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Margaret Schmitz Compton

 

 

My Father's House

This is the third in the Coming Home series. The first Coming Home and the second is National Mule Day.
This is an AR story Johnny is 17 and Scott is 22.
I would like to thank Suzanne for her help in being my beta/editor for this story.
I give my gratitude to the producers, writers, actors and all involved in the Lancer TV show.
I make no money; this story is just for fun. All mistakes are mine I hope you enjoy.
Have a Merry Christmas with a Happy, Healthy and Blessed New Year.  Margaret SC

 

CHAPTER ONE

Murdoch was sitting in an armchair by the fire reading while waiting for supper when he noticed Scott and Johnny had just come in the back way instead of using the front door. He stood up and walked over to them. “What are you two up to, sneaking in through the back door?”

“Nothing Pa, we just thought we would smell what Maria was cooking.” Scott grinned. “I bet you can’t guess whose idea that was?”

Murdoch looked at Johnny, “Oh, I think I can.  If Maria was boiling dirty socks, it would make you hungry.”

Johnny wrinkled his nose. “Nah, I smell enough of my own dirty socks to know it wouldn’t make me hungry.”

“Well, you two need to go upstairs and get cleaned up for supper.  And Johnny, I need to talk to you after we eat.”

Halfway up the stairs Scott looked at Johnny.  “Well, did you do something wrong, brother, or is Murdoch wanting you to do something you forgot to do?”

“I think he wants to remind me to remind you of something you forgot. You know how older brothers forget things as they age.” He backhanded Scott in the stomach as Scott paused to open his bedroom door where a pitcher of hot water awaited him.  “And I told you I could smell food a mile away.”

Scott laughed and ruffled Johnny’s hair. “Well, you were sure right about supper.”

 

A short time later, Murdoch looked across the supper table at his two boys. “Well, boys, how did it go today? Did you find our missing cattle?”

Scott put another potato on his plate then looked at Murdoch.  “Yes, we did Pa. It seems they entered Jason Little's pasture. He wasn't upset, though. He said he’ll probably have a couple of calves from the big bull that you told Will to put in the North pasture.” Scott raised his brows. “I don't know for sure, but I’m pretty sure the bull was in the north pasture the last time I saw it and there was nothing wrong with the fences.”

Murdoch frowned. “That sounds like Jason Little.”

“Remember how he tried the same story last spring, Pa? I told Johnny that Jason is a tricky man when he wants something for nothing.”

Johnny shoved a fork full of beef in his mouth. “There were…” But that was as far as he got before Scott elbowed him in the ribs. “Ow.”

“I think Scott’s telling you to finish what’s in your mouth before you speak, Johnny. And Scott, don’t elbow your brother in the ribs.”

Johnny quickly swallowed, glaring at Scott as he did, then looked back at Murdoch. “I found two sets of prints. The older ones looked like three horses and the bull, then I found some newer prints that looked like a few horses and the steers we lost.”

“Johnny found them all near the section of the broken fence.”

“Was Little there at the time?”

“Oh, yeah.” Johnny speared another potato. “He muttered something about the fence not being sound but I made sure he saw me looking at the prints and the break in the fence where they’d taken the bull.”

Scott grinned at Murdoch. “You should have seen the look Johnny gave Little. I don’t think he’ll be so quick next time to ‘borrow’ any of our bulls.”

“I’m glad you boys didn’t have any trouble. Scott, you know the type of man Jason Little is. And I agree with you Johnny. Knowing Jason, he probably had the bull for a few days then brought the other cattle in later to make it look like they’d all broken through the fence.” Murdoch frowned. “We’ll have to have the vaqueros keep a closer eye on Bully so that this doesn’t happen again.”

Johnny suddenly spluttered as he was about to take a gulp of milk. “Bully? Where the heck did you get the name Bully? Couldn’t you come up with a better name than that!”

Murdoch answered with a smile, “No son, Bully fits him the best as he bullies the men who try to herd him with the rest. You'll see for yourself, Johnny, if you ever have to bring him back into the herd.”

Scott laughed. “In that case your horse better be fast and alert.”

“Same goes for you, brother.”

Murdoch wiped his mouth with his napkin. “If you’re both finished we’ll adjourn to the living room. I have something I want to discuss with you, Johnny.”

Johnny stood with the others but he threw a quick glance at Scott.

“And no, you’re not in any trouble, Johnny,” Murdoch added, walking across to the drink cabinet. “Drink, Scott?” He then looked at Johnny but hesitated; after all, Johnny had been drinking for years in saloons down on the border.

Johnny waved a hand. “It’s all right, Pa. I know you don’t like me to drink. I’m not in the mood right now, anyway.”

Scott sat down on the sofa. “Well, since you ask me Pa, yes, I'll have bourbon. As a matter of fact, a double shot. Johnny, don't tell him what happened today and I won't say anything about the damage.” Scott winked at Johnny. 

The serious look lifted from Johnny’s face. “Yeah, Scott and I won't tell him what you did with all the wood and fencing in the north pasture. Fire sure leaves a mark, don’t it?”

“Okay boys, is there something I should know before Johnny and I have our little talk?” Murdoch asked.

“No, Pa,” both boys said at once.

“Well let's hear it anyway, so when I talk to Johnny, he will really get my point.” Murdoch smiled as he watched Johnny squirm.

Johnny answered, “It's like this, Pa, Scott drew some pictures on the wood for the fence post, I felt we should keep them up here close to the house. So, I tied them up together and was going to drag them home. But when I rode over the river, you know where the bridge is, it's like this Pa, they fell in the river and drifted away.”

“So Johnny, you decided that you and Scott should take a swim?”

“How did you know we went swimming? I mean, we were working when the poles fell in. Scott, help me out here please.”

“Johnny's right, Pa. He was crossing the river when the poles drifted out of the ropes. They caught on a rock which moved one of the ropes over. We had to go in and bring them out. It was really cold, though.”  Johnny shivered in his damp clothes.

“Yeah, Pa and Scott's drawings are really good and I wanted them here not in another pasture. I don't understand them though. He said something about a Saint Nicholas and bags of toys. That if I was good this man would give me some.  I asked him what he was talking about and he told me to ask you. Is this what you want to talk to me about?”

“No, son, but we can discuss this later. I want to ask you, since it’s the first of December, whether you’d like to ride with me to Palo Verde and find out why your mother didn't want to come for Thanksgiving and see if we can get her to come for Christmas. This way we can make sure she’s okay.” 

Johnny looked relieved but then he frowned. “Sure Pa, I just hope she's not drinking.  Not that I want to think she is but she sounded really happy in her letters so it seems kinda strange that she’d suddenly change her mind about coming here for Christmas.”

Murdoch put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Don’t jump to conclusions, Johnny. There could be any number of reasons why she isn’t able to come.”

Johnny nodded. “You’re right, and the best way to find out is to go and visit her.”

“In that case, son, I would suggest you go upstairs and pack. We’ll leave first thing in the morning.”

“Okay, Pa, see you in the morning. Good night, Scott.” Johnny headed up the stairs, but turned halfway up and softly said, “Thank you, Pa.”

Scott looked at Murdoch, waiting for him to turn after watching Johnny head up the stairs. When he did turn, his expression was solemn.

“Pa, do you think this is a good idea. What if Maria has gone back to drinking?”

Murdoch sighed. “I had a feeling Johnny was worried about her. What else can we do but ride out and check on her, maybe talk her into coming here for Christmas?”

“What if she just doesn’t want to come?”

“Scott, Johnny’s pretty good at hiding his feelings but I know he truly cares for his mother. If we can talk her into coming here for Christmas it will really mean a lot to him.”

