Word count: 3,390
Christmas was only four days away, and excitement over the approaching holiday was building for everyone at Lancer. Everyone but Johnny Madrid Lancer, that was.
This was to be Johnny and Scott’s first Christmas together with their father Murdoch, who had arranged for them all to be reunited that year after over twenty years of separation. The boys had been raised apart and in different worlds, so the father and his two sons had been spending the previous months having to learn almost everything about each other. So it was no different that each man should bring a unique perspective to just what the coming holiday meant to them.
Over the years, Murdoch had missed the presence of his sons, but his holidays had been shared with his good friend and ranch foreman Paul O’Brien and his young daughter Teresa. After Paul had been killed defending the Lancer property, Murdoch had taken Teresa in as his ward, and she was treated in every way like his own daughter. The holidays had always been bittersweet for them, but there were established traditions within the walls of the Lancer hacienda that helped fill the emptiness created by those who had gone missing from their lives.
Scott had been raised in Boston by his well-to-do grandfather. His holidays had been spent in splendor, surrounded by friends and all the customary trappings of Christmas, in the warmth and comfort of a mansion filled to brimming with the spirit of the season.
Johnny had been raised in a series of poverty stricken border towns. His holidays had been spent in austerity, surrounded by strangers similarly struggling to survive their bleak existence, in hovel after hovel his mother would manage to find to shelter them.
Neither son had had a perfect life after being separated from their father. Scott had never been given the opportunity to live with the man, and he never understood why Murdoch hadn’t ever sent for him. But except for one year of his life spent as a prisoner of war during the Civil War, Scott had never wanted for much of anything. He’d had a strict but doting grandfather who supplied him with a nurturing environment that included a college education and every possible advantage life had to offer.
Johnny’s mother, Maria, had stolen him away from possibilities like that. She’d taken him from Murdoch’s life and Lancer when he had been only two, and filled his head with lies about how his father didn’t want him. She’d been barely a mother to the boy when she finally died while he was still young, leaving him on his own to get through life any way he could.
It was hard to do much celebrating when you were a kid, alone, just trying to survive. And one way he had managed to survive was by becoming the gunfighter, Johnny Madrid. The life of a gunhawk was a lonely one, and allowed little opportunity for establishing holiday traditions.
Johnny was real tired of finding out just how much his mother had denied him by forcing him into that life. Since being summoned back to Lancer by his father, he’d found out not only that all his mother’s lies were exactly that and his father had wanted him, but that he also had a half-brother who he was real happy to be getting to know.
Through his newfound relationships Johnny was slowly learning what opportunities and joyful occasions he had missed. He’d never allowed himself to feel sorry about the cards he had been dealt, and you couldn’t really miss what you didn’t know existed anyway. But Johnny was constantly amazed at how much people took things for granted – things like knowing what the heck a “Christmas Tree” and “Christmas Decorations” were.
Seemed to Johnny like everyone on the ranch had an opinion about what exactly was supposed to happen at this time of year. Mention cutting down a “Christmas Tree,” and size, color, shape, and tree type were immediately debated like it was the most significant thing that had ever been decided.
Teresa had dragged the brothers up to an unknown storeroom in the hacienda, and put them to work bringing down container after container of stuff that turned out to be “Christmas Decorations.” As each item was pulled out of its storage, the dialogue shifted to explanations about when each piece was first used, who had purchased it, where it should be displayed, and on and on. Scott had never laid eyes on any of this particular stuff before, but he seemed to immediately be able to guess what it was, what it was for, and where it should be placed.
To Johnny, a tree was a tree and the stuff was just stuff – but every time a new thing was presented it definitely meant something to him. It was all a reminder of his past, and how he never had a tree, and he never had stuff, and he never had anyone to share the “joys of the season” with.
Johnny was trying very hard not to let on that he didn’t have the slightest idea of what they were all talking about. He had been bluffing his way through pretty well up until now, but there were just so many times you could claim, “Oh sure. Seen one just like that in Abilene once,” before your own throat started to close off all by itself so the lies could not be spoken.
