Near Morro Coyo, California
December 24, 1858
The fire on the hearth created strange shadows in the large, dark room. The cracks and pops of its logs as they burned were a counter-point to the slow, measured tick-tock of clock. The room was so big the fire did little to warm it. A man stood by the window looking out over the moonlit landscape. He held a glass of excellent whiskey in his large, long-fingered hand. Nearly half-an-hour had passed since he’d last taken a sip.
He was a big man; tall with broad shoulders dressed in worn corduroy trousers, a plaid flannel shirt and a moth eaten sweater of the type fishermen wear in the North Sea. His hair was light brown with gray just starting to show at the temples. The eyes that looked out unseeing at the land beyond the glass were blue.
Christmas Eve, thought Murdoch Lancer, a frown furrowing his wide brow.
Christmas had not been celebrated in any grand way when he was a boy in Inverness. The Church of Scotland discouraged it. He could remember mistletoe being brought into the house but he wasn’t sure what the reason was. The one thing he did remember was that the fire mustn’t go out or the elves would move in and cause mischief. There had been no mischief in his mother’s house. And he remembered the dark; less than eight hours of daylight in late December. It was Hogmanay that Scots celebrated; the New Year greeted with first footers, feasts and the pipes.
It had been almost twenty years since he’d heard bagpipes.
He raised the glass and took a sip of the amber liquid. He smiled slightly.
We are a dour people but we know the secret of good drink.
Beyond the window was the ranch, his ranch, his kingdom. It was quiet, almost empty tonight. Most of his employees were Mexican; good Catholics who would never dream of letting a three hour ride in the cold keep them from midnight mass. Even Paul O’Brien, a lapsed Catholic if there ever was one, would not miss Christmas midnight mass. An hour ago he’d put his little daughter Teresa on his horse and climbed up behind her.
Murdoch had argued it was too cold for Teresa to be subjected to the long ride
Paul had looked down on him with an expression that spoke of many things they rarely put into words. All he said was that it would be truly sinful for an Irishman who had been denied the practice of his religion in his homeland to not go to midnight mass in America.
It was traditional for Mexicans to have a big meal after the mass but since home was a long wagon trip away the big meal would wait until tomorrow; they’d roast a steer, a pig and maybe a dozen chickens. There would be music and dancing. The vaqueros’ children and little Teresa would play games. Tomorrow he would have to play his part as the Patron; he would dance with his housekeeper; give a prize to the child who ran the fastest; clap when the children sang to him. Tonight he was a man left alone with his memories of the things he and his closest friend spoke of so rarely.
For his vaqueros late December was a time for church, songs and stories. For Murdoch Lancer it was a time of mourning.
It shouldn’t have been. His sons were both born in late December; Scott on the nineteenth, thirteen years ago now; Johnny eight years ago on the twenty-third.
His lost sons.
“Scott is not lost,” Paul O’Brien would say. “You know where he is; you’ve always known.”
It was their one point of absolute disagreement; that Murdoch would not try again to bring his son, Catherine’s son, to Lancer. Paul, years younger than Catherine, had idolized her. She had treated him like a kid brother. The three of them had been a family. For Paul the only possible home for Catherine’s son was at Lancer.
It was rare that Murdoch let himself remember his life with Catherine. But there alone in the dark the memory would not be denied; their first Christmas on the ranch, two years after they were married. The house had been little more than a ruin. They reclaimed the great room first and lived in it like a pair of children playing house. On Christmas Eve, after everyone else had made the trek to Morro Coyo for mass, they had laid naked together on a pile of rugs before the fire laughing at each other’s stories of the past and making plans together for the future.
Without meaning to Murdoch turned his head to stare at the spot on the floor. The fire’s fractured light almost seemed to bring his memories to life. He could remember how his slender wife, so small, so delicate, so strong in all the ways that mattered, had felt in his arms. He remembered the taste of her kisses and the scent of roses in her hair.
Four years later on the twenty-first of December, two days after she gave birth to Scott, she died. He wasn’t there. He had sent her away from the ranch because there were bands of armed men in the valley; there was talk of invasion by the United States; of there being an armed uprising against the Mexican authorities like the one in Texas some years before. She’d resisted going; she wanted their child born on the ranch. But Catherine was always practical, reasonable. They thought they had another month before the baby was due. They both knew that her heart was weak, but still it had been the best course of action; she hadn’t argued. She almost made it to San Francisco before going into labor. He arrived ten days later, by then she was dead and his son had been spirited away.
Scott was four years old by the time he saw him in Boston in his grandfather’s house late in another December. He had talked about going from the very beginning. Paul had urged him to go. But something always stopped him; some crisis on the ranch. He’d told himself he was building up the ranch as a legacy for Scott; maybe he even believed it in those days. Without Catherine his life became a cowboy’s life lived mostly on the range. Finally he had been invited to go with a delegation concerning California joining the Union. That had gotten him as far as Washington D.C. The trip from there to Boston was short compared to journey from California.
Had he really been naive enough to believe he could just show up and Harlan Garrett would simply hand over his son? Garrett was immovable. He would not give Scott up; he would fight Murdoch everyway he possibly could and he would win.
Yes, Garrett would have won but he hadn’t fought. He had barely tried at all. He told himself it was because he understood Garrett’s argument that the life he could provide Scott was so much safer and full of better opportunities than anything Murdoch could have provided for him. He told himself he left the boy there because he didn’t want to see a child put through the court battle over custody. A battle he would lose because Garrett did business with or had gone to school with anyone who would have heard the case. But he knew it was the few minutes that he had with his son that defeated him. That serious little boy with hair the color sunshine, with eyes the blue-gray of slate, was so like his mother it took Murdoch’s breath away.
His Catherine had chosen to have a child even though she’d been told by the doctors her heart was not strong enough. She’d done so for him. Even after all these years he didn’t know if it was himself or her that he couldn’t forgive for her death.
Could he really wrench her child away from all the boy had ever known to live among strangers? Until the moment he saw him Scott had been an idea in his head. He had a son. Someday when the time was right he was going to claim him. But once he saw him Scott became real, a little boy with needs that would have to be met.
Standing there in the comfortable home he had taken Catherine away from he knew he couldn’t do it, that he wasn’t up to taking the boy away. It wasn’t that he didn’t want the boy. He wanted him; he just didn’t know how to be his father.
He left Scott with his grandfather and sailed for California a second time. When the ship stopped in Matamoros he had had no other intention than to find cheap liquor to drown himself in. Then he met Maria and discovered that a man could lose himself in a woman just as much, perhaps more, than in drink or in work.
He wondered now if he had fallen so completely under Maria’s spell because she was irresistible or because she was the antithesis of Catherine. Catherine had been almost ethereal at times, so pale, so deliberate in all she did and so often still. Maria had been vital; a rich laugh, feet that danced across the ground; beautiful was too weak a word for Maria.
He’d known her for two weeks when his boat sailed for Panama. He had begged her to come with him in broken Spanish. Maria heard the word California and packed a valise full of silk dresses. The trip across the isthmus should have taught him everything he needed to know about her. She expected him to lead her mule and carry her where they were expected to walk. She insisted that he pay for them to have a private canoe for the trip down the Chagres River to the Pacific. He should have told her how lucky she was they were cutting across the isthmus; it saved them months of travel by ship and the harsh, unpredictable seas of the Straits of Magellan. But he was besotted with her. All thoughts of reasoning with her fled when she looked up at him through her long, thick, dark lashes and played with the ribbons of her bodice.
Paul, with the help of the seasoned vaqueros, had run the ranch while he was gone. He was expecting Murdoch to bring back Catherine’s little boy. Instead Murdoch brought Maria and two trunks of new clothes bought in San Francisco. Paul and Maria hated each other on sight. Paul who had lived in the main house with him since Catherine’s death moved to an outside room. He never spoke against Maria and never spent time in her company. That suited Maria well; Paul O’Brien was just a vaquero; she was the Patron’s lady.