“I’ve noticed something’s been bothering him too, Murdoch. He’s been joking like he always does but every so often I’ve caught a look in his eyes…” Scott shrugged. “I hope this trip will help him.” He stood up. “Well, I’m heading up to bed.”

“Goodnight, son.”

Left alone, Murdoch stared into the fire. He wasn’t at all certain of what they’d find in Palo Verde.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

Murdoch paced at the bottom of the stairs. Finally, he turned and yelled upwards. “Johnny hurry up or we’ll miss the stage.”

Scott came out of the kitchen and started laughing. “Pa, Johnny’s outside with Jelly. They have the small wagon ready.”

“They could have told me,” Murdoch snapped. Then he stopped and put a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Sorry son. I guess I’m just a little worried about the trip and what we will find with Maria. I know Johnny is worried.”

Scott looked at him. “Are you sure it’s Johnny who’s worried?”

But Murdoch was already heading towards the door. “Come on, let’s see what they’ve packed in the wagon,” Murdoch called over this shoulder, grabbing his hat and gun on the way out.

Jelly and Johnny were standing by the wagon. Murdoch could see his bag in the back of the wagon but that was all. “Johnny, don’t you have a small bag?”

“I have my saddle bags. What else do I need?”

Murdoch scratched his head. He wasn’t a fussy man but he saw no need to travel like a tramp. “What you need is a change of clothes and shaving kit.” His tone softened. “I know you’re used to traveling light, Johnny, but you don’t need to anymore. We can stop in town and buy anything you haven’t packed.”

Johnny smiled, “Thanks. I have a change of clothes and my shaving gear. I don’t need anything else but thanks, anyway.”

“Well I can see one thing that’s missing. Did Maria pack us some food? I don’t believe your saddle bag has enough room for that.”

Teresa walked up to Murdoch and wagged her finger at Johnny, “No, Murdoch. Maria was calling Johnny to ask him what he wanted to take but he ran out too fast. You’re in some kind of hurry, aren’t you, Johnny?”
  
“I guess so. Tell Maria I’m sorry, will you?”

Teresa hugged him. “Oh, Johnny I hope everything is alright with your mother. I'm sure going to miss you. I'm going to miss you too, Murdoch,” she added, as she hugged him also.

“We'll be back before you know it.” He climbed up then looked at Scott once he was seated with the reins in his hands. “You’re in charge, Scott.”

Scott grinned. “I’ll try to control Teresa when she’s decorating the house for Christmas.”

 “Jelly, let's get going.” Murdoch winked at Johnny sitting next to him on the wagon. “I know you're real anxious to get back to work and get those stalls cleaned out, Jelly.”

Jelly looked like he was about to explode but Murdoch and Johnny ignored him as they waved good-bye to Teresa and Scott. Finally Johnny whacked Jelly in the stomach. “You’d better save all that wind for later, Jelly, or you won’t have anything left to boss the work crew.”

 

Once they got to Morro Coyo Murdoch pulled up outside Baldemero’s store. “Johnny, consider this a Christmas present but I’m going to buy you a change of clothes and a traveling bag.” Murdoch held up his hand, “Now don’t say no, I know you could always use some new clothes and how about a new hat?”

Johnny shrugged. “Seems like a waste of money when my old one is okay.” He took his hat off and turned it over in his hands, then wacked it across his leg. “See.” A cloud of dust rose in the air and the lining flapped loose.

Murdoch coughed.

Johnny laughed. “Well, maybe I need a new one at that.”

A short time later, with a new hat on his head and a travelling bag packed with new clothes, Johnny and Murdoch boarded the stage to Palo Verde.

 

It was midday on the second day when they arrived at Palo Verde.

Murdoch got out of the stage and stretched his back. “Let’s get a room over there at that hotel. Then we’ll see if we can find your Aunt’s house.”

“How about you get the room and I’ll get us a place at the cantina.” Johnny sniffed the air, looking across to a bustling cantina across the way. “Whatever they’re cooking sure smells good.”

Murdoch looked down at his dusty clothes. “Johnny, I feel like I swallowed a wagon load of dust. How about we both go get a room? You can put on your new clothes after you clean up.”

Johnny shook his head a little. “You sure do things different to me, Murdoch.”

 

An hour later, after a bath and a change of clothes, they entered the cantina. It was quieter now and they had no trouble finding a table. Murdoch watched the passing traffic in the street while Johnny ordered for them both from a young Mexican girl.

“You are new in town?” she asked, putting a plate of tortillas and salsa on the table.

“Visiting family,” Johnny said, then asked if she knew his aunt and where she lived.

“Oh yes, it is easy to find. It’s the last house on the south end of town.”

Murdoch talked as they ate but he couldn’t help but notice how quiet Johnny had become—and how little food he ate. That in itself was unusual for the boy.

“Johnny, I’m sure everything will be okay. There’s probably a simple explanation as to why your mother couldn’t visit this Christmas.”

“I guess there’s only one way to find out. You finished?”

Murdoch looked at his half-eaten plate with some regret. “I guess so.”

 

The last house on the southern end of town was a well-cared for adobe cottage.

Murdoch knocked at the door and a pretty older woman answered. “May I help you?”

“Yes, Senorita Estela. My name is Murdoch Lancer…”

Before he’d even finished her eyes had lit up with delight. “And this must be my grandnephew, Johnny!” Johnny found himself enveloped in a tight hug by the little woman. “Johnny, your mama’s been so worried that you would be mad that she wasn’t coming for the holidays. She’ll be so happy that you are here. Come in. Come in.” She opened the door and ushered them inside. “Would you like a glass of lemonade? I know you must be thirsty.”

Johnny took his hat off as he stepped inside a parlor. “My mother’s alright then? There’s nothing wrong?”

Her smile hesitated a fraction. “Johnny, your mama will be home within the hour. She will tell you everything when she gets here.”

Johnny threw a look at Murdoch. “I’m anxious to speak to her as soon as possible if I can.”

She squeezed his arm. “Of course, you are worried. I told Maria how it would be. You would have passed the church on your way into town?”

Johnny nodded.

“She’s been working there during the day. It’s a sad story but Maria can tell you about it when you see her.”

“Johnny, do you want me to come with you?” Murdoch asked.

“No Murdoch, I think if there was any danger Aunt Estela would tell me. I’ll be fine.”

 

The adobe church was old and covered in vines. Johnny stood at the door and was about to go in when he heard the sound of children playing around the side. A group of kids were running around laughing and shouting and in the very middle of them, with a blindfold over her eyes, was his mother.

He walked across to the kids but put his finger to his lips and winked at them. They started to giggle when they saw what he was doing. He waited until he was next to his mother then said in a soft voice, “You mind if I join in?”

She shrieked and tore the blindfold from her eyes. “Johnny, my son, what are you doing here?” She hugged him then put a hand to his cheek and studied his face. “You are well? All is good?”

He put his hand over hers. “I was about to ask you the same thing, Mama. You had me worried.”

“You are here because you are worried?”

“Mama, I came to bring you to the ranch for Christmas. You missed Thanksgiving. We didn’t want you to miss Christmas as well.”

“Maria, Maria, come play,” several of the children started to call.

“In a minute, little ones. This is my son, Johnny. Say hello to him.”

Seven dark-haired children stopped running and looked at him with big smiles on their faces. “Good evening, Senor Johnny.”

“Now play quietly while I talk to Johnny. Off you go.” She led Johnny to a log that served as a seat under a huge spreading tree.

Johnny looked at the kids. “Since when have you become a schoolmarm?”

