(With thanks to my beta, Anna Orr.)
Sparks marched along the top of a half-burnt log like torch-carriers in a posada. Murdoch reclined in his favourite chair, mesmerised by the firelight. Silence swallowed the last chime of midnight and the warmth of the great room embraced him.
“Another dram, brother?” Jock Lancer leaned over from the armchair opposite and topped Murdoch’s glass up from the bottle of Glen Ord that sat between them on a small oak table. Scott and Johnny had given Murdoch the whisky for Christmas along with an album full of photographs from the old country, ordered in secret from his brother, who had surprised them all by delivering it in person. The family had spent half the evening looking through the album, Murdoch and Jock reminiscing, and the others learning from them about the people and places of their youth.
Murdoch wondered vaguely if there would be any whisky left to see in the New Year—probably not. He smiled. He’d order another few bottles just in case. He’d be lucky to get any more Glen Ord as it was expensive and hard to come by in California, but a whisky of good quality to share with another connoisseur should be doable. It was becoming a habit this sitting up after everyone else had gone to their beds; he’d miss Jock’s company when he and Elspeth finally moved on in February to visit her brother in New Zealand. Circumnavigating the world and back in Scotland before next winter, his brother had left it late in life to travel. But Murdoch had to hand it to him: once he started, he did it in style.
Jock and his wife had been at the ranch about a fortnight now. Murdoch had thought his Christmases couldn’t get any better than the last one with his sons home and his ward Teresa sharing their lives, but this, the second Christmas since the boys’ homecoming, had been made even more special by the arrival of his older brother all the way from Inverness. They hadn’t seen each other in nearly thirty years.
Jock had surprised Murdoch in more ways than one. The Black Angus bull he had brought with him as a present had caused quite a stir among the cattlemen at the Association’s Christmas get-together. The young bull was a descendant of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the calf Murdoch had rescued from a ravine many years ago. Such a foolish thing to do, but the gamble had paid off. All things considered he had no regrets. The deal he had made to save the laird’s prize calf had risked his life, but it had also helped finance his dream of owning a ranch in California, and the story of the escapade had proved once again to be a great crowd pleaser.
What a dream it had been. Driven to leave his family and friends in the Highlands, Murdoch had entered into unimaginable adventure, and a life of great joy and great sorrow. When he had waved goodbye to Jock on that damp February day in 1842, Murdoch hadn’t realised how much he’d miss his brother. He only truly realised how much he had missed him when Jock stood facing him once again, grinning from ear to ear, in the ranch barn. By then everyone else at Lancer had been let in on the secret. They had shared Murdoch’s joy and laughed at his astonishment.
“Two good lads, you’ve got there.” Jock’s gruff burr broke into Murdoch’s thoughts. They sat with their legs stretched out, the toes of their boots almost touching. Jock kicked lightly at Murdoch’s sole. “I’m surprised you didna tell me they took after our side of the family so much.”
“Losing your memory in your old age, Jock? I mentioned Scott’s resemblance to Grandda more than once in my letters. I’m sure I did.”
“Och aye, I know that, but you never once said anything about Johnny. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw first saw him do it.”
Murdoch looked up from his drink, the ambrosia of Scotland massaging his throat with a smooth heat. “What do you mean? Apart from his eyes, Johnny’s all Maria. Well, maybe not all. There has always been something I could never quite put my finger on. I wish I could, if only for his sake. Sometimes I feel he’d like to claim a physical resemblance to his Lancer kin.” Murdoch shook his head. “Hmpf. I could be imagining that.”
Actually, he didn’t think he was. In the early days, Murdoch had been upset by the revelation that the only obvious family resemblance—Johnny’s blue eyes—had been more a source of pain to Johnny through his early life than of pleasure or pride. They marked him as a boy of mixed blood, a mestizo. He had been rejected by both Mexican and American communities—neither flesh nor fowl nor good red herring as Murdoch’s mother would have said. The only known contribution to Johnny’s appearance from the Lancer side may have even been the cause of him becoming a gunfighter. Not a happy thought. Resentment had now died, but that resemblance would always be tarnished by the past for both of them. Murdoch would welcome evidence of some other likeness, and he sensed Johnny would like that too; particularly when anyone remarked on Scott’s striking resemblance to the photograph of Murdoch’s grandfather.
