Word Count 4,824
A big Thank You to Chris for the Beta help and Title help. All remaining errors are mine and mine alone. I wasn’t sure I would post this but, what the heck. It’s Christmas. All characters are borrowed, some belong to Mr. Charles Dickens. This is written for entertainment purposes only.
Murdoch Lancer wasn’t just tired, he was exhausted. It seemed every year, the cold weather got colder and his bones ached more. Besides, he was in a foul mood.
Once again, his youngest had tested his patience. His irresponsibility taken to new heights. Murdoch sat with his back resting against the headboard of his king-sized bed and closed his eyes. His thoughts returning to earlier in the day.
“Johnny, why is it you can’t seem to do the simplest thing without turning it into a major chore?”
He watched his son hang his head once again.
“Well, what?” Johnny flashed back.
“Look, it just got out of hand. Things happen, Murdoch.”
“Things happen when you aren’t paying attention. What was it this time? Another wild horse? A puppy?”
Johnny flashed an angry glare at him, then dropped his head once more. “A cat.”
“A cat? What kind of cat?”
“The kind that can chew your arm off. I spotted him in the foothills. Figured I’d better get him before he got to the cattle.”
Murdoch took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You could have taken the time to make sure the fence was secure, Johnny.”
“I know,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
And that’s how it ended. Johnny had walked out – again. And he was left staring at the space left empty by his son – again. He could understand it. It was the right thing to do. But not until he was sure things had been taken care of. Not until he was sure those cattle couldn’t get through the fence. Which is exactly what had happened – again. He hated arguing with his son on Christmas Eve.
He sighed heavily, wondering if Johnny would ever settle in; if he would ever feel a part of Lancer. Murdoch sometimes wondered if he’d made a mistake by sending for Johnny in the first place. If he’d expected too much from someone who had led the life his son had. If it just wasn’t possible for him to change.
Shaking his head sadly, he decided to try and put it out of his mind for now. He picked up the book he’d been reading. Appropriate for the season, he thought. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
He’d read some of the man’s other works. Most of them were grim tales but for some reason he enjoyed them. He was almost finished with this one and was hoping for a happy ending. He began to read.
Murdoch awoke with a start, realizing he’d fallen asleep reading. He was still fully clothed right down to his boots. Shaking his head to clear the cobwebs, he stood up and stretched. A chill ran over him for some unexplained reason.
He became wary, searching the dimly lit room. Chastising himself for being foolish, he walked over to the dresser to retrieve his nightclothes.
Murdoch whirled around and backed into the dresser. A large man was standing in the middle of his bedroom. He had a long brown beard and moustache. His cheeks were red and his eyes were alight. He was wearing a long, flowing green cloak. He looked like a Christmas tree to Murdoch.
“Who are you? How did you get in here?” Murdoch demanded.
“Who am I?” the man laughed heartily.
His booming voice caught Murdoch off guard and he thought the entire house shook when the man laughed.
“I am a ghost,” he proclaimed.
Murdoch scowled. “There is no such thing.”
“No? Then make me leave your house,” the man stated, fists on hips.
Murdoch took one step forward then hesitated. He blinked rapidly, he knew it was quick. But the man had moved from the middle of the room and was now standing beside him. He took a step to the side.
“You have nothing to fear from me, Murdoch Lancer.”
“What do you want?” he asked in a whisper.
“I am the ghost of Christmas present,” the man declared.
Murdoch snorted. “This is a dream. I was reading that book and this is just a dream.”
“Oh, you think so, do you? Then take my hand. If this is a dream, you’ve nothing to fear.”
Murdoch looked at him with some trepidation. Then, as if to prove his theory, he grabbed the hand and found himself in another world.
Standing outside the estancia near the French doors, Murdoch looked around in confusion.
“How did we get out here?”
The ghost only laughed. “Look inside,” he pointed.
He did so and saw Teresa and Scott sitting on the sofa. He smiled at the sight. Then, he saw himself joining them. They sat around and exchanged gifts. All three giving unenthusiastic thank yous.
“That’s a glum picture. Why is everyone so sad?” he asked the ghost.
“Do you notice something missing?”
Murdoch looked again. “Where’s Johnny?”
“What do you mean, Johnny who? My son!”