She laughed but her eyes saddened as her eyes went to the children. She lowered her voice. “Johnny, Aunt Estela knew their parents. The Romeros were a lovely couple. One day, while the older children were at school, their farmhouse burned to the ground. Señor Romero ran inside to save his wife and youngest children but the roof collapsed. The children were saved but Romero and his wife died.” She dabbed her eyes. “I don’t know how these precious ones can still smile. Often, they do not.”

“So the children had nowhere to go?”

“We couldn’t find any relatives and the children did not want to be separated so Father Charles built an orphanage for them, with the help of the town.”

Johnny looked around. “I don’t understand. This doesn’t look like an orphanage.”

“It isn’t it.” Her voice hardened. “Father Charles and I discovered last week that all is not right. The man we put in charge of the orphanage has not been treating them well.”

“I never heard of an orphanage that treats kids well.” Johnny looked grim.

Maria sighed. “We thought Señor Rodriguez was a good man.”

“He’s the man who runs the orphanage?”

“Yes. He worked for the Romeros and had spent a lot of time at their house. He told us he looked upon the children as if they were his own nieces and nephews. They called him Tio.” Her eyes darkened. “But last week when I visited I found the oldest girl, Louisa, crying. She told me Rodriguez did not like the color of their eyes, Johnny.”

Johnny looked across to where the children played. The youngest was no more than three and the eldest, Louisa he guessed, looked to be about thirteen. For a moment he saw himself in every one of them.

“She told us Rodriguez would beat them and say bad things about her mother. They are good children, Johnny. How someone could hate as bad as this man I don’t understand. I don’t know what to do Johnny. I am so scared for them.”

“So, Romero married a…”

“A wonderful kind woman from Saint Louis.”

Johnny looked at the children. “A wonderful kind woman with blue eyes.”

She nodded. “I want to teach them how to be proud of their heritage.” She put her hand briefly on Johnny’s cheek. “But in the meantime, Father Charles and I must find a way to protect them.”

“Well the first thing to do is kick Rodriguez out.”

“It’s not that simple. A circuit judge gave him custody of the children and now Rodriguez speaks of taking them to another town. If he does that, I might never find them again.”

Johnny knew how easy it was to get lost in border towns. He frowned. “Maybe Murdoch will know what to do. He’s waiting at your house. I came to walk you home.”

“Murdoch’s here with you?” A look of relief crossed her face. “Yes, he will know what to do. Father Charles is a good man but he is old and no match for Rodriguez. I will take you to meet the padre and then we can go home.”

Father Charles was definitely old but in spite of his snowy white hair his back was straight and his eyes were bright.

Maria introduced them and they talked briefly about the situation until Father Charles insisted that Maria go home with her son. “We will talk some more tomorrow, Johnny. Hopefully you and your father will be able to help us.”

As Maria went outside to say her goodbyes to the children, the priest said to Johnny in a low voice, “I’m relieved you’re here, Johnny. Rodriguez is a mean, vicious man. He’s made threats to me and your mother. He won’t be happy until the children are out of town.”

Johnny shook his head. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense. What did these kids ever do to him?”

Father Charles shrugged. “Hatred rarely makes sense, Johnny.”

The wintry sun was beginning to set as they walked through the town. Maria slipped her hand through Johnny’s arm. “It’s so good to see you, my son.”

“I’m sorry you’ve got so much trouble on your hands.”

“It is not my trouble.” She patted his arm. “It is the Lord’s. The Padre and I have been praying for these little ones.”

“So, you’ve found another one?” a voice called from out front the town’s only saloon. Johnny looked to see a beefy Mexican stumbling across the road towards them.

Maria’s hand tightened on his arm.

“Hey, half-breed, what do you think you are doing? We do not want your type here.”

He’d come close enough for Johnny to breathe in tequila fumes on his breath as he spoke.

Johnny pushed Maria behind him just as Rodriguez reached out and went to grab Johnny’s arm.

But instead of an arm the orphanage owner found himself staring down the barrel—the barrel of Madrid’s gun.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

“That is him, Johnny, it is Aguado,” Maria said quietly to Johnny, from where she stood behind his back.

Johnny’s gun didn’t waver but a glint came into Johnny’s eyes. “You got something to say to me, Aguado?”

Aguado spat at the ground but he threw his gun into the dirt without Johnny asking. “I don’t talk to the likes of you.” But the tone wasn’t quite as confident. “You and the padre hiring pistoleros now?”

Maria stepped around Johnny and said, in a commanding voice, “He’s my son, Johnny, and he’ll be more trouble to you than you can imagine.”

“Your son?” Aguado started to laugh. “What happened, Maria? Some rich gringo promise you a fancy life then run out on you? I don’t see no gringo daddy anywhere.”

Johnny holstered his gun and flexed his fingers. “Shut up, Aguado.”

“Come on, Maria. Ditch the kid here. I can show you a better time than that gringo did.”

The next moment Aguado found himself lying face down in the dirt with Johnny standing over him with his fists clenched, as if he was hoping Aguado was going to get up again. “Nobody talks about my mother like that.”

But Maria pulled him away. “Don’t bother with him, Johnny. He’s a nothing. It’s the children we have to think of—and Rosa.”

Aguado sat up, rubbing his jaw. “You keep your noses out of my business, understand?”
“Johnny, tell him to call Rosa out,” Maria said in an undertone to Johnny. “She’ll be inside the cantina.”

“Who’s Rosa?”

“Juan Romero had a younger sister, she’s only nineteen but she was foolish and ran away from home at fifteen. Juan found her and brought her to his home.”

“Rosa is none of your business,” Aguado looked like he wanted to strangle Maria. Johnny took his gun out again.

“And she is none of your business, either,” Maria snapped back. “Johnny, Aguado has forced her back into her old life as a saloon girl. Rosa came here to put all that behind her.”

Johnny aimed his gun at Romero. “l think we better go and see if Romero’s sister wants to leave, then we’ll see about you leaving.”

A small crowd had already gathered in the dusty street and now they drew back as Johnny pointed Aguado towards the cantina where a few girls were standing in the doorway.

“Rosa, get your…” Aguado stopped as Johnny jabbed a gun in his side, “pretty little self out here,” he finished smoothly.

The girls drew back and a pretty dark-haired girl came out but her arm was held tightly by a man in a suit with the look of a gambler. She looked timidly towards Aguado.

“Rosa, it’s all right. We’ve come to take you away from all this,” Maria called to her.

“Aguado, tell your man to let her go. Now.” Johnny jabbed his gun even harder into Aguado.

Aguado grunted, his lips pressed tightly closed. It took another jab for him to call out, “It’s okay, Woody. We’ll let the girl go. For now,” he added under his breath.

Rosa walked down the few steps onto the street. A look of uncertainty was on her face. “Johnny, is that you?”

Johnny took his eyes off Aguado and a huge grin lit his face. “Rosa? You’re Romero’s sister?”

By this time she’d started running to him. “Johnny, what are you doing here?”

Johnny let her hug him, all the while keeping his eyes on Aguado. “I’ll explain all that later. We’ve come to take you away from this hellhole.”

“I could have left her in the dirt to starve,” Aguado snarled. He looked at Rosa, now standing happily beside Johnny. “Looks like trash knows trash, right Rosa?”

“If you had any brains at all you’d keep your big mouth shut, Aguado,” she said.

“And if you think you’re going to walk out of here you’ve got another thing coming. You think I’m afraid of a two-bit kid with a gun?”

“No señor, I don’t think you’re afraid of a kid with a gun—but if you have any sense at all you’ll think twice before taking on Johnny Madrid.”

A flash of surprise lit Aguado’s eyes but the sneer didn’t leave his face as he stared at Johnny. “Just you wait, if I catch you without that gun, I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll never forget, boy.”