Now Murdoch realized Maria hated the ranch from the first. But by then she was pregnant and they were married by the priest in Morro Coyo. It had cost him a fortune but Maria made the hacienda a comfortable place to live. Her tasted suited the house well and he had changed nothing over the years. He knew she was discontent in those early months but he believed she would be happy when the baby came.
Murdoch swirled the amber liquid in the glass and took another sip. He walked away from the window, took up the poker and stabbed of the burning logs. One fell forward sending out a spray of sparks. He sank into his chair.
When the baby came; his Johnny was born screaming bloody murder. A beet red face under a thatch of black hair; tiny hands balled into fists; he was the most beautiful sight Murdoch had ever seen. He had been so happy when they put his son into his arms he thought his heart would burst. Even so in the back of his mind like the sad refrain of an old song was the thought that he had never held Scott as a baby; had never felt his firstborn’s fingers curl around his thumb; had never rocked him to sleep.
It was then a plan started to form in his mind. When Johnny was a little older, maybe when the railroad in Panama was finished they would go east and get Scott. He would fight Harlan Garrett in every court in the country. He was a rich man now; he had a good life, a family, to offer Scott. He would win. He would raise his sons together at Lancer where they belonged. He knew now how to be their father.
Johnny was a happy baby. Even Paul O’Brien couldn’t resist him. Maria seemed happy in her role as mistress of Lancer. Murdoch worked hard and grew richer; every spare moment he spent with Johnny watching him grow from infant to toddler to confident two-year-old.
Murdoch held on to his plan for two years, even going so far as sending small presents to Scott for his birthday and Christmas. In return he got formally worded thank you notes, written by an adult hand but signed by a childish one.
Perhaps he had been looking too far ahead and had missed what was going on in front of him. Maria did not like all the talk of another son by another wife. She grew angry, more difficult for the women who worked in the house to deal with. She insisted that he take her to Sacramento and San Francisco. He said he couldn’t spare the time away from the ranch because they would be away for months when they went east. She demanded an escort and went on her own. When she came back he thought she was happy again, that she would be content with life on the ranch for a while. And then one night he came home after spending a week on the range. She was gone; his Johnny was gone. He searched for months and could find no trace of them.
He had loved Maria, perhaps not deeply enough, but he’d loved her. Now he hated her. She’d taken his boy, and he feared that she had taken Johnny more to spite him than anything else. Perhaps that wasn’t fair; perhaps she did love their son deeply and couldn’t imagine life with out him. He hoped that was the case. Maria had taken both his sons. Without Johnny what did he have to offer Scott but life with a father who had failed again?
When he came back to the ranch he threw himself into the work. He barely noticed when Paul brought a wife home, when their baby girl was born, or when one day Paul’s wife too just ran away. For five years he worked, he searched for Johnny or paid others to do so; he tried to forget Scott existed. He knew the children of the vaqueros were afraid of him. He was glad; the sounds of their voices were painful to his ears.
Then one day during the summer he sat on the veranda so tired and hot he felt like he would never move again. His elbows on his knees, his huge hands hanging between them, his head low; he stared at the dusty flagstones. As he stared a pair of little feet clad in soft leather shoes appeared. He let his eyes travel up passed the knobby knees, the homespun dress to a round face with sparkling dark, hazel eyes and a wide mouth, framed by a cloud of dark wavy hair. In her small hands she held a glass; she offered it to him saying, “Patron, you should drink some lemonade. It is the best thing to drink on a hot day.”
He sat up a little straighter and took the glass from her. “Thank you, Teresa.”
She smiled broadly at him without a trace of fear. “You’re welcome,” she called back over her shoulder as she danced away.
Watching her go he caught sight of Paul standing near by. His old friend shrugged and said, “She likes you. I don’t know why; you’d think my child would have better sense than to take to a crusty old Scot. But she likes you so you may as well get use to it and come back to the land of the living.”
Murdoch stood and walked to his desk. He picked up the bottle of whiskey and pulled the cork. It had come from across the world, from his homeland, a place he sometimes thought he had imagined. He started to pour then paused with the bottle tipped. He sat it upright and recorked it.
This Christmas he wouldn’t have a dry mouth and heavy lidded eyes. This Christmas he would remember to speak kindly to the children of the ranch; to step out lively when he danced with his housekeeper. This Christmas he would share in the delight of little Teresa as she torn the paper from her presents. This year he would sing old carols with his friend as they had all those years ago when they first came to the valley looking to build a life; Paul, Catherine and him.
He walked back to the window, staring out towards the ridge of hills and the road to town. Soon he would see the faint light of torches as the wagons carrying his people wound their way home through the dark night.
Some where out there was his Johnny, eight years old now. If he could remember how to pray he would beg God to watch out for his lost son; to keep him safe until he found him.
He lifted his eyes and stared at the eastern horizon. Across the wide continent Scott was asleep in a feather bed. Murdoch knew his elder son was safe and warm; when the morning came he would open presents and spend the day celebrating with his mother’s family. But to Murdoch, Scott was no less lost than Johnny.
Somewhere along the Texas-Mexico border
December 24, 1858
In the Mexican neighborhoods of the Texan border town Posada began on December 16th as it had for generations. The children processed through the streets like gaggles of happy geese following those who carried the statues of St. Joseph and the Virgin riding on a burro. Once the traditional scene of Joseph asking for lodging for Mary, being refused and then suddenly welcomed in as the homeowner recognized the Virgin was played out the children entered a different house each night for a party.
The sharp-eyed senoras noticed the strange boy among their own children the first night. They were made uneasy by the deep blue of his eyes beneath the fringe of black hair. But it was Posada, a time for children; none was hard-hearted enough to deny the boy entrance to her home. Besides he was pleasant little boy; he sang the pilgrims’ song in a sweet voice. When offered a treat he smiled shyly; looking up through his dark lashes, and saying gracias softly.
The boy called himself Johnny, not Juan or Juanito but the Anglo Johnny. He spoke Spanish as well as any of the children but no one could recognize his accent.
By the second night the senoras all knew where he belonged. He was the son of the new woman in the house at the edge of their neighborhood. He didn’t get those blue eyes from her. Her eyes were dark as chocolate and her black hair rippled down her back to her waist; a beautiful, proud woman whose brightly colored skirts whispered of silk. She spoke in the accents of the coast; a woman who did not scrub clothes or work in the fields.
Now it was Holy Night, Christmas Eve. The last night of Posada; the children had gathered in the courtyard of Don Paulo’s house. There was a clay piñata hanging from the limb of a lemon tree. Once they had all knelt around the nativity scene and sung the baby Jesus to sleep with El Rorro, they would take turns being blindfolded and trying to break the piñata open with a stick. This was the gayest party of them all.
Johnny stayed close to the other children. He knew several of the boys well enough to start talking to them when the senoras looked at him. He wanted a whack at the piñata but felt it wouldn’t be smart to take a turn. He’d been watching and he was almost sure that he could hit it; he had deadly aim with a slingshot even with his eyes closed. He’d like to be the one who hit the star-shaped clay pot in exactly the spot that would split it open and spill the sweet treats to the ground. Everyone would cheer when that happened; it would be good to be cheered
Sipping his cup of frothy chocolate he watched as a little boy of no more than four was blindfolded and handed the stick. The child swung the stick wildly, the other children dancing out of the way, laughing loudly. .
The little fellow didn’t have a prayer of hitting the piñata, he was just too short.
Johnny scratched his head wondering if he was strong enough and tall enough to pick the little boy up so that he could at least get one good whack at the spinning clay pot. As he was considering what to do he noticed that a tall boy several years older than himself, who had been smiling and chatting with the pretty girls gathered around the table, turned to see what was making everyone laugh so hard.
The big boy walked over to the little fellow. Having spun himself around with the power of his swings he was stumbling drunkenly beneath the piñata.
“Little brother, why didn’t you tell me you wanted a chance?” he asked hoisting the child to his shoulders.
“You too busy being silly with girls,” complained the little boy, a wide smile now showing on his blindfolded face.