“You have no son named Johnny. Only Scott.”
“No, you’re wrong. I have two sons,” Murdoch insisted.
Suddenly, the French doors opened and Murdoch stepped inside. He saw Scott raise a glass of wine.
“Here’s to you, brother, wherever you may be,” he said sadly.
Teresa began to cry and Scott tried to console her, but he was feeling inconsolable himself. The look he gave his father was stunning in it’s anger and bitterness.
“I told you I have another son. Now, where is he?”
The ghost shrugged, unconcerned. “You didn’t want him here. You wished you’d never sent for him. You pushed and pushed until you pushed him away.”
“He left?” Murdoch asked incredulously.
“Isn’t that what you wanted? Didn’t you make a mistake by sending for him to begin with?”
“No, I didn’t mean it. I was just angry. Where is he? I want to see Johnny!”
The next thing he knew, Murdoch was standing in an empty street of a town he did not recognize. He looked around, noticing a man in a sombrero sitting near the end of a building. He appeared to be fast asleep.
It was night and the only light was coming from a small cantina directly in front of him.
“Well, go in,” the ghost said.
Murdoch swallowed hard and stepped into the small establishment. It was dull and gray and smoke-filled. The stench of body odor and stale beer assaulted his senses.
There were a few men sitting around. Most with their heads on their tables, passed out. He looked toward the back and saw a lone man sitting with his back to the wall. His dark head was bowed over a glass and a bottle of tequila sat near him.
He picked up the bottle and filled the glass, then threw it back into his throat.
“Johnny,” Murdoch whispered.
“He can’t hear you,” the ghost said.
“Why is he here?”
“Where else would he be? This is the life he had before Lancer. This is the only life he had to return to,” the ghost explained.
Before Murdoch could say more, the door swung open and a tall man walked in. “Johnny Madrid! Damn, I thought I’d never see your face again!”
Johnny looked up slowly and took the man in. He nodded. “Jake.”
“Boy, this is the first Christmas present I’ve had in a long time! Care to dance?” Jake asked with an ugly grin.
Johnny simply shrugged his shoulders and stood slowly.
“No, Johnny, you cannot!” This was the bartender.
“Stay out of this, Julio.”
“You have been drinking all day. You cannot face him now,” Julio pleaded.
Johnny smiled softly at the man. “Don’t worry about me, amigo. I do just fine.”
He walked slowly to the door and motioned for Jake to go ahead. The man grinned and backed out into the street.
“We have to stop him! He’s drunk,” Murdoch said.
“We can’t do anything. He can’t see or hear us. Besides, why are you worried? He’s a gunfighter, isn’t he? This is his life.”
“No, not anymore. He doesn’t belong here,” Murdoch insisted.
“You should have thought of that before,” the ghost stated.
Johnny stood on the darkened street and wavered slightly in his stance.
“Damn, Madrid. You are drunk. Maybe we should hold off til mornin,” Jake said.
“You called the tune, old man. Now dance!” Johnny sneered. The words sent a chill down Murdoch’s spine.
Jake sneered back at him and drew.
Smoke lifted slowly into the night air as he fell to the ground. It was almost poetic how he simply laid down as if meaning to do that very thing. Johnny’s body was relaxed and seemingly boneless. A bright red spot spread quickly across his chest.
He lay there staring at the stars for a moment. A sad smile came to his lips.
“Feliz Navidad, mi hermano. Te amo,” he whispered as his eyes slid closed.
Murdoch bolted upright in bed, sweat soaking through his clothing. He looked around wild-eyed for a moment before he got his bearings.
He was in his own room, still fully dressed. The book he’d been reading had fallen beside him on the still-made bed. He wiped a hand over his face and stood up.
Making his way to the dresser, he splashed water on his face and reached for a towel. As he wiped downward from his forehead, he opened his eyes. Feeling an icy coldness, he turned quickly.
“Who are you?” he whispered.
The old man stood staring at him. His eyes were sad, his face long. “I am the ghost of Christmas past.”
“No, this is all a horrible dream. I’ll wake up any minute,” Murdoch mumbled, trying to back away. But there was no place for him to go. His back was against the wall.
“Come with me,” the ghost said in a commanding voice.
