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Johnny tied the colorful red ribbon around the package, sitting back on his bed to admire his work. He had never wrapped Christmas gifts before and he found, to his surprise, that he was enjoying himself more than he had thought possible. There was something exciting in the secrecy of buying the perfect gift and then wrapping it, knowing he was the only one who knew what was inside. He lifted the package, the size of a loaf of Maria’s bread, and shook it to see if anything moved around inside. To his satisfaction, it didn’t.
He set the package down and picked up the fancy comb he had found for Teresa’s hair. He knew she would love it. Mr. Baldamero knew he was looking for the perfect gifts for his family and had set it aside for Johnny to look at when he came into the store. It was perfect in every way. Made from real tortoiseshell and ivory, he moved it around, watching it subtly change color as different shades of light hit it. It had cost him almost a month’s wages, but it would be worth it, seeing the look on Teresa’s face as she put it into her long dark hair.
Murdoch’s gift was a new pen and inkwell. The inkwell was made of wood with a glass liner. Etched in the wood was the Lancer brand. Johnny had spotted the plain looking set and bought it on the spot, knowing that he could create something special and personal to give to his father.
Gathering the presents he headed downstairs to put them under the tree with the others. He had found his from Teresa and Murdoch, but not Scott’s. Not yet. He would truly have to wait until morning to see what his brother had got him.
There were more than just Lancer presents beneath the tree. He saw the names of every hand they had on the ranch. Small but special gifts to the men and woman who made Lancer run smoothly. Jelly’s new warm jacket was the biggest present, and when Jelly had spotted it, the old handyman had nearly hit the ceiling with excitement.
Johnny sat down in the deep comfortable chair, looking from the tree to the roaring fireplace. This was what Christmas was really like. It was his second Christmas here at Lancer, but last year, after a near disastrous trip into the snow country to get the perfect tree, he had spent the holiday in a laudanum haze. But he still remembered the love and comfort he received from everyone that special Christmas day.
This year would be different. This year, nothing would happen to ruin their Christmas.
Johnny looked at the old grandfather clock in the corner and saw that it was nearly seven o’clock. The family would be returning from church services in Green River soon. They had asked him to come with them, but he wanted to give thanks in his own way at Midnight Mass in Morro Coyo.
Hearing the sounds of hoof beats and the jingle of tack, Johnny knew they had arrived home safely. He quickly went into the kitchen and poured mugs of hot apple cider. He wasn’t sure where he had learned the recipe, but it had stayed with him for years and tonight he spent as much time wrapping packages upstairs as he did making the tasty treat downstairs.
The front door opened and his family swept into the house, their faces red from the cold wind outside.
“How was church?” Johnny asked.
“It was wonderful, Johnny,” Teresa glowed with happiness. “I wish you could have been there with us.”
“He has his own way of giving thanks,” Murdoch said gently to his ward. “One year we will all have to attend Midnight Mass with Johnny. I attended Midnight Mass with Maria the first year we were married. It was a beautiful service.”
“Yes,” Teresa said. “I would love that.”
Scott came in last after seeing that the horses were in the hands of the stable boy. ”You had better bundle up good and warm tonight, Johnny,” Scott advised. “It’s already freezing cold out there. Maybe you should wait to go to church in the morning.”
Johnny shook his head. “I’ll dress warm. Now, I got something for you.”
Johnny disappeared into the kitchen and returned a moment later with a tray holding the mugs of cider.
“I thought this would warm your insides.”
Teresa drew her coat off and threw it on the sofa, ignoring Murdoch’s raised eyebrow. Scott took her lead and threw his on top of hers. To everyone’s surprise, Murdoch added his bulky coat to the pile.
Teresa took a sip of the apple cider and squealed with delight. “Johnny, how did you make this? This is the best apple cider I have ever tasted!”
“You missed your calling, Brother,” Scott nodded to the cup. “It is the best I have tasted too.”
“How did you make it?” Teresa asked as she took another sip.
“It’s easy. You take cinnamon sticks, cloves, allspice berries and put them all together in cloth along with the peel from a lemon and an orange, and let it boil in the cider. When it’s done you throw out the cloth and you have apple cider.”
Murdoch held his empty mug out to Johnny. “You have any more of that, John? Whoever taught you to make this, I take my hat off to him.”
Johnny felt a blush brush his face. It didn’t seem that this Christmas could get any better.
The cider was gone, with a promise from Johnny to make more tomorrow. The presents were inspected and put back under the tree. Johnny wasn’t sure if he could wait all night to open the presents in the morning.
But it was soon time for Johnny to leave for Morro Coyo. He put on the warm coat Murdoch had bought him last Christmas and slipped on the gloves Scott had bought him when the cold weather began to settle in.
“I’ll be home late,” he told his family. “Don’t wait up for me. I’ll see you all in the morning. Feliz Navidad.”