Johnny shrugged. “Yeah, if you live long enough. You ever hear the old saying, the bigger they are, the harder they fall?”

Rosa laughed at Aguado, her eyes going to the red mark on his jaw. “It looks like he’s already had a fall—and I doubt you’d ever catch Johnny Madrid without a gun.”

“Enough of this talk,” Maria said. “We’ve come to tell you Aguado the children are no longer under your care.”

“You can’t do that. I have the paper work to be here.”

“Yeah, you might have some papers, Aguado, but right now my gun tops any ink written by a judge who doesn’t know what a low-down skunk you are.”

“You’ll pay for this, Madrid.”

“Yeah, the smiles of those kids whose lives you’ve tried to destroy will be all the payment I need.”

Rosa couldn’t help looking back as she walked away with Johnny and Maria. “Be careful of him, Johnny. He’s dangerous,” she whispered.

Johnny looked back as well. “Who was the man in the suit?”

Rosa shuddered. “He arrived here yesterday. His name is Woodmason. He seems to be making some sort of a deal with Aguado.”

Johnny frowned. “I feel like I’ve seen him somewhere before.”

All three walked back to the church where Father Charles had the children inside. He opened the door to the church with a smile but his expression became grave when he looked at Johnny.

“Johnny you are looking very serious. I hope you didn’t have too much trouble with Aguado.”

“He is a very bad man, Padre,” Rosa said, “but Johnny made him let me go.”

Maria put an arm around her. “Hush now, child. Let me tell Father Charles what has happened.” She quickly told him of their encounter in the street with Aguado. “Johnny’s father is waiting for us at my house. We must speak to him.”

Johnny had been watching the street but Aguado seemed to be licking his wounds in the saloon still. “Padre, can you keep the kids safe in the church while we talk to Murdoch? I’ll be back here as fast as I can.”

“I will ring the church bell if I have any trouble. Thank you, my son.”

 

As they walked back to Maria’s house, Johnny explained to Rosa that Maria was his mother and told her something of his life since they’d last seen each other in Laredo. But he fell silent after that as Maria and Rosa talked.

Johnny found Murdoch pacing the floor of the small adobe building, making it seem even smaller with his height. “Take a seat Murdoch. We’ve got a lot to tell you. Oh, and this is Rosa. Rosa, this is my father.”

“Nice to meet you Mr. Madrid,” Rosa said.

Murdoch smiled, “Nice to meet you too Rosa but my name is Lancer, not Madrid. Johnny’s real last name is Lancer. Maria, what’s going on and is there any way I can help?”

Murdoch shook his head after Maria had finished telling him about the fate of children at the hands of Aguado. “Those poor kids. But what I can’t understand is what a man like Aguado would want with them in the first place?”

“I think I know,” said Johnny of a sudden. “Money.” He spat the word.

“But his parents were not rich.” Maria looked confused.

Johnny’s mouth twisted. “I believe you can get a tidy sum of money for a healthy boy with a strong arm. And the girls…” He shook his head.

“Dios.” Maria looked shock. “He’s going to sell them? But what makes you think that?”

“I just remembered where I’d seen Woodmason before. I was in San Francisco down by...” He shot a quick look at Murdoch before muttering in a low voice. “Let’s just say I saw things there that’d make your toes curl up and drop off your feet. Dios, I wish I’d shot Aguado when I had the chance,” he added with feeling.

Maria’s eyes opened wide. “Then that is why he told the padre that he wanted to take the children on a Christmas holiday. He intended to sell them to the highest bidder.”

“I saw some awful stuff in San Francisco,” Johnny said quietly. “And it wasn’t just the Chinese girls who were being auctioned.”

Rosa put a hand on Johnny’s arm. “That is why you must be careful, Johnny. Aguado is a bad man to cross.”

Murdoch shook his head in disbelief. “I think the sooner we get the children to Lancer the better.”

Tears shone in Maria’s eyes. “You would to that, Murdoch?”

“Of course. I’ve got no intention of leaving these kids within reach of a man like Aguado. Is there a telegraph office in town?”

“No, but there’s one about ten miles from here in a town called Ripley,” Estela replied.

“Good. I have an idea that will straighten this Aguado out. Then maybe we can all go to Lancer and celebrate Christmas. If I rent a horse I only need stay the night and ride back early in the morning, provided I get a reply soon enough.”

 

No-one seemed to take any notice of Murdoch as he went to the livery and rented a horse. Once in Ripley, a larger town than where Maria lived, he headed straight to the telegraph office. A boy about Johnny’s age sat behind the counter looking bored but he straightened his vest and picked up his pencil when Murdoch walked in.

“What can I do for you, sir?”

“I’d like to send a couple of telegrams.”

“Yes, sir.” He handed Murdoch a pencil and some paper. “Write them down and I’ll send your telegrams out right away.”

Murdoch wrote quickly then looked at the telegraph clerk. “I’m staying at the hotel. There’s a dollar for you if you deliver the messages to me as soon as they come in.”

The boy’s eyes sparkled. “Yessiree.”

“The name is Murdoch Lancer. Room seven. I’ll be waiting.”

 

Two hours later the boy came knocking and handed over the replies. “Anything else I can do for you, sir?” He looked a little deflated when Murdoch said no but he pocketed his dollar with a big smile on his face.

Once he’d closed the door, Murdoch sat down on the squeaky bed to read his reply.

‘Be there soon. Val.’

And the second message read: ‘Will send Sister Agnes to care for children. Will arrive after Christmas. Monsignor Patterson.’

 

Johnny stayed the night at the church. They’d pushed back the pews and made beds for the Romero children but Johnny spent the night in the bell tower. Aided by the full moon, he had a clear view of anyone approaching the church.

Once morning came, Father Charles insisted that Johnny get some sleep. “I’ll be okay, Padre. I’d rather stay here until Murdoch gets back.”

Father Charles looked around. The children were eating breakfast and the rest of the town was quiet. “No-one likes Aguado. The townsfolk will warn me if he tries to come here.”

In truth, Johnny’s eyelids felt so heavy he could barely keep them open.

“Okay, Padre,” he finally agreed. “I’ll go back to my mother’s house but you ring the bell if there’s any trouble.”

 

Johnny felt like he’d only just put his head on the pillow and closed his eyes when he felt someone tugging on his arm.

“Johnny wake up. Wake up, Johnny!”

He opened his eyes to see Maria standing there. “Aguado dragged Rosa back to the cantina. He said for you to come without your gun and he’ll let her go.”

“How did he get her? She was here.”

“Rosa and I went to the church to work for Father Charles. Aguado came out of the cantina as we walked by. He said he’s going to see to it that you leave town, doesn’t matter if it’s alive or dead.”

Johnny sat up and reached for his gun and gunbelt. He hadn’t undressed when he went to bed, worried that Aguado might try something.

Maria watched him strap on his gun on with worried eyes. “Perhaps we can wait until Murdoch gets back?”

“We don’t know when that will be, mama.” Johnny looked back at her as he opened the door. “Trust me, I know how to handle men like Aguado. Just promise me you’ll stay here. Promise!”

She stamped her foot but eventually nodded her head. He kissed her cheek then walked out the door.

She watched him walk down the path then ran inside, calling for her aunt. “Do you have a gun? I need to help Johnny. I don’t want any harm to come to him.”

“No child, you know I don’t keep one. But I have something better.” Estela took out a worn bible. “We shall pray. That’s what I do best.”

 

“Aguado, you have something you want to say to me? I’m here, so come out.” Johnny stood in the street, watching the cantina batwing doors. In a few moments, a scared Rosa came out. Aguado stood behind her. His right hand couldn’t be seen but his left hand gripped her tightly on the shoulder.