The older boy flashed a smile at the watching girls as he said, “Never too busy for you, little brother. Don’t hit me in the head when you swing. Now!”
It wasn’t fair of course. The big boy could see and move the little boy exactly in the right spot to deliver the blow. But no one minded when the clay cracked and the shower of treats fell to the hard packed earth of the courtyard. The children all cried “Hooray!” and scrambled for the treats.
Johnny made no effort to join the mad scramble of children on the ground. He was more interested in the pair of brothers.
The little boy pulled the blindfold up so he could see out of one eye. His smile was so wide it looked as if his face would crack. He did not attempt to get off of his brother’s shoulders to claim his prizes. Success at what had looked an impossible task was the only prize the little boy wanted.
The older boy held his brother’s ankles loosely; grinning himself.
They were ordinary boys dressed in rough cotton tunics and trousers. His mother would call them peasants. Johnny thought they were the luckiest boys in the courtyard. They had each other.
If Johnny could have one wish it would be to have a big brother; someone he could trust; someone who would be his friend even if he had blue eyes and a terrible habit of getting into trouble. He had a notion that the little boy who tried to swing blindfolded at the piñata way over his head had a habit of getting into trouble too. But that hadn’t stopped his big brother from helping him. That was a blessed little boy. Now it was the big brother watching out for the little one but some day Johnny just knew the little brother would be watching out for the big one because that what he would do if he had a big brother. They would never be lonely and afraid because they had each other.
Johnny finished his chocolate and carefully set the mug on the table. He glanced back at the children who were starting to sing. The little boy was still on his brother’s shoulders. Then Johnny slipped through the small crowd of adults at the door and into the street.
The streets were nearly empty now but soon the church bells would ring. Then the families would gather together to make their way to Misa de Gallo, the Mass of the Rooster. Johnny knew the legend that said the rooster had crowed at midnight only once in history, on the night Jesus was born in Bethlehem so many centuries ago. That was why the mass at nearly midnight on Christmas Eve was called the Mass of the Rooster. Johnny knew many, many such stories; he had learned them in the convent school at home.
Frowning Johnny stopped walking. Mama would not like him thinking of the mountain town far to the south in Mexico as home. She said now that it was a bad place with evil people; that they had been lucky to get away. But Johnny didn’t remember it as an evil place. With a sad sigh Johnny slumped against the wall of the house he now shared with his mother and let himself sink into his memories.
He knew that Mama and he had lived other places before they arrived at the mountain town. But that was the place he remembered; the town, their little house, the old woman who cooked and cleaned for them and Don Enrique who brought him small presents and always made Mama laugh. For a long time Mama had been so happy in the mountain town. She would wear her red dress that sounded like the breeze in the trees when she walked. When Don Enrique came Mama would take the guitar from its place on the wall. Mama sang such beautiful songs some times Johnny felt like laughing and some times he felt like crying.
Johnny remembered that before they knew Don Enrique, before they climbed the long road to the town Mama had been sad. Now and then she was more than sad she was angry. But that was before their warm house and the old woman to care for them. It was before he had gone to school.
The school was attached to the convent; the nuns were the teachers. At first he had hated the school. The other children would laugh or pretend to shudder with fear because he had blue eyes. Not every one of the other children had eyes as dark a brown as his mother’s but no one had eyes as blue as the sky. Johnny knew that he was asking for trouble when he walked up to bigger boys who were pointing at him, saying he must be the devil’s son because of his eyes, and knocked their hands down. He did it anyway.
One day after such a fight he climbed the wall that surrounded the nuns’ garden. He knew he shouldn’t be there but he was hurt. He needed a place to cry where no one would see him. There was a tall shrub that had huge red flowers with yellow centers. He rolled himself into a tight ball under it and cried.
He did not hear the tap of the old woman’s cane as she came slowly down the path. He saw the black hem of her habit when she stopped beside him. He drew himself more tightly together as if he could disappear.
“Nino, what it is?”
Her Spanish sounded so odd that Johnny looked up in spite of himself.
The old woman gasped and cried out in English, “What beautiful blue eyes. I’ve not seen such beautiful blue eyes since I left home.”
For a moment the boy studied her. She was a small, bent woman, the black habit made her look like a big black bird. Her face was pale and wrinkled within the circle of her wimple and her eyes were blue. Not as bright a blue as his own but definitely blue.
“My eyes are beautiful?” he asked in slow but clear English.
That the child had understood her startled the old woman. Then she smiled. “Yes, child, I think they are very beautiful.”
“You don’t think they mean I’m the devil’s son?”
“No, child. My own father had eyes as blue as yours. And he was as good a man as God ever made.”
Slowly Johnny stood up and dusted himself off. He glanced at the wall and judged which tree would give him a place to climb up so he could go over before the old woman called for help.
“You speak English very well,” she said looking at him carefully. Except for those startlingly blue eyes he looked like any small boy of the town. “Do you come from some place where the people speak English?”
His attention went back to her. He knew she would not be strong enough to hold him so it wouldn’t hurt to stay for another minute. He shrugged in answer to her question.
His mother didn’t like for him to speak English anymore. The last place they lived everyone spoke it and then she had been proud of him for knowing all the words. But now, in the mountains of Mexico, Mama only wanted him to speak Spanish, she even wanted him to be Juanito instead of Johnny. He didn’t know why. Although he didn’t like to make his mother sad or angry by disobeying her he did not want to change his name. .
“My name is Sister Celestine. May I know your name?”
Johnny considered for a moment. Then stood a little taller and said, “Johnny.”
“Ah, for St. John, a good strong name.”
She said John, the English name for the saint. He cocked his head to one side and said, “Why do you speak English so good? You come from some place they speak it?”
“Yes,” she nodded her head and the folds of her wimple fluttered in the light breeze. “I come from some place far, far away across the great sea; a beautiful place called Ireland. Many people there speak English. But I’ve been gone from there such a long, long time I remember little about Ireland except that it was very green.”
Sister Celestine had been a teacher most of her life, much of it spent in the mountain convent. She missed being in the classroom now that she was old and slow. Almost stumbling across the little boy on her afternoon walk in the garden felt like a gift. Although she knew her fellow sisters would expect her to sternly forbid the boy to ever come into their garden again she chose not to do so. After all she was old and being a foreigner she was expected to do odd things.
She raised her hand and gestured towards his face. “How did you hurt yourself?”
Johnny took a step back, closer to the wall and his escape, his eyes still studying her. Something in her voice made him feel good; it was more than just that she spoke English it was the way that she spoke it. He didn’t answer the question. Fighting was against the rules of the school. He knew the other nuns would beat him for fighting.
“I don’t suppose it was a fist that did such damage to your cheek,” she said looking away from him and at the red flowers on the shrub. “When a boy is accused of being the devil’s son it only seems reasonable he might feel the need to confront his accuser.”
Johnny frowned. What sort of nun was this? “You think fighting’s okay?”
“Well, I believe there are things worth fighting for. But no in general I’d have to say fighting is not good. It is better to teach and to learn; to talk about problems and to pray.”
She looked back at him, noting the drying tracks of tears on his cheeks. “Are you hurt anywhere else, Johnny?”
He rubbed his hand quickly over his eyes. “Not much. Are you mad I’m in your garden?”
“It is such a beautiful garden it is a bit selfish of us sisters to keep it all to ourselves. You know when our Lord had problems he wanted to work out he spent time in a garden. I think as long as you are quiet and do no damage there is no reason you can’t come into the garden. But maybe it ought to be our little secret.” She winked.
Johnny laughed. He came a little closer to her.
“Do you know about this plant?” she asked him, turning one of the large red flowers to him.
He shook his dark head. “I’ve seen them in the church at Christmas. It will be Christmas soon won’t it? I’ll be six then.”
“No, just before. Mama says my birthday is St. John’s day.”
“Oh, the 23rd is it? There are many St. Johns. December 23rd is the feast of St. John Kanty, a good birthday.”
