Word Count 2,755
First of the Home for Christmas series, followed by The Second Lancer Christmas
The wind whipped around his coat like a tornado, cold air cutting through to his very bones as he shivered against the snow. Johnny Lancer thought he’d made a big mistake trying to get home in this mess and he was regretting that decision now. But he continued on as he really had no other choice. He hated winter. It wasn’t something he was used to, at least not this bad. Cold in Mexico was nothing compared to the mountains of California.
He decided his father was trying to kill him by sending him to Stockton this time of year. Of course, it was his own blamed fault for taking the shortcut in the first place. He could have stayed on the trail down below but it would have taken an extra day to get home and well, darn it, it’s almost Christmas.
He had never much cared for the holiday before. There wasn’t anything to care about. It wasn’t the same when he was a kid as it had been for Scott. Listening to his brother’s stories about Christmases in Boston was hard on him. Of course, he would never let Scott know that. He had fond memories and Johnny wasn’t about to dash them.
Whenever Scott would ask him about his own childhood Christmases he had managed to change the subject pretty easily, hoping his brother would not catch on. If he did, he never showed any sign of it. Johnny’s mother had tried but for her, and he guessed that’s how it should be, Christmas was for going to church. Sitting in Mass all day was his memory of the holiday and he had hated every minute of it. Not being much on religion or even having any faith, he was astounded by the number of people that showed up for the event. To him it was another day for the priests to show their piety.
He shook off those memories, they weren’t helping him feel all warm and cozy inside that’s for sure. He thought about the first Christmas at Lancer. It had been uncomfortable for all of them. That had, of course, been his fault.
He didn’t try to hide his contempt for the day and it made everyone else tense. What they did still astounded him. They had made every effort to make him feel better, put him in a good mood. They had made it a Mexican Christmas which had ended in near disaster. They didn’t understand and he knew they were only trying to cheer him up but that was definitely not the way to do it. He had no qualms about letting them all know it, too.
He was ashamed of how he had acted. He had ruined it for all of them and Teresa had cried, which made him feel like just leaving. Scott had been the one to get him to open up. Big surprise there. He was always the one. No that’s not true, not anymore. Murdoch was doing a lot better, they both were now.
Somehow, sometime a barrier had fallen between them. Johnny had no idea when it happened, it had been so gradual. His father seemed more open to him now, more approachable. He figured he was getting to be less of a hard nose himself. Yeah, Johnny boy, you are getting soft. He laughed at this, it astounded him because he wasn’t upset about it. In fact, he was glad he felt less intimidated by this family he had found himself thrust into.
He had apologized for his behavior that day after talking it out with his brother. Scott always made him feel better, made him understand that he didn’t have to fight them tooth and nail. All he had to do was accept their love. Sure, that’s all huh? Sounds so easy but it was the hardest thing he’d ever done. Â But he had done it.
Sure, there were still times when he would butt heads with the old man. Even times when his past would come back to slap him in the face, but things had definitely improved. He had changed and it was hard. He was sure they had no idea just how hard it had been for him to change his life so completely. To accept their love and to trust them.
Trust was the whole thing. Someone had told him once that trust was just another word for love. He had dismissed it then but he knew now it was true. Johnny Madrid trusted no one and that kind of attitude doesn’t just go away because someone wants it to. A lifetime spent without trust, without love, without a home or a family isn’t easy to leave behind. Especially if it’s saved your hide more times than you can count.
Besides, Murdoch hadn’t trusted him, not for a long time. He never said it but Johnny knew. The way he was with him, questioning everything he did or said. Not so with Scott. The old man had trusted his brother from the word go. Johnny had felt a lot of resentment over that but he never blamed Scott. It was Murdoch who was the problem.
Sometimes still he had to wonder if his father would ever let go of his past completely. There were times when he could look in the old man’s eyes and see the doubt lingering there. It cut him to the quick too. He felt he had earned his father’s respect and his trust countless times and he would never understand Murdoch’s attitude toward him.
The snow was getting heavier and he lowered himself into Barranca’s neck even more. Â He felt bad for the horse having to trudge through all this. Something else that was his fault. Without this weather, he would have been home by now. Home.
He was still awestruck by that concept. But it was his home, it always had been if he had only known it. If he had only known his father did want him. But he knew that even if he had been told the truth, he would not have left her. Still, he could have come home after she died, he could have had a place here and it would have been so much easier for him and his father. And Murdoch could have brought Scott back too. Before the war and all he had gone through in that prison camp. Before Johnny turned to the gun for survival. Before their lives were marked forever by the world.
He saw a trail down the side of the mountain and reined Barranca toward it. ‘I’m getting out of this before it turns to a full fledged blizzard’, he thought. They made their way gingerly down the slope, sliding a few times, but to his credit, Barranca never completely lost his footing. Johnny smiled at the palomino, he had never had such a good horse before. Some were fine animals and he cared for them certainly but this one was special and he had known it from the first time he laid eyes on him.
Slowly they made it down below the snowfall that only seemed to hit hard in the mountains of California and Johnny sighed his relief. He decided they had both had enough for one day and he would stop in the next town and give Barranca a well deserved rest. They clopped along the muddy trail and he started thinking again.
Well, Johnny ‘if only’s’ will get you just about nothin. No sense in wishing things had been different. Just accept what happened to you and be glad you have a family now. It was easier said than done though, for he had pushed so much of it to the back of his mind through the years, he was sure it would not all ever go away. He reckoned it had only made him stronger though. Trouble was it had made him harder too.
At first, he was sure it would never work. He had tried, but it was that trust issue again. Murdoch wouldn’t give him a break. He thought about the wild stallion and the mess that had caused. Then he smiled at the memory of how his father had apologized. Not with the words but in an off handed way. It was pretty funny to watch the old man squirm a little, and it had turned into a great day together.