“Scott watched the door close and he turned to Murdoch. “I really should go with him.”
“No.” Murdoch patted Scott on the shoulder. “This is something Johnny needs to do on his own. And you listen to him, don’t wait up. I don’t want both my sons falling asleep through dinner tomorrow.”
“All right. But it doesn’t mean I won’t worry.”
Murdoch sighed. “There isn’t a minute I don’t worry about that boy. Now come on, let’s get some sleep.”
Stoking the fire and leaving a lamp on, Scott followed Teresa and Murdoch up the stairs. He couldn’t wait for tomorrow. Johnny was going to love his present.
Midnight Mass had been everything Johnny had hoped for. While most of his visits to Churches and Missions brought only bad memories, tonight he opened his heart to the words of the sermon and to the hymns that he found himself singing. He truly felt apart of something very big and very special. His life at Lancer had settled into a comforting routine, knowing that he was loved by his family, respected by the vaqueros working for Lancer and liked by his friends. Johnny never knew how complete life could be. His years of looking from the outside in, of seeing families celebrating the holidays while he only watched, hadn’t prepared him for the feeling of love and companionship that filled his life now.
“Juanito, I am so glad you came.” Father Renaldo slipped his arm around Johnny’s waist and guided him toward an empty pew. No one knew how old Father Renaldo was. His white hair and stooped shoulders belied his youthful eyes and baritone voice. Most of the parishioners had left, wanting to get home before it grew any colder, so Johnny sat with the Padre, the church still sparkling in the candle light. “I watched you during the sermon. You appear to be comfortable with what life has given you.”
“I don’t know why, Father,” Johnny bowed his head. “I don’t deserve this, but I have never been happier.”
Father Renaldo smiled. “Our Father must think you deserve it. But remember, Juanito, God does not simply give us what we want. He provides for us, gives us direction. He gave you the ability to choose the right road and you took it. Of all my parishioners, I am most proud of you, my Son, because you have traveled the longest road.”
Johnny looked up at Father Renaldo. “There was a time when I didn’t think God cared. Then I thought he didn’t exist because, if he did, he would never have deserted me. I don’t think I will ever understand why things happened the way they did, but I know I would never have appreciated what I have now if I hadn’t lived the life I did.”
“Juanito, you are wise beyond your years. Now, go home and be with your family. Feliz Navidad, and go with God.”
Johnny shook hands with the Padre and buttoned his coat up, pulling on his gloves. In the dark it would take nearly three hours to get home, but it was worth every minute he had spent in the church.
It took Johnny longer then three hours. While he was in church clouds had moved in and the ground was covered by a layer of new fallen snow. When Scott had asked if there was any chance of having a white Christmas, Murdoch had chuckled and said snow seldom fell in the valley, and never at Christmas.
Well the old man was wrong this time. Everything that was familiar to him was lost in the blanket of snow. Barranca didn’t know what to make of the cold powder that covered the road and snorted every few minutes to tell Johnny what he thought of the cold white stuff.
Finally, Johnny saw one light shining through the window of the great room. He could smell the smoke from the fireplace and knew a warm fire was awaiting him. It took him longer than usual to bed Barranca down. The horse was jittery from the snow and he brushed the palomino’s coat until it shined.
“Merry Christmas,” he whispered to his companion as he turned the wick down in the lantern and closed the barn door to keep the frigid air out.
By the time Johnny made it to the front door, he was frozen to the bone. His jacket was soaked through and even the inside of his boots were wet and cold. The thought of changing into dry clothes and sitting in front of the fireplace for a few minutes before heading to bed appealed to him.
Johnny opened the door and stepped inside, instantly aware that something was wrong. The instinct that had kept him alive all these years hummed in his head. He closed the door as silently as he could and drew his gun. Why now? On the most perfect night he could ever remember, why did something bad have to happen?
Listening carefully, he heard a rusting from the great room. Not wasting time taking off his soaked jacket, Johnny edged his way down the short tiled entranceway and peeked around the corner.
He wasn’t sure what he would find, but it was not the blond- headed boy he saw sitting Indian style in front of the Christmas tree, Jelly’s present torn open and the new jacket bundled in the boy’s arms.
The boy looked no more than ten, maybe twelve if Johnny was stretching it. His worn plaid shirt was two sizes too big for him, and his denim pants were a size to small. His boots were cut out at the toes so his growing feet could keep growing.
Johnny felt like he was punched in the gut. Despite the blonde hair, he was looking at himself twelve years ago.
Johnny holstered his gun, the sound alerting the boy to his presence. The boy jumped to his feet, still clutching Jelly’s jacket, his feral blue eyes searching for a way out. Johnny knew the feeling. Trapped like a wild animal. Scared but not wanting to show it, because weakness could get you killed.