Johnny smiled. It was a gap-tooth smile that was so genuine and happy the old woman felt a sudden urge to pull him into her arms and hug him. She didn’t of course. It was enough to simply be talking to this charming child. She wondered how in the world he had ended up in the small mountain town with his blue eyes and his command of English. He was, she thought suddenly, as strange an anomaly as she had been all those years ago with her pale freckled face.
“What is it?” he asked taking hold of one of the flowers to look more closely at it.
“It is called Noche Buena in Spanish. The Americans call it a poinsettia.”
“What’s it got to do with Christmas?”
His curiosity delighted her. “Long ago here in Mexico there was little girl who was terribly sad that she didn’t have gift for the Christ child on his birthday. She was very, very poor. An angel came to her and told her to gather up the weeds along the road and place them in front of the altar. On Christmas Eve the weeds sprouted these beautiful flowers the shape of the Star of Bethlehem and the color of our dear Lord’s blood which was shed for us on the cross.”
Johnny looked up at her with suspicion in his eyes. “Is that a true story?”
“Well,” she said carefully, “it is true that you should listen to angels should one come along and give you advice. And it is true that you should offer up to God what ever you have because God can create a miracle even out of weeds.”
Johnny grinned again, satisfied with her answer. He moved toward the low sturdy limb of a live oak. Climbing up he took hold of the top of the wall then he looked back at her.
“Are you sure I’m not the Devil’s son?” he asked in a voice so small and frightened it torn at her heart.
“Yes, Johnny, I am sure you are not the Devil’s son,” she said firmly. She waited then watching the child, wondering if children’s taunts could have sown such painful doubt in so young a boy.
For a long moment Johnny stayed very still, his foot on a branch of the tree and his hand on the top of the wall; he looked like a bird poised for flight. Sister Celestine remained quiet, her hands tucked inside the wide sleeves of her habit.
Finally the boy said, “Mama says my father is a devil.”
The old woman breathed in and out slowly. She said, “Was your mother very angry when she said your father was a devil?”
Johnny nodded; his intense eyes on her face.
“Sometimes when we are very angry we say things that we know aren’t true. We say things that are meaner and more frightening than we know we should because we are so angry. Your mother knows that your father is not a devil. Perhaps he is not a good man, sadly some men aren’t, or perhaps it is just that she is very angry with him. Someday perhaps you can ask her to tell you about him. The only thing I can tell you that I know is completely true is that your father is not a devil and that you are a good, strong boy; like all children you are a child of a loving God.”
It was the beginning of what Johnny thought of as the happy time. For more than a year he and his mother lived in the house. He made friends. He never learned to like being in the classroom but he did learn a lot. At least once a week, he would vault over the wall of the convent garden and spend some time with Sister Celestine. She taught him to read and write in English; when he asked her why she responded “Why not?” with a twinkle in her faded blue eyes.
Then one day Johnny came home to find his mother had not gotten out of bed. It was the same the next day. Her beautiful hair grew greasy and her body smelled like sour milk. She screamed at the old woman who took care of them. When Don Enrique came she threw the guitar at him; it broke with a harsh jangling of strings. Some times she cried and some times she yelled. When Johnny tried to get her to eat a plate of stew she threw it at him, screaming he was the Devil’s son. A moment later she called to him crying that she loved him more than anything else in the world. It went on for days.
Johnny told Sister Celestine what was happening. The old nun hobbled from the convent to the little house. She had come to help, to pray, to simply listen to his poor mother’s troubles.
“Maria, my child,” she’d said gently in her oddly accented Spanish, “tell me what hurts you so.”
But Maria would have none of it. She turned on the old woman. She called her a dried up old crone, a witch who had come to steal her child. As Johnny watched in horror Maria threw anything to hand at the old woman.
It was the last time he saw Sister Celestine. He helped her back to the convent gate. He had no words to tell her how sorry he was. All he could do was hold her arm and offer her his strength for she was very shaken.
At the gate the other nuns saw her; they ran to her. The younger nuns gathered around the old one as if they were protecting her from Johnny. Under their breaths they muttered about his mother and her wicked ways. Johnny stood outside the gate determined not to bow his head, determined not to cry.
Sister Celestine shook off her would be protectors. She turned back to Johnny and said, “Never forget, Johnny, you are a good, strong boy; a child of a loving God.”
That night his mother pulled him out of bed. She had their belongings tied up in two silk shawls. She took him by the hand and they fled down the long steep road into the dark night.
Now Johnny wasn’t sure how many villages and towns they had stopped in. At first Mama had run as if someone was chasing them. Slowly she started to seem more like herself. One day she started to sing again and the next she was laughing. She found work in a small cantina where they could eat for free and sleep in a loft. Suddenly or so it seemed to Johnny she was beautiful again, her dark eyes were lively and her hair glowed and rippled down her back like a fall of black water.
In the cantina she met a red haired Anglo named Sam. When he left that little town Sam took Johnny and Maria with him. He brought them to this place just across the Rio Grande, a town as full of Anglos as it was of Mexicans.
Johnny didn’t like Sam as well as he’d liked Don Enrique. He was sure Sam didn’t like him. He tried never to be in the house when Sam came. Sam came often but he didn’t live with them; Johnny figured somewhere in the big town Sam had another house probably with a wife and maybe some children. He was eight years old now; he was starting to understand that he and his mother did not live as other people did. He was happy to have a house again.
The sound of children singing brought him out of his thoughts. He pushed away from the wall and straightened his shoulders. On the door step to the house he paused. He listened carefully.
Yesterday, his birthday, Mama had been quiet. That worried him. But it cheered him that late in the day she had put her shawl around her head and taken him to the church. There had been many people in the church waiting to make their confessions. Mama had joined that line. Johnny knew that in order to take the sacraments at the Mass of the Rooster a person had to have made confession. He hoped that meant Mama was planning on them going to the mass.
This morning Sam had come in and so Johnny had left and stayed gone for most of the day. Now he hoped Sam would have gone back to his own house so that he could be with Mama for Christmas.
Inside the house he could hear his mother singing. He breathed a sigh of relief and went in.
“There you are, my darling,” she said with her lovely smile. “Did you break the piñata?”
“Not tonight. But I got plenty of treats,” he answered. He moved closer to get a good look at her in the light of the lantern burning on the table. She was wearing a dress of dark blue silk trimmed in black lace and her black lace mantilla laid across the back of a chair.
“Hurry, Juanito, wash your face. I hear the bells.”
They joined the procession of families walking to the church. He took a tighter hold on his beautiful mother’s arm and raised his head proudly.
When the priest blessed him with the sign of the cross Johnny thought of Sister Celestine.
The service was long and he grew bored but he was glad to be there. Afterwards when they filed out he heard people calling out greetings. No one had a greeting for him or his mother; they were still strangers here. The families were hurrying off to their huge traditional meals that would go on for hours into the night. The street emptied quickly. Johnny stood beside his mother thinking that in their little house there was no big meal waiting.
“Come,” said Maria as she shook the mantilla from her head and arranged it as a shawl around her shoulders.
“Where are we going?” he asked as he took the hand she offered him.
“Oh, for a walk just to see what we can find.”
It was moments like that when she was so happy, so bright starlight seemed to glow in her dark eyes, that Johnny forgave his mother every unhappy, frightening moment in their lives.
They walked hand in hand through the quiet streets of the Mexican neighborhood until they came to another part of town. There was a board walk lined with cantinas. There was music playing, a bit out of tune but cheerful. Men tipped their hats at Maria and she nodded graciously. Johnny couldn’t imagine where they were going but he was so happy to be with his mother.
Finally they went into a small store front that had several tables covered with red checked gingham. All but one the tables had people sitting at them; eating. “Good evening, senora,” said a fat man with a big mustache and a white apron.
“Good evening,” said Maria in English, “Senor Haupt. Our table is ready?”
“Yes, senora, everything is just as Mr. Baines asked.”
“Sam is so kind,” said Maria in a voice that sounded a little like a purring cat.
