Bah! Humbug!

(with apologies to Mr Dickens.)

by  Starry Diadem

FIRST STAVE :  O'Brien's Ghost

'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...' oh, wait.  Wrong book.  Still, it's fitting that Murdoch Lancer shared the sentiment, since he really had no idea whether he was coming or going, what was good and what decidedly wasn't, and what, exactly, he should feel about it all.  He had to be shown.

Still, we have a tradition to uphold here.  The festive season demands a festive story.  So, we'll reboot.  With the right book this time.

'Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail...'

So was Paul O'Brien.
Murdoch Lancer couldn't understand why he'd been reminded of Paul O'Brien so much that day.  It wasn't that he actively missed him anymore.  It had been over a year now since O'Brien had been gunned down by Day Pardee and the sharp pangs of regret had faded over the months.  He'd been fond of Paul; of course he had.  Paul had been his foreman for more than sixteen years, and a dear friend for pretty much the same period.  But so much had happened since with the return of his sons and the forging of the new partnership that had seen him hand over two thirds of his ranch, that his old philosophy of never looking back had been strengthened rather than anything else.  Paul was gone, was of the past.  The past was gone.  Good or bad, right or wrong, it was over and done.   

Of course, it was Christmas Eve, the first Christmas since his sons had come home, and Paul had always been one to try and celebrate the festive season, working on Murdoch every year to do more than just wish him the stiff, insincere 'Merry Christmas, I suppose' with which Murdoch greeted the Holy Day.  But Murdoch couldn't feel it, couldn't see it.  Ever since Catherine died and Maria left, he'd been a man trapped in a wasteland, going through the daily chores of living, and with no energy for more.  Christmas was a torment, a hard slap in the face to remind him of everything he'd lost; a day to be spent sitting over a fire with a whisky in one hand and despair in the other.  Cheer was beyond him and O'Brien had given up in the end.  Not even Teresa could coax Murdoch into coming out of hiding, and now... well, if there was a way out for him, it would need someone with a map to find the route and maybe the odd Indian to scout across the trackless wilderness beyond which Murdoch Lancer had retreated twenty years before.

Murdoch Lancer wasn't an unkind man, or an unjust one.  But he was a busy man, a businessman with a huge empire to run; a man who'd distanced himself from others.  For many years now, Christmas was just one more day in the Almanac, nothing special; a day to be spent on his ledgers, on casting his accounts and seeing who owed him what and what he owed them; or a day to be spent planning this contrivance or that to get better stock, or sell his horses, or move his cattle north to market and get the best price.

What else was there?  Men who hadn't been scarified the way he'd been, who hadn't had their hearts torn out twice over, well let them think of Christmas as that 'kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time', that special time of peace, and kindness and the joy of family.  When a man had had both his families rent from him, who can blame him for turning his back on the spirit of Christmas and taking his comfort in the spirit of his homeland instead, the amber smokiness of a good malt the only palliative for grief.

Murdoch Lancer just didn't 'do' Christmas.  He didn't have time for it.  He didn't need it.  He didn't see the point of it. 

And he didn't see why anyone else needed it either.
"I don't suppose," said Teresa, tentatively, putting a cup of coffee on the corner of the big desk, "that Maria and I could decorate the great room this year?  I know you don't usually bother, but I thought... well, with Scott and Johnny home..."

Murdoch looked up from his ledgers, frowning at the interruption.  A thrice-damned dollar had eluded his book-keeping skills all day, and he'd chased it up one column and down another until the neat black numerals had danced before his eyes and his head thumped dully with every beat of his heart.  He rubbed his hand over his eyes to clear the blurring ledger page from his sight.  In sum, he was distracted.  He took a moment to react.  In that time, while he stared at her blankly, Teresa stood before him, twisting her hands in her apron. 

At his silence, her cheeks reddened and her mouth pulled down at the edges from its usual cheerful curve.  Her lips trembled.  "It doesn't matter.  It was a stupid idea.  I knew you wouldn't... it doesn't matter."  

Her hands twisted and twisted, until he could almost see the threads of her apron warp.  What in Hades was up with her?


"It doesn't matter.  I'm sorry to have disturbed you, Murdoch.  Really.  I'm sorry."

And she was gone, head held high and her small shoulders set, while he frowned after her.  What was that all about?  He shook his head and looked down at the books again.  Wait!  Was that it?  The bill from Higgs's Mercantile should be here somewhere.  He scrabbled amongst the papers on his desk, and re-read the bill, holding it with one hand while he took a sip of coffee.  There the little devil was!  A simple mistake to take up so much of his time.  He put down the coffee cup and turned back a page in the ledger to make the correction, making a careful alteration in red ink and initialling it to make the change legitimate.

He forgot that Teresa had even been there.
"I suppose that you and the hands will all be taking tomorrow off."  Murdoch leaned over the corral fence and pushed at the big bull rubbing up against the post.  Lancer Leonides turned his huge head and gave Murdoch a reproachful look.  That fencepost had allowed him to scratch an itch on an otherwise unreachable part of the vastness that was his rump.  He flicked his tail in irritation. 

A damn fine animal, this one.  His progeny should raise the standards of the Lancer herds, make Lancer beef a byword for excellence.  Yes.  A damn fine bull.

"It is only one day, Patrón, one day of the year." 

"Except it isn't one day, Cip.  It's been every damn day of the Posadas so far."

Nothing ever put Cipriano Roldàn out of countenance, of course.  The man was placid dignity, personified.  "The men work hard for most of the year, Patrón.  The hours are long and the pay—"

"I pay good rates!" protested Murdoch, affronted.

"You do, Señor.  But still, this is a hard life and a laborious one.  This time of year, when the labour is cold and wet as well as tiring, there is no harm in allowing the men some licence to take a little pleasure."  Cipriano's smile was so serene that it made Murdoch's teeth ache with the effort of keeping his tongue behind them and not saying something they would both regret.  "It is Nochebuena, after all, and most of the hands will be at early Mass tomorrow to celebrate el Dia de Navidad.  One day, Señor."

"Christmas!  A pretty excuse to rob a man of his workers once a year."  Murdoch turned back to the bull.  At least Lancer Leonides wouldn't demand a day off from his duties.  "I expect them to be at work all the earlier the day after."

Cipriano ducked his head.  Murdoch suspected it was to hide a smile, but he'd never caught Cip at it.  He growled and turned away, intending to get Jelly to saddle up Caledonia for him, just in time to see that worthy stagger across the yard, heading towards the house with his arms full of greenery. 

"What the—!  Jelly!"

"In a minute, Boss!  I gotta get this to the house."

"Oh no you don't!  Who brought that stuff here?"

Jelly stood in the yard, dripping fir branches and pine cones all over the place, and looked imbecilic.  Not that that was hard.  Murdoch wondered where all his business sense had gone, letting Johnny talk him into giving the mad old coot a job and a second chance.  It wouldn't have been so bad if Jelly had some skills, any skills, the ranch could use, but a facility for talking the hind legs off the proverbial donkey wasn't something that Murdoch would normally be willing to pay good money for.  Johnny had a lot to answer for there.

Jelly stuck out his chin and bristled right up at being challenged.  "Scott did, that's who.  He had Jose ride up into the mountains and fill the old wagon with the stuff. It's all in the barn, but Scott told Jose to go back to work, and said to take the fixings to Teresa later.  But Jellifer B Hoskins ain't the man to see a job lying there and not jump to deal with it.  No sir, he ain't.  So I thunk to myself that Miss Teresa is probably waitin' on these bits of twig and green things to make the house festive and pretty, and so I says to myself, I says, Jellifer B., you'd best—"

Did the man never stop to take breath?  Murdoch held up a hand.  "Take it back to the barn and leave it there.  Saddle my horse.  Then I want you to go back to sorting out that tack room.  I want it finished by the time I get back from town."

Jelly's chin stuck out even more.  If Jelly had been a foot taller, that chin could have been used as a weapon.  It would give an opponent a nasty bristle burn, that was for sure.  "But what about these here green things?  Teresa's likely looking for them."

"I don't want that rubbish in the house.  Teresa knows that.  Now go and saddle my horse."

Jelly really did remind Murdoch of a bantam cock.  He had the same stiff-legged, strutting gait, the same frantic flapping, the same way of sticking his rump back and his head forward to do some outraged peck-peck-pecking.  If he'd had feathers, there would be some serious ruffling going on right then.  He stalked back to the barn clucking at Murdoch over his shoulder.  "What'll I tell Scott, then?  He went to a lot of trouble to get this stuff."

Murdoch snorted, almost as loudly as Lancer Leonides.  What in hell was Scott thinking, wasting a hand's time like that?  "I'll deal with Scott.  You get on with your work."  Murdoch turned his back on Jelly to find Cipriano regarding him.  "What?"

"Nothing, Señor.  Nothing."  Cipriano sighed and shook his head.  He knew better than to say anything more.

All the same Murdoch found himself feeling suddenly uncertain under the gaze of those calm dark eyes.  "I don't make merry at Christmas, Cip.  You know that.  You know why."

There was pity there now.  "I do, old friend.  I do.  But now perhaps is the time to change that."

Murdoch huffed out a breath and shook his head.  "I can't change, Cip.  I'll stick to my own way.  It's served me well enough all these years.  No.  No, I can't change."
He met Sam Jenkins in town for lunch, just as he did every year on Christmas Eve.  He was early, so took the opportunity to drop into the Mercantile to remind Mayor Higgs and his clerks of the need for accuracy at all times, and to settle some bills before the holiday.  Most inconvenient, that the banks and businesses closed down like that.  Most inconvenient.

"I was the proverbial Scotsman about that dollar this morning," he said to Jenkins as they dealt with beef pie in the hotel dining room.  "And a guid, canny Scot can make his penny do the work of two."

Jenkins snorted.  "My father was from York, as you know.  There's nowt you can tell a Yorkshire man about brass."

Laughing, Murdoch turned his attention to the pie.  It was good, as always; the pastry golden and flaking on the fork.  When he lifted the crust, the underside was brown with gravy, the steam rich with the smell of good beef.  He sighed deeply and just as he was about to lift a redolent, succulent forkful to his mouth, the door of the dining room burst open to allow in a riot of carollers.

Murdoch started, surprised, and spent the next few minutes ignoring 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' in favour of trying to get the gravy stains out of his shirt.  "Damn Waits!" he growled, wincing at one particularly jarring false note.

Jenkins was more indulgent, but then he didn't have gravy all down his front.  "It's the church choir.  I heard that the new minister was keen on taking his ministry out to celebrate the festive season." Jenkins handed over another napkin, this one dipped in the water jug to help the clean up operations.  "He's collecting for the orphanage."

Murdoch resisted the temptation to offer to donate a couple of sons who were turning out to be more trouble than they were wor—  He clamped down on that thought.  The man would only want donations in the form of money, anyway.  He knew his kind.  The preacher approached, a simper on his bland young face, hands outstretched.  This new reverend was going to be trouble.

Sam greeted Reverend Petersen cordially and allowed him to have his say about the good cause so close to his heart.  Petersen took the proffered five dollars with a burst of grateful rhetoric and turned expectantly to Murdoch.  "And you, Mr Lancer?"

"Don’t I pay taxes?  Aren't there people—paid for out of those taxes, if I'm not mistaken—to care for these children, to see to their wants and requirements and needs?"

"Well, of course, sir, but—"

"Don’t the orphans get all that the system can provide for them?"

Jenkins kicked his ankle.  "Murdoch, what's got into you?  Of course they get the basics.  But the orphanage doesn't have a lot of money and isn't exactly bright and cheerful.  It's lacking in comforts and Yuletide cheer."

"Cheer!" said Murdoch  "Yuletide cheer!  I don't see what's so special about Christmas, Sam.  It's just a drain on us, a time for excess and overspending and overeating.  The children will be adequately cared for.  There shouldn't be need for any of us to do more."

"Christmas comes but once a year, Mr Lancer.  Don't you think it's a good time to do good?  And that it does you good?"

Murdoch had a sudden remembrance of all those cold Christmases spent alone, with one son in the East and the other God alone knew where.  "What good has Christmas ever done to me?"

"Murdoch," said Jenkins, softly.

Really, but Reverend Petersen should stop simpering.  It wasn't an expression that suited him.  "Well, is that the right question?  Don't you think we should be asking what good we can do for Christmas?  Doesn’t it warm your heart?  Doesn't it make you feel more cheerful, more kindly disposed towards your fellow man?"

Murdoch took a deep breath, shook off Sam's restraining hand and left the Reverend in no doubt at all about his feeling vis-a-vis the pagan holiday that had been absorbed by Christmas, reviewing all its iniquities and inadequacies from the time of the Caesars onwards, with particular reference to the Reformation and with a sideswipe at the Spanish Inquisition.  He spoke at length and eloquently, drawing on all those disputes with his tutor at the university, long ago.  Petersen glanced imploringly at Jenkins for guidance, but the good doctor merely shrugged.

Petersen did not appear to be a young man of discernment who could take a hint.  Nor did he have much of an argument in favour of Christmas.  He gave up on the notion of persuading Murdoch to part with a donation to the orphans' Christmas cheer, but hadn't yet conceded complete defeat.  He hoped, he said, that he would see the Lancer family in church the next morning.

Despite a feeling that there was something very distasteful about a man of cloth being pious, Murdoch couldn't fault him for that question.  He supposed it came with the man's job.  "Of course," he said, for to do him credit, he never failed to conform to the expectations that society had of its leading citizens with regard to upholding the law and supporting a church.  Even though it was the festive season. Murdoch would make his appearance in church as befitted a pillar of society.

"And I hope, you'll all attend the Church Christmas Social and Ladies Aid Progressive Barn Dance that evening?  Jeb Taylor will bring his fiddle and your own Mr Hoskins has agreed to call the dances.  There will be nothing untoward, of course.  No waltzing, for example."  The young preacher's pasty face reddened, presumably at the very thought of putting an arm around a young lady's waist for such a licentious dance.  "It will be wholesome fun, to celebrate the time of year—"

Murdoch stared at him until the blush stained Petersen's face from hairline to chin.  "I don't think so."

"It will be an innocent amusement for the young people in the district."

An excuse to flirt, more likely.  Murdoch shook his head.

Petersen really couldn't take a hint.  "It's only once a year, sir, and a harmless way to give the season its proper sense of joy, to celebrate the Birth of our Lord in happiness, mirth, and fellow feeling."

"Reverend, I must ask you to keep Christmas in your own way, and allow me to keep it in mine."

"But you don't keep it!" protested Sam Jenkins.

Murdoch shrugged.  "Precisely."

"Then Miss Teres... then you and your family won't be at the Social?"  The Reverend's mouth turned down.

"Most unlikely."

And thankfully, that finally gave the man a hint that his mission would be fruitless.  He trailed away, looking unhappy, and took his choir of warbling choristers with him.  Left to the silent disapproval of Doctor Jenkins, Murdoch turned, gratefully, back to his beef pie.  He tried for several minutes to ignore the doctor's glare.

"What?"  he demanded, when it grew too much for a reasonable man to bear.  "Did you really expect me to say that I wanted to spend a night dancing?"

"You?  You?  It had nothing to do with you, you blind fool!  It has everything to do with the Reverend Petersen being sweet on Teresa.  Do you think he wants to dance with you?"

Murdoch sat stunned, his fork once again suspended in mid air.  "Teresa?"

"She's a very attractive girl."

"Paul's Teresa, you mean?  Our Teresa?  Teresa?  Teresa and Reverend Petersen?  There's something going on between them?"

"Keep your voice down, man!  Of course not!  But he admires her, that's plain."


"No what?"

"Just no."

"He's a good man and an educated one."

"He's not the right man for Teresa."

"Nonsense.  He'd be a very suitable beau."

"I mean it, Sam.  Don't encourage that sort of idiocy.  I won't have it, and that's that!"

Sam Jenkins pushed back his seat so hard that the legs squealed their protest on the wooden floor.  "You and I have been friends for a long time, Murdoch Lancer.  I've always understood why this time of year makes you a bitter and angry man.  It must have been hard to see people around you making merry when you'd lost so much yourself.  A man closes himself off in those circumstances, I know that.  But this year, I'd hoped you'd be different; that because things had changed, you'd change."

Murdoch stared.  Why on earth would anything be different now?

Jenkins huffed out a loud, exasperated Pffft! of air and picked up his hat.  "Not even having both your sons back makes any difference, does it?  The loss of them scarred you deep enough.  Doesn't having them back in your life count for anything?  Doesn't it start to put right those old wrongs?"  He rapped Murdoch sharply on the chest, knuckles making painful contact with a gravy stain.  "The heart in here does its job of pumping blood from head to foot but it's a small and sorry organ despite that, as dry and withered as the husk of last year's Christmas orange.  I'll have no more of it.  I'll leave you to celebrate Christmas your own way all right.  You don't deserve more."

And with that, the good doctor stalked out leaving Murdoch staring and battling the faint feeling of some new sensation.  Unease, perhaps.  He pushed it aside.  The doctor wasn't usually so emphatic.  He must have been up all night with a patient, or something.  Yes.  That was it.  Poor old Sam had been up all night labouring to save some poor soul, and was overtired and overwrought.  After all, Sam couldn't really expect Murdoch to change the habits of a lifetime, just because he had to share his ranch with two strangers?

He became aware that his fork, once laden with juicy beef, was still suspended between plate and mouth but sadly laden no longer.  A new gravy stain had joined the old.

"Oh, bah!" he said, flinging down the fork and scrubbing at his shirt.  "Such humbug!"
Supper that night was strained.  Neither Scott nor Teresa spoke about the banned greenery in the barn, but Scott's mouth had thinned to a curt line and he clamped down on every conversational gambit that Murdoch made.  He knew about Murdoch's anti-Christmas decoration decree, then, and wasn't pleased.  Still, Scott had to remember who called the tune and learn to dance accordingly – and the tune Murdoch called was not a Christmas Carol.  Scott would learn.  Both the boys would learn.  When they had thirty years of running Lancer under their belts, then they might (if they had the sense of a gnat between them, and some days he doubted that)... well, they might then know what was best for everyone to do and, he said, to call tunes of their own.  Until then, they'd listen to his. 

Scott listened in this in silence, then inclined his head and returned his attention to his meal.  Teresa sat at her place, face downcast, chasing her food around the plate but not eating very much.  She barely spoke at all.  Johnny, who might have saved the day by being, Murdoch had anticipated, as indifferent to Christmas as he was himself—after all, who would expect a gunman to care what day it was?—had astonished all of them by forgoing supper to head into Morro Coyo to join the final Posadas and stay for Mass.  He'd just waved and was gone.

Scott refused the offer of a post-dinner brandy and disappeared.  Teresa had already gone, and Murdoch was left to the familiar silence and solitude of Christmas Eve at his own fireside.  He assured himself that he welcomed it.  He said to himself that it didn't matter, that it was just as things should be.  He told himself that there was some comfort in the familiarity and that he was enjoying himself immensely.  In fact, he was enjoying himself so much that quite ten minutes passed in quiet, reflective solitude before he stood up, kicked the logs to the back of the grate where they could smoulder safely all night, lit his candle at the fire and stamped up to bed.

It wasn't really late, but the hacienda seemed particularly dark and dim.  The candle flame flickered against the darkness, but made little headway.  Shadows dodged and slithered all around him, taunting and teasing, slinking on the edge of sight.  He shivered.  A foolish notion, that, to be shrugged off by the rational brain.  He raised the candlestick and looked around him.  The shadows crept away to haunt that place a man could see only from the corner of his eye.  They vanished only when he turned to face them, gliding out of reach.

He paused at Teresa's door, but the door was shut tight and no light showed.  Johnny's room, too, was dark and quiet, the door carelessly ajar and the room beyond it empty.  The shadows slid into it and he shut the door on them, as fast as he could.  He'd seen that empty room every night for twenty years.  He didn't need to see it again.

Scott's door was edged with light.  Murdoch hesitated, his free hand half raised, but the memory of his son's cold disapproval still stung.  It wasn't for Scott to tell him how to celebrate Christmas.  He went on to his own bedroom at the end of the hallway.  He reached for the door knob just as a warm wind blew its way along the hall and snuffed out his candle.

Not that he needed it.  Not now.

Paul O'Brien's face protruding from the carved oak panel of the door gave him quite enough light to see.  A greenish, unhealthy light to be sure, with the suggestion of a harsh orange at its edges, but still enough to give the shadows something to writhe and twist themselves against.  Indeed, if Murdoch's opinion had been sought, he would have undoubtedly said that on the whole he would have preferred the dark to seeing the doorknob and his own hand closed around it, the knuckles whitening, and to see Paul's eyes open to stare at him.