Scott didn’t look a lot like Murdoch. He was tall, but not as tall as his father, and other aspects of his appearance came from his mother, Catherine, and his great grandfather, Murdoch MacKinnon. Few people in California had ever known either of them, but Scott’s colouring and eyes were generally the same as Murdoch’s and they shared similar interests. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, people accepted without question that Scott was his son, whereas more than once Murdoch had noticed acquaintances look twice when he had introduced Johnny. His younger son was too intelligent not to have seen it too. Murdoch could do nothing to make Johnny more recognisably a Lancer to the general public, but really what other people thought was secondary. What Johnny knew about himself was what mattered. After nearly two years Murdoch had accepted that Johnny could always make his face unreadable, but gradually he was learning to sense his son’s emotions and his senses told him it would mean a lot to Johnny to know he resembled someone on Murdoch’s side of the family in some tangible way–other than his eyes.
Changing position in his chair, Murdoch emerged once again from reverie, this time to find Jock staring at him in disbelief. “You’re serious. My God, you truly dinna see it? Aw, brother, I keep forgetting how young you were when he died.”
“Who? Da, you mean?” Murdoch felt embarrassed. He had always struggled to picture his father. Killed in an accident trying to rescue a steer that had got into a similar predicament to Bonnie Prince Charlie, John Lancer had been a cattleman like his sons, a man of the land. Unlike Murdoch, luck hadn’t been on his side. When they had retrieved John’s broken body from the burn, Murdoch had been barely nine years old. He remembered his father lying in his coffin. He tried not to. “Whenever I try to remember Da alive, his face is kind of blurred.”
Much clearer was the face of the grey, cold figure in his Sunday suit, pennies over the eyes. Murdoch’s aunts had insisted John’s children pay their respects before the coffin lid was nailed shut. Murdoch would never ask it of a child. Jock and Maggie had borne the experience, but he had been too young. There had been a ragged, bloodless scrape down his father’s cheek and an unpleasant smell of death. Murdoch remembered a strange thrumming in his ears. It had been hard to breathe and the darkened room had appeared to close in on him. For weeks after, he had suffered bad dreams. Murdoch knew the corpse didn’t reflect the man; he fought against the very idea. Instead, he clung desperately to an impression of vitality and strength. “I remember Da. He was a big man like us. Gentle. I remember him nursing a late-season calf by the hearth one Christmas when its mother died in the snows.”
“Aye, he had a way with beasts—and men. He was a quiet man, shy even, but he got on well with most and was rarely outwitted.” Jock savoured another sip of his whisky. “You remember he was fun-loving—not loud but teasing like? He could make Ma laugh even when she was in one of her tizzes.”
“I can see him now scooping her round the waist and pecking her on the cheek when he came in for his breakfast. He’d called her ‘bonnie lass’, and dance her round the kitchen table despite her scolding.” Murdoch chuckled as the images flickered back to him. Johnny was like his da in little ways of character. How had he not recognised that before? “He used to lift me up on his shoulders—I’d almost forgotten. We’d wait atop the old broch for you and Maggie to come home from the town when you had been down to help our grandparents. I could see clear down the glen. It was like being on top of the world.”
“And what of his face, Murdoch?”
“I can’t see his face, Jock. I haven’t been able to picture Da’s face—not his real face—for over forty years. All that comes is what he looked like dead, and that wasn’t Da. I know that. I don’t want to see that face.” Murdoch put down his whisky and got to his feet. The feeling of warm contentment was leaking out of him like the water from Jelly’s poorly tarred trough. His brother was stirring up memories and a guilt that Murdoch had long since buried. He walked to the picture window behind his desk and gazed out into the blackness of a moonless night. There had been no moon the night Johnny was born either. Funny how memories return at random. What made him think of that? “I mind how strong he was, how safe I felt when I was a bairn and how he made us all laugh. He could make a boy feel loved even after tanning his hide. I wish I were more like him. But you’re right; Johnny is—in some ways. They both have a strength combined with gentleness that’s hard to describe, and there are other similarities too. I’ve always thought Johnny’s sense of fun came from Maria, but I was wrong. Maria was vibrant and grabbed at life with both hands, but she thirsted for attention. Da had his fun in a quieter way and that’s much more like Johnny. Strange I couldn’t see it before. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, but you know it was a visual likeness that first struck me so strongly. I wish you could remember Da more clearly.”