Johnny listened to this exchange with fascination. The man Haupt did not seem very welcoming but the table he led them to was full of food; Johnny saw a steak, potatoes, and some kind of cake. Best of all, although Sam must have paid for the meal, he was no where in sight.
Haupt pulled the chair out for Maria. She sat down gracefully. Johnny looked around the room and realized that every eye in the place was on his mother. She was paying attention to no one but him.
“Feliz Navidad, mi angel.
Feliz Navidad, mama.”
Later once they’d eaten their fill they walked again along the boardwalk. It was quieter now. A few drunken cowboys stumbled along, some still trying to tip their hats. Maria was quieter too and Johnny was anxious to get her home.
Behind them were two men walking and talking. Something in their voices drew Johnny’s attention. They were speaking in English but their accents weren’t like Sam’s or other Americans Johnny had heard speak. One of them sounded a little like Sister Celestine but it was the other one whose voice touched something in Johnny’s chest, making it so tight he could barely breathe.
Maria stopped walking. It seemed to Johnny trying to look closely at her in the dark that every feeling she had ever had was showing in her face at once. Then her face cleared. She turned around and spoke to the men who were now almost on beside them.
“Are you a Scot?” she asked in heavily accented English.
The man, who was short and bow legged, stopped and stared at her for a second. “Aye, I am. From Inverness.”
“I’m from Deery meself,” said his companion brightly.
Maria didn’t spare him a glance. “I once knew a man from Inverness,” she said softly to the first man. She inclined her head and said, “Happy Christmas.” Then taking Johnny by the hand she walked on towards their part of town.
Behind them the Irishman called “And to yourself, dear lady.”
“And to your lad,” added a low voice.
Johnny looked back but the darkness had swallowed up the men. His chest had eased and he felt oddly as if he had been blessed again.
December 25, 1858
Tall, narrow houses of russet brick lined the steep cobblestone street. Their windows framed by black shutters. Short flights of steps led to heavy wooden doors with brass knockers. It was an old street where families lived for generations.
“Merry Christmas, Grandfather,” said Scott Lancer as he entered the walnut wainscoted dining room of a house on Beacon Hill. In the center of the snow white tablecloth was an arrangement of cedar and holly in a silver bowl that family legend claimed was made by Paul Revere. Scott took a deep breath of the scented air
His grandfather was standing at the window looking out over the street, his hands clasped behind his back. Harlan Garrett turned at the sound of the boy’s voice. “And to you, Scotty. You looked very well in your new finery. Did you bring your jacket down with you?”
Scott was wearing clothes he’d gotten for his birthday a few days before; red plaid trousers tapered to his shinny black shoes; a snow white shirt with full sleeves and tight cuffs worn under a shawl collar vest of figured blue silk.
“Yes, sir,” said Scott nodding; one long finger slid between the collar and his neck. “Thank you, sir. I don’t think much of this collar. It is too stiff and tight. And I can’t get the cravat to stay tied.”
“I’ve no sympathy for you, my boy. When I first came to Boston the fashion was to wear your collar so high it touched your ears. A man couldn’t breath or turn his head,” said Garrett who was as conservative in his dress as he was with his money. He wore a suit of black trousers and frock coat over a white shirt and woolen black vest. His own cravat folded neatly and held in place by an onyx stickpin. “It should teach us not to be slaves to fashions. Come here, I’ll tie that neckerchief for you. I suppose you want a wide bow like Daniel wears.”
Scott brushed a fall of pale hair off his forehead and raised his chin. “Sir, not all fashions are bad. After all it is quite fashionable to have a Christmas tree. They are very festive.”
“Are you on again about having a tree?” asked the old man carefully tugging at the loop of black silk. “Do you realize that when I was a boy no one in New England celebrated Christmas?”
“Not celebrate Christmas?” said Scott frowning. He might be too old to believe in Father Christmas but he was not willing to give up the rest of the festivities. It was worth waiting a whole year for the flaming plum pudding alone and this year he had hopes of getting a taste from the wassail bowl. “Why ever not, sir?”
“Because we were the descendants of good Puritans,” declared Garrett with a final, firm tug on his grandson’s cravat. “Why if my old Dad knew I was taking a day off work and giving my servants the day off simply because it was the 25th of December he’d be spinning in his grave.”
“But, sir,” said the boy his frown growing deeper; his long fingers straying again to the space between his collar and his neck. “The Puritans were Christians.”
“Indeed, but Christmas is pagan. Goes back to some festival the ancient Romans celebrated. And that Christmas tree you are going on about is a pagan custom. So I ask you, sir, why should a thrifty Yankee sacrifice a perfectly good tree because the British have a German princess on their throne with a German husband and fools here want to follow the fashions of the British court? You’d think we’d never fought for our independence.”
Scott crossed the room to the table and eyed the stack of neatly wrapped packages beside his plate; two of them looked to be the right size. “Are you sure about the pagans, sir?” he asked with a trace of suspicion. His grandfather had a habit of making outrageous statements. It was a sort of game they played so that Scott would learn not to take everything said to him at face value.
“I am,” answered the old man with an open smile that told his grandson he was pleased with him. “And when you get to Harvard you will learn even more shocking facts.”
The boy flashed a white-toothed grin. Harvard was his dream. He couldn’t get there fast enough. “Well, they are, the Christmas trees I mean, they are very pretty.”
“So they are,” conceded Garrett returning to the window to look out on the narrow street covered in new layer of fine dry snow. “Lucky for you your cousin Rosemary will have one bigger and brighter than any other one in town thanks to that indulgence husband of hers.”
Scott’s grin widened. All of his Lowell cousins would be at Cousin Rosemary’s big new house for the whole day. They would have a huge meal, play games, and stand around the pianoforte singing carols while Constance played. Then after they had still more to eat each of them would get at least one present from under the huge tree sparkling with glass ornaments and candles. Scott could think of nothing more wonderful. He knew his grandfather’s idea of a prefect day away from his office was reading in his study. Yet they had never missed a loud and festive Christmas with the Lowells, his long dead grandmother’s family. Scott had recently realized it was for his enjoyment that his grandfather was willing to go.
“I am glad to be able to share the beautiful tree at Cousin Rosemary’s,” said Scott slowly. “However it is a bit like taking Charlie for a piggy-back ride. It is good fun but Charlie is still Daniel’s little brother, not mine.”
“Ah, an even older grievance; and not one I can do anything about,” said the old man softly, almost to himself. Then he turned around to look at the boy. “A well marshaled argument-we may have to train you up as a lawyer –but I remain unmoved. No tree.”
Scott sighed dramatically, earning a look something between amusement and annoyance from his grandfather. He crossed the room to the fireplace, took up the poker and stirred the lumps of coal around; his efforts were rewarded by a cheering spurt of flame.
“Ah, good morning, Mrs. Hudson,” said Garrett as the door to the kitchen stairs opened and his housekeeper dressed in her best black silk stepped into the room.
The gray haired woman nodded. “Good morning, sir, Happy Christmas. Happy Christmas, Master Scott.” She said giving Scott a wide, fond smile. Scott returned the greeting.
“Everyone ready?” asked Garrett with a touch of impatience.
“Well, send them in.”
Mrs. Hudson opened the door and the household staff trooped in. There was Beale, a woman too old and plain to be parlor maid in a more fashionable household but whose quiet efficiency suited Harlan Garrett well. Beside her stood the maid-of-all-works, Dorcus, who was a bit dim but willing. The stout white-aproned cook came next, a fixture in the kitchen for twenty years Scott and Garrett so rarely saw her they forgot what she looked like between times. Last of all, the scullery maid whose name Garrett did not know(scullery maids came and went quite regularly as they were housemaids in training and it was Mrs. Hudson’s job to place them somewhere when they became too skilled for the scullery) and the boot boy Tom.
“Good morning, everyone, Merry Christmas,” said Garrett with a formal bow.
“Good morning, sir. Merry Christmas, sir,” they all chorused back.