Rodriquez laughed at Johnny, “I knew you’d wear your gun, boy. Guess you’re not much of a man without it. But if you want to see her pretty face caved in then you’d best throw the gun down, pistolero.”

Johnny shrugged. “You think your type scares me, Aguado?” He ignored Rosa’s pleading look and threw his gun a few feet away onto the dusty street.

“Well, you are not so foolish after all. But we shall see how true your words prove to be.” He smiled at Johnny but it was the type of smile that gave Johnny a twinge of trepidation inside. Johnny shrugged again and smiled back at Aguado like he didn’t have a care in the world.

“Rosa go to the church. Johnny and I will be there soon.” Aguado jerked the back of her hair and whispered in her ear, “You give him any kind of warning, you’ll find yourself with a bullet in your brain.” He jerked her head again. “Do you understand me girl?”

She gave another imploring look at Johnny, then said, “Yes,” before running back up the cantina steps.

Aguado came across to Johnny, prodding him in the back with his gun. “Get walking. You and me have got some business I think. I need to teach you to keep your nose out of my affairs. First I deal with you—then the kids and I will be leaving this stupid town.”

Johnny kept walking. “You’re not taking those kids, Aguado.”

“It is too late. We already have them.”

 

Aguado made Johnny walk to the orphanage. His heart sank when he saw Father Charles standing out front. This was very bad.

“You see,” said Aguado happily, “I have a surprise for you. Father Charles has decided the children are better off with me.”

“Yeah, a gun aimed at a man’s back will just about persuade him to do anything I guess.”

Just then Rosa appeared from beside the building.

“Rosa, go inside with the children into the recreation hall. You too, Padre. My friend Woody is in there to keep you all company.”

Father Charles gave Johnny an apologetic look but then he and Rosa went inside.

Aguado ushered Johnny into the yard at the back where a tree stood with a pile of rope at the bottom. “And now we must deal with our business.”

“Aguado why don’t you let the kids and Rosa go? You have me now. I won’t fight you,” Johnny said.

Aguado looked at Johnny, “You think I’d give up Rosa? She’s a good thing for me. And the kids, well…well of course I wouldn’t hurt the little ones.”

“You make a lousy liar, Aguado.”

Aguado tied Johnny’s hands together then took the ends of the rope and threw them over a branch forcing Johnny’s hands above his head with his feet barely touching the ground.

Then he pulled out of a pail of water with a leather razor strap. “See boy, this strap has been soaking all morning. Now we shall see how tough the great Johnny Madrid is. Maybe he’s really just a little boy who cries for his mama, huh?”

“You can try, amigo.”

“But first…” Aguado drew his fist back and Johnny braced himself. The first punches were so fierce that Johnny was already seeing stars.

“These punches are for good measure, boy.” Aguado laughed as he grabbed hold of the back of Johnny’s shirt.

Johnny winced as he heard the sound of cloth being torn. Teresa wouldn’t be happy about more mending.

“Now we shall start on your back.”

And he didn’t think she’d be real happy about having to mend his skin, either.

 

Murdoch hadn’t wasted any time leaving Ripley but the horse was a slow mount.

The first thing he saw as he rode up to the house was Maria running outside to meet him.

“Murdoch, things are very bad. Aguado took Rosa to force Johnny to come to him.”

Murdoch swung the horse around but Maria cried out to him to wait. She held out her hand for him to pull her up behind him. “Hurry,” she yelled when he hesitated.

He swung her up behind him. “Okay, but do as I tell you.”

“Hurry, Murdoch.”

He gave up trying to get a promise from her. This was the Maria he remembered.

Aguado wasn’t at the cantina but one of the girls ran out as Murdoch was walking down the steps. “Go to the orphanage. You’ll find them there.”

 

They tied the horse to a tree away from the orphanage. There was no sign of the children or anyone else. Murdoch checked his gun as he spoke to Maria. “Aguado doesn’t know me. We can use that to our advantage.”

He then ran a hand across his brow, a sign she remembered that told her he was worried.

“They must have the children inside,” she said quietly.

“Is there another way, into the building?”

“Yes, there is a side door.”

“We’ll have to be very careful so that we’re not heard.”

Maria rolled her eyes. “Always the boss. I’m not about to clang symbols together, Murdoch.”

He grinned at her. “Okay, Maria, you lead the way and hopefully we’ll see or hear something that will tell us where the children are.”

The side door opened onto a laundry. The minute they entered the building they could hear children crying.

“They must be in the recreation hall,” Maria whispered, her ear pressed against the door that led to the rest of the orphanage. She put her hand on the door knob.

Murdoch tapped her solder, “Maria wait. We just can’t barge in there together. You go first. If everything is alright come and motion me in. I’ll be listening. If Aguado or one of his men are in there, just say ‘Rosa’ to warn me and I’ll take it from there.”

Maria nodded, then with a deep breath she opened the door. She had to walk down a short corridor to enter the recreation room. As she walked the crying sounded louder.

Murdoch waited inside the laundry with the door slightly ajar so that he could hear clearly. He heard Maria’s steps on the wooden floor then they stopped and a door creaked open. Murdoch took his gun from its holster.

“Hello children.”

Maria’s voice sounded bright and clear. Perhaps everything was all right?

The next words he heard were indistinct. Was it a man speaking? Then Maria seemed to be answering. “I am Maria. I work with Father Charles. It is time the children were fed. Rosa, will you help me?”

Murdoch swung the door open and ran down the corridor as quietly as he could, his gun at the ready.

“And who are you, young man?” Maria was saying loudly. “Why are you here with the children?”

“My name’s Woody and what I do is none of your business, lady.”

Maria had left the door open. Murdoch peeped around it to see Maria fussing over the children while Rosa looked on. She was doing an excellent job of distracting Woodmason as he stood there.

Murdoch walked up behind him, signaling a warning to the children with a finger to his lips.

“Oh, look,” Maria cried, pointing to the other end of the room. As one, every eye turned to the window at the far end—except Murdoch’s. He was busy hitting Woodmason on the back of his head with the butt of his gun. The man fell to the floor with a thud and everyone turned around.

“Wonderful work, Murdoch.” Maria clapped her hands. “After all these years, we still make a good team.”

Murdoch scanned the room. All the children were there but not Johnny. Or Aguado.

“Rosa where is Johnny?” Maria asked.

“Aguado took him out to the side yard where the children play. Please hurry, I know it is not good,” Rosa cried.

“Where?” Murdoch snapped the word.

Rosa pointed to a door the other side of the room.

Murdoch clenched his teeth when he saw the scene in front of him.

“I’m going to enjoy making Johnny Madrid cry like a baby,” Aguado was saying as he lifted a hand holding a leather strap.

Aguado heard the sound of thunder as his arm was jerked back and an enormous shadow blocked out the sun.

“How would you like to take on a man your own size, Aguado?”

And that was the last thing Rodriquez remembered for a while.

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

Murdoch grabbed a knife Rodriguez had shoved in his boot and cut Johnny down. “Are you alright, son?”

Johnny rubbed his wrists and eased his shoulders back.

“Yeah, Pa, he was just getting started on me. Your timing’s pretty good, old man.” Johnny grinned. “Are all the kids and Rosa alright?”

“Yes, your mother is with them.”

Johnny grabbed his gun back from where Rodriguez had tucked it into his belt. He checked that it was loaded before sliding it into his holster. Then he set about gingerly tucking the ripped ends of his shirt back into his pants.

Rodriguez was just starting to move around. Murdoch went over and kicked his gun away from within his reach. “What do you think you were doing? You’re lucky there’s no law here or you’d be in jail.”