“How did you get in here?” Johnny asked. He spoke to him like a man, because Johnny knew he had not been a kid for a very long time. Not by the looks of him.
“The lock wasn’t much of a lock.” The boy nodded toward the French doors.
“I know. Been meaning to say something about that.” Johnny eased himself over to the doors in question, cutting off one of the boy’s escape routes. You got a name, kid?”
“You got a name?” the boy shot back.
Johnny chuckled. The kid had spunk. “Yeah, I got a name. Johnny. Johnny Lancer.”
The boy looked at Johnny defiantly. “Yeah. Just, Jess. Somethin’ wrong with that?”
Johnny shook his head. “No.You hungry, Jess?”
Jess looked toward the door leading to the kitchen. “Already ate. Made me a roast beef sandwich.” The look in the boy’s eyes told Johnny the kid was waiting for a fight.
“A slice of that good apple pie too?”
Johnny saw a slight crack in the boy’s armor, a hint of a smile in those blue eyes.
“You want anything else? Milk? coffee?”
Jess shook his head.
Johnny realized he had not taken his jacket off yet and stripped the wet coat off, walking back to the entranceway and hanging it on the hook next to the door. He was taking a chance, turning away from the boy, but Jess needed time and space to figure out what to do next. Johnny hoped it would be to stay and talk. There was no way he was going to let that boy go back out into the freezing night. And he would fight the boy if he had too, but he prayed it would not come to that.
“You’re a long way from anywhere,” Johnny said conversationally, walking back to his former spot near the tree. “How’d you get here?”
Now he saw a genuine smile on Jess’s face. “I jumped in the back of that fancy rig outside the church in Green River. Never did hear so much singing and laughing. It was like none of them had a care in the world.”
“It’s Christmas time. Time to be happy.”
Jess looked down at his hands, realizing he was still holding the jacket. Letting it fall to the floor he said, so softly that Johnny could barely hear the words. “For some it’s just another day.”
“I know, Kid,” Johnny answered back, almost as softly. “I know, but it doesn’t have to be tonight. Come on, sit down by the fire.”
Jess stood his ground. Johnny knew exactly how the boy felt. Jess was confused yet determined not to let his guard down. Good things did not happen without bad consequences.
“It can’t hurt to get warm. It’s too cold to go out there tonight.”
Confusion and determination turned to suspicion. “I ain’t stayin’ here,” he sad flatly. “I’ll be on my way at first light.”
Johnny nodded. “If that’s what you want. You still have a couple of hours. Sit on the sofa close to the fire.” Johnny pulled a throw blanket off the back of Murdoch’s easy chair and waited for Jess to sit down reluctantly.
“You got a lot of presents under that tree,” Jess observed, over indulgence clearly on his mind.
“This is a big ranch. A lot of people work for us. We couldn’t do it without there help. They deserve something nice for Christmas.”
“They get paid don’t they?” Jess snapped. “They got a roof over their heads, food in their bellies.”
“Yes. But they do more than just work for us. They do their jobs well and on time. They deserve the gifts.”
“Yeah, until the rains stop coming, or the river dries up. Them workers won’t mean much to you then. Except for a wage you can’t pay no more.”
“Is that what happened to you and your family, Jess?” Johnny asked.
Jess ignored the question. “Any of them presents down there yours?”
Johnny smiled impishly. “Yeah. Two of them. But there’s one more from my brother that I haven’t seen yet.”
“I bet you were spoiled when you were a kid. Big fancy house like this. Your ma and pa must a given you everything you wanted.”
Johnny’s smile disappeared. “Things aren’t always what they seem, Jess. Best remember that.”
Putting another log on the fire, Johnny watched until it started burning before sitting down on a chair facing Jess. “You got folks around here?”
Silence seemed to close in around them, only the crackle and pop of the logs burning in the hearth and the steady tick tock of the old Grandfather clock in the corner broke the stillness. Johnny waited. Jess would tell him when and if he wanted to. But the boy’s eyes grew heavy. The warmth of the fire and the first full meal he had in his stomach, for how long Johnny didn’t want to guess, conspired to lull Jess into a deep sleep.
When he was certain the boy was sound asleep, he gently lifted Jess’s feet onto the sofa and placed a pillow beneath his head. He carefully covered the boy with another blanket and tuned the wick down in the lamp next to the sofa, the fireplace casting off warm flickering shadows over the boy.
Johnny sat back in Murdoch’s chair determined to stay awake and watch the boy. This was truly a Christmas he would never forget.
Scott awoke with a start. There was something special about today. He thought about it, his sleep muddled mind searching for an answer. Christmas! He sat up in bed, throwing the covers off. It would only be a matter of time before Johnny came barging into his room, unannounced, and plunked himself down on his bed. If truth be told, Scott admitted to himself that he looked forward to their time together in the morning while his brother watched him shave and prepare for the day. Johnny was always clean shaven and ready for the day before Scott even blinked one eye open.