Scott and the rest of those present bowed their heads. Garrett intoned solemnly, “On this glorious day when we remember the birth of your beloved son make us truly mindful, O Lord, of the many blessings you shower upon us. Amen.”
Nodding at the small pile of mole skin bags on the table Garrett said, “Alright, Scotty, you do the honors.”
Scott ran his finger one more time around the inside of his collar then picked up the small bags. He approached Beale who dropped a curtsy. Slowly, in an unusually low voice, Scott wished her a happy Christmas and handed her one of the small bags.
Mrs. Hudson, who was called Mrs. only because it was the custom to give housekeepers the title, stood next to Garrett. When Garrett’s wife was the daughter of the house she had been a scullery maid. Softly she said, “He is so like Miss Catherine, sir.”
“Yes, thank heavens,” said Garrett with a proud smile as he watched his grandson speak to each of the staff. His thoughts drifted back in time.
Catherine was the only one of his five children to survive to adulthood. Although her heart had been damaged by rheumatic fever when she was a teenager; the same fever that killed her sisters, Garrett had hoped by providing her the best care available she would live a long if quiet life. He was stunned when she announced she was marrying a penniless Scotsman and going with him to California. He could not fault his daughter for falling in love with a less than appropriate man; her mother had done the same years before. But he hated Murdoch Lancer for not being willing to pursue a difference sort of success in Boston than his dream of land in the mythical California.
Garrett knew when her ship disappeared into the mists of Boston harbor he would never see his child again. Had they settle in San Francisco where the ships of Boston traders like himself docked regularly he might have hoped to stay in contact with Catherine. But they settle inland in some valley one of the three letters Garrett had from her in five years described as the most beautiful place on earth.
When he heard through contacts in government rumors of war with Mexico over Texas and California Garrett commissioned the first mate of a ship he owned an interest in to find his daughter and if alive bring her home even if he had to kidnap her. He heard nothing for well over a year. Then early in the fall the mate, a man named Mason, arrived at his office and told him what he already knew in his heart. Catherine was dead.
“There is someone you should meet, sir,” said Mason crossing the room to open the door.
Garrett stood very still, trying to hold his temper. He did not want to meet anyone. He wanted to be alone so he could begin to mourn his daughter more properly. As he watched a young woman wrapped in a traveling cloak of dark green entered the room. She looked at him with large, frightened dark eyes. In her arms was a sleeping child who couldn’t have been more than a year old.
“Mr. Garrett,” said Mason with a trace of excitement or perhaps nervousness. “This is Eileen Vale. Mrs. Vale lost her husband and baby to a fever last year in California.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss, ma’am,” said Garrett woodenly. He’d have thought Mason would have better sense than to ask him for a favor for some stranger at this moment.
Mason took the woman gently by the arm and led her further into the room. “She was willing to come back to Boston on the Providence as your grandson’s wet nurse.”
For a moment Garrett felt as if the world had stopped revolving. He blinked several times as if he expected the young woman and the child in her arms to disappear. Finally he cleared his throat and repeated, “My grandson?”
“Yes, sir, by the grace of God I came across your daughter in a small town several days ride from San Francisco. She had been on her way there when her time came. She was very weak but very proud of her son. Sadly she died quietly the next morning while he lay beside her.” Mason paused, frowning. “I didn’t know what to do. The people with your daughter were little help. I knew I had to find nourishment for the child. And I knew you would want your daughter properly buried. Then another miracle occurred, I came across Mrs. Vale while making arrangements. I took her and the child immediately back to San Francisco and caught the Providence just as she was about to sail.”
Throughout Mason’s story Garrett continued to stare at the child asleep on the woman’s shoulder. He could see little but a head of blond hair. Slowly he asked because he still couldn’t believe the story; still feared that it was some sort of fraud, “My Catherine had a child?”
“Would you like to hold him, sir?” asked the woman speaking for the first time.
“Yes,” said Garrett softly, “Yes, please.”
It couldn’t be true; it was too much to hope for. But just for a minute he might pretend that it was true before he threw them out of his office.
With a shy smile the woman transferred the little child into his arms. As she did so the boy woke. He blinked at the stranger holding him and studied with him with a serious expression.
Garrett looked down into eyes the color of Vermont slate, the color of his daughter’s eyes, of his eyes. Perhaps it was true. The boy looked so much like his lost children. He swallowed hard and said, “What is he called?”
Mason smiled. “Scott Garrett Lancer.”
Yes, thought Garrett, that is exactly what my Catherine would name her son, a nod to both her husband and her father. “Hello, Scotty,” said Garrett gently as tears ran down his cheeks.
Now over 12 years later he still marveled at the miracle that was his Scotty. For it was a miracle that Catherine’s heart did not give out before the boy was born, that Mason found them and that the tiny child had survived the long voyage to Boston. But the real miracle was Scotty himself; a strong healthy boy with a keen mind. He had brought light and heart back into Garrett’s dark and empty world.
“Happy Christmas, Tom,” said Scott brightly to the boot boy who was the last in the line of servants.
Tom, a year or two older than Scott, was short and thin with pale brown hair and sharp blue eyes. He took the little bag of coins Scott held out to him saying, “Thank you, sir, me mam will be glad of this and so will the little ones.”
Scott eyed the boy with curiosity. “Do you have brothers, Tom?” he asked almost hopefully. “Younger brothers?”
“Aye, two brothers, just one sister now, the other two died.”
“I’m so sorry but still you have your brothers,” said Scott solemnly. “You are very lucky to have younger brothers.”
Tom’s blue eyes widen in surprise. “Why, sir, they are an awful lot of bother.”
“I suppose they might be,” responded Scott thoughtfully. His cousin Daniel complained bitterly that Charlie was always messing about with his belongings. “But still I envy you. I believe it would be a very good thing to have a little brother to teach what I know, to take care of and be proud of. It must be more than just having a good friend because you are part of the same family. Your problems are their problems and they are honor bound to help you solve them. And their successes are a source of joy for you.”
Scott realized that Tom was looking at him with definite confusion in his eyes. He knew he sounded a bit silly. He could never quite explain it, this jealousy he had of those who had younger brothers. Scott was smart enough to know he was a very fortunate boy. Even so he simply felt cheated that he didn’t have a little brother.
He shrugged slightly, trying to pretend it was of no real importance to him. He said, “Or that is how it seems to me when I look at my friends with their brothers.”
It had never occurred to Tom that Master Scott would envy him in any way. They didn’t really know each other although they saw each other every day. Scott spent his days at school, his evenings studying and in winter his free time with his cousins coasting on the Commons. Tom spent his days running errands for the cook and Mrs. Hudson; lugging buckets of coal to the fireplaces in the house and polishing boots for Scott and Mr. Garrett. The notion that his irksome younger brothers were something he had that the wealthy boy wanted struck him deeply. “Well, I suppose they aren’t so bad at that,” he said slowly, watching Scott. “Sir, I’ve heard that the boot boy before me works as an office boy for Mr. Garrett.”
Scott nodded. “Yes, John. He’s a good fellow; I think he’ll be a clerk soon.”
“Then the office boy job will be open?”
“I suppose so,” answered Scott, his gaze having drifted towards the table and his own presents. He looked back at Tom. “Would you be interested?”
“I would,” Tom nodded. “Especially if my brother Alexander could have the job here. He’s small but he’s strong and he’s a good worker is Alex.”
Scott considered for a moment how best to ask the next question. He decided straight out; it would do Tom no good to hope for a position he didn’t qualify for. “Tom, can you read? You’d need to, you see, to be an office boy.”
A faint blush warmed the boy’s cheeks. “I can. Not so well but I can.”
“Well, then, all you need is practice,” said Scott smiling broadly. “I’ve some books I’m finished with. I’ll leave them by the coal bucket in my room for you.”
Tom looked alarmed. “I wouldn’t want Mrs. Hudson to think I was stealing your books, sir.”