He let out a hoarse cry and staggered back, until the wall behind stopped him dead.  He dropped the candlestick, his hand flying to cover the biggest gravy stain and the sudden, frantic beatings beneath it.  He stared back into Paul's silent, reproachful gaze.

Scott's door was flung open, the sound jerking Murdoch's head around.  "What the—!"

The lamp in Scott's hand flooded the hall with light.  Real light.  Blessed light!  Yellow and bright and with no tinge of decaying green to it.  Murdoch stared at him, before turning back to stare at his door, his perfectly ordinary, Paul O'Brien-free door.  The ghostly visage was gone, taking its expression of sorrowful accusation with it.  The door was just a door.

"Murdoch?  Murdoch, are you all right?" Scott took a step towards him, holding his lamp high.

Terrified that Scott would come closer, that he'd be forced into explanations, Murdoch nodded.  He kept on nodding, like the porcelain Chinaman in Aggie Conway's parlour who had his head set on a pivot.  "Fine, fine," he babbled.  "I just dropped my candlestick."

He scrabbled up the candlestick, heedless of wax on the rugs, and nerving himself, he pushed open his door and scuttled inside, aware of Scott watching from a distance. 

He half expected to see the back of Paul's head sticking out of the inside of the door, the thick dark hair curling down onto the collar of the familiar checked shirt.

There was nothing but the blank door panel.
Murdoch didn't go to bed.  Instead he sat over near the fireplace, drifting off to a muzzy, hazy place where a small blond boy offered him a hand and the polite greeting of a stranger, or a dark toddler ran away from him and ran and ran despite his calls and searching.  He was woken often from his uneasy doze by little shivers and shudders.  He put his hand on his brow to test his temperature.  Maybe he was going down with something?  That would explain the symptoms.  You could put a lot down to delirium.  He should have asked Sam Jenkins if any winter sickness was doing the rounds.  He might even be throwing out spots.

Three times he'd heard the great room clock strike the hour.  He'd never heard that clock before, not from his bedroom.  It was muffled by the thick adobe walls, the twenty four steps of the main staircase and the long hall along the hacienda's upper storey.  But that night he heard it strike the quarter hours and finally the regular ponderous hammer strike of each hour, time beating like the heart of the house, ticking away his life. 

The clock struck ten.  Eleven.  And then midnight came, dark and shadowed.

He heard something.  He tilted his head at the noise in the hall outside, startled again out of a doze. 

The noise came again.  Scott going downstairs for a nightcap?  Or Teresa getting up to do something or other, he didn't know what.  Johnny coming home, maybe?

No, not any of those.  None of them were noted for making a loud, clanking noise and taking slow, loud steps, like someone wearing iron boots.  Another step, and another, sounding down the hall. 

Another ponderous step and It was outside his door. 

He waited, listening.  He had the notion, ridiculous but enough to make him clap a hand over his nose and mouth to stifle the noise, that It was outside his door, pressed up against the carved oak, listening to him breathe. 

He looked around the room, from door to window, wondering if there was escape there.  He looked again, from window to door.  No way out.  No way out.

A muffled thump against the door; a deadened knock.  The hand that landed on the panel was soft and heavy.

He swallowed.  "Who is it?"

The voice echoed like a hollow laugh in the grave.  "Invite me in."

His breath hitched in his throat, but he could no more refuse than he could make himself stop breathing.  He hesitated, of course he did, for whatever else he was, Murdoch Lancer was no fool, but he couldn't resist forever.  His hands dropped to the arms of his chair to lever him out of the seat to go and open the door, but It didn't wait, whatever it was that was out there talking to him.  It didn’t open the door, It walked right through it.  The temperature in the room plummeted so fast that Murdoch's breath froze between one heartbeat and the next.

It was Paul. 

It was just like him: the check shirt, strong cotton drill pants, the boots he'd bought in San Francisco and that he never let anyone, not even Murdoch, criticise despite their too-high heels and the too-fancy stitching, battered grey Stetson on his head.  But his shirt and hair moved in some invisible wind, and wrapped around Paul's waist and trailing behind him was a heavy chain with a big iron heart attached to every link.  That accounted for the clanking noise then, the chain dragging along behind him.  Murdoch, mouth open in consternation, could see right through him.

But Paul was as dead as a door nail, as a coffin nail.  He was branded for the range eternal, a goner, cold as a wagon tyre.  Paul O'Brien was as dead as dead can possibly be and then some.

But he was not, unfortunately, as silent as the grave.  The Lancer hands had boasted in the saloons and cantinas that Paul had been known to yell clear across a roundup site over the shouting of a hundred men and bawling calves, and have ranch hands at a branding fire a couple of hundred yards away leaping to do what he wanted.  He bellowed like a bull, the vaqueros said, and more than one called him El Toro behind his back.  Paul still had quite the bellow when he wanted to be heard. 

"Listen to me, unhappy man!"

"I don’t believe in you!" said Murdoch, averting his eyes.  "I don't!  I'm dreaming."

The Spectre – if that's what It was – pushed back its Stetson and said, mildly enough, "You don’t believe in the evidence of your own senses?"

Murdoch shook his head.  "No.  The slightest thing upsets them: the temperature, tiredness, indigestion.  I've got a fever starting, I think, and I'm delirious.  They'll find me in the morning and send for Sam Jenkins.  I probably have the ague and you're a figment of my fevered imagination.  I'm probably lying in bed right now and Teresa's mopping my brow with lavender water and you're a bad dream.  That's all.  That's what you are."

And if Murdoch thought that would clinch the argument and banish this uncomfortable Presence, Paul had other ideas.  The Spectre lifted up Its hands and shook them in Murdoch's face, and moaned most horribly. 

Terrified, Murdoch fell out of his chair and onto his knees before the terrible phantom.  He held up his hands imploringly.  "Paul!  Paul, it's me!  It's your old friend Murdoch.  Remember all those years we worked together!  Remember how I promised to care for your girl!  What do you want with me?"

The Ghost shook Its chain and sighed.  "Do you see this?"

"It's a very long chain," said Murdoch in a tone that tried to convey awe and admiration in equal measure. 

"I suffer," said Paul, tones even more hollow and sepulchral than before.  He reached behind him and ran a spectral hand over the many iron hearts.  "This chain is a symbol of my failure as a father, my failings to my child."

Murdoch blinked.  "What?  But that's nonsense!  You loved Teresa and you couldn't have brought her up better than you did.  No one could!  Why man, she's a credit to you!"

"I lied to her, Murdoch.  I lied to her about her mother and I said the past didn't matter.  But Angel came and almost took her away from here and you and all that's good and true in life.  If I hadn't lied, if I hadn't hidden the past and pretended that only now mattered, then I could have protected her better.  You could have protected her better.  We failed her.  If it hadn't been for that eldest boy of yours, what would have become of her, trapped in that saloon?"  Paul lifted his hands again and moaned.  Louder.  "The chain you wear is longer and heavier than this, Murdoch.  Much longer and heavier."

Murdoch eyed the chain.  "It is?" 

"It is.  Don't you feel it, man, dragging you down?"

"I - er - I don't know."  Murdoch squinted over one shoulder.  No sign of iron that he could see.  "No.  No, I don't think I do."

"But you should know and you should feel it!  You hide from the past, Murdoch, but it's dragging you down.  You're as bad a father as I was.  Worse."

Stung, Murdoch struggled up.  "No!  They were stolen from me!  I never got the chance to be a father!"

Paul leaned down and with him came a very warm waft of a breeze, one that had a hint of brimstone in it, a hint of sulphur.  "You have the chance now."

Murdoch opened his mouth.  And closed it.

"They're home.  For the first time in more than twenty years, your sons sleep under your roof.  But you deny them their father.  You offer only the rancher, the businessman, the senior partner, the tune caller.  They deserve more."

Murdoch shook his head.  "It's too late.  They don't need a father."

"How do you know?  You never offered them one."  And Paul moved so swiftly, that the air whistled and sang with his speed.  He rained blow after blow at Murdoch, whirling around him.  But not one blow, not one kick, landed.  Every single one was stopped by some invisible barrier an inch or two from Murdoch's cowering body, as if Murdoch were sheathed in ice or glass.

"This is what must go," said Paul, suddenly still again and stooping to glare into Murdoch's eyes.  "You've built the barrier thick, but it has to go.  It's not too late for you.  I've obtained a chance for you, my old friend.  It's not too late to repent."


"You will be haunted by three Spirits.  Expect the first tomorrow when the clock chimes one; the second on the next night at the same time, and the third upon the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate.  Listen well to them.  They will teach you to remember love and hope and what family really means."

"What?" said Murdoch, too dazed to protest.  Wait a moment, though.  Just wait a moment.  Wasn't there something in his library, one of the tales by that man Dickens...

"You're a fool, man, and I've been sent to un-fool you."  The Ghost raised Its chain and shook it and groaned.  "For your salvation, unhappy man!"

Paul sighed, a sigh like a gale, and with the gale came the taint of fire and brimstone.  Murdoch trembled and choked down all thought of protest.  His comment that Paul's idea had been done before, and might be (must surely be!) still under copyright, died in his throat after one or two choked out words.  

The Spectre groaned again, and rattled Its chain again, and Murdoch flung himself down, his face in the carpet and his arms over his head, suddenly more frightened than if every ghost in Hell was standing and groaning before him.

And then he remembered no more.

Murdoch woke suddenly.  All was quiet, all was still.  It was very dark.

He was warm and comfortable, feather pillows plump under his head, the blankets snuggled cosily under his chin.  What had he been dreaming about?  What was it?  Something about Paul... Oh.


He sat up and reached for the matches on the table beside his bed, feeling for them, his hand landing on the box with the ease of familiarity.  He struck a light, holding it briefly above his head and looking hard at the wavering shadows, before holding the little flame above the face of his watch, set as ever in its little stand.

Three minutes to one.

The match flickered and went out.  He swallowed, his throat suddenly dry.  It was a dream, nothing more.  Just a dream.  Such nonsense to think that a respectable rancher would be visited by Spirits of Christmases Past, Present and Future.  He frowned as he tried to remember the story precisely, but apart from the names of the three Spirits, he could remember little of it.  Still he was sure it would be nonsense. 

He waited.

He'd laugh about this all in the morning.  Although maybe he'd speak to Sam Jenkins about winter fever and its effect on a man's mind.  Sam might be able to suggest a preventive measure that would be helpful...

He struck another match and held it over the watch face, holding his breath.

One minute to one.

It was nonsense.  It was a dream.  It was some sort of delirium.  It was—dammit!  He yelped as the match flame licked at his fingertip and he shook it into darkness, cursing, just as the hands of his watch ticked themselves to one in the morning.

The room flooded with light.  Murdoch started up, choking off a cry in his throat, and found himself face to face with another unexpected visitor.

It looked like a child.  It had a child's small frame and stature, but he couldn't quite be certain since its limbs and head kept flickering; sometimes clear, sometimes blurred, as if it were mimicking the match flame of a moment before.  Here and there he saw an arm or a leg come out of the bright mist, part of the head, or a foot or a hand, but never the whole being.  But he thought it was a child, dressed in a long white gown trimmed with holly and flowers, giving out a bright light and carrying a huge cone of a hat in one hand.

Then the head came into focus, and he knew it.  He recognised it, and his heart quailed with a fear that not even seeing Paul O'Brien had instilled in him.  It was a child.  A girl-child.  One who made him want to dive beneath his covers and pull them over his head.

"I know you!  You're Penny Rose!  You're the Little Darling of the Sierras, sent to haunt me!"  He bit back a moan.  His sins were heavy indeed if Paul O'Brien had sent this one.

Penny Rose looked at him solemnly and—dear Lord be thanked!—limited her cute little dance to three or four short steps and a pirouette on her right foot.  "Come with me."

"Ah," said Murdoch.  He closed his eyes for a moment, and gathered all his courage.  He reminded himself that he was a Scot and a proud one, the scion of a race of hardy Highland warriors, and one small girl should hardly be enough to unman him entirely.  He would be fine. 

So long as she didn't sing.

Or dance.

He managed a quiet, calm tone that barely trembled at all.  "You're the Spirit—"

"—of Christmas Past," Penny Rose finished for him, helpfully, with a pirouette to the left this time.  "I am to be your Guide.  Come with me."  The hand that reached for his was thin, and the fingers like ice.

Murdoch shivered.  He found himself obeying, although not without protesting and making the child turn away so she wouldn't see him in his nightshirt.  He shrugged into the dressing gown laid across the foot of the bed and let Penny Rose lead the way. 

He remembered Paul's entrance.  "I can't float through doors and walls," he said, alarmed, as they approached the door.

"Touch my robe. No harm can come to you if you're with me."

Murdoch clutched at a handful of fabric.  "Where are we going?"

"You'll see," she singsonged, and he shut up quickly just in case she started out in full-voiced carolling.  He closed his eyes and followed; he didn't want to see himself walk through doors, after all.  When, after a moment or two of keeping his eyelids screwed tight shut, nothing appeared to have happened, he opened first one eye, then both.  He choked, gripping Penny Rose's gown more tightly. 

They stood together on a street corner, in the cold dusk of a winter's evening.  A man loomed up at them out of the darkness, coming from the mouth of an alley to their right, swathed in a thick cloak and muffler.  He veered away from them at the last instant and plunged into the throng of people jostling each other as they hurried about their business before the short winter day ended.  Another close encounter, this time with a pretty girl wrapped in a shawl over a too-thin dress made in a fashion of half a century ago, her face pale and pinched.  But like the man, she moved past Murdoch and Penny Rose without seeming to even see them.  Some invisible influence hid them, perhaps.  Still, he took a step to one side to avoid a couple walking past, their heads close together as they talked.

"They can't see us, can't hear us, can't touch us," said Penny Rose.  "They don't know we're here."

Her ability to read what he was thinking was disconcerting.  Murdoch had thought her a particularly slow and unobservant child, focused to the point of blind selfishness on her 'performances' (and here he hoped his shudder was taken for a reaction to the cold and the sensation of being a ghostly onlooker). 

"No harm can come to you," Penny Rose reminded him.

A song and a dance from her would be harm enough.  More than enough.  But he thought better of saying so.  "While I'm with you in the Christmases of the past, you mean?  Because there's nothing in the past to hurt me?" 

"I didn't say that," said the Spirit.   

It came to him then that while this Spirit might look like Penny Rose, it wasn't her.  It was something older and possibly more dangerous even than the Little Darling in full song.  So he favoured that wry comment with a terse nod of acknowledgement, since he wouldn't have believed its denials anyway, and kept his attention on the scene before him.

Frost glittered on the stones of the houses and the breath of every passer-by steamed in the cold air.  Murdoch couldn't feel it himself.  Despite standing there in only a nightshirt and a robe, he wasn't cold.  But he remembered the sort of winter chill that seeped into the bones and bit hungrily at the lungs with the promise of snow.  He drew his robe a little tighter, more for comfort than warmth.

A lamplighter stood a few yards away, perched on the top of his ladder and trimming the wick of the oil-lamp swinging on its bracket out from the wall above a shop front.  His apprentice stood below him, shivering, holding up a bottle of oil.  The flickering light played over the open shop front, over the heaped up piles of apples and shiny nuts; hazels, cob and chestnut.  A pyramid of carefully-stacked oranges stood in the centre of the display, some just in their skins, some wrapped in coloured foil that winked red and green in the light.  A crowd of boys, street ragamuffins mostly, stared covetously, one eye on the oranges and the other on the greengrocer's journeyman.  But that worthy stood in careful attendance, arms folded over his chest, eyeing the boys with the air of a man who didn't trust them for an instant.

Murdoch knew this place.  He was sure he knew this place. 

He turned slowly on his heel, a complete revolution, to be sure.  Yes.  Yes, he was sure.  Princes Street, looking west towards Lothian Road, and the darkness to his left had to be the new Gardens and that was the Castle there, right there up above him, looming over Old Town and New.  But this wasn't Now.  It couldn't be Now.  Not with the clothes the people were wearing, and the oil lamps in the streets.  This was Then. 

And just to make it certain, there was a sudden bang on a drum and the sound of a penny whistle or two, and a band of ragged men marched to stand beneath the lamp, singing.  They weren't very good, really.  Their song was as ragged as their clothes but for one man singing an old song, an old, old song, with a deep richness that caught at the heart.  Murdoch glanced at Penny Rose in apprehension, but all she did was dance a step or two, watching the singers.  She looked pleased.

"The Waits!  It's the Christmas Waits!"  A shrill boy's voice, and a child dodged out of the crowd to stand in front of Murdoch and Penny Rose, hopping from one foot to the other to keep warm, while he revelled in the singers.  "Iain, it's the Waits!"

"Aye."  A tall lad, and broad, but not yet a man, walked past Murdoch as if he weren't there.  Murdoch's mouth dropped open, his heart giving one enormous thump.  "It's Christmas Eve, Murdo.  Of course, there's Waits."

"And oranges, and nuts and lots and lots of good things."  The smaller boy wrapped his arms about himself, putting his hands into his armpits to warm them.  He was well dressed, better dressed than the ragamuffins at the greengrocers, but he had a thin black ribbon around his left sleeve.  He added, in a crow of triumph, "Because it's Christmaaaass!"

The older boy laughed.  "Aye, it's Christmas.  But maybe there'll no be oranges this year, Murdo, not since..." His voice trailed away.  He had a black armband, too, and the thick scarf looped around his neck was of black wool.  His was a young face, but already there were lines of care around the mouth and eyes and the shoulders, broad as they were, looked as though they were carrying responsibilities too heavy for them.  "But at least you know there'll be nuts since Aunt Joan sent that basket to Mama last week, up from the farm.  We'll roast some tonight, eh?  There's nothing like sweet chestnuts after your supper.  And tomorrow, after we've been to the kirk, there'll be roast beef and potatoes hot from the oven."

The child looked up, such trust and happiness in his face, despite the black armband, that Murdoch felt an unaccustomed stinging in his eyes and a lump in his throat.  "And pudding!  With currants!"

"You're aye the man for a pudding," said the elder boy, grinning.  He poked a finger into the spot beneath the little one's ribs.  "Keep that up, Murdo Lancer, and you'll be as big a man as me!"

"One day, I'll be bigger," promised the child, wriggling and dancing away.

"I don't doubt it."  Iain's grin widened.  They listened to the Waits for a little while, until the lines around Iain's eyes smoothed out and he looked his age again.  Too short a time, though, before he straightened and picked up his metaphorical burdens once more.  "Time for home.  Mama'll be looking for us."

"Ha!" said the child.  "You can't catch me!"

And a moment of playing tag, of laughter and a short chase ended up with the child being tossed up onto the elder boy's shoulders and they were off into the crowd, swallowed up into the dusk in an instant, with only their laughter and a 'Faster, Iain!  Faster!' to mark their passing.

"No!" protested Murdoch, but he couldn't follow.  His feet moved only sluggishly, as if caught in mud.  "No!  That was Iain!"

"It was Christmas.  You were happy," said Penny Rose.

Murdoch snorted.  "I was what?  Five?  Of course I was happy, despite everything.  The whole world was tinted rose then.  No troubles lasted, not even the greatest of them.  I don't remember much of my Da, but Iain was there to take his place."

"A responsible lad," said Penny Rose.

Murdoch stopped struggling, staring fruitlessly off into the dark.  "He had to be, after our father died that year.  It was consumption.  He'd been coughing all my life.  When he went, Iain stepped up to be the head of the house.  He was only sixteen or seventeen.  A boy.  A boy to care for Mama, and Aileen and me."

"A great responsibility, but he did it willingly."

"He had a great heart, even that young."

"He understood the meaning of family and of love, and most of all of loving sacrifice.  He was as good as a father to you, and made you his first concern."

"Yes.  Yes, he did."  Murdoch sighed.  "I miss him.  I'd like to see him again."  He added, "I named John after him, you know, but I thought that now I was here in America, I should anglicise the name.  I wish now I hadn't."

"He was a studious boy.  It's a shame he had to give up his own ambitions."

"He'd have been a fine preacher.  That's what he wanted, you know, but he had to go to work, to run the bookshop after Da died.  Mama couldn't manage it.  He was fierce for me to be educated though."  Murdoch had to tear his gaze from the point at which the boys had disappeared.  "Fierce for it.  He made sure I finished school and went to St Andrews."

"Oh, we know you got a good education," said Penny Rose, airily.  "You flattened the young minister with it earlier today."

Murdoch shifted a little uncomfortably.

"Still, Iain understood, didn't he, when you said that you didn't want to be a preacher or a teacher, but wanted to find your own way here in the New World.  He could have made it so hard for you to leave, but did he once say how disappointed he was with your decision?  He told you that every man had to find his own path and he worked hard to buy your outfit for the adventure."

