Like a distant echo, the dream fled from his wakened mind. As always, he strained to hold the shards of his dream, a part of him believing they must be precious, sent from some unknown region. He would never admit to putting such stock in something so insubstantial, for he was a practical man. But this dream…this dream left Murdoch Lancer restless and longing for the dawn…..
It was impossible to know where he was—the dust in the streets of all little towns looks the same. He didn’t remember buildings or signs, or recognize anyone he knew. It must have been night, for there were lanterns. People seemed to be busy, walking back and forth and as he looked down into the dust he saw the bare feet of a child threading through the paths of the adults…. running, running. He felt concerned the child would be lost or trampled, and he tried to follow but could not. All he could see was a mass of others going their way, and he joined in but did not know where he was going. It seemed he walked and walked but did not encounter the child again. No one spoke and he spoke to no one. He wanted to call to the child but did not know how.
At length, he came to a livery stable where he saw through an open door a thin, dark-haired boy of perhaps seven years confronted by the stable hand, an old man. The boy stood with his head down and said almost in a whisper “Don Antonio, may I sleep here in the hay tonight? I will not cause trouble and tomorrow I will help you. Please?”
The old man growled, “You must go home to your mama, m’ijo. This is not a fit place….”
The boy seemed to shrink into himself. “Don Antonio, my mama has a…guest. He does not want me there. Please.”
The old man nodded minutely. “Come. You are hungry.”
The boy glanced up at him. “Our neighbor gave us tortillas this morning. Mama calls her a bruja and says she wants to steal me. But I like her.”
He trailed after the old stable hand as they went to a small wood stove with an iron pot steaming in the cool air. The boy was given a gourd bowl of the stew inside and stood drinking the broth even before he was handed a spoon. He ate the fat pieces of pork eagerly, then solemnly handed the bowl back to his host. “Thank you, Don Antonio,” he said, and appeared to turn away to find a place in the hay. But he turned back again and looked up at the old man, his eyes bright with a question. “My mama says tomorrow is a special day—El Dia de los Reyes —but she did not say what is to happen. Can you tell me of this?”
“Another day, Juanito, another day. It is time that you sleep, m’ijo. Tomorrow will come soon, I think.” And he watched as the boy settled down in the hay by one of the stalls, and spread a coarse blanket over him. Murdoch slowly approached the pair and thought to speak to the man, to ask about the boy, what he knew of him. He did not understand this need of his to see to the boy’s well-being, but it was painfully strong.
And as suddenly as he had quieted, the boy sat up, his face animated once again. “I remember, Don Antonio! Tomorrow is the day there are gifts for everyone, like the gifts of the three holy kings for el Nino. My mama told me….” His excited smile faded. “But…she said we will not have gifts in our house.” His deep blue eyes became troubled. “I wish I could give my mama a gift.” And the boy lay back again when the old stable hand admonished him once more to go to sleep, and turned down the lamp.
Murdoch watched, barely breathing it seemed, as the boy fell asleep. And in the darkened stable he moved to stand by him, and then knelt at his side. He reached down, fearing to touch but unable to resist, and laid his hand on the soft black hair. And some spell was broken then, for tears filled his eyes and his voice shook as he whispered “My John…..my sweet boy.” And as the dream began to ebb, he reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a gold coin that he placed gently into the sleeping boy’s hand…….
And Murdoch Lancer woke, reaching into the dark of his bedroom for the boy who faded with the dream, calling to him softly and weeping.
Murdoch lay in his bed until the clock struck five and he heard their cook Maria in the kitchen downstairs. He rose stiffly and dressed and, before descending the stairs, softly opened the door to his younger son’s room. He closed his eyes against the prick of tears as he heard the sigh of Johnny’s peaceful breathing, and fought down the impulse to approach him. He was turning away when Johnny’s sleepy voice called to him. “Murdoch? Is everything okay? Am I late or somethin’?”
“No, son, everything is fine. I didn’t mean to wake you.” And he quickly left to go down the back stairs to the kitchen.