Everyone seemed so incredibly happy, Johnny didn’t want to ruin anyone’s fun by admitting that he’d never experienced any of these traditions before. The ex-gunfighter was a quick study, so he listened very closely for any clues that might help him fulfill expectations.
He overheard something about “Christmas Presents,” and figured that they must be something like birthday presents. Johnny had learned about the importance of those when he almost missed giving Teresa one for her birthday a few months prior. But not knowing who exactly needed to receive these holiday gifts, and afraid to ask, he hedged his bets and had picked out something for everyone close to him.
Johnny was actually enjoying learning about these traditions and how the holiday had and would be celebrated at his new home, Lancer. But his joy was being overshadowed by remembrances from his past, and a fear that his secrets would leak out and put a damper on the festivities. The last thing he needed was anyone feeling sorry for him.
His new family had indeed begun to notice just how quiet Johnny was becoming, and how uncharacteristically tired he seemed to be. He kept a small smile on his lips almost constantly, but it just never seemed to reach his eyes anymore. Johnny Madrid may have been able to mask his feelings from anyone watching, but that man had never been close to anyone long enough for them to get to know him well. Johnny Lancer had been living in one place too long. For the first time in his life, Johnny could be read, and it was making him increasingly uncomfortable that he might soon be found out.
This evening after dinner, as Scott and Teresa lingered over their meal and chatted about moving some of the “Christmas Decorations” around – for the fifth time – Johnny grew particularly quiet. But where their discussion had the pair so preoccupied that they’d missed the change of mood, Murdoch had not.
Seeing his younger son silently struggling with his thoughts, Murdoch grew concerned when Johnny announced over-enthusiastically that he was going to the barn to check on Barranca. Johnny’s prize horse was always well cared for by his son, but Murdoch knew for sure that he’d already bedded the animal for the night. Repeat trips to the barn usually meant Johnny was brooding over something, and one way his young son worked out his problems was to groom his horse.
Scott and Teresa was so engaged that they barely acknowledged Johnny’s retreat, but Murdoch noticed and he was worried. They all knew that Johnny’s life had been hard lived, but he was notoriously closed-lipped about just how difficult and deprived his childhood had been. Murdoch had wondered how their preparations for the holidays would sit with his younger son. He was certain that Johnny had never had much of a Christmas with his mother – and he was now determined to find out just how little Johnny really knew about the holiday and it’s traditions.
As expected Murdoch found Johnny grooming Barranca. He was welcomed heartily enough, but Murdoch felt sure that his son’s pleasant demeanor was all a front.
Murdoch decided on a direct approach. “Is there something bothering you, son?”
“No. I’m fine,” came Johnny’s patent reply. “Why do you ask?” he added hesitantly.
“Well, you seem a little preoccupied lately,” Murdoch prompted, hoping for some disclosure.
The senior Lancer was disappointed by the still obscure response. “Sure I am,” Johnny offered enthusiastically. “Lots to do this time of year you know.”
Murdoch noticed that, despite Johnny’s amiability, the long stokes his son had been using to brush Barranca’s coat seemed to be getting much shorter – perhaps much like his son’s notorious temper.
Still, he pushed again. “That’s true, Johnny. But most everything’s already been taken care of to get us ready for the holidays. Is there something you’d like to add that we’ve missed?”
The father watched closely as his son considered that loaded question. Murdoch noticed a flicker of – could it have been sorrow – cross Johnny’s features, but it was gone as soon as it had appeared. “No. Can’t think of a thing,” his son parried efficiently.
‘I just bet you can’t,’ Murdoch thought sadly.
He tried again. “Have you done everything you need to do to get ready for Christmas day?”
Johnny thought he knew what his father was pushing for, and continued to try and bluff his hand. “Sure Murdoch. Don’t worry, I already picked out your Christmas present.”
Murdoch saw the opening, and tried a feint. “Oh really. And how did you know what I wanted?”
“You mean I was ‘sposed to ask?” With that, Johnny saw the look of triumph on his father’s face, and knew that his cover had been blown.