But not this morning. He had a present he had to get under the tree before the household woke up. Dressing quickly, he got down on his hands and knees and pulled the brightly wrapped present from under the bed. He had alerted Maria and Teresa that it was there so they would leave it be when they were cleaning.
It was small and light, and when Scott shook it he could hear a slight jingling from inside. That’s why he had hidden it. He didn’t want to take the chance that Johnny would begin fooling around with the package and figure out what was inside. Tucking it beneath his arm, he opened his door and looked out into the hallway. It looked clear. The doors leading to Murdoch’s and Teresa’s rooms were still closed. But, with a sinking feeling, Scott saw that Johnny’s door was open. His brother always closed the door when he went to bed. He must have gotten up earlier than anyone, too excited about opening presents. Then a darker thought stopped him in his tracks. Maybe Johnny had never made it home last night.
Fear urged him down the stairs, his bare feet not making a sound. As he stepped down into the great room he saw Johnny sitting in Murdoch’s chair, his chin resting on his chest. There was a soft red glow from the embers left in the fireplace and the first rays of sunlight filtered in through the picture window behind his father’s desk. To his surprise and delight, he noticed the ground outside was covered with a layer of snow. A white Christmas. Scott promised himself that this would be a Christmas Johnny would never forget.
Tip-toeing past the sofa, present in hand, Scott froze as he saw a young boy stretched out on the couch, his blonde hair splayed against the dark pillow and a blanket pulled up to his neck. He didn’t recognize the boy, but he did see the hollow cheekbones of malnutrition and the dark circles beneath his eyes. Scott looked over at Johnny. His brother had once again brought home a stray.
Not wanting to waken either one of them, Scott turned around and headed back upstairs. Murdoch and Teresa needed to be told about their new house guest before they paraded downstairs.
Johnny snorted and woke himself up. Unsure of where he was at first, he slowly lifted his head, a kink in his neck protesting the position he had fallen asleep in. A chill had invaded the room after the fire had died down and he looked quickly over at the sofa to make sure the boy was still fast asleep. It was obvious that Jess had needed the sleep. But, the boy he needed so much more. What was he going to do? He had promised Jess that he would let him leave in the morning if he wanted to, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t allow another child to live the life he had led.
Waking up even more, he realized he smelled fresh coffee and biscuits baking in the oven. Looking out the picture window behind him, he realized it was well past sunrise. How long had he slept? He glanced toward the kitchen and saw Scott leaning against the door frame, sipping at a mug of steaming coffee while he held a second one in his left hand.
Pushing himself out of the chair as quietly as he could, Johnny studied Jess’s face a moment, satisfied that the boy was sleeping soundly, and made his way around the sofa to the kitchen door. He accepted the mug of hot coffee from Scott and sipped at it, relishing the hot liquid as it warmed his insides.
Scott nodded toward the sofa and whispered, “Is this part of Midnight Mass?”
Johnny almost spewed his coffee all over Scott’s shirt.
“Care to enlighten us?” Murdoch whispered, carrying his own mug of coffee.
Johnny shrugged. “I got home last night and found him sitting under the tree.”
“What?” Murdoch looked over Johnny’s shoulder at the sleeping boy. “You mean he broke into the house?”
“He said the lock on the French doors was easy.” Johnny grinned.
“I find nothing funny about this, Johnny,” Murdoch snapped. “He could have robbed us blind.”
Johnny’s smile faded. “He jumped in the back of your rig in Green River. I don’t think he was aiming to steal anything. He just wanted a warm place to spend the night on Christmas Eve.”
“Oh, Murdoch,” Teresa cried. “He’s just a boy.”
Johnny shook his head. “He may be young but he’s not a boy. Not anymore. He’s had to grow up fast.”
“Like you?” Scott asked.
Johnny bowed his head. “You either find a way to survive or you die”
“Where did he come from? I don’t remember seeing him around these parts.” Johnny heard the hurt in his father’s voice and knew Murdoch was seeing him in the boy.
“He didn’t say. But I think his family lost their home to drought.”
Murdoch nodded. “A lot of good, hard working families in Texas lost everything last summer. Three years of drought turned the land to dust.”
“Texas. If that’s what happened, it’s a long way from here,” Scott said.
“California’s barely been touched. There’s still plenty of land to homestead.”
“Maybe his family is nearby,” Teresa said hopefully.
“Don’t think so, Teresa.” Johnny took another sip of his coffee; the taste bitter to him now. “He’s been on his own for a spell now. A year, maybe more.”
“How would you know that?” Scott asked.
“His boots. There’s a years growth in them feet.” Johnny saw that Scott didn’t understand. “When you don’t have money for food, you don’t have money for clothes or boots. A growing boy needs room for his feet to spread. Only thing you can do is cut the toes open. Better than walking barefoot.”