"I worked too," snapped Murdoch.

Penny Rose ignored this and gave a twirl, catching Murdoch's hands.  "Not much of a tune caller, your brother.  I wonder where you got it from, this sense that you're the one who's right all the time?"

Murdoch spluttered, but she gave another twirl, and the world twirled with her.  He was forced to clutch at her hands and close his eyes until he had the sense of solid ground under him again.

Still winter, but a winter's day of pale sunshine glittering on the frost, striking a tiny rainbow from each spicule of ice.  In the near distance, a group of young people skated on a pond, a cheerful sight in bright woollen wrappers and scarves, hoods and gloves; they were all shouts and cheers and laughter.  A little farther off stood the houses and smoking chimneys of a great city.  Boston Common, he thought.  The Frog Pond on the Common, frozen over.

"An innocent amusement for the young people to celebrate the season," murmured Penny Rose.  "Of course there's a little flirting..."

Murdoch ignored that little dig.  He had more important things to do.  He stared at the girls on the ice, looking for her.  She'd be in pale blue trimmed with white fur, he knew that.  Maybe that was... no.  That was Jerusha Cabot, a nice girl but plainer than a puritan even on her best day. 

There.  Over there, on the path on the edge of the pond, the one that in summer wound between bushes and flowers.  She was over there, beside the banks of frost-blackened roses.

She swung her skates with one hand as she walked.  She had the other tucked under the arm of the tall young man, the very tall young man, at her side.  She was dainty and pretty, delicate as the china shepherdess in the parlour of the house back home in Edinburgh.  Her skirts, fuller than the ones worn in the last vision Penny Rose had shown him, were kilted up to calf length to show off a pair of very pretty boots made from pale blue Spanish leather.  The snow would ruin them, but Murdoch knew that wouldn't worry her.  Her father would just laugh and buy her more.

"Well, no, he isn't pleased," she said.  She flashed the young man a look, trying to look demure.  "I've been forbidden to see you again."

"Why?  I'm no' a bad man, and I'm an educated one.  I may not have a lot of money now, but I can work and make a guid life for us..."

"He says you aren't a suitable suitor for me.  Are you suitable?"

Younger-Murdoch's neck reddened.  "Do you think I am?"

The demure look deepened into a smile and she said, in an atrocious copy of his own brogue, "Oh aye, laddie.  Ye'll do!"

Younger-Murdoch laughed and reached up with his free hand to cover her small one, where it lay on his arm.  "So, you'll come with me to California?"

She glanced away and seemed to look directly at the older Murdoch standing beside Penny Rose.  Hidden from her suitor, her eyes made a quick sweep of the Boston skyline and her mouth quirked into a tiny grimace.  But if this was a realisation of all she'd leave behind that was familiar and safe, it was a brief one.  She turned back to her young man, smiling, the ringlets framing her face dancing as she nodded.

"Aye," she said.  "I will."

The delight on Younger-Murdoch's face was so obvious he was glowing with it.  He caught her up and swung her around, laughing, not caring that the skates went flying or that her hood came loose and the ringlets tumbled down over her shoulders.  Murdoch's eyes dimmed.  He hadn't wept for Catherine for over twenty years now, but the old pain was still there, slumbering now but not quite dead.

"You were happy that Christmas," commented Penny Rose.

"Yes."  Of course he was!  Catherine Garrett had just agreed to marry him.

"Should you have kissed her like that in a public place?"  A moment's silence, while the Ghost of Christmas Past observed the scene with its head on one side, its own ghostly ringlets in perfect array.  "She's pretty, but I wouldn't say she was beautiful."

No, Catherine hadn't been beautiful, not in the strictest sense.  But she'd had a great deal of charm and her face was bright, with wide eyes full of life and laughter, and her mouth was always smiling above the most decided little chin.  A stubborn wee thing, he remembered.  Harlan Garrett didn't have a hope of withstanding his daughter once she'd set her heart on something.  It was an abiding honour and privilege that she'd set her heart on him.  Murdoch smiled, watching her and his younger self walking hand in hand through the snow towards the house on Beacon Hill to brave her father's anger.  Neither seemed even to notice the cold. 

"She laughed a lot.  And she loved life."

"Yes."  And once again Penny Rose showed that she could tell what he was thinking.  "She knew what she wanted and she fought for it.  You're quite right.  Stubborn.  And she remained so until she died, obstinately clinging to life to give her son his chance to be born, fighting for every failing breath."

It was like a blow to the heart, the sudden pain.  The same son who was now at Lancer, for the first time in his life rather than having grown up there, where he belonged.  The son he'd welcomed home with a cold word and the curt offer of a drink.  Murdoch closed his eyes for a moment against the shame and the little stab of remorse.

Catherine was gone when he opened his eyes.  All the skaters were gone, although it was still winter and still Boston Common under a foot or two of snow.  It was getting dark now and the light was the same dusky purple as the bloom on an overripe grape.  A storm was coming, the first flakes of new snow already whirling around two bands of boys. 

"Where's Catherine?" he demanded, sharp with alarm.

An indifferent shrug.  "Oh she's been gone for a long time.  You know that."

He wanted to protest, to complain, but the Spirit shook its head at him and he was silent.  He watched the boys instead, though they were little more than blurs.  Perhaps the falling snow made it difficult to focus.

"Our time grows short," said the Spirit.  "Very short.  I only have a little time to show you the happy Christmases of others."

The boys were in the midst of a mock battle, with snowballs for their cannon balls and wooden swords or sticks with cross-handles tied to them for close-in fighting.  One band had built a fort on a small rise, and were securely lodged there.  A tall, slight boy waved a convincing-looking sword and led the brave, but doomed, assault; the defenders had a mighty store of snowballs and used them with vigour and skill, while the attackers were honourable and rolled over to play dead if a snowball hit them.  The leader's men were whittled away quickly, leaving him to battle the defending captain alone, hand to hand.

All the young soldiers, both the quick and the dead, came to watch, cheering on one or other of the two combatants.  The young attacker fought fiercely, but the defending captain was taller and older, at least ten years old, and with a longer reach.  A sharp jab of a wooden sword and our young hero was bent double, wheezing and coughing and conceding defeat with as much dignity as he could muster.  Murdoch watched as the warriors shook hands and the boys scattered, some eyeing the storm apprehensively, shouting their goodbyes and wishing each other a merry Christmas.  The heaviness in his chest eased a little.  The Spirit was focused on one boy, the one Murdoch himself was desperate to see.

The defeated captain ran with a couple of others, dodging across Beacon Street and running pell-mell up Walnut Street.  It didn't surprise Murdoch that he turned into Mount Vernon and ended at a door that Murdoch himself hadn't darkened for over twenty years.

An evergreen wreath hung from the knocker, apples and oranges spiked into the fir and bristling with whole cloves.  Standing just behind Scott, unseen and unheard as the boy made vigorous use of the knocker, Murdoch took in a deep, sniffing breath, hoping to catch even the faintest trace of the spicy scent that had to be filling Scott's nostrils.  Nothing.  He might as well be dead and a ghost himself, for all the physical connexion he could make with the world.  He reached out a hand, but something, some barrier he couldn't breach, stopped him from closing it over his son's shoulder.

Murdoch let his hand drop.

Scott flung himself into the hall the moment the door opened.  What was the name of Garrett's butler again?  Harris?  Harliss?  Something like that.  Murdoch hadn't really had much to do with him except try to get him to disobey Garrett's ban on allowing Murdoch to cross the threshold, usually with a marked lack of success.  This time, at least, Harris or whatever his name was, couldn't stop the Spirit from entering and Murdoch with it.  Murdoch didn't think anything or anyone could stop the Spirit from going anywhere it wanted.

"Am I late?" asked Scott, allowing Harliss... Hartliss!  That was it.  Scott allowed Hartliss to unwind him from the long scarf and take the cap and mittens.  His face glowed a healthy pink from his afternoon's exercise.

"Not at all, Master Scott, but the master said to send you into the library as soon as you got home.  Mrs Hartliss is making hot chocolate for you.  I'll bring it up directly."

"Scotty!  Is that you, Scotty?"  A door was flung open.  Harlan Garrett, his hair just starting to whiten, beckoned to his grandson.  "Come and see what I've got for you."

Scott ran to obey, chattering nineteen to the dozen about the afternoon's play, and how he'd almost defeated William Pearse—"Really, I almost did it, Grandfather!"—and claimed the Hill for his own team.  "And you know, sir, he's two years older than me and I can't—oh.  Oh.  Oh, Grandfather!"

Scott stopped and stared.  A round table had been placed in the bay window fronting onto the street, and on it stood a cunning little fir tree in a red pot.  Its branches were strung with garlands of cranberries and gilded nuts, and lit with slender candles in silver holders clipped to each branch.  It was laden with gingerbread men with eyes and mouths of white icing, and marzipan candies (both hard and soft) and yet more nuts spilled from a dozen little cornucopias crafted from gilt paper.  These hung next to sugar dusted cookies that looked like they'd been baked by the icy fingers of Jack Frost himself.  Toy soldiers, penny whistles and tiny toy drums hung from the branches at just the wrong height for Scott to reach them unaided.  He'd have to climb on a chair.  Good planning there, on Harlan's part. 

Scot hurled himself at Harlan.  "Thank you!  Thank you!  My own tree!  I never thought I'd have one of my own!"

"Well," said Harlan, preening and patting Scott on the back.  "You talked of little else last Christmas, Scotty, but Frank Peabody's table tree.  It seems that trees are all the rage now, and never let it be said that a Peabody could outdo a Garrett."

"Lancer!" snapped Murdoch, heedless of the fact that neither Harlan nor Scott could hear him.  "His name is Scott Garrett Lancer."

To his astonishment, and gratification, Scott laughed but said, "I'm really just half a Garrett, grandfather.  I'm half a Lancer, too."

"Nonsense.  You're all Garrett."  Harlan glanced at the portrait hung over the fireplace.  Catherine Laura Garrett Lancer stared back, almost nine years dead but captured here in oils, forever pretty and dainty and incorruptible.  Scott had her colouring, and the narrow, high-cheekboned Garrett face.  Murdoch couldn't see much of himself there, unless it was the set of the jaw and the shape of the eyes and ears.

Scott grinned, not arguing.  "I do thank you, sir!  It's the best tree in all Boston."

"In all of the Commonwealth!"

Scott cheered and waved his hand around his head in lieu of having a hat in it to wave.  "Yaaaay!  All of the Commonwealth!"

"That's my boy," said Harlan Garratt, and smiled.

"No, he's not!  He's mine!  My boy and Catherine's and you stole him and— no, no.  Stop it.  We can't leave now!  We can't—"

But Penny Rose had him by the hands again and they were whirling and twirling, the world spinning around him until he was sick and dizzy and had to close his eyes.  They landed with a soft thud, in a place of darkness.  Above their heads the sky was so heavy with stars that it seemed to be stooping down to them.  Away to the left a small town stood on a low hill, buildings hard black shapes against the stars.  Penny Rose started for the town, and much as Murdoch would have liked a few minutes to compose himself—or even more, much as he would have liked to turn his back on the Spirit and march in the opposite direction—he found himself pulled inexorably in her wake.

"Scott was well and happy," observed the Spirit.

"He would have been just as well and happy in California!"

"Except that you gave up, and allowed Harlan Garrett to win.  You never contacted him, even." 

"The first few years, California was very unsettled... not safe.  He was better in Boston then—"

"Explain to him, not me."  Penny Rose put her hand on Murdoch's heart.  "I already know what's here."  And she shook her head, her expression sad. 

All Murdoch could do was splutter.  How could she know any such thing?  It was more than he did himself.  He followed her in mute resentment.

The streets of the little town were dark, but there were lights, voices and singing up ahead in the town square.  Penny Rose and Murdoch joined the procession winding its way around the edge of the plaza, all the adults following the children.  Many carried paper lanterns to light their way.  At the front of the procession, the children sang the traditional pedir posada with the man standing in a house doorway, barring the way.  A little girl in a blue cloak sat on a donkey, her arms full of pointsettias, while her Joseph sang his part loudly in his high, sweet treble.  *En nombre del cielo,* he sang, *Os pido posada, Pues no puede andar, Mi esposa amada.*  The boy sang back and forth with the householder, standing up as straight as he could, his skinny little form rigid with the effort.  When he turned to the listening crowd to include them in his entreaties, his deep blue eyes were shining with excitement and something else—pride, maybe, at being the focus of all their attention.

Murdoch swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat.  All those years alone he'd been able to imagine Scott's Christmases, the old familiar carols and customs brought to America from the Old Country helping him see the image in his head.  He'd remembered his own Christmases with Iain and Aileen, and mentally put Scott in his own old place.  It had been a sour sort of comfort, but comfort it was.  But Johnny... Johnny had been hidden in the shadow that was the unfamiliar places of Mexico and the border towns, beyond the reach of any remembrance of a Scottish Christmas.  Murdoch had never had even the most meagre consolation of imagining him safe and happy.

And now here Johnny was, a little older than Scott had been in the Boston vision.  Ten or eleven maybe, but still with a child's frailty, shoulders and chest thin and undeveloped under the white cotton shirt embroidered down its front with red butterflies; but not starving or ill used.  This was a Johnny Murdoch had never been sure existed: one who was bright, happy and content.

The pedir posada ended with the householder flinging open his door and inviting everyone in to the feast inside.  Many of the adults carried dishes and baskets, Murdoch saw now, bringing food and drink to share. 

"He looks well and happy too," observed Penny Rose.  She attempted an arabesque, balancing on one leg with the other stretched out behind her.  She pointed her toes very nicely, as she was at pains to tell him.

Murdoch nodded, watching as Johnny and the other children milled about in excitement, watching their elders make their novena at the Nacimiento, waiting for the star-shaped piñata to be produced and the fun to begin.  Murdoch couldn't speak.  This was a greater reassurance than he'd ever expected.

The adults laid down their rosaries and started rounding up their children.  Johnny raced to join a stocky Mexican, leaping up when the man held out his arms.

"Papa!  Papa!  Did you hear me?  I sang as loud as I could for you and Mama.  Did you hear?"

"I think they heard all the way to Mexico City," said the man, gravely, but he was smiling and the hug he gave Johnny was crushing.  He squeezed until Johnny squealed, and set him down, bending to brush his lips against the boy's forehead.  "I'm very proud of you, Juanito.  You were the best Joseph of the whole Posadas.  There's your mother now.  Go and make sure that she has a chair so she can see the piñata, and get yourself ready to get that candy!  Go now, m'hijo."

Johnny squirmed away, laughing, and sprang to obey, every inch the happy, loved child that Murdoch had longed for.



"Who is that?"  Murdoch spat it out.  "Who is that?  He's not Johnny's father!  He's not Johnny's Papa!  Who is that?"

Johnny led a woman out of the shadows to take a chair near the fire: Maria, her belly out before her, more beautiful than Murdoch remembered.  She was laughing too, stretching out one hand for the man Johnny claimed as father, the other smoothing over the unborn child under her heart before resting on Johnny's dark head.

Murdoch swallowed.  "Who is that man?"  But now he was tired and sad, and the fire had gone out of him.  "That's Maria.  My Maria.  But she was never really my Maria."

He turned away, unable to bear watching any longer.

"Edgardo Madrid cares for them both," said the Spirit. 

"Does he now?" Murdoch felt sick, closing his eyes against the rush of nausea.

"He loves Maria and has been the only father Johnny knows, since the boy was three."

"He hasn't... he hasn't the right.  He isn't Johnny's father.  He isn't...  She should never have taken him, she should never have taken my boy like that, away from me."

Silence.  When he opened his eyes again, the Spirit stood regarding him with its head tilted on one side, expression grave.  "It doesn't chime with what you wanted to know, is that it?  Your Christmases aren't about joy and love and happiness, but sadness and loneliness.  So be it.  I have a very little time now, but I'll show you what you want."

"No," whispered Murdoch.  But it was too late. 

Las Posadas whirled away into shadow and in its place was the kitchen at the hacienda.  A young woman, her shining black hair up in an elaborate coiffure held in place with a tortoiseshell mantilla comb, offered a young Murdoch a slice of something.  Pie, perhaps?  The older, sick-at-heart Murdoch couldn't quite see.  But he did see the grimace on the face of his younger self.

"That's not right, Maria.  Catherine never made it like that.  You've got it wrong somehow.  It tastes wrong.  Look, you know I've taken on a new hand, Tom Dane?  He's married, and his wife will show you how.  Go and talk to Marcy Dane.  She'll tell you how to get it right."

The smile on Maria's face clouded over.

Another whirling change, but Murdoch and the Spirit were still at the hacienda, in the great room this time.  A low fire smouldered in the hearth and rain beat against the windows behind the desk.  Murdoch himself, still younger than now but older than when he was offering his wife culinary criticism, his hair just starting to grey, strode restlessly around the room.  He had a glass of whisky in his hand.  His mouth was drawn down. 

"And a very merry Christmas to me," he muttered, and hurled the glass into the fireplace.  The flames whooshed out to meet it, burning the whisky in a frenzy of blue fire.  "A bloody merry Christmas to all."

Another fading away, another change of scene.  The library in Harlan's townhouse again.  No tree this year, no festivities.  Just Scott, and a Scott who was more than ten years older than before, and pitifully and painfully thin.  Face haggard, he limped to a chair beside the fire.  He sat with a little half-breathed sigh of pain, one hand on his ribs.  He had an orange in the other, taken from a bowl of fruit and nuts on the round table in the bay window.

Harlan sat in the chair on the other side of the hearth, watching Scott with all the concern and fear that Murdoch himself felt now.  He spoke with care, with the air of a man whose words had been taken badly before or who had spoken into too many silences.  "I'm glad you got up today, Scotty, in time for Christmas."

Scott stared at the orange in his hand.  It was a long time before he spoke.  The minutes ticked away by the marble clock on the mantel, each loud tick-tock the only sound in the room.  "Christmas?  Is it Christmas?"

No exasperation on Harlan's face, nothing but solicitude and tenderness.  "Yes, my boy.  It's Christmas.  The first Christmas of the peace."

More silence. 

"Oh," said Scott.  He gave Harlan a faint, wavering smile before propping his chin on his free hand and staring into the fire.

Unseen by Scott, Harlan winced and drew a hand over his eyes.  His mouth trembled.  When he spoke, though, his tone was bright and the trembling mouth was forced into a smile.  "Would you like me to peel the orange, Scotty?"

Scott looked up for a moment before turning his attention to the fruit.  "Oranges come from California, don't they?"

Harlan nodded.  "I believe these did, yes."

"Well, that's more than fathers ever did," said Scott, and the wavering smile died away.  "I suppose it's better than nothing."

Murdoch started forward, but again the scene spun away into darkness, and instead of his hand closing on his son's thin shoulder, he stumbled into a room; a mean school room, it looked like, badly fitted out with dog-eared books and a broken blackboard for the teacher.  A child was speaking to a tall nun with a spotless wimple and a mouth that turned down so severely at the corners that it had dragged down the flesh of the cheeks on either side into deep lines.  The other children watched eagerly, hopefully, as their little spokesman made his plea on their behalf.

"Certainly not," said the nun.  "Foundlings have no place at Las Posadas, not where there are good, well brought up children.  You do not mix with your betters."

"It's just one day, Sister Aurelia," pleaded Johnny.  "Just one day.  We would be at the back and make no noise.  We will be good, we promise—"

"I said no and I meant it.  Sit down, or I'll teach you your manners in a way that means you won't sit for a month.  Nobody wants you dirty boys anywhere near good, God-fearing families!  Now sit down."

"Are there no orphanages," murmured the Spirit, beside Murdoch.  "Are there not people to care for the orphans, to give them all they need?"

Murdoch's face burned.  "I didn't mean... I didn't..."

"Sit down, Juan Lancer!"

Johnny's young face went hard.  "It's not Lancer!  It's not!  My Papa was Edgardo Madrid, and I'm John Madrid.  John Madrid!"  He danced out of her reach. 

"You're a filthy little mestizo that no good man wants in his house!  Not your gringo father, not your tio.  You're a worthless little—"  The nun caught herself up.  Her mouth tightened into steel, trapping the words behind it.  "You are a sin.  You were conceived in sin and born in it, and you will learn to repent and to be grateful for whatever good, honest people choose to give you.  And if I choose to call you Juan Lancer, then that is your name."

The other children cowered away, but Johnny stood his ground, shoulders set and fists balled.  He faded away out of Murdoch's sight, but Murdoch could hear him clearly.  "I'm Johnny Madrid.  And one day, every one will know my name.  I promise.  One day, you'll know."