He could hear the fog horn from the lighthouse as it sang it’s mournful tune. He squinted to make out the buildings through the pea-soup substance. He inhaled sharply as he realized where he was.
Stepping closer, he peered through the window of the small house on a narrow street in Inverness. He could see his mother sitting in her rocking chair by the fire. His father was at the table, smoking his pipe. His brothers were sitting near the fire and his sister was sitting beside da, as always.
A door opened and he himself walked through. A young boy of ten. Murdoch smiled at the sight of himself as a child.
“Merry Christmas,” he greeted.
“Same to you, my son,” his mother had returned and a chorus of greeting was heard from his siblings. Only his father did not respond but the young Murdoch didn’t seem to notice.
He sat at the table opposite his sister. “Da? I have a present for you.”
“A present! Where did you get money for a present? And why are ya spendin it on such foolishness?” his father scowled.
“Da, the present IS money. I earned it and I wanted ta give it to ya,” he explained quickly. Pulling the coins from his pocket, he laid them in front of his father.
“I thought, if we had extra, ya wouldn’t have to work on Hogmanay,” he said softly, his head bowed.
Harrumphing, his father counted out the coins. “There’s no such thing as extra money, boy. This will buy shoes for your sister. She’s near bare-footed. Doesn’t mean I can laze around the first of the year.”
“It was a wonderful thought, Murdoch,” his mother interjected.
He smiled sadly at her. “Well, I’m glad Aileen will have new shoes, then.”
Murdoch stepped back from the window, tears in his eyes. “That old man never gave me credit for anything,” he said bitterly.
“Sound familiar?” the ghost asked. “Come.”
He found himself standing in the foyer of a mansion. He recognized it immediately. Stepping into the den, he saw a young blond child sitting in front of the fire. He was playing with one of the many toys surrounding him.
“Do you like all your presents, Scotty?”
Murdoch sucked in a breath as he turned to see Harlan Garrett standing there. He was younger, his hair not yet completely gray. There was a sadness in the man’s face.
“Oh, yes, sir. Very much, thank you,” the child said.
“I’m very pleased, Scotty. Very pleased.”
The boy faced him, a frown knitting his soft blond brows together. “Grandfather? Did my father send me a present?”
“No, Scotty. I’m afraid not.”
The child’s head bowed and when he looked back, his eyes were devoid of emotion. “No matter,” he stated simply.
Murdoch felt tears welling in his eyes. “Take me away from here, please.”
Once more he found himself in front of the estancia. But it was different somehow. It took him a moment to realize it wasn’t completed. The upstairs was only partly finished.
Murdoch froze when he heard the voice calling to him. He looked through the open French doors and saw her walk into the room.
“Could you do something with this nino? He is under my feet and I can’t finish dinner,” she asked, exasperated.
He laughed and held out his arms as she deposited a giggling form into them.
“Well, son, what have you gotten into this time?”
“Nothin, papa. I just wanned cookie,” the child pouted.
“After dinner, son,” Murdoch said, trying to sound stern and failing miserably.
“Papa, ride!” the exuberant child bounced.
“Oh, you want a ride? Well, let’s see, now. Where is that horse?”
“You, papa. You horsie!”
Murdoch laughed heartily as he deposited his son on his shoulders and bounced around the great room. Johnny squealed with delight, yelling to go faster and faster.
Suddenly, the scene changed and he was sitting on the sofa with Maria. His arm around her shoulder as they both watched the sleeping child in front of the fire.
“By this time next year, his big brother will be here,” Murdoch said softly.
“Si, it will be good to have the whole family together,” she smiled and laid her head on his shoulder.
Murdoch turned away from the scene in the living room. “Why? Why did she have to destroy everything? I was so close to getting Scott back.”
“That was you’re concern. Losing your chance to regain custody of your oldest son,” the ghost stated.
“No, not just that! She took Johnny, she took everything away! She took my baby boy,” he gasped out. How could she have done that? She knew how important it was for him to have a solid family. His only real chance to get Scott away from Harlan. Was that why she left? To deprive him of both his sons? Did she hate him that much? Or was it that she didn’t want Scott? Could she have been so jealous of a child?