Johnny saw Murdoch’s face pale. Johnny bowed his head. “The past is the past, old man. Feeling guilty about what wasn’t won’t help anyone.”
Teresa stepped closer to Murdoch. “He’s right, you know. The past is the past, and we’re happy now. But, we can make a difference in that boy’s life.”
“His name is Jess. I got that much out of him.” The guilt of what he had promised last night weighed heavy on his heart. “I had to promise he could leave this morning if he wanted to. It was the only way to keep him here last night. But I don’t know if I can keep that promise.” Johnny’s voice faltered as he thought back on his own childhood. “I don’t think he can make it on his own. He pretends to be tough, but he’s not tough enough.”
“What can we do?” Teresa asked. “Maybe Father Renaldo…”
“No!” Johnny’s voice was louder then he intended. “I won’t put him in an orphanage. He’s better off on his own.”
“You know that isn’t true,” Murdoch said. “Father Renaldo is a good man, He takes care of his children.”
“I’m not going to any damn orphanage!” Jess jumped up from the sofa, the blanket still clutched in is hands, his blonde hair tousled from sleep. “I can take care of myself!”
Johnny pressed his mug into Scott’s hand and walked back into the great room. “No one is sending you to an orphanage.” He carefully made his way toward the sofa. Jess was ready to bolt; Johnny could see it in his eyes. “I promised you last night you could go in the morning if you wanted to. But, I was hoping you’d stay for Christmas. You couldn’t get far in this snow anyway.”
Johnny saw Jess look toward the doorway, studying the three people huddled there. Johnny put his arm around the boy, feeling him stiffen at the touch. “Jess, this is my family. My father, Murdoch.”
Murdoch nodded his head toward Jess. “Glad to meet you, Jess.”
“And the ugly blonde guy over there is my brother, Scott.”
“Very funny, Johnny,” Scott scoffed. “Hello, Jess.”
“And that pretty little thing there is our sister, Teresa. And I bet she’s got breakfast going in the kitchen.”
“I sure do. How does steak and eggs sound, Jess?”
“Sitting down to breakfast with us doesn’t mean you have to stay, young man.” Murdoch said softly. “But we would all feel better if we knew you had a full stomach.”
Jess looked out the picture window and visibly shuddered. “All right, but just breakfast,” he agreed. Johnny grinned and wrapped his arms around Jess’s shoulders. “I hope you’re hungry. Teresa gets real hurt if you don’t ask for seconds on everything.”
Guiding Jess toward the informal table in the kitchen, Johnny pulled up an extra chair while Teresa added another place setting to the table.
Johnny was careful not to push too hard. He knew how fragile Jess’s emotions were right now. He pierced one of the larger steaks piled on a serving platter in the middle of the table and cut it in half, putting the larger half on Jess’s plate. He would have liked to wait, to judge Jess’s reaction to the food, but Scott spooned scrambled eggs on to the plate next to the steak and Murdoch added a large helping of fried potatoes next to the eggs and steak. Teresa happily spread butter and strawberry preserves on a biscuit and added it to the huge mound of food.
Jess looked at the plate nervously. “Eat what you can,” Johnny said gently. “No one will get mad if you can’t eat it all.” Looking over at Murdoch, he grinned. “I don’t know if he could finish all that.”
Jess nodded and began picking at the food. Soon he was devouring the food at an alarming rate. Johnny soon saw the sickly look on Jess’s face and knew the feeling. “You best go sit down and let that food settle for a bit.”
Jess nodded and excused himself from the table with a politeness that surprised everyone.
Scott watched the boy head back into the great room and turned to Johnny. “You think we should leave him alone like that?”
Johnny smiled. “He’s not going anywhere, at least not right now. I’m not saying he won’t bolt tomorrow, but I think he’ll stay today. The chance to get a full belly and relax doesn’t come often. Just don’t push him.”
“Johnny,” Murdoch leaned forward. “We can’t let him wander off. God knows what will happen to him. He’s just a boy. I know.” Murdoch held up his hand thwarting Johnny’s objection. “He’s already lived a hard life. But he’s still a boy and he needs adult guidance.”
“You mean the orphanage,” Johnny spat.
“Johnny,” Teresa reached over and put her hand over his clenched fist. “The Mission in Morro Coyo is a good place. The children are well taken care of and they are loved. You’ve seen it yourself.”
“That boy won’t stay there unless you put him in leg irons or behind bars.”
“I can’t imagine what kind of places you were placed in,” Scott said, his voice coarse with emotion. “But the Mission in Morro Coyo isn’t like that. It’s the right thing to do. The only thing to do.”
Johnny felt his world crumbling in around him. He knew exactly how Jess felt, and yet he knew that his family was right. In the end, he would have to break his promise to Jess, and the thought of that hurt.