Just as he had with Scott back from the war, sick and worn, Murdoch stood with his hand outstretched, reaching for a son who was heedless of his existence.  But Johnny was gone again into the shadows.

"They were all sad enough little scenes.  That's how you like your Christmas, isn't it?  Every one as miserable and dour as you are yourself."

Murdoch shook his head.  The resentment he'd been feeling for some time was growing, and bringing a hard anger with it.  This wasn't right.  It wasn't fair.

"I don’t think I can teach you anything more," said the Spirit, sadly.  "I'll sing you a song instead, shall I?  I can dance, too—"

"No!" roared Murdoch and forgetting entirely that he was a big man of six foot six and she a little girl or Spirit or Ghostly Guide or whatever of four foot nothing, he leapt to prevent the song and dance.

**... in the struggle that followed, he realised that Its light was burning high and bright.  He seized the high, pointed hat that It had been carrying all the while, and pressed it down upon Its head. The Spirit dropped beneath it, so that the extinguisher covered Its whole form... He was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being in his own bedroom. He gave the cap a parting squeeze, in which his hand relaxed; and had barely time to reel to bed, before he sank into a heavy sleep.**


Murdoch woke and started up, clutching at his blankets.  Had that been the great room clock striking the three-quarter chime?  He looked around, certain that he'd been woken just in the very nick of time, ready for the visit of the second of the three Spirits.  But his bedroom was still and quiet.  He listened hard.  The entire hacienda was as still as the grave.

He winced.  Perhaps that wasn't the best simile he could have come up with, considering the circumstances.

He scrabbled for a match, determined not to be caught for a second time in the dark.  He lit his night candle, setting the candlestick beside his watch, peering at the watch face in the uncertain light.  Ten minutes to one.  Ten long minutes before he found if this was a dream, or if he really had been sent back to the past to be shown what it was to be happy. 

And shown—dear Lord, had he been shown—what unhappiness looked like when visited upon his sons.

"Nonsense," he said, aloud.  "Stuff and nonsense."

He would have added some of the choicer pejoratives taught to him by the sailors on his passage across to America and augmented by a long association with working cowhands since, but he refrained.  It probably wouldn't be wise to antagonise the Spirits.  Not that he really believed in them or that it had been anything other than a curiously detailed dream almost certainly brought about by something he'd eaten (he'd thought the beef a trifle underdone and the carrots were definitely suspect).  But still.  Better not, just in case.

Instead he lay stiff as a board under the covers, thinking on everything he'd seen, from Iain to Scott to Johnny.  He lay with his head turned to one side so he could keep an eye on the time.  Everything was very still.  Only his chest moved slightly, and the busy sweep of the second hand around the watch face.

The time grew closer.  Deep in the house he heard the whirring as the clock wound itself up to strike the hour.  He stopped breathing.  The Westminster chime came first, one of the first sounds he remembered, familiar to him from the black marble clock on the mantel in the parlour back in Edinburgh.  Then a pause.

He tensed...

A single blow of a tiny hammer on the bell.  One.  Like the crack of doom.

... and nothing happened.

Tense, wound as tight as his watch spring, Murdoch grimaced and waited.

Still nothing.  He had hunched his shoulders in readiness and now he let them relax slowly.  Nothing approached his bedside.  No sign of the Little Darling of the Sierras whom he'd tried so hard to snuff out with her own hat, no sign of any new Spirit.  Nothing.  No-one, living or dead.

Nada, as Maria would have said.  As Johnny would say.

It had been a dream after all.  Just a dream.

One more glance around and he was about to lie down again and try and sleep, when he became aware that his bedroom door had opened part way.  Beyond glowed a ruddy light.  A most unnatural, unwelcome, Spirit of Christmas sort of light.

He'd read of hearts skipping beats, but had always thought it a most unlikely sort of thing to happen.  Anatomically speaking—although he would have to check with Sam Jenkins, possibly at the same time that he consulted the good doctor about winter fever—well, anatomically speaking, he rather thought that hearts skipping beats were defective and likely to stutter to a messy and premature full stop.  It wasn't something any right-thinking man would consider to be a good idea.

His heart skipped several beats.  And just for good measure, his chest tightened and what felt like an icy hand closed around his guts.  For a moment he lay still, staring at the gradually growing light, while his stomach roiled and his heart ached and he wished he were anywhere (dear lord anywhere at all!) other than in his bed. 

No point in putting this off.  No point at all.

He slid out from under the quilts and covers, and got quietly to his feet, padding across the cool floor to the doorway. The moment his hand touched the knob, a voice called him by name and told him to enter. Gritting his teeth, he obeyed.

Somehow, his bedroom door opened not on the upper hallway the way it used to, but on the hacienda great room below.  It was the great room, there was no doubt about that.  That was the big sofa where he'd sat, whisky in hand, staring at the fire after being deserted by Scott and Teresa.  That was his desk, with the ledgers stacked in one corner.  The inkwell lid was off, he noticed, a little displeased by how untidy it made the desk top look.  That was his chair behind the desk, that was his mantel with the ornate plaster L set into the chimney breast, the copy of the mark borne by his cows as if he'd branded the hacienda as his own as surely as he'd branded his cattle.  His.  All his.  All as it should be (if you discount the untidiness with the inkwell, which wasn't characteristic of him at all).

Still, all was as it should be.

Except that the room looked as though Teresa had gone wild in it.  Every wall was hung with holly, mistletoe and ivy, each great garland wreathed with little ornaments and tiny brass musical instruments that reflected the light like twinkling mirrors, and each garland was looped with strings of red cranberries and shiny nuts.  Heaped up on the floor to form a kind of throne were great joints of beef, turkeys, geese, game, poultry, and long wreaths of sausages.  There were cakes and cookies of every colour and flavour and piles of the fruit that California grew in such profusion: dates and grapes, apples and oranges.

Reclining on this couch there sat a jolly giant, glorious to see, who held a glowing torch not unlike Plenty's horn in shape.  He wore a green robe, open to the waist and trimmed with white fur, and a crown of holly set with bright red berries.

Murdoch stared.  "Sam?  Sam Jenkins?  What in hel— in Hades are you doing here at this time of night?  Dressed like that?  Cover up, man!  I don't want to see that and Teresa might walk in here at any minute!"

The Spirit smiled. "Come in!'' it exclaimed, its voice like rich, dark music. "Come in, and know me better, man!''

Murdoch bit back a retort that would have pointed out to the doctor his sheer bloody cheek in daring to invite Murdoch into his own room, but in his head he heard the whisper of O'Brien's voice and Murdoch clamped his teeth shut to close in the words. 

"I am the Spirit of Christmas Present.  Look upon me!"

"Yes," said Murdoch. "Yes.  I know you."

Although it couldn't really be Sam, could it, the way it hadn't really been the Little Darling.  At best Sam was of medium height and size.  This Spirit might look like him, but it was bigger than Murdoch; both taller and most definitely bigger in the round.  Murdoch was proud of managing to preserve something of his figure as he.. well, not aged because he was barely into his prime, but he'd kept his figure as he left his youth behind him.  

The Spirit laughed, and Murdoch felt his annoyance increase.  "You're the Spirit of Christmas Present and if I understood the previous Spirit, you're going to show me scenes of cheer and joy?"

"I am." The big Spirit got to its feet. 

Definitely not the real Sam then, because this visitor towered over Murdoch, a veritable giant, and if it hadn't magically raised the ceiling somehow, its head and upper body must have been in... Murdoch paused and calculated.  Oh, in Johnny's room.  And that was most unwise, waking his younger, deadly son by poking your head up through his floor.  Johnny would shoot first and ask who the hell the Spirit was afterwards.  Yes, Johnny Madrid would shoot and Johnny Madrid wouldn't miss.  Murdoch felt a small smile tug at the corner of his mouth.  There were times that he positively loved his son's approach to life. 

"Come," said the Spirit.  "Hold my robe."

Murdoch heaved a (mostly) silent sigh, reached out and grasped Sam's soft green velvet robe.  This time he wasn't worried about walking through walls and doors.  Annoying as she'd been, Penny Rose had taught him he had nothing to fear there.  So he was sanguine about being wafted, silently and (he suspected) invisibly out through the thick adobe walls to the estancia beyond. 

To the bunkhouse first, where the hands celebrated in their own inimitable style.  Someone had brought in a few boughs of pinewood with the cones still on them, and pinned them here and there on the rough wooden walls and twisted them around the bunks.  Above many a bunk, where the owner's ditty bag hung on a nail, they'd tucked a sprig of greenery into the mouths of the bags to give their meagre belongings an air of festivity.  The stove was cherry red, throwing out a marvellous heat that, to his surprise, Murdoch was allowed to feel and relish.  He hadn't been able to smell or touch anything when he'd been with Penny Rose, and this was an advance.  He sniffed, enjoying the change.  The big kettle on the stove top held mulled wine, if he weren't mistaken.

One or two of the men were curled up in the bunks already and many of the Mexican vaqueros were in Morro Coyo for the last of the Posadas, but still half a dozen sat at the table set before the stove, playing cards, singing songs and telling each other tall tales.  They were laughing and happy, despite the late hour and the fact that they'd put in a full day's labour, stretching out their stockinged feet to the warmth of the stove, and sharing their smokes and even a bag or two of candy. 

"Here!"  Frank stood to reach the kettle.  "There's still some of the punch that Mister Scott made for us.  Who wants some?"

A chorus of eager entreaty, and Frank ladled out the last of the wine, sharing it with scrupulous accuracy.  Walt, the older Walt, cracked nuts while Young Walt tossed the kernels in a bowl with ground spices and had then to slap away reaching hands, laughing, before putting the bowl out for all to share.  More chestnuts were grilling on the stove top, their shiny brown cases blackening in the heat.  It was a cheerful scene, despite the bareness of the room.  Murdoch felt a stab of guilt, that he hadn't done more for them.  Of course, he'd told the cook to roast a haunch of beef for them on the morrow and he'd declared it a holiday with more than the usual level of food and drink.  But still, he could have done more.  Much more.

"They're fools to take pleasure in such poor things," insinuated the Spirit.

"They aren't doing any harm, I suppose."  Murdoch was reluctant to let the Spirit see his reaction to the sight of his men making merry with what they had.

"They work hard.  They deserve a little joy."  The Spirit smiled and held up its cornucopia, shaking it lightly, scattering light golden mist and glittering dust.  Murdoch watched the mist spreading over the faces and figures of his men. And if when the mist and dust had faded, the light was a little brighter, the faces were a little happier, the cheering a little louder and the laughter a little easier, and even the sleepers dozed more sweetly – well, Murdoch was not the man to admit to it.

The voices faded, and the scene shifted and changed.  Now it was Cipriano's house, as day dawned bright and a little chill, the usual winter fogs and rains in abeyance.  Murdoch was surprised that Cip and his wife, Isabella, weren't at Mass in Morro Coyo, but Señora Isabella was hard at work in her kitchen.  Murdoch took a deep breath to take in the scents of tamales and romaritos, and the sweet fritters, buñuelos, that were Señora Isabella's speciality.  She was a noted cook and Cipriano was a lucky man in more ways than one.  Cipriano himself sat beside his fire, pipe in hand, looking over a book and sipping at a cup of chocolate caliente, stirring it with a cinnamon stick.

"It was good to see Johnny at Las Posadas yesterday," remarked Isabella, coming to join Cipriano.  She cleared space on the little table, moving aside a child's wooden horse and another of Cipriano's books.  She'd brought with her a cup of chocolate for herself and a plate of pasteles, little sweet cakes dipped in honey and sprinkled with cinnamon.  She allowed Cipriano to take a cake, wrinkling her nose at his pipe, though, until Cipriano took it to the door and tapped it out onto the ground outside, grinding the embers down to ash under his heel.

Murdoch grinned.  He had always suspected that Cipriano was not unlike the tobacco: firmly beneath Isabella's heel.  But she had pretty feet and was altogether charming, so perhaps Cip didn't mind too much.

Isabella gave her husband a smile that made Murdoch ache with something that might be envy.  "I was glad yesterday because it has worried me, the thought that the sons are not settled.  Señor Scott finds us all so very strange, I think, so very different from the north.  The Señora Catherine was the same, with her pale hair and her pale eyes."  Isabella considered it, her head tilted to one side.  "There was something of the cold north in her, don't you think?"

"She was a pleasant lady," said Cipriano.  "Señor Scott is much like her."

"Oh yes!  All I meant is that she did not have time, poor lady, to learn to belong.  I want the son to have the time that she did not."

"And Johnny?"

Isabella sighed and sipped her chocolate.  "Well, with him we do not have to fear that differences will drive him away.  He is one of our own, come home.  He knows the old ways, the right ways.  But there is much of the lost child in him; a lost child's anger and fear."  She sighed again.  "We need the sons if the estancia is to thrive.  The Patrón needs the sons more now than he did when he wanted them here to defeat Day Pardee.  But will he do enough, give enough, to make them stay?"

Murdoch snorted.  He'd given them each a third of his ranch.  What more could they possibly want?

Cipriano made the same observation, although in a milder tone.

"Pfft!" said Isabella.  "I have seen the fine things Señor Scott brought with him.  He is a rich man already.  This is a fine estancia, but he is not in need.  And Johnny..."  She paused, frowning.  "I do not know that he is in need of the estancia for its own sake, that the thought of being a rancher ever crossed his mind.  But something that is his own... perhaps that; something that welcomes him without reserve, somewhere the lost child can call home—that, perhaps.  Both need more than cows and beef.  Do you think that Patrón realised what he was doing when he sent for his sons?  Did he realise what he must give, not of the land, but of himself if he is to keep them here?"

"He will not find that easy."

"No, perhaps not.  But this time of year, the holy days, may be a start."

"I do not think that the Patrón will make it a merry Navidad."  Cipriano wiped cinnamon sugar from his moustache.  "Despite everything, he will not find it in his heart to rejoice the way he should."

Isabella glanced towards the door that led to the meadow and the hacienda beyond.  The expression on her face had Murdoch very grateful that he was invisible.  Señora Isabella had a soft gentleness of manner and a grace that was legendary, but only a fool failed to realise that merely masked the iron will beneath.  She was not the most respected woman in the district for nothing.  It was not a comfortable thing, to have the Señora displeased with you, and Murdoch felt that she was very displeased indeed.

Cipriano looked a trifle alarmed.  "He is a good Patrón, Bella.  He has been very good to us."

Isabella indicated this to be true with the smallest lift of her shoulders, but she continued to look in the direction of the hacienda in a manner that filled the hacienda's owner with disquiet.  "Yes, he is a good patrón.  He loves the land as we would want him to, I agree.  This isn't the sort of estancia we've heard of, milked dry by a Don to pay for a grand life in the city and no love or loyalty given in return.  Or worse, a place owned not by a man but some con-sort-i-um—" and her expression of scorn as she drew out the word, giving each syllable its full measure of contempt, couldn't be bettered on any stage in the world "—where only profit matters, and squeezing every last peso from the land until it's left dry and empty."

Cipriano nodded.  Too many of the larger ranches were in the hands of businessmen who had no feeling for what it was they owned.  "He loves the land as much as we do."

"He is a good patrón.  He pays well.  He educates the young ones.  He finds work for everyone.  He treats all men with respect.  He listens when those who know more, offer their advice."  She smiled then, and patted Cipriano's knee.  "He values what is worth valuing."

Cipriano smiled and gave her a little bow as thanks for the compliment.

"The vaqueros trust him.  We trust that he will do what's right for the estancia and for us, that he understands the obligations upon him as the Patrón, the responsibilities and the loyalties that must run from him to us, as well as from us to him."

Murdoch puffed out his chest, gratified.  This was praise indeed, and from the most respected woman in the entire Valley.  He glanced sidelong at Sam by his side, hoping that the Spirit recognised that Murdoch had some solid worthy qualities and wasn't at all the miscreant in need of redemption that someone, somewhere, had made him out to be.  The Spirit said nothing, but that it had seen the look was obvious.  The corner of Sam's mouth quirked up in acknowledgement.

Isabella leant forward to put her hand flat against Cipriano's heart, and she held it there, looking her husband in the eyes.  "I know what is here when it comes to you, mi marido.  What moves you, what you feel for me and our sons, what honour and honesty live here.  This is behind everything you do.  My expectation of you is that you will live in accordance to how your heart prompts you, and I trust what that will be."

Cipriano, as discomposed as ever Murdoch had seen him, put his own hand over hers where it lay on his heart.  His cheekbones reddened.

"But the Patrón... it seems to me that he acts the way he does because it's expected of him.  It's as if he read somewhere in those books of his that a man must act thus and thus to be seen as good Patrón, a good citizen and a good man.  But here—"  and she patted Cipriano's chest.  "Here, there is nothing.  A hole, perhaps, or something hidden inside him that he cannot let loose."

Murdoch huffed out a noise that he intended to be disgruntled.  That was quite the sting in the tail of Isabella's compliments.  Rather insulting to be considered to be heartless.

"You are not a rich man, Cipriano, but I think you are a happy one?"

"God knows it."  He caught her hand in his and carried it to his lips.  "And I am rich, mi corazón, in you."

She smiled and touched his cheek with her fingers.  "The Patrón is not a happy man, and that saddens me as much as it lessens him."

"He has been hurt too badly by the past, I think."

"We all have hurts.  His sons live and are home again, where they belong, and he should be giddy with the joy of that.  There are others who will never come home, hurts that can't be healed."  She looked down to hide her face.

If Isabella had marched up to Murdoch and slapped him, he couldn't have been more shocked.  He gasped, feeling a stab of something like shame. 

Beside him, the Spirit stirred.  "There was a child.  A daughter."

"Little Isabella."  Murdoch couldn't look at either of the Roldàns or at the Spirit.  "I'd... I'd almost forgotten.  It happened just when Maria left, taking Johnny with her.  Scarlet fever... we lost half a dozen children here on the estancia."

"He has many blessings, the Patrón," said Isabella.  "But despite those big ledgers of his where he weighs every cent and peso, I think that he's forgotten how to count."

Murdoch felt his face grow hot.  He coughed, cleared his throat, shuffled a foot or two.  He couldn't meet Sam's glance, could only shake his head.  The Spirit sighed softly and shook his torch over the room, allowing the golden mist to settle on Isabella's bowed head, over Cipriano's proudly set shoulders. 

In a moment Isabella straightened up, smiling.  She picked up the wooden horse that Murdoch thought must belong to her grandson Arturo, Eduardo's boy.  "We are so lucky, Cipriano.  So lucky."

Cipriano smiled back, and the moment of quiet sorrow over, together they sipped their chocolate and ate their pasteles in perfect harmony, the moment now one of quiet contentment.  The Spirit allowed Murdoch to watch for a moment or two before the room faded from view.

Murdoch ached, bone deep and bone weary.  He didn't like what he felt, that he was somehow lacking in the happiness of the Roldàns, that he didn't deserve to find that for himself.  And if Murdoch was thankful for anything, he was glad that it was Sam beside him then.  Oh, of course he knew it wasn't really Sam, but still, if there was morality anywhere in the world then the Spirit that had taken Sam's form would also have some of Sam's compassion.  Preferably without the sometimes testy temper that went with it, of course, but right at that moment Murdoch would welcome one of Sam's acerbic comments knowing the acid only imperfectly hid the heart inside.

The heart Isabella considered he himself lacked. 

They stood together in silence, the Spirit holding high its cornucopia-shaped torch.  Murdoch wasn't entirely sure that the Spirit shook a little of the mist and dust over him as they waited, but he liked to think so, that he was deemed worthy of a little of the comfort it granted.

"Where to now?" he asked.  "What other lesson have you for me?"

"Many lessons, but little time.  You know this place."  The Spirit raised the torch higher, and light streamed out all around them, as if the torch held a miniature sun and they'd brought the dawn with them.  Murdoch stared around him.  The square of tall, handsome houses standing in the pale yellow sunshine of a winter morning was a little familiar, he supposed, although he couldn't be entirely sure...

"Is it Charlotte Square?  It's changed!"

"It's been more than thirty years, man.  Of course it's changed." 

Murdoch allowed himself a small grin.  Well, he'd wanted some of Sam's caustic sharpness.  Looked like he was getting some.  But if he was being shown home again it could only mean one thing.  He followed the Spirit eagerly, walking down Charlotte Street, the square on their right.  The crowds parted to let them through without really seeing them or knowing that they passed.  And this despite the Spirit being twice the height of an ordinary man.  How he could be missed puzzled Murdoch, but on reflection he was glad of it.  If they could be seen, a giant as a companion would be bad enough without trying to explain away his walking around the streets of Edinburgh dressed only in a nightshirt and slippers.  He wasn't even wearing a nightcap.