Rodriguez looked up groggily at Murdoch from where he lay sprawled in the dirt. “What’s it to you, gringo? This isn’t any of your affair. The kid’s a filthy pistolero. He’s got what’s coming to him.”

“It so happens this ‘pistolero’ is my son. And you’re lucky I knocked you out instead of shooting you myself.”

Johnny walked over to him. “Next time I ‘will’ shoot you.”

“You’ve been warned,’ said Murdoch. “Stay away from those children. In fact, I think it’s time you stayed away from this town.”

“And that goes for Woodmason as well. We know what your game is, Rodriguez and if anything happens to those kids you’ll be going to jail for a very long time.” Johnny shrugged and gave him a cold smile. “That’s if you even make it as far as jail.”

“Come on, son, let’s go see the children.”

Johnny and Murdoch walked inside to where Maria and the children were waiting but on the way Murdoch said under his breath, “I don’t want any killing, Johnny.”

“I don’t either, Pa, but I’ll do what has to be done to protect those children.”

Murdoch frowned but didn’t say anymore.

Johnny looked back to where Rodriguez was slowly getting to his feet, his expression one of anger and hatred. Johnny sighed. “I’ve got a feeling we haven’t seen the last of Rodriguez.”

Maria gave Johnny a hug when they walked inside. Father Charles had made Woodmason leave but the children were very upset. Rosa was trying to calm them.

Maria was furious. “Murdoch, what are we to do? These children will never be safe while Rodriguez is around. I don’t understand what drives him. Rosa said the children liked him when he first came to work for their father.”

Murdoch put a hand on her shoulder. “We need to get them to Lancer as soon as possible. I wired the Monsignor and he’s sending a nun, Sister Agnes, to run the orphanage but she won’t get her until after Christmas. Hopefully, in the next few weeks we can do something about Rodriguez.”

“We could never leave them with this Sister Agnes, while Rodriguez is still around.”

“I won’t. Johnny and I will work out something.”

Johnny looked at the children with a worried glance. “We need to leave for Lancer right now. Once we’re there we’ve got enough hands to protect them. Maybe Rodriguez will give up?”

Murdoch shook his head. “I wired Val. He’s on his way.”

“Val has no jurisdiction in these parts. You know that Murdoch.”

“I know. I asked him if he’d heard of Woodmason or Rodriguez. The only reply I got was that he was on his way.”

“Well, I guess we wait for Val, then, but I’m not leaving these kids alone again.”

Murdoch looked at the padre. “Father, would we be able to stay here tonight?”

“That’s an excellent idea, Murdoch.” Maria beamed at him. “We can make up beds here in the recreation hall. That way we can all watch the children.”

Rosa, who had been listening, gathered all the children around her. “Come on, kids, let’s all go and get our bedding and set it up in here, just like we’re camping outside.”

They all left the room, followed by Father Charles. Johnny noticed all of them were chattering excitedly, except the middle girl, Brigitte. Her face was still fearful.

Maria insisted on checking Johnny’s back and she had Rosa run across to the store and buy him a new shirt.“You are very blessed, my son, the skin is not broken.” She looked at Murdoch, her expression one of deep gratitude. “Thank you, Murdoch. You saved our boy.”

The kids were going back and forth, setting out their bedding and bringing plates and food for supper. Johnny watched them as he put his gunbelt on again. “Mamma, what’s up with Brigitte? She doesn’t smile. I don’t think I’ve even seen her talk.”

Maria looked across to where the child sat on a chair, holding an old rag doll. Maria shook her head. “She’s been that way ever since her parents died. It’s so sad.”

“She looks kinda lost.”

“That’s why I must give her the chance to get away from Rodriguez. I hate that man,” she suddenly snapped.

Johnny agreed but the thought struck him that Murdoch would probably never say he hated anyone.

 

Murdoch insisted on taking the first watch that night. Johnny felt uneasy. It took him a long time to go to sleep. From time to time he’d hear a movement and he’d sit up but it always turned out to be one of the kids moving around in their sleep. As he was finally drifting off to sleep he thought he heard someone crying…

 

Johnny wasn’t sure what woke him up. All he knew was one moment he was asleep and the next moment he was wide awake.

And then he heard it.

Someone was outside—and he didn’t think it was Murdoch.

He got up and tiptoed past the sleeping figures, his gun held firmly in his hand. He half hoped it was Rodriguez so that they could settle this situation once and for all.

He eased the door open. In the dark he could make out a man on a horse. The click of his gun was loud in the night. “You think I couldn’t hear you?”

The figure spun around. “I thought you’d be at that saloon over there. Didn’t think you’d be here.”

Johnny slipped his gun back in the holster and grinned. “You’re early. We didn’t expect you until tomorrow sometime. What did you do, ride all day and night?”

“That’s exactly what I did, Johnny. I came here to save your scrawny hide. You and Murdoch have walked into a passel of trouble.”

Johnny grinned. “Well, that wouldn’t be the first time. Come on inside and I’ll get you some coffee.”

 

Val took a gulp of coffee. “Worst damn coffee I ever tasted.”

“Do you want to explain what you said to Johnny,” Murdoch asked. He sounded impatient. They stood in the orphanage kitchen, talking by the light of a single lantern.

Val took a bite of the bread he held in his hand. “It’s Woodmason.”

“The guy in the suit?” Johnny scrunched up his face.

“Sounds like him. Thinks he’s smart. Only he’s dumb. Real dumb.”

“Val, it’s late. Would you stop talking in riddles. I haven’t been to bed yet.”

“Mr Lancer, Woodmason is a livestock dealer. Only thing is, he sells people, not cattle.” Val waited for their reaction.

Johnny nodded. “We know that.”

“Well what the heck did I come here for then?” Val groused. “I could be sleeping in my own bed ‘stead of traipsing around the country in the dead a’night.”

“We think he’s done a deal with Rodriguez to sell the kids.” Just the thought of it made Johnny clench his fists.

Val tore off another hunk of bread. “Word is Woodmason is in trouble with the Tongs. He backed out of a deal. I heard they want him dead.” He looked at Johnny and Murdoch. “And they’ll want anyone dead who gets in their way.”

Murdoch sighed. “This gets worse and worse. We have to get the children to Lancer. I’m glad you’re here, Val. We’re going to need your help.”

 

The children grumbled a little about being woken while it was still dark but they brightened up when Maria told them they were going on a special holiday for Christmas. Only Brigitte still looked sad.

Father Charles and Val harnessed two horses to the wagon and brought it around back. Johnny and Murdoch watched with guns drawn as the children clambered in, clutching their bedding.

Dawn was beginning to light the sky as they waved goodbye to Father Charles and pulled away from the orphanage with Murdoch holding the reins and Maria by his side, while Val and Johnny rode either side.

The town was quiet and the air was cold. The birds hadn’t started their twittering. The sound of the wagon wheels crunching the stones and dirt on the road seemed very loud to Johnny’s ears. Surely the whole town could hear them leaving?

But on they rode, through the middle of town, and no-one stirred. The saloon was especially quiet. Rosa, who held Brigitte on her lap, looked at it with loathing then set her gaze on the road ahead. Brigitte whimpered a little. Rosa held her tight and smoothed her messy hair. “Hush child. You’re safe. Johnny will look after us.”

Even as she said the words, a figure holding a shotgun stepped out onto the road in front of them. “Hold it right there.”

It was Rodriguez.

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

“Don’t make a move, Murdoch,” Johnny said quickly.

Miguel Aguado wasn’t alone. He had at least four men with him, standing in the shadows, their guns pointed at the wagon full of children.