Murdoch stood up suddenly. “We can talk about this later. It’s Christmas morning. Let’s show that young man in there what a Lancer Christmas is like.”
Teresa was suddenly aware of the time. “Maria and Cipriano will be here soon. And Jelly.”
“I wish we had some clothes that would fit him,” Scott said.
“I have an idea!” Teresa jumped to her feet. “My old clothes will fit him.”
“Teresa?” Johnny nearly tipped his chair over trying to stop her. “Jess isn’t gonna wear any girls clothes.”
Murdoch chuckled. “Until just a couple of years ago, Teresa was pure tomboy. She bought boys clothes and dared anyone to make her put on a dress.”
“Better not be any frills on ‘em.” Johnny mumbled.
“You mean like pink shirts and fancy stitching?” Scott barely sidestepped Johnny’s slap to the back of his head as Johnny passed by him and Murdoch into the great room.
They found Jess sitting in the corner behind the tree trying to rewrap Jelly’s jacket.
“Don’t worry about it, Jess,” Murdoch said. “Jelly couldn’t care less how it’s wrapped, just that he gets the jacket he’s been hinting at for months.”
It was obvious that Jess had been crawling around under the tree looking at all the name tags. How long had it been since he had a happy Christmas…or like himself, had he never had one? Johnny had to think that he did. The boy came from a good family, the few things he let slip, his polite behavior at the breakfast table. Johnny suddenly felt so sorry for the boy. He only knew from watching other people what he was missing. Jess had had his Christmases and had lost them.
“I found three presents for you, Johnny,” Jess said, a tinge of color in his face that had not been there before.
“Three?” Johnny’s eyes lit up. He plopped down on the floor next to Jess. “There were only two yesterday.”
“There’s three now. I counted them twice.” Jess reaffirmed.
“Then let’s get to opening presents.” Johnny grinned.
“Not so fast, Brother.” Scott laughed. “We are going to do this the right way.”
“First thing,” Murdoch said as he carried the clothes Teresa had brought from upstairs, “is to get this young man cleaned up and into some warm clothes.” He handed the clothes to Johnny. “I told Jelly to start the fire in the bath house first thing this morning so the water should be hot.”
“I don’t need a bath,” Jess protested.
Johnny leaned over and sniffed Jess’s shirt. “Believe me, you do. Now come on. The faster we get this over with, the faster we can dig into those presents. Come on, the bathhouse is right off the kitchen.”
Johnny led the boy reluctantly toward the kitchen, and the dreaded bathhouse.
Scott watched Johnny and Jess disappear into the kitchen.
“This is not easy for Johnny.”
“No,” Murdoch agreed. “He’s sees himself in that boy. I hate to think of the life Johnny went through. He’s not going to want to part with that boy when its time for him to go to the orphanage.”
“Maybe he doesn’t have to.” Teresa ventured. “Maybe he could stay here. We have plenty of room, and plenty of work.”
“It is a very nice thought, sweetheart, but it would not be fair to all those boys we have known for so long at the Mission. What do we tell them? Sorry, you were just not good enough but Jess is.”
“He’s right, Teresa,” Scott said. “We have to convince Johnny that the best thing for Jess is the Mission. When he agrees, I think he will be able to convince Jess. That boy is reaching out for help. He doesn’t know how lucky he is that it is Johnny reaching back.”
“I just hope he has a good Christmas with us.”
“I’m sure he will. They will be back in a few minutes. I’ll be right back.” Murdoch rushed toward the stairs. Don’t start without me.”
“Where’s he going?” Scott asked.
Teresa could only shrug.
Johnny stood back and looked at the blue lumberjack shirt and denim jeans that fit Jess perfectly. Even the boots were a good fit. “Let me comb that hair and we can go in.”
Jess fidgeted as Johnny drew the comb through his hair. “Are you always this excited on Christmas morning?” Jess asked.
Johnny stopped combing the blonde head. “This is only my second Christmas here. Neither Scott or me grew up here at Lancer. To tell you the truth, I don’t rightly know what to expect this morning.”
“I don’t understand. You didn’t grow up with Scott and Teresa?”
“No. I grew up in Mexico and Scott came from Boston. This is all new to us. But Scott, now he had some big Christmases in Boston.”
“And you didn’t?”
“No.” Johnny dismissed the question. Today was not the day he wanted to visit the unhappy times in his life. “So if I make a mistake, you can tell me before I make a fool of myself.”
“Okay. Johnny,” Jess paused, finding it hard to find the words he wanted. “I wouldn’t a robbed you last night.”
Johnny scuffed Jess’s ear. “I know that, Kid. Now let’s get in there before we miss all the fun.”
