the Old Man was directing the seating arrangements. Scott stood back to allow Teresa to go into the pew first, Johnny reluctantly following the girl. Then Murdoch. Scott, it seemed, was going to get the aisle seat.
So there he sat, wedged in between his adopted sister and his father, his brother thumping him on the back of the head to remind him to be quiet; wondering what he had done to get into this fix, and why the Hell -- considering the way he usually had managed to get out of this situation -- the ceiling wasn’t caving in.
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been inside the church before. Truth be known, he had actually spent more time in his father’s church than he had ever spent inside a Catholic edifice; at least in the sanctuary part. It struck him then; the word sanctuary. He’d been in his share of mission orphanages, and not one of them had ever stuck him as a place where he would seek refuge or protection.
Closing his eyes, he pushed the dark thoughts away. He felt a nudge at his shoulder, and turned to look at Teresa; following her gaze as the minister took his place in front of the congregation. Behind, he was aware of some murmuring; then the muffled footsteps of people who -- he assumed -- had arrived late. He started to turn around in his seat, only to catch his father’s eye. Murdoch shook his head and then nodded toward the front of the room.
Reverend Taylor was somewhere, Johnny reckoned, in his early fifties; close to the age of his father. The man had a full head of salt-and-pepper gray hair; and the sun-touched features of a country gentleman. There were wrinkles at the corners of his mouth; smile lines, Johnny realized, that complimented the man’s hazel eyes.
The minister cleared his throat. When he began speaking, it was clear that he was possessed of the gift of speech. His voice was deep; rich yet mellow. “As many of you know,” he began softly, “the Catholic Church in Morro Coyo was extensively damaged in a fire this past week, leaving many of our friends and neighbors without a place to hold their Christmas service.” Hushed conversation erupted, which the sky-pilot silenced with a single wave of his hand. There had been disturbing gossip about the origin of the fire; rumors the minister knew bore more than a gem of truth.
Johnny came immediately to attention. This time, he did turn around to look towards the rear of the church. A slow smile of recognition came as he spied Cipriano and his wife, Elena; Mateo and Paco flanking their parents. Several members of the extended Lancer family were also present; the women’s heads covered by shawls and lace mantillas. All of them seemed hesitant; yet some how confident in their faith.
Johnny’s smile grew a bit as he felt his father’s right hand on his left knee; a reassuring pat coming that signaled Murdoch had known all along that Cipriano and the others -- along with the several generations of the large Baldemero family -- were going to be in attendance. He took comfort from that thought. “Murdoch,” he whispered.
Rising to his full six foot five, Murdoch stood up. “I’m sure,” he began, his deep voice resonating throughout the now quiet room, “that you will all join me in welcoming our neighbors and friends,” his voice softened, “our families, to our celebration of the birth of our…” he stressed the word, “…Lord and Savior.”
Scott had risen to his feet as well; in fact, had moved out into the wide aisle. He stood back as Murdoch moved to join him; smiling at his younger brother as he gestured for Johnny and Teresa to also leave their seats.
Together, the entire Lancer clan strode back down the aisle to join ranks with Cipriano and the others. It was now standing room only at the rear of the church. Kneeling room.
Johnny watched as Father Sebastian and the spotlessly robed altar boys made their way forward; the priest dispensing his blessings as he passed. Instinctively, the young man’s hand went to his chest as he fingered the gold medallion that lay beneath his white shirt. His next move was deliberate. Tugging gently at the chain that hung around his neck, he pulled the medal free, his fingers caressing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe before he patted it into place just above his heart.
Murdoch and Scott Lancer were standing at Johnny’s back now, each one with a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. Head bowed, Johnny dropped to his knees, following Cip’s lead when the older man crossed himself and began his prayers.
There was a sudden stillness to the place as the congregation joined in silent entreaty to their shared God; the old prejudices forgotten. For once, even the usually squeaky pedal organ seemed to co-operate, the soft reedy sound coming as the Widow Hargis’ fingers coaxed the sweet sound of Silent Night from the ivory keys.
‘Tis the season, Murdoch thought, his gaze resting on his younger son’s dark head as he watched his boy in prayer; his right hand still resting on the youth’s shoulder. Johnny Madrid Lancer was finally home; and he was at peace.