“Throw your guns down, señors, and the children will not be hurt.” Aguado was smiling, gloating even.

Johnny looked at Val. In the dawn light his face looked grumpy as usual but Johnny could read murder in his eyes. It was never good to get Val riled up.

Aguado had chosen a good place for his ambush. They were far enough out of town for any gunfire to be muffled by the trees. There was an old adobe house on the left that looked like it hadn’t been used in years and that was the only sign of life this end of town. There was no help close at hand.

Johnny frowned at Aguado and let out an impatient sigh. “Aguado, what the he…heck do you think you’re doing? You going to kill all four of us so that you can take the children?”

“I’ve got money, if that’s what you want,” Murdoch said from his seat on the wagon next to Maria. “Name your price but let these children be.”

“Murdoch Lancer is a powerful man. You kill him and you’ll have the law after you for the rest of your days,” Maria spat at him. “Not to mention what I will do to you if you harm these little ones. I promise you, even from the grave I will torment you.”

And Johnny believed her, too.

“Shut your mouth, woman,” Aguado snapped. “I told you to throw down your guns.” He glared at Johnny.

There was a little shuffling of feet from the men standing either side. Johnny had an inkling no-one had mentioned anything about killing when they agreed to come along for the ride.

“Nope.” Johnny shook his head. “Looks like you’ll have to shoot me first.” He looked across at Murdoch. His hand was on his rifle. “Sure, you might manage to put a bullet in me, but with the sun coming up behind me, I sure wouldn’t bet on your chances. And my old man’s not likely to sit there and watch. Not to mention Sheriff Crawford here. And I gotta say, taking on you would be like taking on a wet-behind-the-ears kid compared to some of the hombres he’s taken down in his time.”

There was more shuffling of feet from the men under the trees.

“We have a deal, Aguado.” Woodmason stepped out of the abandoned house, aiming his gun at the wagon load of kids.

He looked like the type who’d be happy to lose one of them if it meant getting the rest. He was more dangerous than Aguado.

“I don’t intend to see you break it,” Woodmason continued.

“Shut-up, Woody.” Aguado was looking nervous.

Johnny leaned forward on his pommel. “You start shooting, there’s no telling how many are going down. Sure, you might take out all of us but we’re not going down without a fight. We’ll be taking some of you with us.”

“No-one said anything to us about a killing,” one of the men from the side called out. “You told us you was just taking back the kids that was legally yours.”

There were some murmurs of agreement from the other men.

“You imbeciles. Why would you listen to a monster like this one?” Maria yelled.

Johnny shrugged. “Looks like it’s all up to you, Aguado. You want to deal with this peaceably or do you want trouble? Make up your mind but either way,” and Johnny looked at Murdoch and Val, “we don’t aim to throw down our guns.”

“He’s bluffing,” Woodmason called out. “Don’t listen to him, Aguado. And there’s money for all of you if you’ve got the grit to go through with this.”

“We ain’t no murderers, mister,” the same man called out, holstering his gun. The other three did the same.

“Looks like your game is over, Aguado.” Johnny swung down from his horse, gun in hand, and walked across to the beefy Mexican. “Throw down your gun.”

“You think I would give my gun to the likes of you, half-breed?” Aguado spat in the dirt. “Woodmason! Shoot him.”

Johnny didn’t take his eyes off Aguado but Murdoch and Val did, their guns aimed at the house where Woodmason stood.

But there was no sign of him. Not anywhere.

“Looks like your partner recognizes when the games over, Aguado,” Murdoch said, jumping down from the wagon.

Johnny drew his gun. “If I were you, I’d throw down your gun, Aguado."

Aguado looked like he would resist but finally, with a scowl on his face, he tossed his gun into the dirt. Johnny looked across to the hut where Woodmason had stood. “Where is…” But that was as far as he got before Aguado leapt at him. The blow took Johnny by surprise, Aguado’s fist crashing into his head and ear. The world started to go black and hazy but clear as a bell, through the fog and the rushing sound in his ears, he heard a child’s voice cry out, “He hurt my mommy.”

Johnny’s head swung around, as did everyone else, to stare at the wagon. Brigitte was standing up, her finger pointing directly at Aguado. “He’s a bad, bad, man.”

Murdoch grabbed Aguado by the front of his shirt with both hands. “What’s she talking about?”

“Nothing. The kid is a liar.”

“I am not,” Brigitte declared in a loud voice. “You hurt my mommy and now you hurt Johnny. You’re a bad man. And my papa hit you and I’m glad he did.”

Johnny looked at Murdoch. Clearly, they both had the same thought. “When did this happen, darling?” asked Murdoch.

The child’s eyes fell. “Just before the fire.”

Maria stared at Aguado, a look of horror on her face. “Jesus in heaven, you started the fire! It was you who killed the Romeros?”

“The kid’s lying, I tell you.” Aguado was sweating now and his snarl was that of a cornered mountain lion.

“How did he hurt your mama?” Johnny asked Brigitte in a gentle voice.

At first he thought she wasn’t going to answer but Maria nodded encouragement at her.
“He ripped momma’s dress, here,” and she pointed to her own dress at the neck. “Then he pushed her down. That’s when papa hit him.”

“She’s lying I tell you,” Aguado called out, but not a single face looked like they believed him. “She was asking for it. She kept looking at me. She deserved…”

He got no further than that before Murdoch’s fist smashed into his face.

“So it was you who started the fire.” Maria’s voice was full of loathing and contempt.

“He threw the lantern at mommy.” This time Brigitte’s voice was not clear. Her eyes were streaming and her chest was heaving. Maria took her on her knee on the wagon seat and held her close.

Johnny looked at Aguado. If ever a man deserved to be kicked while he was down, it was this one.

The four men hired to do Aguado’s dirty work were now talking about lynching him. There was still no sign of Woodmason.

“There’ll be no lynching,” said Val. “We’ll take Aguado to the closest jail. We’ll make sure he gets what’s coming to him.”

“It was an accident. The girl doesn’t know what she’s saying,” Aguado shouted.

Val took his handcuffs out. “We’ll let a judge and jury decide that.” Val looked at Murdoch. “If we stop in Victorville for the night we can hand Aguado over to US Marshal William Bennet.”

Murdoch nodded. “Good Val, I then can send a telegram to Scott and Teresa so they can prepare for the children.”

Maria was gently rocking the still sobbing Brigitte. “We shall still go to Lancer?”

“Of course. I want these children to have the best Christmas we can give them. They deserve that.”

Maria smiled through her tears. “You’re a good man, Murdoch. What a pity it has taken me so long to realize that.”

“You heroes can ride home,” Val told the four men Aguado had hired. “And if I were you I wouldn’t tell your wives about the big mistake you almost made.” At least two of them had the grace to hang their heads and look sheepish.

The younger one said, “You want us to help you turn this skunk into the law?”

“Nope. Just get on home and see if you can grow some common sense.”

Johnny looked around. “Where’s your horse, Aguado?”

The Mexican didn’t reply. So Johnny kicked him. Hard. “Where’s your horse.”

Aguado nodded his head in the direction of the adobe hut.

Johnny walked up to the hut with his gun drawn. From what Val had said he didn’t think Woodmason was the type to give up easily, not if he could smell an easy dollar.

The hut had two windows without glass or shutters and a door. “Woodmason, you there?”
A horse whinnied from inside.

Johnny eased the door open and almost fired his gun.

Woodmason’s eyes were staring at him. Only he didn’t see Johnny. Those eyes wouldn’t see anything ever again.

Johnny signalled to Murdoch and Val. They both came across and stood behind Johnny, peering into the gloom.