“No one would think such of thing of a good fellow like you, Tom,” said Scott quickly, embarrassed that he hadn’t thought what it would look for Tom to be carrying his old books out of the house.
“I’ll tell her I gave them to you. You take those books and practice your reading. Let me know if I can be of any help. Reading is one thing I do very well,” said Scott with a quick flash of a smile. “I’ll speak to Grandfather. Cousin Charles does all the hiring these days but Grandfather is still the boss. He’ll put in a good word for you.”
“Scotty,” called his grandfather, “what are you going on about? You are keeping these good people from their well deserved day off.”
Scott glanced at his grandfather; and you from your coffee, he thought. But he said, “Just coming, sir.” He looked back at Tom with a wink. “I won’t forget about the books. Happy Christmas to you and your family, Tom.”
“And to you, sir.”
Scott and Garrett sat down at their customary places at the linen covered table as the staff filed back through the kitchen door. Garrett pulled a pair of spectacles from his pocket and put them on. He picked up the pile of mail next to his plate.
“You know, Grandfather, giving the staff the day off as well as the money means you are far more like old Fizziwig than Scrooge.”
Just before Scott’s seventh birthday his beloved nanny Eileen Vale died of consumption. To distract him from his grief his grandfather read him a chapter of Charles Dickens’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL each evening before he went to bed. It became a tradition; this year Scott had read it aloud to him while they sat by the fire in his study.
Garrett looked over the rims of his spectacles. “Nonsense, boy. I give them the day off because we will be fortunate to make it home before midnight. You mark my words, I’ll ask Charles to send for the carriage at a sensible hour and you will beg me to stay because young Constance has decided you children should all bob for apples or Charles’s wife will decide we should all play a game of the Minster’s Cat. As long as someone lights the fires in our bedchambers this evening there is no reason for the servants to be in the house today. You ask anyone they will tell you I am Scrooge to my marrow. I have an abacus for a heart.”
“Oh, yes, Grandfather, everyone knows you feed me nothing but gruel, that’s why I’m so short,” said Scott with a remarkably straight face for a boy who took pride in being the tallest in his class at school.
Beale reentered the room carrying a large tray. She set it on the sideboard. From the tray she took a silver coffee pot. She filled the cup beside Garrett’s plate. Scott looked up at her expectantly.
“Go on and fill it, Beale,” said Garrett as he picked up his own cup. “He is sure to hate it.”
Scott’s mischievous grin lit his face. He knew he wouldn’t hate because Daniel had told him to drink the coffee with sugar and milk. That his grandfather was allowing him a cup meant that now that he was thirteen he was no longer a child. Chances were improving that he would finally get to taste the heavenly smelling wassail that evening.
Beale filled the cup only half way and set the milk and sugar on the table in front of Scott. She winked. Then she placed a steaming bowl in front of each of them. Because they would have so much food during the course of the day Garrett insisted that rather than their normal breakfast of sausage and eggs they would have porridge. Scott was not fond of porridge.
Scott reached for the first package on the small stack in front of him. It was wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with kitchen twine. Unwrapping it he said with pleasure, “Aunt Laura sent plum jam”
“That should improve your gruel,” mumbled Garrett, his attention on the letter in his hand. “Brother Henry wants us to come up to the farm for New Years.”
Scott looked up; his blue-gray eyes wide he said eagerly, “Please, sir, can we go? Willie is on leave. He and Amy and the baby are at the farm.”
“Yes, Henry mentions that they arrived. Not much happening at the office between now and New Years,” said the older man slowly, “Would be nice to see Willie; his next posting is likely to be in the west; might be years until we see him again.”
Scott held his breath. Willie was Garrett’s grand-nephew and Scott’s hero. Scott always spent the month of June at the Vermont farm his grandfather had grown up on. Until he’d followed his father into the army and gone to West Point; Willie had lived on the farm. It was during those childhood Junes that Willie taught Scott to ride and shoot a gun. Now Willie and Scott were regular correspondents.
“It will all depend on the weather. I spent enough time stuck in Vermont’s muddy lanes as a boy,” said Garrett refolding his elder brother’s letter. “If it stays dry and cold we’ll go day after tomorrow.”
“I hope it stays frigid,” breathed Scott as he reached for the next package. He opened it slowly, his attention on his grandfather who was also opening a package. He had saved all of his pocket money for two months for his grandfather’s present.
“Why, Scotty, this is prefect,” said the old man pulling a large magnifying glass with an elaborately carved ivory handle from its velvet lined box. “I may even be able to read your handwriting with this. I suppose you plan to borrow it to look at insects.”
“I might on occasion, sir,” responded the boy trying to suppress a cheeky grin. He turned his attention back to his own presents; leather bound copies of THE THREE MUSTKETEERS and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. “Thank you, sir. I’ve been very anxious to read both of these.”
“Anxious enough to miss that trip to Vermont?” asked Garrett. As he’d gotten older he rather enjoyed visiting his brother and his family on the farm he’d been so desperate to get away from when he was a boy. But travel in late December was always a chancy proposition even with the comfort of his private railway car. He did not want to be trapped at the farm when he needed to be in his office.
“No, sir,” said Scott firmly, his voice a perfect imitation of his grandfather’s. “Not that anxious.”
Garrett returned to his mail but he kept an eye on Scott. He noticed that his grandson had gone very still and was staring at the last package in the stack. It was small, a flat rectangle of brown paper sealed with wax. Across the front Scott’s name and the address of the house had been printed in black ink by a strong hand.
Finally Scott looked up and said in a small voice, “It is from California.”
“Is it?” said Garrett in as neutral a tone as he could managed. He knew the package was from California and he knew who it was from. If Scott had been a year younger Garrett would have opened the package when it arrived the day before. It had taken all of his will power not to open it but he believed Scott had reached the age where he was entitled to some privacy.
“I thought he was dead,” said the boy softly; his gaze had drifted back to the package.
I hoped he was dead, thought Garrett.
He had been so overcome when Scott first arrived that he had neglected to ask after his son-in-law until the next day. Mason had little to tell him. He’d heard there were roaming gangs of outlaws in the valley where the ranch was. Murdoch Lancer had sent Catherine away from the trouble with a man and his wife who were traveling to San Francisco. Catherine had seemed to expect her husband to arrive at any moment; but he had not arrived by the time Mason had found Mrs. Vale and left for San Francisco two days after her death.
Garrett thought then that Lancer must have been killed. But two months after Scott’s arrival a letter came. Ten days late Lancer finally made it to the tiny town where his wife died giving birth to their son. By then the baby was aboard the Providence and on his way to Boston. The letter demanded to know if the child was alive.
Garrett had desperately wanted to write back saying he had no knowledge of the child or that he was dead; any thing that would keep Lancer from coming for the boy. It was his sister Laura, who had become his conscience since the death of his wife, who insisted it would be an unforgivable sin to do so.
It took Lancer another three years to come for Scott. It had surprised Garrett that it had taken him so long. He had lived in fear those first couple of years that the man would arrived out of the blue and snatch the boy from his bed. He thought he understood why it had taking him so long. Lancer was building up his ranch. Garrett remembered the early days of his business when he would work sixteen hours a day. He regretted those lost hours now; time he might have spent with his wife and his children. He had thought in those days he was providing for his family’s future. In the end he had found himself with great wealth and no family. It was the greatest and certainly the most undeserved blessing of his life that he had been able to spend time with Scott as a tiny child.
He had recognized an ambitious man when he met Lancer, a man that would have to go his own way. So let him. Let him build his ranch into an empire. Garrett knew what that took. That alone meant that Scott was better off in the house on Beacon Hill with his devoted nanny and a grandfather who could afford a day off now and then. Lancer was a young man. He could marry again and have other sons. Scotty was Garrett last chance for a family.
When Lancer came, ironically on Scott’s fourth birthday, Garrett had been ready for him. He gave no quarter; he would not give up his boy. He made his argument that Scott would have every advantage with him; Murdoch Lancer had nothing to offer the boy. He’d gone so far as to threaten he would put Scott through a custody trial even though the thought of Scott being exposed in such a way sickened him. He would have done it; he would have done anything to keep his precious child out of the clutches of the man who had sent his daughter away to die among strangers.