Johnny wasn’t sure what Christmas morning was really like. He was sure it didn’t include finding a lost boy sitting under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. But he couldn’t remember when he was happier. The fireplace was roaring, the room smelled of pine tree and the cinnamon Teresa had placed around the room. He was safe and warm and content. He hoped Jess would allow him and his family to give the young boy a day of contentment too. Nothing came easy when you were young and scared all the time. But today he promised himself that Jess would find only comfort and warmth.
Johnny herded Jess into the great room, a huge smile on his face. “I think I lost a little rag-a-muffin and found Jess instead.”
“Hey, Jess,” Scott grinned. “Looking good there. How do the boots fit?”
Jess nodded. “Okay.”
“Have a seat.” Johnny told the boy who sat down on the floor in front of the tree.
Johnny looked around the room suddenly aware that Murdoch wasn’t there. “Where’s Murdoch gotten off too? We can’t start opening presents until he’s here. Murdoch!”
“Hold your horses, Johnny!” Murdoch shouted as everyone heard him running down the stairs.
Murdoch returned with a twinkle in his eye and Johnny wondered what his father had been up to. But, he was too impatient to enquire. He wanted his family to open the gifts he had worked so hard on.
“Well,” Murdoch said as he sat in his chair facing the tree. “Since you are already down there, Jess, would you mind doing the honors and sorting the presents?”
A smile reached from ear to ear as Jess delved into the presents under the tree. It appeared he had already sorted Johnny’s into a stack. He collected the rest into three more piles then looked up expectedly. “Who goes first?”
Murdoch laughed. “Why, I believe it should be ladies first, right, Boys?”
Jess nodded and looked through the packages and found the one from Johnny. “Here,” he said. “This one’s from Johnny. He told me what it was while I was taking a bath. He told me what he got everybody,” he said proudly. Only a trusted friend knew a secret like that.
“Seems you have done the impossible, Jess,” Scott chuckled. “I’ve been trying to get it out of him for weeks.”
Teresa played with the packaging, pressing it, trying to figure out what was inside.
“Open it,” Johnny said, exasperated. “It’s not like you haven’t tried to figure out what’s in it every day since I put it under the tree.”
Teresa blushed and carefully tore the paper open. Her startled gasp was all Johnny needed to hear to know he had found the perfect gift.
Teresa pulled her present from the package, running her fingers over the tortoiseshell and ivory comb. “It’s beautiful, Johnny. Thank you. But where did you ever find something this pretty?”
Johnny shrugged. “I have my ways.”
Jess handed the next gift to Murdoch. “My pa would’a liked something like this.” There was no sadness in his voice, only pleasure in being part of this special morning.
Murdoch looked at Johnny then stripped the paper off the wooden box. Lifting the lid off, he carefully pulled out the new pen and inkwell. His fingers followed the perfectly carved Lancer ‘L’ on the inkwell. “I don’t know what to say, Johnny. How…”
“I had plenty of nights practicing my whittlin’. Got pretty good at it after awhile.”
“You carved the ‘L’?”
Johnny shrugged. “I thought it would look good on your desk.”
“It will. It will look just fine on my desk. Thank you, Son.”
Jess had Scott’s present in his hands, waiting impatiently for Murdoch to finally set his gift on the coffee table.
“Here,” he said. “Johnny said he worked since the beginning of summer on them. But he thinks you’ll like it.”
Johnny dipped his head, trying not to laugh. Scott was less successful. “You and Johnny had a long talk during your bath.”
Jess nodded seriously. “We talked about lots of things.”
“Come on, Scott, just open it.” Johnny reached over and slapped his brother’s knee.
As Johnny expected, Scott was careful and deliberate as he pulled the colored paper from yet another box. He looked over at Johnny who tried to school his features without success. He was just having too much fun.
Finally Scott pulled the present out of its box and stared at the set of bookends carved into horse’s heads. Johnny watched his brother stare at the detailed work, the almost lifelike mane and flashing eyes, and knew he had given Scott the perfect gift.
“Johnny, they are exquisite. I don’t know what to say.”
“Those books ya got on your desk all the time. Now you have a place to put them.”
Scott nodded. “They will be put to good use, Brother. Thank you.”
Johnny sat back, satisfied. Somehow he knew the giving would be more fulfilling than the getting. Not that he didn’t want to see what hid inside the presents beneath the tree with his name on them.
“Well, young man.” Murdoch looked down at Jess. “Since you are doing such a good job, why don’t you decide who goes next.”
Jess looked at each member of the Lancer family carefully then decided. He pulled in another pile of the presents he had separated and handed Murdoch his present. “Teresa is next.”
Teresa fidgeted on the sofa like a little girl. Johnny watched as Murdoch received a knitted scarf and thick stockings to wear in the evening. Scott opened a box containing a bookmark Teresa had embroidered with the title of Scott’s favorite sonnet by Shakespeare.
“Teresa, this is beautiful.”
“I don’t want to hear you complain about losing your place in one of your books ever again.”