Murdoch sat at his lamp-lit desk, staring at nothing, his mind still turning over the images of his dream. He knew…knew it was Johnny as he might have been more than ten years ago. His anger swelled as he thought of the privation in the boy’s life, of his dependence on others for what his mother should have provided—what he himself would have walked through hell to give his little son. But—it was a dream, was it not? -- He could not bring himself to say only a dream. -- And Johnny was here with him, in the flesh, likely to come down the stairs at any moment, looking for his breakfast, laughing with Scott over some private joke. But would he ever again be able to see his healthy, boisterous grown son without seeing also the shadow of the thin, serious boy in the dream?
“Senor?…Senor!!” Maria’s voice broke his musing. “Here is your coffee. Breakfast will be soon.”
A dark-haired whirlwind blew into the room. “Not soon enough for me, Mamacita!” Johnny gave Maria a quick kiss on the cheek as she slapped him playfully on the shoulder.
Johnny perched on a corner of the big desk. “You seem pretty serious this morning, Murdoch.”
“I’m fine, Johnny. I was just thinking about something.” He took a deep breath. “You’re in good spirits today.”
Scott’s calm voice preceded him down the stairs. “And why shouldn’t he be? Murdoch, your younger son tricked me into doing part of his chores today.”
“Well gee, Scott, I’m surprised to hear you admit I got the better of you. Besides, mucking out the chicken house is hardly a chore at all. Why, I remember when—“
“Boys, let’s go eat before Maria gives it to the chickens.” And Murdoch led his sons to the kitchen, where the table was spread and plates of biscuits and ham and eggs were piled high.
Theresa emerged from the pantry, a dab of flour on her nose. “T’resa, just be sure to save some of that flour for the cake you’re making me. You are making me a cake, aren’t you?” Johnny asked innocently.
Theresa wiped off the flour and smiled. “For your information, Maria is teaching me to make rosca for tonight. Or have you forgotten it’s Twelfth Night—the feast of the Three Kings? We have a nice dinner planned…”
Scott looked up from his plate. “ ‘Rosca’? Is that just spicy or should I expect the top of my head to come off?”
Theresa grinned. “No, silly. It’s a sweet bread with fruit in it. It’s delicious, and it’s traditional for today. Right, Johnny? I’ll bet you’ve had it plenty of times.”
Johnny frowned briefly. “Yeah, I guess, Honey. -- I don’t remember having it too much when I was a kid. I guess Mama was…busy.”
And in the silence that followed, it was easy to hear Theresa release a trembling breath. She whispered, her eyes downcast, “I’m so sorry, Johnny. That was a stupid thing to say.”
And as Johnny looked up, his eyes dark with confusion, Murdoch saw again the thin child of his dream asking for a bed in the hay. He wondered if Johnny would withdraw, even run to the barn where he could be alone with his memories.
But instead a slow smile warmed his face and, it seemed, the whole room. “It’s okay, Miel. I’ve had plenty of good chocolate cakes since then. That makes up for a lot.” He reached over to squeeze her hand. “And besides, did I ever tell you about the time….?”
Relieved to have the tense mood broken, Scott interjected “Oh-oh! Another one of my little brother’s stories! Does this one involve a fair maiden, or a black-hearted scoundrel, or maybe both?”
Johnny smiled indulgently. “No, Big Brother, this is just something I remember—not even a story, really. And it happened on the Feast of the Three Kings, like today.” Murdoch felt an electric thrill move through him as his son began to speak.
“Back when I was a kid, maybe six or seven, I used to help an old man clean out the livery stable some times, and he was good to me. And one night I asked to sleep there-- I don’t remember why--and he let me. And I remember being sad because I knew it was a holiday when you give people presents, but I didn’t have anything to give my mama. I guess I fell asleep worrying about that. And when I woke up the next day, there was a gold coin in my hand. It must’ve been a twenty-dollar gold piece. I don’t know how it got there. I showed it to the old man and he just said to run give it to my mother. And that’s what I did. She thought at first I stole it, but then she hugged me and told me it was the best present she’d ever gotten. --- I guess the old man had it hidden away, and decided we needed it—which we did.”
Johnny paused for a breath. “That was the best Three Kings Day I remember—until today.” His eyes met Murdoch’s. “This is my first one here, with all of you. I’ll remember this for a long time.”
Murdoch did not trust his voice, but Scott added softly, “We’ll all remember this one, Little Brother. And it will be the first of many, many more.”
Murdoch Lancer closed his eyes briefly and saw, just for a instant, a dark-haired little boy with deep blue eyes and a smile as bright as gold.