Maybe that had been the first crack in the wall between them, so long ago. Hell, Johnny, it’s only been a year and a half, but it did seem like a lifetime ago. His lifetime as Johnny Madrid that had cracked then finally crumbled at his feet. Now he was determined that this second Christmas was going to be much better, just like his second chance at life was much better.
He rode up to the livery stable and bedded Barranca. The owner stared at him as he took care of the horse himself. Johnny tried to explain it but the man was still offended. He shrugged it off and figured the man would get over it. Barranca deserved some extra attention after what he’d put him through. The palomino was content and nudged Johnny with appreciation for the warm bed, the food and the extra currying. He smiled and kissed the horse’s nose then set out to find a warm bed of his own.
He thought about stopping at the saloon but he was just too tired and hungry and cold so he headed for the only hotel in town. Thankfully, they had a restaurant and he felt much better after he ate. He went up to his room and pounced on the bed, not bothering to undress or even remove his gun belt. He was asleep in seconds.
He awoke with a start sometime in the night and was disoriented. He stood up and looked around, realizing where he was. He sighed as he looked out the window at the gray, cloudy sky looming overhead. He hated this time of year, you could never tell what time it was. He lit the lamp and pulled out his watch. Six o’clock. He sighed and laid back down on top of the covers.
He studied the watch and smiled, remembering the day his father had given it to him. Murdoch could never know how much that meant to him or what he had to go through to get it back. He kept smiling as he realized he would be home before dark today.
After breakfast, he went to retrieve Barranca and headed out again. He promised the horse they would stay on the road this time and Barranca whinnied his approval which made him laugh. ‘I swear he understands everything I say’, he thought as he stroked the golden mane.
He started thinking about getting home again. Teresa would have the place decked out with Christmas decorations but he had brought one of his own. He smiled as he thought of the mistletoe he had packed carefully in his saddle bag. He thought about the day itself and he was determined it would be much better than last year. It was the only day of the year that they did absolutely no work. Last year he would have welcomed a hard day out in the cold air but not this year.
This year he was looking forward to being with his family, having a big meal and sitting by the fireplace talking and exchanging gifts. He supposed he should actually be grateful to Murdoch for sending him to Stockton for he hadn’t been able to find what he wanted for his brother. But he had found in Stockton the perfect gift, at least he hoped it was. He was never very good at these things but he was pretty sure he’d done well for his family.
He suddenly realized how quiet it was around him. There were no other travelers on the road today. He didn’t expect there to be since it was Christmas Eve, but the silence was different and it made him feel a little melancholy.
His thoughts went back to his childhood once more and his mother. She hadn’t been able to afford gifts for him so she always made him a special dinner instead. He smiled thinking about her cooking, she was very good at that. After she died, he had Â tried not to think about the day. The day; more like a week of celebrations. Of course, he couldn’t avoid it unless he holed up in a cave somewhere which he had done a time or two.
Usually, he would spend Christmas day in a saloon with the rest of the lonely drifters with no families, whiling away the hours with a bottle and a game of poker. Wishing fervently that it would end soon. He had always made a special effort on the eve to visit the orphanage he had spent those few short months in. He would bring the kids presents and leave them just inside the door with an anonymous note attached, saying it was from Santa Claus. He had thought about leaving money but he figured they wouldn’t see anything from that so he chose to leave the toys and clothes he knew the priests would have no use for.
He laughed to himself as he remembered the year Padre Miguel had caught him. He had explained he was on the look out for St. Nick but he didn’t seem surprised to find the gunfighter instead. Padre Miguel was the only decent priest in the whole place and Johnny didn’t mind him knowing. He knew the man would never blow his cover.
But that was the last year before he came home so he never went back. He wondered if Padre Miguel thought it was because he’d been found out. ‘Well, St. Nick will be back this year, kids’, he thought. He had sent the two huge packages a month ago so he was pretty sure they would get there in time. Â He kind of hoped Padre Miguel was still there so he would know it wasn’t because of him that Johnny had missed last year.
He was close now and he was growing impatient to get home and get warm. Just a few more miles and I’ll walk in to the smells of cookies baking and pine and the welcoming fire. Just a few more miles and I’ll be there. Murdoch and Scott will be sitting in the living room. Teresa and Maria will be in the kitchen working on tomorrow’s supper. Jelly will be … he guessed Jelly would be in the living room as well. He hadn’t been with them that first year but he was as much a part of the family as any of them now.
Johnny was amazed sometimes at how deeply he felt for the old coot. What a grouch! But he wasn’t really and Johnny knew that. He loved the old fella, he was like a grandfather to them. He suddenly had a brilliant idea of just who he was going to use that mistletoe on first and he grinned thinking about Jelly’s reaction. He felt an overwhelming sense of contentment just then as he realized how easy it was to be with them all now. How comfortable he was in their presence.
He rode through the gates of Lancer and smiled wide. He dismounted and walked Barranca around the back of the barn and snuck inside. He bedded down his trusted friend and walked quietly to the front door, easing it open stealthily and closing it just as quietly. He peeked around the corner and saw Murdoch, Scott and Jelly sitting in the living room.
Scott and Jelly were engrossed in a game of checkers and Murdoch was reading a book. He inhaled deeply of the scents of sugar cookies and pine and could feel even from his position, the warmth of the fire that crackled in the hearth.
Johnny stood there for a good ten minutes just smiling at them. He felt the moisture forming in his eyes and he blinked it away. Happy tears were not something he was used to and it surprised him a little. He stepped quietly into the room, unnoticed by his family and stood there watching them.
Murdoch looked up from his book and saw his youngest smiling at them. He saw something else, too. Johnny was happy, happy to be home.
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