“I won’t, ever again. Thank you.”
Jess handed Johnny his first gift, and he realized he didn’t want to open it. He had looked and thought and contemplated over what might be inside the small box covered by fancy paper that he wasn’t sure he wanted it to end.
“Go on,” Teresa urged.
Johnny looked at them all, then at Jess, and the boy nodded, a grin spreading from ear to ear.
Johnny tore the paper off the box and opened the lid. “Teresa…” he breathed. He lifted the silver pendent from its resting place in a bed of cotton. “St. Christopher. Patron, Saint of travelers.”
“You wore one when you first came here and lost it when you were hurt…I thought…”
Johnny didn’t mind the hitch in his voice. “Thank you, Querida. I’ve missed this for a long time.”
“It’s your turn,” Jess said to Murdoch and handed Teresa her gift from Murdoch.
Teresa lifted a new shawl out of her box, a pattern of red roses woven through the silky black material.
“It’s beautiful, Murdoch. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome sweetheart”
Jess handed Scott his present next. An expensive – and hard to find bottle of Port.
“Thank you, Murdoch. We’ll all toast with this tonight.”
Jess then handed Johnny his gift from Murdoch.
Johnny let it sit in his lap for a minute, knowing this part of Christmas was almost over and not wanting it to end. But curiosity got the better of him and he tore the paper open. Johnny stared into the small box that contained an array of whittling knives, with different size and shape blades.
“I didn’t…” Murdoch began, looking at the inkwell and bookends Johnny had so carefully carved. “I didn’t know you had such an artist’s hand with wood. I just saw you admiring a set similar to this in one of Teresa’s wish magazines.”
“Murdoch. I don’t know what to say.”
“Say thank you,” Jess whispered.
Johnny nodded. “Thank you.”
“You are very welcome, Son.”
Jess handed out Scott’s presents, his face grinning wider as Murdoch opened his box of imported tobacco and Teresa slipped her hands into her new fur gloves.
“This is yours, Johnny,” Jess said as he picked up the last present from the piles he had made of Lancer gifts.
As expected, Johnny turned the present over several times trying to figure out what was inside. He heard a slight ring and this piqued his curiosity until he couldn’t stand it another second.
“What is it?” Jess asked as he tried to see into the box.
Johnny lifted a pair of Spanish spurs from the box. The three inch rowel with silver rowel guard had a silver concho set in the middle of each spur. Smaller conchos studded the spur straps.
“How did you know?” Johnny asked in a hushed voice. He’d seen a pair just like this when he was a boy, had wanted them so badly.
Scott grinned. “A little too much tequila one night. You told me all about them.”
“De nada, Brother.”
Silence filled the room for a long moment, each Lancer reflecting on what they had received and the joy in the faces of the family members they had touched so deeply with their special gifts.
It was Murdoch who broke the silence. He drew yet another gift from behind him and laid it on his lap.
He turned to Jess and motioned him to come closer to his chair.
“When Johnny was a little younger than you are now he didn’t live here at Lancer. In fact I didn’t know where he was. But I had hired some men to try to find him. I received a letter just a couple weeks before Christmas telling me that they thought they had finally found my lost son. I was so happy I began to make this.” He brushed the small wrapped package with his hand. “They were wrong, and they didn’t find him that year or for a lot of years after that. But for the next four years I would bring this out and added a link to it, knowing my boy, wherever he was, was growing. Then I put it away one year and never brought it out again. Until today.
“Jess, I found Johnny two years ago, and I can’t think of a better gift than having both my sons here with me. I would be honored if you would accept this gift in Johnny’s stead. I prayed every night that someone had found Johnny and gave him a chance at a good life. My prayers were unanswered then… but, I believe they have been answered in you.”
Jess nodded, then looked toward Johnny and smiled at the glistening tear that welled then fell down his friend’s cheek. He opened the package carefully, revealing a carefully tooled leather belt with four silver rings strung with a short length of leather, extending the length of the belt.
Johnny reached over and touched the leather. “It’s beautiful,” he said, his voice husky. “I would be honored if you wore it too.”
Jess wrapped the belt around his waist, it was just a little too big for him.
“With a few good meals that will fit perfectly,” Scott said.
“It’s beautiful, Jess.” Teresa slipped her arm around Murdoch’s shoulder. “This truly is the most wonderful Christmas.”
Johnny looked toward Murdoch and whispered. “Thank you, Old Man.”
There were no other words needed. The unexpected appearance of a young boy beneath the Lancer Christmas tree truly made this the most special Christmas for all.
Years later Jess would still remember that most special Christmas. He did go to the Morro Coyo Mission and went on to college with the Lancer’s help. He looked with pride at his own son wearing the belt Murdoch had given him years ago.
“Merry Christmas, Son. And, Merry Christmas to the Lancers, one and all.”
Merry Christmas everyone.
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