They walked swiftly, but the Spirit made sure to take the time to shake a little of the mist and dust over the face of every man, woman and child they passed.  It affected everyone.  Faces that had been sharp with discontent or anxiety, relaxed and smiled.  Those already showing their owners' merriment creased into open laughter and smiles.  People laughed louder where the Spirit passed, greeted the stranger next to them as a brother or sister long lost and long missed; hands were grasped and shaken, voices called out greetings and many a "Merry Christmas!" sounded in the chilly winter air. 

"That torch of yours has quite an effect," remarked Murdoch.

Sam sighed.  "Today it's at its most potent, but the goodwill fades soon enough.  There's too much of the Old Adam in mankind yet."

Uncomfortable, Murdoch fell silent.  The bookshop should be just ahead, on the corner with Rose Street.  He lengthened his stride as it came into view.  It was bigger than when he saw it last, creeping its way down the block and swallowing up the house beside it.  But the curlicued sign, 'Lancer's Books and Antiquities', was just as he remembered it, right down to the fading gilt on the capital letters.  He stood for a moment staring up at the L, at every familiar curve of it.  Iain would be astonished to know just how many cows had carried that mark.

The Spirit put a hand on his shoulder.  "Well, man.  Go inside."

He hesitated only for a fraction of a minute, half-wild to get in there, half-terrified.  Sam huffed out a sigh deep enough to stir Murdoch's hair and helped him on his way with a giant hand between the shoulder blades.  They went through the door, Murdoch so immune now to that way of locomotion that he barely noticed that he was passing through oak and glass.  The Spirit followed him, somehow either making the room bigger again or shrinking himself to fit.

The smell of books.  Nothing could beat that, the smell of parchment, ink, and leather bindings.  It was the smell of knowledge, the scent of mankind's thoughts and history, overlain with the sharp tang of pine resin.  The shop was decked out for the season.  Someone had laid pine branches along the upper shelves of the bookcases, and a bowl of oranges and nuts stood at the cashier's desk where a young man stood with his back to them, a half-eaten orange in one hand, a book with the other.  He was talking to the clerk who looked on, poor man, in agony over the fate of the book.

Iain was at the back of the shop, in the jumbled room piled high with higgledy-piggledy stacks of books that he called his office.  The oak desk set before the big window looked very like the one back in California, but if Iain swivelled his chair he'd look out not onto meadows and herds of cows and the mountains blue in the distance, but a sooty courtyard shared by a dozen other businesses.  No green grass, just a few broken packing boxes and some loose straw blowing about. 

Not that Iain was looking.  He had his back to the window, reading a letter, holding it up and peering at it through a pair of gold rimmed spectacles.  He was smiling.

He was old. 

The hair was still plentiful, but where Murdoch's was greying, Iain's was white.  The face beneath was lined, the skin thinning like fine parchment.  Murdoch could see fine blue veins in Iain's temples, see the lines around eyes and mouth, the slackness of skin that once was firm and youthful.  The shoulders that had carried Murdoch more than once—oh, often!—were a little bowed now, hunching in on themselves to fend off age.

Murdoch's breath stopped, the smile frozen so his mouth curved up in a rictus that made his jaw ache.  He blinked, looked to the Spirit for guidance.

"He's more than ten years your senior," Sam reminded him.

In his mind, Iain was still the boy who'd carried him on his shoulders, who'd stood as a father to him.  And even when Murdoch had been preparing to sail, looking eagerly forward to a new life, Iain had still been a relatively young man, not much over thirty and anticipating a new life of his own with Mary McGonagle. 

Murdoch moistened dry lips.  "But he's old."

The Spirit chuckled.  "And what does that make you?"

Iain put down the letter, still smiling.  He pushed his spectacles up to hold back his hair, opened his mouth and roared like a bull.  "Murdo!  Murdo!"

The Spirit gave an exaggerated start.  "A family characteristic, then, the dulcet tones?"

Murdoch had started himself, astonished, wondering if Iain could see him after all.  But Iain was looking straight past him to the door.  The young man came in, wiping juice from his hands, his book tucked under his arm.  He was in his late twenties perhaps, and looked so like the younger Iain, now Murdoch could see his face, that there was no mistaking who he was.

"I thought I heard you in there, talking to Livingston.  Here, Murdo.  Here's a letter from your Uncle.  It's good news, the very best of good news!  He has his boys back, both of them.  Can you credit it?  Your cousins, Murdo, at home at last.  The man must be beside himself!"

Murdoch's namesake took the letter and read it quickly.  His mouth took on a little twist.  "Well, Da, if he is, he hides it well.  What's all this about someone attacking the ranch?"

Iain shrugged.  "I don't know, lad.  Your uncle calls them land pirates and gunfighters.  I have no idea what he means by it."

"Parrots and eye patches?  That doesn't sound very likely."  Murdo peered at the letter.  "His writing's a bit crabbed, isn't it?  I think he says that cousin John was shot.  That sounds dangerous."

"The laddie lived.  That's all that matters."  Iain sat back, expression thoughtful.  "Your uncle's had a hard time of it, you know.  First with your aunt... what was her name again? The one who died?"

Murdo raised his shoulders in an elegant shrug.  "We never met her, Da.  You can't expect me to remember someone I've never seen and who died when I was three!"

"Caroline?  Was that it?  Charlotte?  Catherine?  That's it.  Catherine.  Well, she died and Murdoch lost the child to her family."  Iain shook his head and his brogue deepened.  "You know, I dinna understand that.  If, God forbid, I'd lost your Mama, I'd no have let Jamie McGonagle take you from me.  I'd have fought till the blood ran—"  He caught himself up, flushing.  "I shouldn't go on so.  I don't know the circumstances, and it's likely Murdoch had no choice."

"The next one ran off, didn't she?"

Iain blew out a sharp breath.  "Did I tell you that?" He shook his head again, but at himself this time.  "What was I thinking, telling you that sort of sordid tale?"

"I was twenty when it slipped out, Da, and old enough to work it out for myself."  Murdo patted Iain's hand.  "But if your conscience pricks you, put it down to The Macallan.  Those Speyside malts are not to be trusted."

"You wee de'il!" protested Iain, but he was grinning.  "I should take the belt to you."

"Ha!  I should like to see you try, old man!"

Father and son grinned at each other, then roared with laughter.  Iain waved away the insult.  "Well, I reap what I sow, it seems.  I wonder if Murdoch's finding the same paternal truth staring him in the face each day?  It's a sad thing when a man can get no respect from his sons."

"I give you the respect you've earned!"  Young Murdo's expression softened and he grasped his father's hand.  "But then you've been the best of fathers and deserve all you get.  I hope that my cousins can say the same of Uncle Murdoch."

Murdoch was suddenly very glad that neither man could see his face right then.  And he was really extraordinarily glad that neither Scott nor Johnny could see it.

"What does it matter what they think, those boys of yours?" asked the Spirit.  "So long as they dance to the tune you call?"

Murdoch turned away, avoiding Sam's gaze.  His ears burned.

"You miss him, don't you?"  Murdo looked sympathetic.  "Even after all these years."

"He was my boy from such an early age, you see," apologised Iain.  "It near on broke my heart when he went abroad, and only your mother was able to heal it."

"Yet you didn't try to stop him."

"What kind of man would do that?" demanded Iain, scandalised.  "He had to find his own way.  Every man does.  What good would it have done me then to try and stop him, or done me now if I'd told you I didn't want you to study law but sent you behind the counter in the shop?"

Murdo grasped his father's hand and nodded.  "I should write to thank him for allowing you to practise on him before you had to deal with me.  I reaped the benefit of that, I think, Da.  You really are the best of fathers and the best of men."

"Flatterer!  I hope he can say he benefited too.  Still, Murdo, let's away home early tonight to tell your mother the good news.  We'll have a family feast to toast your cousins' return and your uncle's health and happiness.  And then we'll write and tell him how we tried to share his happiness and how we remembered him and your cousins in our revels.  And we'll tell him, too, that it's time he made a visit home and brought those boys with him.  And he'd better be quick, if he's to get home in time to see you marry Agnes Fielding, eh?  I'd like both my Murdos here for that."

Young Murdo blushed and disclaimed, but he looked pleased.

Sam raised the torch to shake his Christmas cheer over the two bookish Lancers.  "Strange how your brother rejoices more than you do."

"It's not that I'm not glad," Murdoch choked out.  "It's not that.  It's just—"


Murdoch hesitated.  He shook his head, struggling to find the words.  "It's been so long."

"Coward," said Sam.  He raised his torch again, but this time what shook out of it was darkness.  "Let's see what that gets you, shall we?"

A new scene.  Church, Christmas morning, Green River.  The little shingled church couldn't hold a candle to the old kirk of home, but still a pleasant place, newly whitewashed for Christmas.  Murdoch could see Scott and Teresa in the Lancer pew, and a shape beside them that he thought must be himself, although he couldn't see it clearly.  Odd that he could see his younger self, but not himself as he was now.

He ruminated on that as he watched Scott, ever the gentleman, find Teresa's hymns for her.  But all thoughts of natural philosophy and doppelgängers were driven from his mind when he saw that Teresa glanced rather often up at the pulpit.  Religious fervour in one so young and impressionable was a concern, especially when the preacher was a young man of (according to the ladies, at least) pleasing personal attributes.  A little healthy agnosticism there would soothe Murdoch's troubled mind, he thought. 

Beside him, the Spirit took a deep sighing breath, solemn yet joyful, and joined in the singing with unrestrained energy.  The golden mist made the voices joining in hymn and prayer a little sweeter. 

Just as well, said the Spirit.

"There's not one of you could carry a tune if I packaged it up with ribbons and put it into the bucket for you."  Sam shook his head sadly.  "Scott tries, and even Teresa's warbling hits the odd right note now and again.  But that bass of yours, Murdoch Lancer, has gone sadly to seed.  You'd think that a man who liked tune calling so much would be just a little more musical."

"I haven't had much practice at singing," said Murdoch, with dignity.

"You haven't had much practice at fatherhood either.  You're just as bad at that."

They were outside before Murdoch could do more than open his mouth to object.  Johnny waited by the buggy, sitting on the steps of Higgs Mercantile.  The last of the Posadas feasts had evidently involved tequila in quantity, if the way he wore his hat down over his eyes was any indication.  He raised a hand, but it wasn't Murdoch and the Spirit that he saw and greeted, but Scott and Teresa and that odd shadowy shape. 

It wasn't a cheery ride home.  Johnny went straight to his room, refusing lunch.  The door lock clicked shut with a very decided snap that suggested Johnny would be guarding his privacy that day with a loaded Army Colt.  Scott was so polite that Murdoch felt chilled, and Teresa still wouldn't look at him—either of him, the shadowy shape or the ghostly one—preferring to keep her gaze on the plate where she dutifully chased the food around without eating any.  That was getting to be a habit, and it wasn't as though there was much to pick at on the girl's bones to begin with.  She'd be stringy as a bean by the time she was thirty, if she weren't careful.

Another scene shift, so quick that Murdoch was beginning to get dizzy.

"My time grows short," said the Spirit, when he complained.  "There is not time enough."

This time they stood in the big room behind the Mercantile.  It had been cleared entirely of stock, cleaned and dusted.  The Church Christmas Social and Ladies Aid Progressive Barn Dance was in full swing.  Jeb Taylor and his fiddle were ensconced on an upturned barrel in one corner, and Jelly Hoskins stood on another in his best clothes, chin bristling with self-importance.  He called the dances with surprising skill.  But then, this too involved talking a lot of nonsense and Jellifer B Hoskins was past master at that.

A right and left around the ring
While the roosters crow and the birdies sing.
All jump up and never come down,
Swing your pretty girl round and round.
Allemande left with the corner maid,
Meet your own and promenade.
Big foot up and little foot down,
Make the big foot jar the ground.
Bow to your partner, corner salute,
Circle left, go lickety-scoot.
Chicken in the bread pan pickin' out dough,
Big pig rootin' up the little tater now.
Comb your hair & button your shoe,
promenade home like you always do.
Do si do don't you know,
You can't catch a rabbit till it comes a snow.
Dog in the corner gnawin' on a bone,
Meet your girl, promenade 'er home.

"I have no idea what all that means," beamed the Spirit, kicking its feet out and taking a twirl around the room. 

After a moment's sick conviction that Penny Rose was lurking around somewhere ready to join in the dance, Murdoch let the grin through when reassured that she was nowhere in sight.  "They're having fun," he conceded.  His foot may, or may not, be tapping underneath his nightshirt. 

"An innocent amusement for the young people in the district," intoned Sam.  "But not all of them, I see."

Reverend Petersen had gone to the door to greet every new arrival, looking more and more anxious every time. 

"He appears to be looking for one person in particular," insinuated the Spirit.

"Mmmnn."  Non-committal, Murdoch glanced towards the door himself every time it opened.  No Scott.  No Johnny.  And above all, no Teresa.

After a little while, the Reverend allowed himself to be ushered over to the refreshment table by Mayor Higgs.  Petersen, hangdog and blue-looking, took solace in the lemonade punch.  In similar circumstances, Murdoch would have risked putting his faith in those untrustworthy Speyside malt whiskies, but each man to his own poison.

"And this, Reverend, is my daughter, Clara," Higgs simpered.

The Reverend Petersen, a gentleman at heart even when said heart was broken, bowed over Clara Higgs' outstretched hand.  Murdoch gave her a critical glance and then nodded approval.  This pretty girl with shining coppery hair looked nothing like the Clara Higgs that Murdoch remembered from Teresa's schooldays.  He wasn't sure where the lank red hair and spots had disappeared to, but a glance at the Reverend showed that the younger man liked what they'd left behind.  Petersen brightened considerably and three minutes later he and Clara were galloping around the room in a very lively polka.

Another whirl and the dance faded away.  Teresa sat in her garden, wrapped in a shawl against a persistent drizzle.  Scott leaned up against the low adobe wall a foot or two to one side of her.

"I'm sorry that Murdoch seems to have banned Christmas," he said.  "I would have liked to get a feel of home here.  We always decorated the house in Boston."

"We've never had the house done here, not as long as I can remember.  Daddy would decorate my room and his, but we never touched the great room.  He was always so sad at Christmas.  Murdoch, I mean.  Daddy said it cut too close for him, losing you and Johnny like that, and Christmas being such a family time made it worse."

"He lost us, did he?  Well, I'll concede that Johnny was lost, down there around the border, but I believe that Boston has been quite clearly marked on the maps since at least 1640."

Teresa frowned.  "I don't know the rights and wrongs of it, Scott."

"Well, none of us do, Teresa.  But since the past is never to be talked of and heavens forfend that it's ever explained, it doesn't seem likely that any of us ever will."

She nodded, and turned her face away.  "My daddy loved Christmas.  I miss him."

"Yes," said Scott, and his mouth twisted.  "I missed mine, too."

Another lurch into darkness, another whirling and swooping and they were in the barn, the Spirit and Murdoch, the latter opening and shutting his mouth like a fish drowning in air, trying to find the words to protest against Scott's hurt.

The Spirit had little sympathy.  "My time grows very short.  It will end tonight, at midnight."

Murdoch gave him a sharp look. Sam was older, clearly older, and the hand that held up the torch shook now with the effort.  Just as Iain had aged, so had the Spirit.

"Watch and listen, man, for this is the last lesson I can give you.  The very last."

Jelly Hoskins, slowly cleaning out a stall; Barranca's, from the flash of dull gold that Murdoch saw in the dim light.  Johnny sat on a nearby hay bale, mending his reins with deft fingers.  He had very deft, sure hands.  Which made sense.

Rather more sense than calling his horse after a river gorge, now Murdoch came to think on it.  What sort of name for a horse was that?

"He had his reasons," said the Spirit.

And no doubt he did.  But he would probably never talk to Murdoch about them.

Sam looked amused.  "When you're ready to talk to him and Scott about the past, Murdoch Lancer, then you can complain about their silence.  Until then, watch and listen.  And learn, if you can."

Johnny looked up from rebraiding the fine leather strips.  "You're awful quiet, Jelly."

"A man needs some peace to think.  I can think, can't I?  It ain't a crime around here yet, is it?  Ain't much that isn't a crime, I guess, but not even the high and mighty Murdoch Lancer's legislated agin thinkin'.  Yet."

"Yet."  Johnny grinned, the easy, uncomplicated smile that Murdoch had seen him give others.  "What're you thinking of?"

"Ain't you nosy?"  Jelly sniffed, bustled about a little while, pulling piles of horse shit this way and that with the fork and generally missing the bucket he was supposed to be tossing it into.  Johnny prudently got his boots out of the way and Murdoch began to regret that he was able to smell it.  The sensory isolation that Penny Rose had imposed on him had a certain attraction.

Jelly stuck his fork into the manure.  "Fact is, I need this job."


"It keeps me near my boys, Johnny." The little man's bluster seeped out of him.  "You did a bang-up job of finding 'em good homes.  A bang up job.   I ain't never said it afore, but I couldn't have done it better myself.  Can't say fairer than that, now can I?"


"So I need to stick in these parts, keep an eye on 'em for a little while.  Just till they settle in a mite, o'course.  Not that it ain't an in-con-veenence, 'cause it sure as hell is, 'cause you know a man like me got places to go, things to do."

"Sure.  I get that."

"But for now it kinda suits me to be around here for a while, like I say.  But that Pa of yourn's a hard man."

Johnny shook the reins out and looked at them with a critical eye before nodding, satisfied, and coiling the reins up to hang them on their nail.  "Well, I won't argue with that.  He's the Patrón.  He's used to calling tunes real loud and I reckon he's forgotten how to shut up and just listen to the music."

"I figure he's lookin' to fire me, Johnny.  He don't like me much."

Johnny's laugh was chuffed out as if despite himself, and mirthless.  He stood up, hung the reins and stretched.  "Well, Jelly, I got nothing to say that's a comfort.  Fact is, there's days I figure he's gonna fire me too.  And he sure don't like me much either."

Murdoch gasped and turned to the Spirit, protesting and defensive, astounded that Scott should feel he was wilfully deserted or Johnny feel unwanted.

"What else do you expect them to think?  You gave them little welcome, give them little of yourself, explain nothing.  You do nothing but snap out orders.  They are not stone, man."

Murdoch dropped his gaze, staring down at the straw on the barn floor.  Johnny was gone and only Jelly remained, another man who had little or nothing of his own.  There was a parable there, if he'd read it. 

The clock on the great room wall struck twelve.  Wondering how in Hades he could hear it all the way out here in the barn, Murdoch turned to the Spirit.

The Spirit was gone.

'Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.'

'The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.

It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.'

Murdoch blew out a long, silent breath.  He was beginning to think that he might prefer even the Little Darling to this quietly approaching menace.  He narrowed his eyes, trying to focus on the spectral hand and the mass of blackness the hand belonged to.  He thought, as he looked, that whatever Spirit lurked beneath the shroud was wearing a hat upon its head, a wide-brimmed Stetson from which the dark veils fell.  And as some unseen wind blew and moulded the shroud to the form beneath, he was sure he could make out the shape of a gun holstered on the right hip. 

Murdoch's lips were dry again.  It took two or three attempts for him to moisten them.  "You are the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come?"

The veiled head moved, inclined itself towards him but the Spirit remained silent, waiting.  Murdoch got a strong feeling that the invisible eyes watching him were hostile.  For all his distaste for Penny Rose, and the oddity of Sam Jenkins as a giant with bared chest, he had trusted both of them. He didn't trust this one at all.

The fingers of the hand bent into a loose fist, leaving the index finger pointing at him.  The Spirit crooked the finger, beckoning in some horrible parody of sly complicity.

"Wait," said Murdoch.  "Please wait." 

Maybe it was seeing Iain and Young Murdo that had finally dinned the message into his thick head.  His eldest son had never talked to him with such freedom and every 'sir' from Scott served to drive another polite wedge between them.  And he'd probably have a heart attack if Johnny ever called him 'Old Man' with the obvious affection Murdo had for Iain.   

The barn faded into nothing now, but he could still see the wry twist to Johnny's mouth, hear the bite in Scott's tone and the hurt in Teresa's.  His chest felt crushed, as if lead had settled there and had pressed down, inexorable and inescapable, squeezing blood and bone and sinew into a deep, dull ache. 

"I didn't think..."  He rubbed at the spot above the pain.  "I didn't think."

The Spirit beckoned.

Murdoch stayed put.  "I am beginning to understand my lessons, you know.  I realise that I closed myself off twenty years ago when I lost Johnny—"

The Spirit shook its head.  Most emphatically.  The pointed finger made a little circle in the air, then another behind it and another behind that.