It had stunned him that Lancer gave up so easily. Perhaps the man had realized he was right about what was best for Scotty. Still it had seemed out of character. Garrett couldn’t say that he knew Lancer well but the man he remembered courting his daughter was not one who gave up easily. In the end he didn’t care why Lancer left without fighting for Scotty only that he left. That he had been there at all was never discussed. As far as Garrett knew Scotty had no memory of the man introduced to him as Murdoch and their very brief conversation.
“It has been six years since he sent anything.”
Garrett was surprised that Scott knew the exact number of years since he’d heard from his father. It was true that for several years after he’d been to Boston Lancer had sent Scott small presents for his birthday and Christmas; then nothing. Now this. Garrett wanted to snatch the package off the table and pitch it into the fire. Instead he sat quietly and waited for Scott to decide what to do.
“Should I open it, sir?”
“It is your decision, Scotty.”
“And I’ll need to write him a thank you letter.”
“That would be the polite thing to do.
Scott felt something churning in his gut. He realized it was anger. He was not the only one of his school mates to be without a father. Several were orphans who lived like Scott with other family. But he was the only one who had a living father that had no place in his life.
When he was younger he had made up stories about his father; about what he was doing in far off California. Scott loved his grandfather. But his grandfather was just a businessman where as Scott believed his father lived a life of great adventure like the heroes of the dine-novels he read secretly at night. When he was little he believed someday his father would come and take him off on his adventures.
But his father had not come unless-but no, it didn’t matter who that big man was. Even if that giant of a man had been his father he had left without him.
Scott was old enough now to know that he lived a privileged life. He knew he was no more deserving of his easy life than Tom was of his hard one. Scott was determined to study hard and go to Harvard as his grandfather had. Maybe for a while he would go into the army like Willie. He would have his own adventures. He was going to make something of his life. He didn’t need his father any more than his father had needed him.
“I don’t believe I will open it now, sir.”
“If that is your choice,” said Garrett letting his pent-up breath out slowly. “We should hurry along anyway. On such a fine day we will walk rather than take a cab. We’ll build up an appetite for that ridiculously rich meal Rosemary will be serving up.”
“Yes, sir,” said Scott picking up the cup of cooling coffee. He took a sip but did not really taste it. His attention was still on the package. He slipped it into the pocket of his trousers.
The church bells rang out as they walked side by side down the hill. Garrett nodded to various acquaintances but his attention was on his grandson. A cloth cap pulled down around his ears, a woolen muffler knitted by his Great Aunt Laura wrapped twice around his neck Scott was unusually quiet. Garrett fretted that he had ruined the boy’s Christmas by putting that package with his presents. He should have waited another day but he’d been anxious to get all talk of Murdoch Lancer behind them.
He was about to break in on Scott’s thoughts when –Splat! His tall silk hat was hit squarely by a snow ball and flew from his head.
For a second Scott stared at him open-mouthed then nearly doubled over with laughter.
“Good morning, Uncle,” said Garrett’s nephew Charles Lowell as he slowly approached them. His sons, Daniel a short freckled bespectacled fifteen-year-old and Charlie a gapped toothed seven-year-old, were several paces behind him.
“Sorry, Uncle,” breathed Daniel. “I was aiming at Scott.”
“Humph,” grumbled Garrett, pulling his great coat more tightly around his shoulders. “Thank you, Charlie,” he said to the little boy who retrieved his hat. “Daniel, when you consider your future career.”
“Yes, Uncle?” said Daniel swallowing visibly.
Scott stopped laughing. Daniel was his best friend in the world; the reason he had never longed for an older brother was because Daniel had always been there. Daniel was willing to consider only one future career-to work with his father and Harlan Garrett in the family business. Surely one errant snowball couldn’t derail everything?
“Promise me you will not consider being a gunner in either the army or the navy; you have astonishingly bad aim.”
Lowell laughed. Looking at the older man he thought of the time between when Catherine left Boston and Scott arrived in his uncle’s life. Now the boys all jokingly called Harlan Garrett Scrooge but in those days Scrooge seemed a happy soul compared to the lonely, cantankerous man Garrett was.
“All right, boys, off with you. I know there is a major battle taking place on the Commons,” said Lowell still smiling. “Daniel, don’t be late to your aunt’s for dinner and watch out for Charlie.”
“Yes, Dad,” cried Daniel over his shoulder as he slid down the icy sidewalk towards the great empty field know as the Boston Commons. It was Scott who stopped and put his hand out to Charlie.
“Well, aren’t they pretty,” said Daniel Lowell as he looked down on two twenty dollar gold pieces nestled in cotton wool, the brown paper wrapping beneath them.
It was after the sumptuous Christmas dinner. The men folk had retired to the study to talk politics; their conversation punctuated by snores. The women in the family were gathered around a tea table in the morning room. A nanny had herded the younger children upstairs for their naps. Music could be heard coming from the drawing room where the beautiful tree stood. Young Constance was practicing for the carol singing that would take place later. Scott and Daniel had found a curtained nook off the main staircase in which to talk. It was there Scott opened the package from California.
“What do I do with them?” asked Scott, miserably.
“Do?” Daniel exclaimed. “Spend them, of course.”
“But the money is from –“
“I don’t care if it is from the devil himself that is forty dollar of US currency. That saddle you’ve been eying for the last three months; you can buy it now.”
Scott sat up a little straighter, his blue eyes widened. “I could, couldn’t I?”
“You haven’t thought of that?” asked Daniel incredulously. “You are rattled.”
Scott shrugged; he traced the edge of one of the gold pieces with a long, narrow finger. “Murdoch Lancer is just a name; the name of a man in California. He means nothing to me. And I mean nothing to him. Look at this note. Best wishes on your birthday and for a happy Christmas. Murdoch Lancer.” Scott waved the sheet of heavy writing paper in Daniel’s face. “Those are the words of a stranger. Do you realize I was Charlie’s age the last time I heard from him? I’d forgotten he even existed.”
Daniel raised a pale eyebrow.
“Well, I almost had,” said Scott defensively. “Grandfather says I have to write him a thank you note.”
“Write it in kind; Dear Sir, thank you for the gold pieces. Sincerely,” said Daniel eyeing his cousin with concern. The subject of Scott’s father hadn’t come up in a very, very long time. Daniel suspected that Scott had hoped for news of something far more valuable to him than money from that note. “Stranger or not the man is buying you a very fine saddle. If you don’t hear from him again until you’re nineteen maybe he’ll send you enough money to buy a horse.”
For a moment Scott stared at him with what looked like irritation then both boys broke into laughter.
When daylight faded the candles on the magnificent tree were lit. Three generations of the family gathered in the drawing room. His fair hair gleaming in the candlelight Scott stood with others laughing and singing around the pianoforte. It was not only his grandfather who felt bittersweet nostalgia as he looked at the boy and thought how like his mother he was.
The parlor maid made her way around the room with a silver tray full of wassail cups. Daniel snagged two. When the toast was given Scott touched his cup to Daniel’s and said with more solemnity than he’d intended, “Merry Christmas to the man in California.”
In the Texan border town Johnny laid his head against his mother’s shoulder. He listened to the beating of her heart and to the soft song she was singing. Drowsily he smiled.
And further to the west in a valley some said was the most beautiful place on earth the scent of roasting meat hung in the air. Toes tapped to the music of violins and guitars; children laughed. A little girl ran across hard packed earth to throw herself into her laughing father’s arms. Paul O’Brien lifted his daughter skyward.
“Look at me, Patron,” cried Teresa, “I can fly like an angel.”
Murdoch Lancer smiled at the child. He exchanged a glance with his old friend that spoke of many things. Then he turned to look at the hills to east. The giant of a man whispered what he hoped was a fact but may simply have been a prayer.
“Someday my sons will be home for Christmas.”