Murdoch awoke with tears in his eyes. He rubbed at the wetness and looked down at his hand, fascinated. Shaking his head slowly, he wondered why he had dreamt of those things. Why now, after all these years?
He stood up and walked to the dresser. Splashing water on his face and drying with a towel. He opened a drawer and pulled out his nightclothes. As he turned to lay them on the bed, he jumped a foot.
“Not again,” he groaned.
The black cloaked figure stood stonily still. Murdoch couldn’t see his face under the hood and was sure he didn’t want to. The figure offered up a draped arm. He reached out to touch the cloak, unable to stop himself.
He found himself standing on a hillside. The sky was overcast with huge black clouds blowing rapidly across the sky. He looked to his right and saw a freshly dug grave. Sam Jenkins stood on one side. Scott and Teresa on the other. The minister stood at the head of the grave. There were no other mourners.
He couldn’t help noticing Scott was dressed in the same traveling suit he’d worn the day he arrived at Lancer. Teresa was wearing a black dress and veil. The minister had just finished the eulogy over the grave and shook hands with the men. He gave Teresa’s arm a squeeze before leaving.
“I just can’t believe it, Scott. He wasn’t very old,” Teresa said through her tears.
“It was his heart, Teresa. It simply gave out,” Sam said mournfully.
“He’s been so alone this past year,” she sighed.
“He had no one to blame but himself,” Scott said bitterly.
“I’m sorry, Teresa. But, it is the truth. He could have had it all if he’d only let himself. He had managed to turn away every friend he ever had except for Sam. I never understood what that man thought he was doing. He was responsible for my brother’s death – and for that I will never forgive him.”
“I know, Scott. He never forgave himself either. When you left after Johnny’s funeral, he just stopped trying,” she said.
“I couldn’t live in the same house with him any longer. I couldn’t look at him every day knowing what he took from me,” Scott said, his voice beginning to tremble.
Murdoch stepped closer to the foot of the grave and stared at the headstone.
That was it. No sentiments, no beloved father, nothing.
“I have to get back to town. My stage leaves in three hours,” Scott was saying.
“Do you have to go back so soon? Stay for a while,” Teresa pleaded.
“I can’t. I can’t go back to that house, Teresa. I need to get back to Boston, anyway. Grandfather needs me for an important business transaction.”
“Scott, what will become of Lancer?”
He looked sadly into her eyes. “I suppose I’ll sell it. Not until after you and Richard are married, of course.”
“It’s just so sad,” she cried.
“And so unnecessary,” he clipped.
Suddenly he was standing beside a different grave. Scott was there, tears in his eyes.
“Well, brother, Murdoch’s gone. My last tie to this ranch. I guess that’s all there is. We could have had it all if only ….” he turned away, tears falling freely and walked back to the rented surrey.
Looking toward the heavens, Scott decried. “Why? Why did you give him to me then take him so soon? I wasn’t even there. I never got to say goodbye.”
Murdoch would not look at the headstone. He refused to believe his son’s words of grief. The ghost pointed to it but he shook his head. The figure once more pointed, more insistently.
Murdoch looked and fell to his knees. He sobbed openly, saying one word over and over. “No.”
Taken from this earth too soon
“What have I done? Oh, Johnny, what have I done?” he moaned. Looking up at the ghost, he pleaded.
“There must be a way to change this. There must be something I can do. How can I keep this from happening? Please! You must tell me!” he begged, grabbing the hem of the black cloak.
Murdoch found himself curled into a ball on his bed when he awoke. Tears streamed down his face. He didn’t try to dry them this time. He lay there and sobbed like a child until there were no more tears to be had.
He couldn’t let it be that way. He couldn’t let Johnny die or Scott leave. He had to find a way to make things better for all of them. He had to find a way to open his heart again.
He felt lighter somehow. As if the tears had washed away so much of the pain that had hardened his heart over the years. He prayed that feeling would last. No. He would MAKE it last.
He got up and opened the window, feeling the crisp morning air on his face. The sun was peaking over the mountains and he suddenly realized it was Christmas Day.
Smiling, he changed his clothes and headed for the kitchen. He found his family already at the table.
“Merry Christmas!” he exuded.
“Merry Christmas,” came the less than enthusiastic response.
“Well, what a bunch of sourpusses,” he grinned as he took his place at the head of the table.