Murdoch frowned.  "What do you mean?  I thought the whole point of this exercise was to get me to realise that what I've always considered to be manly stoicism in the face of repeated tragedy is, in fact, preventing me being a father to my sons—"

He could swear that the Spirit was laughing, but it wasn't a laugh he wanted to hear.  It was the laughter of the open grave.  Murdoch shuddered.  Once again the Spirit's finger made a little circle, and another behind it and yet another.

Murdoch dropped his head into his hands.  "Could you please just speak to me, Spirit?  I was never any good at parlour games and I'm particularly bad at charades."  He sighed and looked up.  "I have it.  I understand everything Paul wanted me to understand, I think.  I've closed myself off since Maria left—"

He thought the Spirit stamped a spectral foot and certainly the finger twirling grew frantic.  And was that a sigh he heard?  An exhalation from the grave?  And most unnerving at all, the Spirit's hand dropped to its hip and caressed the butt of the gun through the dull black fabric of its shroud. 

Under normal circumstances, Murdoch knew he wasn't any better than just competent with a handgun—where Johnny got his skill and speed was an abiding mystery to him—but he was even more disadvantaged by promenading around the world with Spirits while dressed in nothing more than his nightshirt and with his gun hanging on the gun tree just inside the door back home. For the first time, he truly understood Johnny's reluctance to have his Colt more than a few inches from his hand.

He wondered, as he watched the Spirit's hand grope at the shroud, whether this was how men felt when facing Johnny Madrid; that no matter how fast they were and how much they'd practised, they might as well be unarmed and in their nightshirts for all the good it would do them against that blinding speed.

The Spirit didn't shoot him, however.  Murdoch sensed that it was a struggle with its better nature (if it had one) but in the end it sighed audibly, straightened up out of its shootist's crouch and stretched out its spectral hand again.

The Spirit beckoned.

At the risk of provoking it again, Murdoch protested.  "I can change, now I know where I've been going wrong.  Tell Paul that I appreciate everything he did for me, although frankly there are less dramatic ways of getting a man's attention, and I really don't need you to show me more.  I can change.  I will change and show my sons that I'm not as cold and dour as I'm painted, and now you can go back to wherever it is you Spirits came from and I can go back to bed."

The Spirit beckoned.

Oh well.  It had been worth a try.  Murdoch gave up and followed it, the Spirit going silently before him, a hulking figure of dark peril.  He hoped he wouldn't have to clutch its robe the way he had with the Little Darling and Sam Jenkins.  He didn't want to touch the grave-clothes the Spirit had wrapped about itself.  That made the inevitable fate of all men a little too close for comfort.

This Spirit felt different and moved them from scene to scene with less panache than Penny Rose or Sam, but more in the way of silence and stealth.  There was more of mystery about it.  Instead of them whirling and spinning into a town or city or whatever scene his guide wanted to show him, the scene melted out of the shadows around them.  Now a town emerge out of the darkness, surfacing slowly as if out of dark water to solidify into shops and houses. 

They stood on Green River's Main Street.  The hotel was catty-corner across from them with the business district beyond.  To their left was the Bull Moose saloon, quiet and almost respectable in the early morning sunlight.  Just 'almost' respectable.  Cal Freeman reeled out of it and rolled down the steps into the dust of the street, where he lay snoring.  But then, Cal Freeman reeled and rolled in and out of the Bull Moose at all times of the day and night and Green River had long ago stopped noticing.  Most folks just stepped over him.  Indeed, the only interested bystander was a yellow dog, that trotted over to sniff at Cal's boots before raising a leg and anointing them.  No one took any notice of that, either.  It was Cal's dog.

"Did you hear the news?"

Elisha Higgs, Purveyor of Quality Dry Goods and Mayor of This Fine Metropolis stood on the sidewalk outside his store.  He wore his best town suit (from his own stock, slightly shop soiled—a discount bargain that he sold to himself before anyone else could take it), the jacket buttons strained over an ample paunch.  His small eyes, almost lost in the folds of flesh around them, glittered with malicious interest.  He spoke to Zeke Wilkinson, the barber, whose defining characteristic was a slowness that put turtles to shame and who was ambling past the store at a pace that would have left him struggling to keep up with Higgs's ninety year old mother.

Zeke came to a stop, slow as molasses trickling from a broken jar on a cold, cold day.  "Sure did."

Higgs nodded.  He stuck his hands under his braces and arched his back to peer up at the sky.  "Going to be a nice day."

"Sure is."  Zeke touched his hat and ambled on.  In his own world, he was probably in a tearing hurry.

Murdoch watched him go, frowning.  "Well, whatever this is about, it can't be anything important."

But he knew he was lying to himself there.  Nothing the Spirits had shown him so far had been unimportant.  He was just missing the significance of this one scene.  He looked sidelong at the Spirit, hoping for a clue, but all it did was point down the street to their next destination.  He rubbed at his chest where the ache had settled, and followed.

Sam Jenkins's office door was ajar.  The doctor himself, the real Sam Jenkins, was at his desk, having shed his jacket and hat and rolled up his sleeves.  He had a glass in his hand.  He looked tired and rumpled.

Someone came in.  Murdoch was interested to see that the newcomer—James Randolph, Attorney—automatically gave the Spirit a wide berth even though he couldn't possibly have seen it.  The Spirit's shrouded figure gave off a definite air of smugness and Murdoch would go to his grave... would swear that the face behind the veil was smirking.  It was an image he'd prefer not to dwell on.

"Jim," said Sam Jenkins.

"I just heard you were back in town.  How are things out there?"

Sam took another pull at the glass.  "It was a shock for them, of course."

"But not for you?"  Randolph opened the top drawer of Sam's filing cabinet and fished out a second glass.  Murdoch wasn't the only man who knew that secret, then.

"Well, I wasn't expecting it, precisely."

Randolph nodded and took the seat opposite Sam.  "Look, Sam, I know that you have coroner's jurisdiction in the county, but I've got duties too and I need to think about what reports I'll have to send to the Records Office in Sacramento.  Is there anything I need to worry about here?"

"What?  Oh.  No.  No, there's nothing sinister about it."  Sam snagged the bottle and filled both their glasses.  "At least, nothing newly sinister.  It harks back to the trouble last year."

"Pardee trouble?"

"That's the one."  Sam blew out a tired sigh.  "Do you know, Jim, that thirty years ago when I started out, I'd have lost seven or eight out of every ten gunshot victims?  Now I save that many.  We know more about the human body every year, learn more of its secrets, know more about treating it."  He took a sip of whiskey.  "But I still can't take out every single bullet.  Sometimes they're too close to something vital, sometimes they fragment and I don't get all the pieces.  Whatever gets left behind doesn't always stay put, did you know that?  The pieces move around and sometimes they kill, even years after, and sometimes they don't take that long and sometimes they never cause any trouble at all."

"I see.  That's what happened?" 

Sam nodded.  "Bullet fragment worked its way in and nicked an artery.  I didn't get there in time to do anything about it.  I just can't win them all, Jim, no matter how hard I fight.  I couldn't win this one."

Murdoch glanced at the Spirit, not wanting (or daring) to ask.  He felt the stirrings of pity.  Sam was damn good, but when all was said and done, he was a country doctor who knew all of his patients.  The loss of one would hit him hard.

A terrifying thought hit him.  "Not Johnny!  Tell me it's not Johnny!"

The Spirit's hand moved from side to side to convey a negative.  Murdoch took a shaky breath.  It wasn't Johnny and Scott had been unhurt... nothing to worry about then.  He took another breath, steadying himself, making himself breath slow and deep until his heart stopped thudding.

The Spirit raised its hand, and the scene melted away, Green River melting away with it.  A great building loomed up before them instead: the Occidental Hotel, San Francisco, its lamps glowing with a misty nimbus in the fog drifting in from the Bay.  Murdoch knew it well.  He followed the Spirit inside, up the grand staircase and into the familiar room the Cattle Growers Association of California used for its annual meeting. 

Murdoch recognised many of the faces there, but the Spirit glided directly to the one Association member to whom Murdoch would have been distantly civil at best.  Tom Watson had a ranch north of Lancer, up around Oakhurst, where he ran 5000 head of indifferent cattle.  Murdoch had spent years avoiding Watson's deals and offers and sure-fire-get-rich schemes, always finding some excuse for not buying stock that came at a bargain price and would do nothing to improve the Lancer herds. 

Watson stood up against the fireplace, one elbow casually propped on the mantel, his other hand reaching out to the blazing fire.  "You heard the news, I take it?"

Charles Kinnard glanced up from the paper.  He flourished it at Watson.  "It happened the day before yesterday, according to this."

Watson grimaced.  "Wonder what'll become of that bull of his."

Watson was obsessed with bulls, knowing all too well that his cattle needed an injection of better blood.  For the last few months Murdoch had been deaf to Watson's invitations to visit his ranch and bring Lancer Leonides along with him.  He didn't mind visiting other ranches when the invitations involved good fellowship and the pleasure (for his host) of his company, but not when all that was wanted was the agricultural benefit of his breeding bull. 

"I'm more interested in the land, but it's too far south for me."  And Kinnard (owner of a ranch near Modesto, around 12,000 head of high quality beef and a bull of his own that was good enough to stop him importuning his neighbours for theirs) shook out his newspaper and returned to reading the headlines.  A story about a night-flowering cereus blooming in Wilmington took all his attention.

Watson grunted, and turned his discontented gaze onto the fire.

"What was that all about?" wondered Murdoch. 

The Spirit gestured to the two men.

"Well, I know the pair of them, of course.  I've done business with them both for years.  Well, in Wilson's case, I've kept my business out of his grubby little reach but still."  He craned his neck to see if he could spot whatever piece of news Kinnard had read in his newspaper, but Kinnard was now engrossed in an article on a climbing rose on a dwelling in Santa Rosa that had more than 5000 roses (verified by Your Correspondent, who had hand counted them).  Murdoch shrugged.  He hadn't noticed before that Kinnard had an interest in horticulture although he'd known the man could be tediously boring when droning on about bees.

The Spirit beckoned to him, turned and glided on into the shadows, Murdoch grumbling along behind it.  This whole silent beckoning, this being dragged along some unknown course without explanation or the chance to participate, this having his opinions and suggestions discounted out of hand and without discussion... well, it was all very galling.  It was disconcerting, no longer being in control; frustrating, too, since Murdoch was sure, on reflection, that he could have told the Spirits how to go about the whole thing much more efficiently.  After all, he'd been running the biggest ranch in the Valley for almost thirty years.  That had to count for something when it came to spectral tune calling, surely?

He pushed away visions of his sons.  Scott would be far too polite to point out that it was indeed galling to have tunes called on a man without being listened to in return, although he'd probably at least quirk a knowing eyebrow in Murdoch's direction.  But Johnny wasn't nearly so polite.  He wouldn't be above a sardonic smile and an even more sarcastic tip of the hat to salute Murdoch's epiphany. 

He sighed.  All right, another lesson learned and he'd have to do better in making his sons his partners, not just ranch hands to be ordered around.  He may have been a touch dictatorial in the past, he conceded, but only to himself.  He didn't think he'd like to see either quirked eyebrow or mocking smile right then. 

He followed the Spirit out through the door at the far end of the meeting room and straight into Aggie Conway's parlour.  He closed his eyes against the faint feeling of seasickness given him by the changes of scene.  Somehow the more abrupt, spinning sensation of progress with the two earlier Spirits was less debilitating than this slow seeping from place to place.  More natural, maybe, although the use of the word in his present circumstances made him chuff out a laugh loud enough for the Spirit's head to swing to face him.  The unseen stare made his skin prickle.

Aggie Conway sat in the overstuffed velvet chair before the fire, her slippered feet on the fender.  She stared into the flames, twisting a handkerchief in her hands.  Buck Addison stood behind her and if the man had possessed a moustache, he'd have twirled it on the spot.  He had the air of a cat with its head in the cream pot.

What was that all about?  Murdoch turned to the Spirit, just as the bright modern parlour dissolved and changed into a quiet empty room.  All the furniture but for a bed had been taken away; every chair, the dressers, even the pictures from the walls.  Only the drapes remained and they were closed, making the room dim and mysterious. 

Someone lay on the bed under the covers, a very tall someone, lying very still.  Murdoch could see the shape under the thin sheet.  The face was hidden, the sheet drawn up over the head, but even in the muted light he could make out the peak of the nose under the thin linen.  Everything else was in shadow.

The Spirit gestured to the bed.

Murdoch found that his mouth was dry again, and he had to work it a couple of times to get enough moisture to unclog his tongue from his palate and allow himself to speak.  He rubbed at the tightness in his chest.  "I'd rather not, thank you all the same.  Is this Sam's patient?"

Another gesture towards the bed, but then the Spirit paused.  It stood very still for what felt like a long time but was probably only a moment, the veiled head bent.  It could be listening to something, Murdoch thought, but all he could hear himself was his own breathing.  The place was quiet otherwise.  As quiet as the gra—

The Spirit raised its head and turned away.  The room dissolved into shadows around them, shifted, writhed, became Main Street again.  The thin, spectral hand pointed to a small group of people standing in the lea of the church.  Murdoch obeyed the imperious gesture with increasing unease.

The preacher was there and that old virago, the Widow Hargis.  Dear God, but she was indestructible.  She'd still be there when the Last Trump called.

"A difficult man to get to know," said the Reverend Petersen.  "A good man, I'm sure of that.  He was a leading citizen and a respectable member of society, but I never felt that I got to the heart of him.  There was always a distance there."

"He was a good man," agreed Aggie Conway's foreman, Bill Kerr.  "Never met a better man to work with on the Spring Roundup.  Happen he was a mite soured, Reverend, that's all.  He weren't the luckiest of fellers, not when it came to the ladies."

"He had a lot to be thankful for," sniffed the Widow Hargis.  "That big ranch, lots of money.  He was lucky enough there."

The Reverend looked disapproving.  "Worldly advantages are without meaning, Ma'am, against the might of the One above us who sees into every heart."

Murdoch hadn't ever seen the old harridan blush.  He wouldn't have thought it possible.  But what big ranch?

Bill Kerr shrugged.  "Well sure, he was unhappy in comfort, Miz Hargis.  But you know he lost sight of those boys of his for years, and losses like that scar a man.  They scar deep."

Lost his boys?  What?  Wait!

Murdoch's chest tightened.  "Me.  They're talking about me."

The Spirit inclined its head and Murdoch could have sworn that he heard the ghost of a chuckle.

"Oh," said Murdoch, and absolutely and positively refused to consider what this meant.  They could talk about him till the cows came home and he wasn't going to think about why because of course it was all nonsense.  He sat down, suddenly, on the church steps and put his head down on his knees, so giddy he thought that he'd faint, swallowing hard to keep the vomit back.  He could only get enough air in with huge gulping breaths through his mouth, though it did nothing to quell the roiling acid in his gut.  His hands were cold, clammy, like he was already de—  No!  No, he wasn't.  His heart was thudding and his head throbbing to every fast, sharp beat.  He could feel them.  He wasn't dead and he'd be damned if he was going to give in.

Petersen, Bill and Widow Hargis had frozen like statues while Murdoch wrestled with the shock.  When he stopped not thinking about what this couldn't possibly mean and pushed himself up onto shaky feet, the Spirit turned back towards them and waved its hand.  They faded away.  It reminded Murdoch of an old daguerreotype left out in the sun, the vigour and life of the original waning away until the card held nothing but a faint ghostly imprint.

He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hand.  His thoughts were all on death and decay today.  Cheerful Christmas fare, that was.

He took a breath and his chest twinged again.  He rubbed at it, then stopped, all thought and movement arrested.  He'd been having these odd pains.  "Was it my heart?"

A slow headshake and the gesture of negation again with the hand.

"Oh.  I wondered.  I've been getting this pain ever since—" Ever since Iain and Murdo had shown him what he'd truly missed.  "For a while now."   He put his head down again, thinking.  Sam had said something about a bullet moving.  Oh, that was it.  Day Pardee might have had to wait more than a year, but his bullet found its mark at last. 

The Spirit beckoned.

"Look," said Murdoch, a touch exasperated, a touch weary and far more than a touch frightened, "I understand what you've shown me and what Paul O'Brien wanted me to see.  Good or bad, right or wrong, I've let the past put a gulf between me and everyone else.  People do that, you know, when they're hurt.  When the wounds you have don't heal, you put up the barriers to stop yourself from getting hurt again.  That's normal.  That's human." 

The Spirit waited, the head under the veil turning so the hidden face was towards him.

"For the Lord's sake, I'm a man!  Don't make me talk about it."

The Spirit waited.

Murdoch's head drooped in defeat.  "I don't know what else to say."  He ran his hands through his hair, so tense that his bones ached.  "What happens to them?  What happens to Teresa, and Scott and Johnny?  I need to know that, before I say any more.  I need to know they're safe and happy.  Show me that!"

The Spirit considered, head tilted to one side.  At last it nodded and raised its hand.

Boston again.  It didn't look any better with a nor'easter squalling in across the harbour, dumping sleety rain and hail over the city.  Harlan Garret's dining room was warm, though; dark red curtains closed against the night, bright with lamps and candles and with a good fire burning briskly in the hearth.  Dinner was over, and he and Scott were picking at fruit and nuts, washing them down with (knowing Harlan) the best and most expensive of brandies.

"I'm glad you're home, Scotty," said Harlan.

Scott nodded.  "Well, at least for a while."

"You aren't thinking of going back there, are you?  What on earth for?  There's nothing there for you, not now that Murdoch's... not now.  Surely you'll stay at home."  The 'where you belong' was implicit, but Harlan had seemingly developed enough sense not to say so.  Trust him to make the most of Murdoch no longer being in a position to thwart him, though.  Harlan always was ruthless.

Scott's mouth curved up at one side in a lop-sided smile.  "You haven't changed much, Grandfather."

Harlan laughed and shook his head. 

"I don't know what I'll do, to be honest.  We got a very good price for the ranch, after all, and I'm not in need of money.  At one point Johnny thought he might buy me out, but he didn't have enough for that and he flatly refused to take my share as a gift.  It was just simpler to sell up."

Murdoch's mouth dropped open.  He spent thirty years building up the biggest and the best ranch in the entire San Joaquin valley, for his sons' benefit no less, and they'd sold it before he was cold? 

"I'll take a look about me before I decide what to do next.  I promised Johnny I'd go back for a visit sometime soon, as soon as he has his new ranch up and running, but I'm thinking about a trip to Europe first.  Scotland, maybe.  I've an uncle there, apparently."

"I'm sorry.  About him, I mean.  Your father."

Scott grinned.  "I find that hard to believe, sir."  He shook his head.  "He was an odd one.  I kept looking at him and wondering what of him is in me, but the really sad thing is that I never really got to know him well enough to find out.  He kept a distance from us, you know.  He kept a distance from everyone.  Oh, he was social enough but it was all on the surface.  Everything that really mattered was shut away, all the doors and windows shuttered and locked.  He was close-mouthed about himself and the past.  Neither Johnny nor I felt close to him.  Cipriano, our foreman, said he had never really recovered from what happened to my mother and then Maria."

"John being abducted, you mean?"

"No, sir.  I mean you abducting me.  That was the start of it all."

Harlan flushed and muttered something inaudible.

Murdoch glanced at the Spirit.  Its hand was making the little circles again: a circle in the air, then another behind it and another behind that.  He blinked.  Was that what it had meant earlier, with that odd gesture?  That it wasn't the loss of Johnny that put up his barriers, but the barriers had gone up earlier with the loss of Scott?  He drew in a sharp breath.  What a fool he was!  Of course that was the case.  Of course.  What a damned fool.

How much had that soured what he had with Maria and led to what followed?  A memory of the image Penny Rose had shown him surfaced, of the light draining from Maria's bright face when he'd compared her to Catherine.  What a thrice-damned fool he was!

"It was sad that we couldn't connect very well.  Not many people get a second chance like that.  A pity it was wasted."  Scott took fruit from the bowl and dug a nail into the skin to peel it.  Harlan looked pointedly at the fruit knife beside Scott's plate, but Scott just smiled and continued talking, the tang of citrus filling the air.  "You know, the problem was not knowing.  I didn't know what he thought about me, whether he cared about me, why he abandoned me here, why he never contacted me.  It was if he thought one third of the ranch each was all the answer Johnny or I would ever need.  He wouldn't ever talk about the past.  It was over and done, he said.  It was a country he'd once lived in, like he'd once lived in Scotland, but now he was exiled from it and he didn't have a map."

He offered Harlan a quarter of the orange.  The old man took it.

"You know, sir, for all your faults—and we both know that you did things that I don't agree with or condone—well, for all that, I've never doubted your affection.  Not once.  But I was never sure of his."