“No Johnny, you don’t have to ask. It’s actually better if you can guess what someone might like for a gift. But I bet you’re real tired of guessing right about now. Did you and Maria even celebrate Christmas, Johnny?”
Murdoch appeared impatient now, but Johnny had no way of knowing that his annoyance was not because of anything he had done. It had everything to do with his mother, and what she had done to her son – Murdoch’s son.
Not wanting to upset his father any further, Johnny worked to reassure him, although he didn’t know why he felt it necessary to keep up the ruse. “Sure we did.”
“How?” came Murdoch’s direct and to the point question.
“We…” Johnny stumbled. “We mostly just did it goin’ to church is all.” In his thoughts he added, ‘When mama was sober enough to try and redeem her soul a little.’
Aloud Johnny hoped he could finally end this line of questioning. “That’s why I don’t kinda understand exactly what a lot of this decoratin’ stuff is about. But I seen it before.”
“You have, have you?”
“Sure.” Johnny seemed to be wearying of the whole discussion, and looked ready to flee. So Murdoch tried a decidedly different approach.
“Johnny, what do you want for Christmas?”
“Thought it was better if you guessed,” his clever son said to try and deflect his father’s prying request.
“Not in this case,” Murdoch replied, then added with all the sincerity he could muster, “Johnny, what do you need for Christmas?”
This stopped Johnny in his tracks. He’d never hoped for much in his life, and he’d never ever been asked by anyone what he wanted, let alone needed.
He had bowed his head at his father’s question, and was now giving it grave consideration. Seconds that seemed like minutes ticked by, until, with head still down, Johnny asked back quietly, “Can I have anything I want?”
Murdoch could tell this wasn’t a flippant request – that Johnny was asking him a very serious question. “Anything in my power to give,” came Murdoch’s honest response.
A long moment passed before Johnny made his Christmas wish. Johnny’s eyes flicked up and behind Murdoch, seeking to see if anyone might overhear. Assured no one else was around, he looked his father in the eyes and, even more quietly than before asked, “Tell me how old I am.”
“Mama…” he faltered, knowing he was getting ready to divulge rare secrets. Murdoch held his tongue, desperately trying not to interrupt his son’s unusual confession.
The intensely blue but melancholy-filled eyes left his fathers and once again sought refuge in the patterns in the dirt. Ever since Teresa’s birthday, Johnny had been dreading his own. He knew that inevitably someone would ask him how old he was going to be, and he honestly did not know, and that embarrassed him more than just about anything.
The eyes flicked up again, but went right back down. Then a nervous little laugh drifted out from the bowed head before Johnny continued. “Mama. She was just about as bad at celebratin’ birthdays as Christmases. I… I kinda lost track over the years.”
Murdoch couldn’t breath, let alone speak. Of all the things his son could have wished for, Johnny’s request had left him stunned. He started to curse the day he’d ever met his second wife, but quickly stopped himself. She had given him this incredible man before him, and it would be unfair to Johnny to regret that failed relationship now. He needed to look forward, to the future, but first Murdoch knew he had to pay a little visit to the past.
Murdoch found his voice and all but ordered, “Come with me Johnny.”
Johnny’s head shot up, and for a moment he thought he’d angered his father in some way and was getting ready to be reprimanded.
Murdoch recognized the hesitation, and immediately reassured his son. “Please, Johnny. Come back into the great room with me. I need to show you something.”
Murdoch set a quick pace back to the hacienda’s great room. As Johnny hovered in the doorway, still not sure what he was doing there, Murdoch addressed Teresa and Scott, who were continuing their enjoyment of moving some of the decorations around. “Could you two please leave Johnny and I alone for the evening?”
Scott and Teresa shared a look of concern. Usually when Murdoch sequestered himself alone with Johnny it was so that the stubborn pair could commence their ensuing argument in semi-private – the heated conversations inevitably breaching the walls of the room and negating any hopes for confidentiality. But tonight Murdoch actually looked excited to the pair, and although Johnny looked slightly uncomfortable, he didn’t look angry.