Turning to his youngest, he laid a hand on his shoulder. “Johnny, I’m sorry about yesterday. It wasn’t that big of a deal but I made it one. You were right to go after that cat. It could have caused a lot of damage.”
Johnny’s mouth fell open at the apology. He finally found his voice. “Are you feelin alright, Murdoch?”
“I feel fine, son. In fact, I feel better than fine. What’s say we all go to church together today? Johnny, if you want to attend Mass, I understand.”
“That’s a wonderful idea!” Teresa stated.
Murdoch kept up his jovial mood all the way to church and back. Once home, Scott and Johnny put the surrey away before heading back into the house. They discussed their father’s sudden change in mood and both wondered if he’d been drinking so early in the morning.
This thought brought on laughter and the two young men entered the house smiling, arms wrapped around each other.
Murdoch’s heart warmed and he thought it might burst with joy at the sight of his boys.
“Listen, I’m gonna go fix that fence before dinner,” Johnny said.
“You’ll do nothing of the kind. It can wait one more day. It’s Christmas! You can’t work today!” Murdoch announced.
Johnny found himself speechless.
“Are you sure, sir? I could help him. It won’t take that long,” Scott asked, completely flabbergasted.
“I’m very sure. I want you both to relax and enjoy the day,” Murdoch smiled brightly.
“Okay, what’s goin on here? Are you settin us up?” Johnny asked, a suspicious look in his eyes.
“Of course not, son. Come over here and sit down, both of you.”
The brothers settled on the sofa, staying close to one another just in case. In case of what, they had no idea but neither was taking any chances.
“Boys, I’ve been a jackass. I’ve been stubborn and proud and unwilling to give an inch. Well, that’s all going to change. From here on out, you’ll see a new Murdoch Lancer. No, make that the old Murdoch Lancer. The one who still remembers how to open his heart and show his family how important they are.”
They looked at each other, not buying a word of it.
“Are you drunk?” Johnny asked.
Murdoch laughed deeply. “No, son. Unless you mean drunk on joy. I realized something last night. I’ve been very hard on you, Johnny. I’ve pushed you at every opportunity. And you, Scott. I’ve been hard on you, too. Refusing to discuss things because it was too uncomfortable. Because I might have to express my feelings. Well, that’s all over. From now on, we will discuss everything. We’ll talk things out calmly. There will be no more accusations. No more jumping to conclusions. And if one of you makes a mistake, well, so be it. Everyone makes mistakes. Especially when they’re learning something new.”
“Murdoch, uh, don’t get me wrong. I mean, I …. we are very glad to hear that. I just have to wonder where this is coming from. Why the change?” Scott fumbled.
“Let’s just say that last night, I saw things in a different light. I realized how lucky I am and how easily I could lose it all. How easily I could lose you both if I continue to hold you at arm’s length. I never wanted it to be that way, boys. I wanted us to be a family, to care for each other. To be at ease with each other.”
“That’s nice, Murdoch,” Johnny said hesitantly.
“I don’t blame you for doubting me, son.” He stood up and walked over to sit between his sons, making them part from each other. Wrapping an arm around each of them, he tried to explain.
“I told you both that first day that I loved this land more than anything God ever created. That was a lie. I love you both more than I ever thought it was possible to love another human being. I’ve been a fool, a scared fool. So afraid to let you get close for fear of losing you. But, it didn’t work because you both got close. You both became more important to me than anything. But I was stubborn and proud and couldn’t show you. That’s all changed now. I love you both and I will never again do anything that might drive you away from me.”
Both young men were stunned by this confession. Neither was sure what to say.
“I love you, too. Even when you’re an old grump,” Johnny said softly.
“I love you, too, sir.”
“Try to relax, boys. I haven’t lost my mind, I promise. I have, however, found my heart, thanks to the two of you.”
As if by some secret code they had, they simultaneously leaned into their father. Resting a head on either shoulder, they eyed each other with a mischievous grin; both trying hard to contain their mirth.
“I think this will be my best Christmas, ever,” Scott smiled.
“I know it’ll be mine,” Johnny agreed.
Comments: We don’t have this author’s current email address. If you leave a comment below, if she reconnects with the fandom, then she will see how much her work is appreciated.