Murdoch shook his head, speechless.  The dull ache in his chest flared up into white heat.  How could he have left Scott in that sort of ignorance?

"I made a lot of mistakes, Scotty, but I'm glad that wasn't one of them.  I'm glad you don't doubt that."

"I don't.  Not a bit."

Harlan Garrett nodded, and for a moment he and Scott concentrated on finishing their meal, sitting in companionable silence.  Harlan broke it.

"I'm glad you're home, Scotty," he said.

Murdoch was almost beside himself with... what?  Anger, yes a little, at Harlan's unrepentant machinations.  But so much anger at himself that he was almost blind with it.  How had things got to such a pass that his son had had no inkling of what Murdoch felt and thought?

He ignored the dry chuckle from the Spirit on his left.  Boston, the dining room, Scott and Harlan trickled away.  Murdoch and the Spirit walked along a dry and dusty road bordered with parched fields.  Up ahead a little town sat on a rise, the adobe houses a clean white against the blue of the sky.  The church, much bigger and grander than anyone could reasonably expect of such a small, poor town, loomed over the main plaza, massive and brooding.

Johnny swung down from Barranca, looping the reins around a verandah post outside the cantina.  The post had once been painted blue, but the sun had bleached it until only the ghost of the colour was left, a faint blush over the splintering wood.  Johnny ran a finger down the post, smiling.

Cipriano made no move to dismount.  "There are horses here that you want for the ranch?" He glanced around the plaza.  "Here?"

"Don Altomirano y Marroquín's agent has the horses."  Johnny turned on his heel, a slow circuit, taking in every last building, every last man, woman and child watching them in idle curiosity, every last weed pushing up through the dust.  "We ain't here for that."

His smile broadened.  Not the sardonic one he'd saved for Murdoch most of the time, the one he'd used like armour, but the open smile that was most often reserved for Scott or Teresa or the Roldàns, the one that signalled joy and affection and a love for life; the smile that Murdoch had longed to have for himself but hadn't dared ask. 

Murdoch looked to the Spirit, but it hadn't offered him anything but dread silence so far and it didn't seem likely to change now. He'd have to do all the work for himself.  The Spirit watched Johnny with an intensity that even Murdoch could see and feel, its hand dropping to its side to caress the butt of the gun under its shroud.  Alarmed, Murdoch opened his mouth do say something, to warn Johnny, but a gesture from the Spirit kept him mute. 

He'd always been mute around his sons, when it came to anything important.  Nothing changed.

"So."  Cipriano relaxed, crossing his hands over the pommel.  Thank God he was there with Johnny.  He'd take care of the boy.  "Why are we here, Patrón?"

"I wish you'd stop calling me that.  I'm not him."

"You are more like him than you know."  But Cipriano inclined his head.  "But as you wish, niño."

Johnny chuffed out a laugh.  "I don't know that's much better.  Come and have a drink."

Cipriano grimaced, but joined Johnny at a table on a verandah roofed with vines and yellow morning glory.  "Why are we here?"

Johnny's restless energy was stilled.  Something about him softened as he looked at this little Mexican town in the middle of nowhere, like ice melting.  "Because this is where I was a niño, Cip.  This is Colinas de Rosarito."  He grinned, a genuine flash of happiness.  "The name's almost bigger than the town, eh?  But this was home.  This was where I had Mama and my Papa.  It's not much of a place, but it's mine."

Cipriano glanced around, visibly more interested.  "Here?  You were brought up here."

Johnny nodded.  "Until they died, when I was pushed into a mission orphanage over in Cantamar run by Dominican nuns.  I stayed there about a year, I reckon, before I figured I was better off on my own.  At least that way, if I starved I didn't have to take a sermon with it."

Cipriano winced.  "How old were you?"

"When they died?  About ten when she did.  She went the same way as Scott's mama, only my little sister wasn't as lucky as Scott.  She died too.  It made Papa so mad that the doctor at Cantamar wouldn't come to a poor place like this that he went up against the Don.  The rurales shot him a few months later."  Johnny's easy manner had drained away.  "It wasn't Marroquín.  He was farther south and he only bought this land when the old Don died."  He gave Cipriano a slow, vicious smile.  "Got himself shot one night, did old Don Batista Quintanar."

"Oh niño."  Cipriano's hand shot out.  He brushed it over Johnny's hair, a brief caress.  "Did the Patrón know?  I didn't think he had any idea what happened to your mother."

"He never asked.  He never asked a thing.  Said it himself that first day, the day me and Scott came to Lancer.  What was it he said now?  'Good or bad, right or wrong, the past is dead and gone.'"  Johnny turned to the cantina owner who had finally come to find out what they wanted.  "¡Hola!  Tamales and tequila, gracias." 

For a long time he sat staring out over the plaza.  "You know she told me he'd thrown us out?"

Cipriano nodded.  "That was not strictly accurate, niño."

"Well, let me tell you, Cip, there's more ways of getting rid of someone than just coming out and saying the words."

"I know how he searched for you, and how the loss of you and Scott cut him deep.  I don't believe it, Johnny."

A shrug was his only answer for a moment or two.  Murdoch stood with the Spirit, shaking his head.  He was too tired to protest now.  Too tired.

"They're buried over there," said Johnny, staring at the church.  "First job I ever did, I came back here and gave the priest enough for markers.  It's been a long time now, and I ain't been back in years." He returned his attention to Cipriano.  "You know, he may have been right, my old man.  The past is dead and gone.  Well, so's she, and I can't ask her.  So's he, and he likely wouldn't have said anyway."

"And so?"

"And so, it doesn't matter."  Johnny smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes.  "It doesn't matter, Cip."

"What does?"

This time the smile was so bright that Murdoch's chest ached.  "What matters is that this is where Johnny Madrid was born.  Do you reckon they'll put the statue over there in front of the church?"

A small sound from the Spirit, a huffed out snort, maybe, and once more they were in Green River and outside the doctor's office.  Murdoch sighed and rubbed at his temples, fretful and irritated.  He'd had enough of this, of being shown over and over just how badly he had failed.  He'd got the message.
Jenkins looked older than Murdoch expected; his hair whiter and his face more lined.  He was working in his dispensary, grinding up ingredients to make the pills, medicinal mixtures and purges that he used to save lives.

Or, you know, fail to save them.

Sam looked around sharply as the outer door opened, but his professional smile of welcome changed in an instant to something more genuine.  "Teresa!  Well, how fares Mrs Petersen?"

Mrs Petersen?  Murdoch groaned.  Please, please let it not mean that Teresa's religious fervour hadn't waned and he'd lost her to that young whippersnap... he paused, seeing, out of the corner of his eye, the Spirit tense and rest its hand on its gun again.  He took the hint.  He gave the Reverend Robert Petersen more careful consideration.  Yes, the young man had the sort of romantic looks that his female congregation appreciated and the gentlemen deplored, but he also looked earnest and honest.  He'd curbed the widow's more acidulous comments with graceful firmness, not caring that he might be upsetting an influential member of his flock.  That showed principle and backbone.

Or, you know, a foolish naiveté that would cost him his calling.

The Spirit made a slight movement.

Principle, definitely principle.  Murdoch's own dealings with Petersen had indicated a man who seemed genuine in his beliefs.  So far as preachers went, this one might go far.  Well, all things considered maybe Teresa could have done worse.

Teresa looked thin and, with her hair up like that, far too old and strained for Murdoch's peace of mind.  She smiled, put one hand out in front of her midsection and the other behind her back and mimed the waddle of a hugely pregnant woman.

Oh hell, no!  Not his little Teresa!

Teresa dropped her hands and the momentary animation in her expression faded.  "Clara's very well.  I let her and Robert listen to the baby's heartbeat through the stethoscope.  They were thrilled."

Sam smiled, sighed, and patted her hand.  "She'll be glad of your help when the baby comes."

"I may not be here, Sam."

"Oh?"  Sam gave her a searching look.  "Have you decided?  Are you going to Boston to visit Scott?"

"No.  No, something different.  I've heard from Emily Zakrzewska at the Women's Infirmary in New York.  I have a place at the medical college from next month.  I'm going to be a doctor, Sam."

"Full medical training?"  Sam looked astonished.  "In New York?" 

She made an involuntary movement, raising her hands in a gesture of denial.  "I need to get away."

"But medicine! It's no job for a woman, my dear." 

It most certainly wasn't!  Good lord!  What was she thinking?  The very notion was so indelicate that Murdoch wondered that she couldn't hear his teeth grinding.

"It's what I want to do.  I don't want just to be a nurse and follow direction all the time.  I'm smart and I'll work hard, and in the end I can do some real good, I hope."

"But Teresa... Teresa, women doctors are few and far between... you won't have many patients, you know!  Not many people will trust a woman... forgive me, my dear, but it's true.  Many authorities consider that education is deleterious to women's health and her fitness to meet her true calling.  I don't say that's what I think myself, but I can see the point that some things are just not fit for women's involvement and participation.  Think about what you may be called upon to do – young men, for example, with injuries in places that would necessitate you seeing more of their form than is modest.  Or the matters of children and conception, and you unmarried!  Some things are just unnatural for a woman to know.  They're unwomanly."

"How is any of that more unwomanly than growing up on a ranch and seeing a bull or a stallion do its duty?"

Sam brushed that aside.  "I don't like it.  You've been a wonderful help to me here these last two years, and I'd hoped you stay with me until you meet some nice young man and marry.  I don't at all see how you can combine the two.  A woman can only have one career, after all, and she's best fitted for the domestic sphere."

Murdoch felt like rolling his eyes.  Sound arguments, all of them.  But it might have been more convincing if Sam hadn't just sent her out to check on Clara Petersen's unborn child.

Her smile vanished.  She glanced behind her, to the door she'd entered by, as if to look at the scene she'd just left behind.  "I don't think I'll marry, not now."  She came and put her hands on his arm.  "My mind's made up, Sam.  Murdoch left me enough to pay for this, and I want to make a new life for myself.  I really do need to get away.  But maybe, one day, I'll come back and we can work together."

"But Teresa—"

"I think I'll like New York," she said.  "It won't be here."

Defeated, Murdoch turned away.  "I'd hoped they'd stay together, that they'd look after each other."

The Spirit was silent.

"But that would only have happened if they'd been family, wouldn't it?  And they didn't feel like family.  Scott had no compunction about going back East.  Johnny's gone God knows where, even if he does have Cipriano with him.  Teresa's left to grow old and thin with Sam Jenkins, an old maid.  Two old maids together!"  Murdoch threw up his hands in despair.

The Spirit was silent.

"Look, I do understand what Paul was trying to tell me.  I do.  If I don't change, this is what will happen, isn't it?  I'll die, and  no-one will care and they'll all be scattered.  Separate.  Diminished.  Not a family, because I'm too big a damn coward to take the steps to make us one." 

The Spirit was silent. 

"But it can't be too late.  Everything you've shown me can be changed.  They're only possibilities, otherwise why bother showing me at all if I can't alter the outcome?"

The Spirit was silent.

"If I can't learn from my mistakes, what is the point in making them?"  Exasperated, he did what he'd earlier feared to do.  He caught at the heavy black grave clothes. 

The Spirit sprang back, the shroud pulling away from it, uncovering it.  The shape beneath was indeed a man, black Stetsoned, familiar, mocking, his gun tied low on his right hip.

Murdoch stared.  "You!  How can you be the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come?"

The Spirit smiled and tapped its gun.

"Oh," said Murdoch, understanding it all at last.  "Of course.  That's why you're the Spirit.  You're the reason I'm dead... the reason I could be dead if I don't change.  But if I do change, then damn you, you lose."

The Spirit smiled, flicked the Stetson's brim with a finger in a sardonic salute.

"I'm supposed to have another chance.  That's what Paul said.  And you know, when it comes to it, I'll trust to him not you.  So."  Murdoch stood tall as he could, and hell, but that was damned tall.  "You lose.  You and whoever hired you."  He grinned, hefting the heavy gravecloths in both hands.  "I'm supposed to have another chance, but you? You're dead and gone and rotting in the grave, and you're all out of chances.  And while I think about it, I owe you one for the bullet in the back."

He tossed the shroud in Day Pardee's face and lunged for him, swinging his fist around in a huge roundhouse blow.

In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.

Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom's hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.

Damn, but that bedpost hurt!  It damn near broke his hand.

But it was his own bedpost.  His own bed.  His own bedroom, still in the predawn dark before the winter sun poked long pale fingers through the gaps in his own curtains.  His own night candle, guttering to its tiny death in the candlestick.

His own hand turning black before his eyes. 

The candle flickered out, leaving him in darkness.

He bit down hard on the words that bubbled up, just in case Teresa was up already and would hear him.  Besides, he was turning over a new leaf, remember?  He shook the hand rapidly.  Nothing broken.  The fingers were bruising already and would stiffen up later for sure, but they still worked well enough to twist buttons into their holes and tie laces as he scrambled into his clothes. 

He rubbed the uninjured hand over his chin.  Bristly, if not to the Jelly Hoskins level of achievement.  It wouldn't do to face the future unshaven so he rummaged in the dresser drawer for the spare candle.  He could shave in the dark if he had to, but a man shouldn't start his new life with sticking plaster on his chin if he could help it.  It wouldn't be seemly.

It wasn't until he was washed, dressed, shaved and ready to face the new day that he let himself think about it.

He still didn't know if it had all been a dream, or if by some benign magic he'd been granted visions of the past, present and future.  He didn't care, either.  It didn't matter.  It had been a hard lesson to see how far he'd cut himself off, how he'd exiled himself so far that he was squandering the second chance he'd been given with his sons.  Fool that he was.

Now he had the chance to prove to them that they'd never been abandoned or repudiated.  Well, maybe Scott had been a little bit abandoned.  Technically.  But he hadn't meant it like that and it hadn't been done willingly, however slow he'd been to show them that he wanted them here, now, for more than just to save the land.

Maybe another man would have laughed and cried as he thought about the Spirits and what he'd seen; or frisked and danced as he dressed himself, delighted with his chance of a new life; or flutter and glow with his good intentions; or twitter about the glory of church bells and a cold dawn.  But that wasn't Murdoch Lancer's style.  He was too big for frisking and fluttering.  Besides, he hadn't changed that much.  But he did stand for a moment beside his dresser, after he'd taken several things from the top drawer, staring hard in the looking glass to imprint on himself the memories of everything the Spirits had shown him.  A sharp nod to his reflection was all the sign he needed to complete the bargain.  That, and a silent moment of gratitude to Paul O'Brien.

Downstairs the house was quiet, the rooms still dark but for a sliver of golden light under the kitchen door where Maria Morales was already getting breakfast.  He walked through the great room, needing only the dimmest of light to thread his way through the furniture.  He was grinning when he passed the spot where the Second Spirit had reclined on its couch of agricultural produce.  Of all the things he'd seen that would leave their indelible mark on him, the sight of Sam's bare chest had to be the most unwelcome. 

Well, almost the most unwelcome.  It was entirely possible that The Little Darling of the Sierras won that race.

It struck him that he didn't know what day it was.  Paul had said that the Spirits would come to him over three consecutive nights, but there had been no correspondingly consecutive days between them.  Of course, Spirits were mostly active at night, he supposed, so perhaps they just dispensed with the hours of daylight in Spirit world?  Whether they did or not, it had been a confusing sort of time sequence and he wasn't at all certain he'd kept accurate count.   But whatever the day, there were a couple of people he needed to see.  He walked down the passageway to the back door, and out into the yard. 

Someone came out of the barn as he crossed the yard: Jelly Hoskins, holding a lantern low and bathing his feet in yellow light.  He jumped when he saw Murdoch, then drew himself up, stiff and defensive.  His shoulders hunched as if ready to ward off a blow.  Murdoch knew now what Jelly was expecting, this odd, pugnacious little man who expected nothing but blows, but who had been all that stood between half a dozen children and complete, feral destitution.  Looked at in that light, Jelly wasn't so bad.

He could have wished for a Jelly to help Johnny, all those years ago, when his twelve-year-old son walked out of the mission orphanage and disappeared into the border towns.  Johnny could have done with a Jelly Hoskins then.

"Boss," said Jelly, caution and curiosity at war in his tone.

"Jelly."  Murdoch looked the little man up and down.  "Jelly, what day is it?"


"What's today?''

"Today, boss?  Why, it's Christmas Day."

Murdoch let himself smile, broadening the grin when he saw Jelly take a step backwards in consternation.  Of course the Spirits had managed everything in a single night.  Of course they had.  "I haven't missed it then."

"That ain't too likely."  Jelly hesitated.  "You okay?  You seem a mite confuzzled."

"I've been damned confuzzled, Jelly!  Look, I want you to do something for me.  Do you still have all that greenery in the barn?"

Jelly nodded, but he looked wary.

"Good.  All right, you aren't going to church this morning, I take it?  I want you to do me a favour while we're at church and then..." He hesitated, looking at the frightened, lonely little man before him and changed the 'And ask Maria to give you some Christmas dinner' to "And when we get back, I'd like you to join us for the Christmas meal, Jelly.  I heard you're a mean checker player and I'd like some real competition.  Neither of the boys is much good at it.  That all right?"  He hid a grin at Jelly's slack-jawed astonishment, gave him his orders for the morning and walked on across the yard, conscious at every step that Jelly was staring after him with his mouth open, astounded into silence.

He reflected that he'd better make the most of it.  It wouldn't be often that Jelly Hoskins was struck dumb.

Cipriano, by contrast, was a man of few words and those were measured and weighed.  Just as in the vision, he and Isabella were sitting alone in a house so full of the fragrance from Isabella's kitchen that Murdoch had to wonder if she had slept at all since the final Posadas the night before.  She greeted him with grace, but Murdoch saw the sidelong glance she gave her husband.  This was unusual behaviour from him, he knew.  He accepted the cup of chocolate caliente she pressed on him, and the three of them sat and drank in comfortable silence for a few minutes while Murdoch gathered his thoughts and the Roldàns waited politely to be told what it was he wanted.

"It's about the hands," he said, abruptly.  "I was... I wasn't at my most generous yesterday, Cip, and I've thought better of it since.  I know that we arranged for some extra food for today, but there's nothing in that out of the ordinary for them.  It's just more of the usual.  That's not sitting well with me this morning and I'd like to do more."

Really, Cipriano's fixed stare was more than a little unflattering. 

"Trouble is, it's late to get in very much more for them.  I thought I'd talk to Higgs about opening up his place for me after church and I'll bring back tobacco, and fruit and candy.  But I thought you'd be able to come up with some ideas for making today more of a holiday."

Cipriano turned the fixed stare onto his wife.  While Murdoch was secretly pleased to have cracked that imperturbability at last, it really wasn't flattering at all.  Cipriano cleared his throat.  "Perhaps things to amuse them, Patrón?  Cards, and checker boards, maybe a few dime novels."  Cipriano smiled at last.  "Although maybe not dime novels about the Border Hawk, eh?"

Murdoch snorted out a laugh.  "I've heard Johnny's opinion on those.  If I brought one of them home, I think he'd shoot me, Christmas or not.  Good idea, Cip."

Isabella glanced over her shoulder to the kitchen door.  She gave a soft laugh.  "With regard to food, Patrón, I cook for a multitude, every time.  So does every other woman on the estancia.  We will deal with that.  Leave it to me."

"Thank you," said Murdoch, and though it wasn't fulsome, it was heartfelt.  He swallowed the last of his chocolate and stood up to go.  They rose with him, still looking as if they couldn't quite grasp what was going on.  They deserved to know.  Murdoch said, with some difficulty, "You said to me yesterday that it was time for me to change, Cip, and I told you I couldn't.  I've learned since that I was wrong and you were right."

Cipriano smiled and nodded his approval, and the expression in his eyes was warm and affectionate.  He didn't ask Murdoch to explain himself, but just accepted what was offered.  But to Murdoch's everlasting astonishment, Señora Isabella, for all her proud reserve and poise, reached up and laid her hands on his shoulders.  She looked into his face for a long, quiet moment before nodding and stepping back.

"Bueno," she said, simply.

It felt like a benediction and maybe he should bow his head, like being in church.  It was certainly an uncomfortable emotional moment that would have any man desperate to escape.  From the amusement on her still-beautiful face, the Señora knew exactly how he felt as he took a couple of steps backwards, his face flushing.

Not looking where he was going was his undoing.  He trod on something hard and almost lost his balance, arms flailing.  Isabella swooped to rescue whatever it was under his feet.  The small wooden horse of his vision.

"Arturo's," said Cipriano, whose hand had shot out to grasp Murdoch's arm until he regained his equilibrium. 

Although Murdoch didn't know if he'd ever quite achieve that again, he was grateful for the assistance, and said so.  He took the little horse from Isabella, adding that he wanted to be sure his big feet hadn't done any damage. 