Knowing there was nothing they could do but honor the request, Scott spoke for them both as they moved as one to exit. “Certainly,” he said simply. But then, as if to censure his father in advance for any possible chance that the man might be getting ready to start an argument, Scott stopped abruptly before leaving and, turning pointedly to face his father, added, “Have a pleasant evening.”
Passing Johnny as he continued out, he slapped his arm in a gesture of support as he exclaimed, “Goodnight, brother.”
Johnny watched his brother’s back recede down the hallway, and in many ways wished he was heading off with him. But his father wasn’t going to give him a chance to slip away. “Have a seat Johnny,” the elder Lancer said as he indicated the couch nearest the fireplace.
As Johnny complied, Murdoch crossed to pour them each drink. Setting his own glass down on a side table near the couch, he handed Johnny his glass and moved off toward the bookcase.
As Johnny took a rather large belt of the liquor he had been gratefully supplied, Murdoch was pulling down the family bible. He returned to the couch, but now sat down beside his son.
Carefully opening the aged text, he searched the pages reverently until he found what he was seeking, and held up the document for Johnny to see.
“That’s your birth announcement, son. Clearly noted in the family bible.” It was Johnny’s turn to become breathless. He set his own glass down on the side table, then wiped his hands against his pant leg lest there be any moisture on them that might mar the paper. Only then did he take the book from his father, who had been holding it out for him.
As Johnny ran his hand over the handwritten words, ensuring himself that they were real, he realized that they confirmed his own existence, his place in the Lancer family, his birthright. Murdoch noticed the awe that Johnny was experiencing by the simple act of viewing this plain document.
“You’ll see other notations in there you’d be interested in,” Murdoch encouraged. “If you have any more questions about who you are or where you came from or who you’re related to, you just look in here. And if you don’t find the answer, you ask me. If I know I’ll tell you straight.
“And I’d like you to be straight with me as well, Johnny. You don’t have to try and lie about what you’ve had or haven’t had, son. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for you growing up, and how much you missed. And I’d like you to tell me about that some time. But in the meantime, let me tell you about a couple of Christmases I know you had. Your first Christmas…”
Murdoch went on to tell Johnny about his first and second Christmas holidays, both spent right there at Lancer. He described the gifts he’d been given, the food they had gorged on, the decorations he had helped hang as an infant – Murdoch even walked over to the tree and found one, pulled it off and handed it to Johnny to convince him that he was telling the truth. And convince him it did. Johnny came to realize that the Lancer holiday traditions were actually more his than anyone else’s, and he was very thankful to be able to reclaim them.
Murdoch told Johnny other stories, too – like the first time he had pulled his son up onto a horse with him to go riding… of how Johnny had gotten hold of a bell one day and refused to give it up until he had driven them all mad ringing it… and on and on…
For the first time since he’d returned to the ranch, Johnny felt truly comfortable around his father. And Murdoch felt comfortable with his son. Through the father, the son was regaining what had been taken from him. And by watching his son’s reaction, the father was remembering what it was like to see the world through a child’s eyes.
They shared a few more drinks, and the stories got wilder, and funnier, and Murdoch got louder and more expressive. But no one asked them to quiet down, and no one interrupted. This was a moment that had been needed between these two estranged men for a very very long time.
Johnny was spellbound, enraptured by every word his father said. But because it had all happened when he was too young to remember, the stories Murdoch told came out like fairy tales to him – only they were stories where he was the young prince, and Murdoch the noble king, and the queen hadn’t yet turned into the evil witch.
Christmas was only three days away by the time they’d grown tired enough to call it a night. Looking at Johnny’s now relaxed and smiling face, Murdoch was glad he had given his son an early present.
Johnny received the gift of assurance that, once upon a time, he had lived a cheerful life, surrounded by people who loved him.
And in the quiet and stillness of the night, through a series of promises that Murdoch made himself swear in his heart he’d keep, he ensured that Johnny would live… happily ever after.
This story is offered as a thank you gift to all the wonderful writers who have been submitting to Karen’s great website. I’ve been enjoying each and every one of your postings for over a year now, but have neglected to contact you all individually to let you know just how very talented you are. Thank you for all the great reading, and Happy Holidays to you! – MP
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