“Much as I’d like to bring his face to mind, I don’t understand why it’s so important. Da and Johnny definitely weren’t the same build or the same colouring. Da’s eyes were green not blue. His hair was brown not black.”
Even as he said it, Murdoch felt there was something he was missing. It was like he said, there was something about Johnny’s appearance that had always teased at the edge of memory and now Jock had suggested the idea, Murdoch had a renewed feeling he wasn’t quite grasping the obvious. There was a likeness between his father and Johnny, but his brother seemed determined not to tell him. Jock was going to force him to confront his demons and remember. Well, his demons would have to wait, because it was late and he had a ranch to run. Bidding each other goodnight, Murdoch and Jock both went to their beds.
Murdoch dreamed that night, not a restless sleep but a deep, satisfying slumber. In the morning he couldn’t say what he had dreamed about, but he knew he had dreamed. Perhaps time and his present contentment had acted as a salve on his mind despite being so unsettled by his talk with Jock. He awoke the morning after Christmas unusually refreshed, put in a couple of hours work and then joined the rest of the family for breakfast.
Scott and Johnny hadn’t yet come in when he took his seat at the head of the table, but Teresa, his sister-in-law and Jock were already digging into eggs, hash, tomatoes and bacon. The housekeeper, Maria, disappeared into the kitchen to fetch him a similar plateful, and while he waited, Murdoch helped himself to a warm biscuit from the basket on the table. As he plastered it with butter, he suggested he show Elspeth and Jock some of the more isolated beauties of the ranch. “There’s a waterfall and interesting caves near our eastern boundary. They’re really something special, if you are up for the ride? It’s a lovely day and not too cold.”
Teresa lit up with enthusiasm. “Oh yes. We can make a day of it. I’ll pack a hamper and we can have lunch at the line shack.”
“We’ll throw the fishing tackle in too, just in case. The boys have a few jobs to deal with first, but they can catch us up.”
Talk of food and fishing worked like magic. Within moments Scott and Johnny could be heard coming in from the yard, squabbling over who would supervise the fencing crew and who would return the borrowed wagon to Aggie and Buck Addison, getting to enjoy their hospitality at the same time.
“You visited last week, brother. It’s my turn to sample Buck’s vintage brandy and Aggie’s Christmas cake.”
“I’m saving you from yourself, Boston.” Johnny patted his brother’s flat-as-a-board stomach. “You’re getting a little porky.”
Scott made a grab for Johnny, but he side-stepped out of reach and stood grinning at the family at large.
“Oh my God!” Murdoch looked from Johnny to Jock and back again. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
Slapping his knee, Jock laughed out loud. “I knew it. I knew you’d remember. All you needed was someone to jog your memory.”
“What?” Johnny’s grin subsided into a puzzled smile. “What have I done?”
Scott shrugged and took his seat at the table. Teresa and Elspeth looked equally confused. All eyes fixed on Murdoch and Jock, waiting expectantly for them to satisfy their curiosity.
“Well, don’t just sit there like a stunned mullet. Tell him, man. He has a right to know.” Jock sat back in his chair, clearly enjoying Murdoch’s shocked expression and the bemusement of everyone else.
Murdoch coughed. The walls of his throat felt like they were caving in. “I don’t know how to tell you this, John. After so long, you’ll think me a fool not seeing it before, but…” Shaking his head in dazed disbelief, Murdoch couldn’t continue. He just stared at his son again. A small ball of sunlight was beginning to spin deep inside him. Laughter was now threatening to bubble out of his mouth before he could find the words to explain.
Johnny bowed slightly, hands on hips, and shuffled his feet. His lopsided grin was turning to one of embarrassment. Murdoch knew he needed to make the effort to speak. Johnny’s blue eyes met his. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong—just the opposite. I should have realised the first day you arrived home. It’s…”
“It’s what? Realised what?”
“My da—your namesake—you know he was killed? I was only nine.” Murdoch gazed at Johnny in wonder. For two years almost he hadn’t recognised the likeness, and yet now it was as clear as day. Incredible. “For the first time in over forty years, I can recall my father’s face.”
Murdoch blinked and rubbed his hand across his jaw.
Jock made a peculiarly Scottish noise in his throat: get on with it, man.
The curiosity in the room was palpable.
“You have my father’s smile.”
1. This story is a sequel to my 2013 Christmas story, An Early Christmas Present, and it has links to From Highlands to Homecoming.