The toy was old and battered, and needed repainting, as Cipriano explained.  "It was Jaime's long ago, when he was Arturo's age.  I thought I would find time today to paint it.  Arturo says it needs to be a palomino now."

"Like Barranca?"  Murdoch grinned.

"But this is Barranca, Patrón."  Isabella gave him a kind look when he stared, confused.  "Jaime and Johnny would fight over it, when they were very small.  Johnny always wanted to keep the horse and Jaime wouldn't let Barranca go."

All Murdoch could do was to repeat the name, his big fingers closing over the toy.  "Barranca?" 

Cipriano touched the toy horse cradled in Murdoch's big hands, and then gave Murdoch the gift of something he'd hardly dared hope for.  "Johnny knows about this.  Isabella told him when he first came back, when he was recovering from being shot.  It gave us hope, when Johnny called the palomino after the toy he'd wanted as a child.  It ties him to us, to the estancia and to Lancer."

Murdoch stared, wordless, desperate to understand. 

"Johnny Madrid had never known or wanted a horse called Barranca, Murdoch, but Johnny Lancer had fought to keep it.  That's why it gave us hope.  It told us that not only was the lost child home at last, but that the lost child wanted to stay."  Cipriano held out his hand.  "Feliz Navidad, my friend.  Feliz Navidad."
Breakfast was a quiet meal. 

Murdoch wasn't quite ready to show his change of heart (and even less sure how to go about it), not until Jelly had done his part and set the scene for him.  And besides, Johnny was still in Morro Coyo and wouldn't be joining them until after the service at Green River.  He'd said he'd ride over to meet them after early Mass, and then come on home with them, Scott explained in a carefully controlled tone.  Murdoch would have to wait.  It wouldn't be the same without Johnny there.

So Murdoch stayed his hand, so to speak, after allowing Teresa to fuss over the bruised fingers.  He said he'd woke suddenly and flung out his hand, which had come into painful contact with the bedpost.  Stretching the truth a mite, perhaps, but not too badly.  He looked down at Teresa's bent head as she worked on his fingers.  Her braid had slid to one side and he could see the little curls on the nape of her neck, making her look very young and vulnerable and causing a surge of protectiveness to well up in him.  God willing, he'd make sure that she never had to settle for a spinster's career.  The Reverend might not be the right man for her, even if she were old enough to be seriously thinking about a husband, but it would be Murdoch's privilege to take care of Paul's girl until the time came.

He thought breakfast went pretty much as usual, although Scott and Teresa kept sneaking little puzzled looks at him and once Scott blenched when Murdoch made a joke.  Over by the stove, Maria crossed herself more than once.  Murdoch didn't quite understand why the pleasant conversation he initiated about Christmas should have them looking so nervous, but he persevered.  Teresa cheered up considerably when he suggested they all attend the Church Christmas Social and Ladies Aid Progressive Barn Dance.  It was probably poor fare for Scott after the social delights of Boston, but he was pleased to see his elder son's good manners.  Scott entered into Teresa's raptures with calm good sense.

Church was pretty much as usual, too.  Murdoch greeted friends and acquaintances cheerfully and managed a word with Higgs, who lit up like a Christmas candle at the thought of more profit.  Sam Jenkins joined them in the Lancer pew, still a little stiff after their disagreement the day before and apparently not expecting the vigorous handshake with which Murdoch greeted him, if the way he winced and shook his fingers repeatedly was any indication.  Murdoch was glad to see that Sam was properly dressed, although he forbore to say so.  It would be too difficult to explain.  Teresa stared at the Reverend with bright eyes and a half-smile on her face.  Murdoch may have made a mistake there, he thought, watching the Reverend lean down from his pulpit and apparently address his entire Christmas message of love and kindness to a congregation of one.  A mention of the Kiss of Peace had two young people red faced and ruffled, and Murdoch having to review, already, the lessons he'd learned from the Spirits.  It was a struggle, but he managed it.  Nothing might come of a boy and girl infatuation, but if it did... well.  He'd accept it.  As compensation for the discomfort the thought brought him and mindful of the Second Spirit's unwarranted musical criticism, he sang the old hymns and carols with hearty enthusiasm and good cheer.

Scott blenched again.  The boy must have cloth ears.

Murdoch held back at the end to speak to Reverend Petersen.  He wasn't entirely sure how to broach his topic, but the young man's friendly demeanour was encouraging.  "You caught me at a bad time yesterday, Reverend.  I was not as... as open to the idea of celebrating Christmas as I should have been.  But I've changed my mind about that.  I've talked with Mayor Higgs and if you and some of the orphanage helpers would care to call by the Mercantile this morning, he'll provide you with toys and candy enough for a fleet of orphans."

Petersen, who had been dodging about trying to see past Murdoch to where Teresa and Scott were talking to Sam in low and urgent tones, stopped still and stared.  His mouth dropped open.  Murdoch gave him an encouraging smile, and the man started like a deer. 

"I'll talk to you tomorrow about what needs to be done longer term."  And here Murdoch leaned forward to whisper a sum in Petersen's ear.

The Reverend's eyes widened and his mouth formed a perfect O of wonder.  "That's very generous!"

Murdoch shrugged.  "It contains a few years' worth of arrears," he said and with a nod he gathered up his family and Sam and herded them over to the Mercantile, where Higgs's clerks were boxing up the Lancer hands' Christmas.  Johnny was already there, sitting on a barrel of biscuits and leafing through a dime novel.  He raised a lazy hand in salute but almost fell off the barrel at Murdoch's cheerful greeting.  He looked shocked.

"He's been like it all morning," Scott said to Johnny with a shrug, in what he obviously thought was a whisper.

"Uh-huh."  Johnny's sidelong glance had him looking as skittish as a colt.  "Is he sick?"

Murdoch only smiled, giving his sons an indulgent look. 

This time Johnny did fall off the barrel.
Teresa first.

Jelly Hoskins was waiting for them on the verandah when Murdoch and Teresa drove up.  He'd spruced himself up considerably and somehow even found time to trim his beard and get hold of a clean shirt.  He didn't look as disreputable or as downtrodden and defeated.

The smugness was still intolerable. 

He greeted Murdoch with a big wink.  "Done it, Boss.  And though I says it myself, Jellifer B. Hoskins has an eye for this sort of thing and I made a right good job of it.  Place looks mighty fine.  Fac' is, I shoulda been a artist."  He took the reins of the buggy horses and beckoned Walt Junior over to collect them.  "That Doc Jenkins followin' on behind with the boys?  I'll let Jose know to come and get his buggy hosses, and then I'll be right in."

Teresa looked her question at Murdoch as Jelly bustled away.

"Jelly's joining us for Christmas dinner," confessed Murdoch. 

It was lucky there wasn't a barrel handy for Johnny to fall off, but his soft-voiced 'What the hell?' had a peculiarly carrying quality.  He seemed shocked.  Murdoch shrugged it off, offering Teresa his arm and leading her into the great room.  They stopped just inside the doorway to take it all in.

Murdoch had described what he wanted.  As best he could, he'd told Jelly about the room as it looked during the visit of the Second Spirit.  He'd described the great swags and garlands of pine and holly, explained about the way they'd been looped with strings of cranberries and lit with little candles.  He'd told Jelly to do the best he could with what he had.

Jelly had done just that.  Jelly had excelled himself; what he'd created far outstripping any of Murdoch's expectations.  Jelly had done things that no superlatives could describe.  Jelly had... well, Jelly had done the best he could with what he had.  It was as well, though, that he earned his living as a handyman.  He'd have starved in a garret as an artist.

That there were swags and garlands was not in dispute.  Murdoch's mind's eye had seen beautifully symmetrical garlands tied to thin ropes, dripping with gilded pine cones, their fragrant, curving lengths held up at intervals with perfectly circular wreaths of holly with wide trails of red ribbon.  What he got was a jagged line of pine branches strung straight as a die, if precariously, between the pictures on the walls.  Here and there a toyon branch did duty for the spiky holly of Murdoch's childhood and added a splash of red-berried colour.  Toyon had been jammed behind each picture frame, too, and a line of pine cones stood on their ends across the mantel, alternating with cored apples doing duty as candleholders. 

"Good lord," said Scott behind him.

But when Murdoch turned, taken aback, not sure what to say or do now that his surprise wasn't quite as he'd envisaged it, Scott was smiling and there was no mockery in it.  Johnny grinned and beside him, Sam stared, his mouth starting to twitch. 

"You do this, Murdoch?" asked Johnny, and for once there was approval in his voice.

Teresa seemed struck dumb.  Her hands on Murdoch's arm had tightened so hard that she was probably leaving bruises, even through the thickness of his jacket sleeve.  She turned a wondering face to him.

He patted her hand.  "I thought you'd be missing your daddy this time of year.  He was, well, he was always on at me to celebrate Christmas better.  I was never one for it, not since I was a bairn, really, but you know, maybe he was right.  I'm not your daddy, Teresa, but he left you in my care.  If he'd been here, he'd have been on at me today, so I got Jelly to do this while we were in church.  It's for you and for Paul.  Well, really for you, and next year you can do whatever you like to decorate.  You can fill the entire house with holly and I'll like it."

Hell!  He'd got that wrong.  Her chin was wobbling and her eyes so wet that the tears just spilled down over her face.  She didn't seem to notice.  She took in a huge snuffling breath that shouldn't have been as affecting as it was.

"Don't cry, Teresa, honey.  Don't cry."  He looked around for help, but Scott and Johnny were sidling away, avoiding his gaze, and even Sam was looking so intently at the toyon berries, as if trying to classify the exact genus, that he didn't seem to notice Murdoch's silent pleas.  Dammit!  For once in his life couldn't he do something right?  "Teresa," he said, helplessly.  "I thought you'd like it."

Jelly came in behind them just then, chin wagging and beard pushed forward aggressively, his small eyes darting from one to another of them, looking for praise but expecting kicks.  "It's a bang up job, ain't it?  Took me all morning that did, but I ain't complainin'.  I ain't never seen better."

Teresa sniffed up tears and other things that Murdoch would rather not think about.  She tried to smile.  "Nor have I, Jelly.  Nor have I."  She reached up on tiptoe to kiss Murdoch's cheek.  "Thank you!  Thank you, thank you, thank you!  I love it."

And then she turned and planted a kiss on Jelly's cheek.

And then suddenly it was all right.  Jelly puffed up with pride and delight, all bluff confidence on the outside.  Teresa laughed and exclaimed, and dashed the tears from her eyes with the handkerchief that Scott presented to her with a lordly bow.  Johnny was dragged around the room by Jelly, to be shown the finer points of the decoration and to be told how to do it 'jest right, so it's none of your hugger-mugger decoratin', Johnny Lancer, but somethin' as fine as cream gravy' and Murdoch saw with pride that Johnny let the old man ramble on and didn't shoot him.

Although as Jelly went on, Murdoch thought that some shootings might be justified, after all.

"So," said Sam in his ear.  "You're allowing Christmas in this year, are you, Murdoch?  Well, well, well."

"Yes, well."  Murdoch hoped the burning in his cheeks wasn't showing.  "Well.  It's only one day a year."  He turned to watch the younger ones promenading around the room admiring Jelly's handiwork.  "Oh, and Sam?  A word of warning.  I'm a more tolerant man than many would give me credit for, but the first attempt you make to take your shirt off will be summarily dealt with.  Got that?"
Scott next.

Murdoch waited until the Christmas feast was over, and they were all sitting around the fire doing what Scott called 'filling up the corners' by nibbling on apples and nuts and candy.  Johnny sat on the rug, giving up his usual seat to Jelly, and peeled an orange with deft fingers.

Scott had a cigar in one hand and was sipping from the brandy glass in the other.  He looked more relaxed and at home than Murdoch had ever seen him, his long legs stretched out and crossed elegantly at the ankles.  Every now and again he offered advice to Teresa, who was battling Jelly in a fierce game of some board game or other that Scott had had sent from Boston.

He grinned at Murdoch when he saw him watching.  "I'm just a little worried that all of Teresa's counters are falling on squares marked with things like Gambling to Ruin, or Disgrace."

"Hush!  I'm in prison again and must lose a move," fretted Teresa.

"I'm more worried that it appears to think that 50 is old age."  Murdoch sighed, then laughed at Scott's grin.  He nodded towards the door, invitingly. 

Only Johnny seemed to notice them get up and go.  His eyes followed them to the door.  Murdoch was interested to see that he only relaxed and looked back down at his task when Scott made some reassuring gesture at him.  They were learning to be friends, at least, those two, and to look after each other.

"It won't take a moment."  Murdoch closed the door behind them.  The hall was cooler as he led the way to the rarely-used formal dining room they'd left only an hour before.  "I wanted to give you something for Christmas.  It isn't much.  At least, it isn't anything new."

He'd left the packet in a drawer in the big sideboard.  He hesitated before taking it out and handing it over, but it was too late now to retract.  He could only go forward.  "These are your mother's letters, Scott, sent to your grandfather over the first two years of our life here.  She wrote to him every month, telling him about finding the estancia, all the work we were doing to make it our home, learning Spanish... anything she thought would interest him.  She loved it here, you know.  The last letters told him that we were expecting you.  I suspect he got that one and set out here immediately.  Texas was about to be annexed and we knew war with Mexico was coming, and he wanted to get her to safety, I think, if it were needed.  As it is... well, you know what happened.  She died, and he took you back to Boston.  I was in the middle of the unrest here, and fighting to hold onto what she and I had struggled for.  By the time I could reach Carterville, you and Harlan were long gone.  Still, I thought it might interest you to see how another Easterner coped with a new life here."

Scott, looking astonished, took the package.  "But how did you get them?"

"Oh," said Murdoch, working to keep his tone airy.  "Your father gave them back to me when I came to Boston to get you."

Scott stared.

"You were five.  I got there for your birthday.  I would have come earlier, but I was caught up in the war and everything around it.  Still, I was planning to go back to make another try to get you, but when I got back here from the first visit, Maria had gone and taken Johnny with her."  Murdoch looked down at his feet.  This next bit was going to be hard to explain.  "I had to make a choice, Scott.  I didn't have a great deal of money then.  I could spend it in the courts in Boston, or I could spend it looking for Johnny.  I knew where you were, and that whatever else happened, you'd be well looked after and happy.  Johnny was just lost to me, in a place that was dark and dangerous."

"It's all right," Scott said.  He swallowed visibly.  "I understand that."  A pause.  Another hard swallow.  "Courts?"

"Yes.  That's what it would've taken."

"I see."  Scott's tone was clipped, dry.  He smoothed his fingers over the package of letters.  "Yes.  I see."

That didn't bode well for Harlan, who could do with a visit from Spirits himself, if it came to it, and not those from a bottle of the finest cognac either.  Murdoch revelled for a minute in the satisfaction.  Only for a moment, though.  He could afford to be generous.  "Your grandfather is very fond of you, Scott.  He wasn't going to give you back easily."


"When you came here that day, with Johnny, well, nothing I wanted to say came out right.  So I'll say it now."  He remembered the vision he'd had of Scott back in Boston and what Harlan had said.  He smiled.  "I'm glad you're home, son.  I'm glad you're home at last."

Scott nodded.  "So am I, sir," he said; and for the first time that 'sir' didn't sound like another stake being set into the fence between them.  For the first time, it sounded like a new beginning.

Murdoch smiled and held out his hand.  "Welcome home." 
And finally, Johnny.

Murdoch waited until evening was drawing on.  Jelly had dragged a couple of hands from their celebrations and was overseeing the harnessing of buggies and horses for the drive into town for the dance.  Teresa was doing some last minute primping upstairs, heedless of calls to just hurry herself up.  Sam and Scott, over by the bookcases at the back of the room, talked about Homer.  Normally he'd join in, but this was more important than the adventures of Odysseus, another wanderer who took years to find his way home again.

Johnny appeared to like the rug before the fire and was back there, ready and waiting.  Scott had coerced him into his best suit.  With the short, fitted charro jacket and the white linen shirt Isabella Roldàn had embroidered for him, he looked like a young haciendado, and so like Maria that Murdoch's heart ached.  He had been such a fool there.  Such a damned fool.  And Johnny had paid the price for it. 

Unaware of Murdoch's scrutiny, he sat sideways to the fire, playing idly with the counters from Scott's board game.  His head was bent and the firelight lit one side of his face, leaving the other in shadow.  That was his younger boy: half flame, half shadow. 

At least Murdoch had thought Johnny was unaware, but nothing got past Johnny Madrid.  He could never just be a young man sitting quietly and heedlessly beside his own fireside.  Too many years spent wandering in Odysseus's wake had seen to that.

"Well, likely you'll remember what I look like happen we meet in a dark alley."

Murdoch started, and laughed.  Part of that was chagrin at being caught out, part was relief at the quiet friendliness of Johnny's tone.  "I'm sorry I was staring.  I've rarely seen you sit so still.  You're always moving.  I think you ran before you walked."

Johnny glanced up at him.  His eyes were shadowed now, with only an occasional glint in them as the flames beside him flickered.  He hadn't changed his stance one iota but Murdoch sensed the tension in him.  "That so?"

"Yes, that's so." 

Murdoch made no further protestations.  It wasn't because this son wasn't a man for words, because no one could say more with so few of them than Johnny could.  After all, there had been a world of meaning in those two.  But whatever was said, Johnny looked to back up words with action.  Otherwise, he'd once said, all a man was doing was blowing out his breath and making noise.

"I have something for you," said Murdoch, fishing the small box from his pocket.

Johnny took and opened it, tilting it towards the flames to see it better.  He gave Murdoch a sharp glance, sharp as a knife.

"I bought it for your mother before you were born.  She was excited that you were coming, but things here in California were still very dangerous and unsettled.  The Lady is meant to be the protectress of the unborn and children.  Cipriano was south of the border for me, looking at some breeding cattle, and I asked him to bring me this for her.  She loved it.  She wore it until the day you were born, and then put around your neck."

"It's a fine one."

"Aye.  It was a wee bit extravagant of me, really, and I didn't have the cash to spare.  But she wanted one so badly."

A slight smile.  "Mama liked getting what she wanted."

"She certainly did."  Murdoch managed a creditable laugh, though his chest was aching again.  "When she went and took you with her, my one comfort was that you'd be wearing this as protection.  I wanted to be the one to protect you, Johnny, to raise you and look after you as a man should, but I couldn't.  It made it worse when I realised she hadn't taken this with her.  I didn't find it for weeks.  She'd pushed it to the back of a drawer, you see."

"I learned, real quick, to protect myself."

"I thank God for it, every night."  Murdoch put everything he had into it, to signal his sincerity.


Johnny had big hands, but they were slender and skilled.  Murdoch would have fumbled with the tiny clasp and chain, but not Johnny.  He fastened it around his neck and let the heavy gold medallion slip under his collar.  The Virgin of Guadalupe slipped out of sight, taking up the old role she'd been robbed of twenty years before.

"I don't have much of Mama's," said Johnny.  He looked up, and the smile he gave Murdoch was the one Murdoch had always wanted to see: open and sweet.  There was no mockery in his voice, but only the beginnings of acceptance.  "Thank you, old man."

The old man smiled back.  "You're welcome, m'hijo."  He rested a hand on Johnny's shoulder and squeezed, delighted that he wasn't shaken off.  "Feliz Navidad and welcome home."
The dance was in full swing, with Jelly Hoskins red faced and breathless from calling the tune, and all the young people red-faced and breathless from dancing.  Even Johnny was on the floor, promenading Clara Higgs back and forth, and not once looking as though he'd rather be sitting in the corner with his back to the wall.  Scott had firmly cut out the Reverend, and had Teresa on his arm.  Murdoch watched, feeling curiously contented.

"Are you going to tell me what brought about this little epiphany of yours?  It's as if a new Murdoch Lancer has come out of hiding."

Murdoch glanced at Sam and took the whiskey glass the doctor proffered.  "Just the old Murdoch Lancer, Sam.  But you may be right about coming of out hiding."  He sipped the liquor slowly.  "You're right about an epiphany, too.  I was shown the error of my ways, that's all.  I saw what I'd done in the past, what I was doing now that was wrong, and how that would play out if I didn't change.  So I decided to change.  That's all."

"Shown?  By whom?  How?  When?  Good lord, Murdoch, this isn't something that could happen overnight!"

Murdoch choked and laughed.  "Funny you should say that!  Well, Sam, what would you say if I said I was shown the light by three Spirits, who took me on journeys into the past and present and future so I could see the consequences of what I was doing?"

Sam grinned, a wide and cheerful smile of good fellowship and good friendship.  "Oh Murdoch!" he said.  "What humbug!"

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