Woodmason lay on his back, his eyes wide open with a final look of terror and surprise. A knife with a gold handle and fancy engraving was buried deep in his chest.

Val pushed past. “That’s the work of Tongs.”

He grabbed hold of the knife and with some effort pulled it from Woodmason’s body. The handle was decorated in something that looked like Asian writing to Johnny and Murdoch.

“How’d they get in?” Murdoch asked.

Val shook his head. “They’re sneaky devils. Move like silent shadows.”

“Well, I can’t say I’m sorry to see him dead,” Johnny muttered. “We just need to make sure the kids don’t see him.” Johnny walked outside and whistled loudly. One of Aguado’s would-be hired guns turned around. Johnny signaled him to ride back.

Maria and Rosa took the children down to a nearby stream where they had a drink and washed their faces in by the warmth of the winter sun while Val and Johnny hauled Woodmason out and tied him to his horse.

“Here, take him into town to the undertaker,” Johnny told the man who returned. He didn’t look too happy about leading a dead Woodmason. “We’ll contact the law when we get to Victorville.”

 

Aguado was silent as the wagon load of children and riders headed further and further away from Palo Verde.

Johnny saw Louisa looking daggers at Aguado. She said to his mother, “I can’t believe we ever liked that man. He…”

“Hush child. For the sake of the younger ones we must not talk about it now. Can you do that?”

She looked mutinous for a moment but eventually nodded.

“Come, it’s almost Christmas and Murdoch and I want to make this the best Christmas we can for all of you.”

Louisa’s lip trembled. “We always sang carols with mamma and papa.”

“Then we should do that now,” Maria said brightly. “Which carol would you like to sing?”
Louisa started to sing in a wavering voice, “Hark the herald angels sing…”

Then Manuel joined in with her, “Glory to the new born king…”

And then Rosa added her voice, “Peace on earth and mercy mild…”

And soon the air was filled with the voices of the older children and Maria and even Murdoch.

Johnny couldn’t help but look at Aguado as they sung the line, “God and sinners reconciled.”

“Why Johnny, I think we’ve got us some kids who are ready to celebrate Christmas.” Val grinned.

“You think they know about this St Nicholas guy Scott was telling me about? He painted a funny story of this guy on a log we was bringing home until it got all wet.”

“Wet?” Murdoch yelled across from the wagon. “You two decided to skip work and go swimming. Furthermore, my boy, I never saw this log that Scott supposedly drew on, so maybe when we get home you and Scott should find it.”

Johnny grinned at him. “Remind me not to swim in winter, too!”

 It was almost dusk when the wagon full of weary children reached Victorville.

“Murdoch you find a place to stay. Johnny and I will take Aguado to the marshal’s office,” Val said.

The children were chatting, looking around town with interested faces.

“After I get us some rooms I’ll go to the telegraph office to wire Scott and Teresa so they can organize presents for the children,” Murdoch said quietly. “I want the children to be fully surprised about this Christmas. Johnny if there is anything you need for Christmas you can get them here in town or wait and go to Green River when we get home. I’m assuming you’ll want to buy a present for your mother.”

Johnny looked stunned, “I never thought of getting gifts for adults. I didn’t know that grown-ups get presents.”

Murdoch smiled, a little sad that Johnny knew so little about Christmas. “Yes, son, adults can have presents at Christmas time.”

 

Johnny and Val couldn’t wait to hand Aguado over to Marshall Bennet. They were both looking forward to seeing him locked up.

The Marshall welcomed Val warmly, only too happy to take the prisoner off their hands.
He took Val’s and Johnny’s statements while one of his deputies locked Aguado up in a back cell. The Marshall seemed to think that with Brigitte’s testimony, Aguado would receive the death penalty.

Val had one more thing to say to Aguado before they left the jail. “Hanging is too good for the likes of you too.”

Aguado stared ahead with a stony face.

“But we’ll settle for it,” Johnny grinned.

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

The next morning, Murdoch found Val sitting in the hotel dining room drinking coffee. “Well Val, do you think we should go and wake everyone up? I want to be back on the road at eight, that is, if there’s no delay.”

Val looked outside through the hotel windows. “That’d be a good idea, Mr. Lancer. No telling what the weather’s planning to do.”

“Have you seen Johnny? He wasn’t in his bed."

“The boy went to care for his horse. He said he wanted to be sure the stone Diego picked up didn’t cause any problems.”

Murdoch went back upstairs and knocked on Maria’s door. “Maria, are you and the children ready for breakfast?”

Maria came to the door, surrounded by the four girls. They were all dressed with their hair brushed. The children had an air of excitement about them.

“Good morning Mr. Lancer,” they said together.

“Good morning girls. I hope you’re hungry. Go on and order what they want Maria. Yourself also,” Murdoch said.

Maria nodded. “Come girls.  And thank you, Murdoch, but I can pay.”

Murdoch smiled at her, “Maria, I asked you and the children to come. You're my guests so I insist that I pay for everything. I am looking forward so much to having a full house this year, with the children and you included.”

“Thank You again, Murdoch. I know we will all have a good time.”

“Miss Maria, can we order whatever we want?” Louisa asked in a hushed voice.

“You heard Mr Lancer. It’s his treat.” Maria put her arms around the girls, “Girls, let’s go down so we can have time to enjoy our morning meal instead of rushing to eat.”

“I will escort all of you ladies,” Murdoch smiled.

Breakfast was a happy affair as they all sat in the hotel dining room. Now that Aguado was behind bars, a new lightness seemed to have settled over the children.

After breakfast, Murdoch laughed, “Johnny, you and these boys can eat an awful lot of food. I do think you need to stop so we can head on to Lancer.”

Johnny patted his full stomach. “Just making sure I don’t get hungry on the trail.” Murdoch laughed as the young boys copied Johnny’s actions.

“Come on, Johnny,” Val stood up. “We’ll go bring the wagon and the horses around front.”

Maria hastened the children back upstairs to get their bags and by the time Val and Johnny had brought the wagon around they were standing out front, ready to board.

There were a few arguments between the children about who would sit where, but eventually Val said gruffly, “If you don’t sit down you’ll be left behind.” That made all them sit.

Johnny’s horse was pulling on the reins and side stepping, clearly not wanting to walk in a subdued manner beside the wagon.

“Johnny, it looks like Diego needs a run. Go on ahead, son. We’ll catch up to you when he’s settled down.” Murdoch patted Diego on his neck.

“Thanks, Pa.” Johnny waited until they were out of town then the pair disappeared in a cloud of dust.”

“Val, aren’t you going to race with Johnny?” Murdoch asked.

“No Murdoch. I think I’ll stay with the wagon. This isn’t the kind of town where you can relax. Too many outlaws. Once we’re on our way, I’d say an hour or two, then I’ll relax.”

Murdoch looked a little worried. “Alright Val. Get up.” He shook the reins to urge the horses on.

They were finally heading back to Lancer.

 

“Scott, I think I have everything on the list for the children that Murdoch asked for in his telegram. What about you? Are you finished shopping?” Teresa asked. It had been busy in Green River but she felt reasonably sure they'd been able to buy everything they needed.

Scott scanned the list he’d made then looked at the packages they’d put in the wagon.

“Yes, I think I’ve got everything on the list. I even bought different kinds of candy for the children. See, there’s even candy canes they can put on the tree,” Scott added with a grin.

“I can’t wait for them to get here. I bet Murdoch is excited. He hasn’t had any children at Lancer for Christmas, except me, for a long time. I know he often wished that you and Johnny grew up here at Lancer.” Teresa climbed up onto the wagon seat. “Murdoch deserves a happy Christmas, don’t you think?”

Scott smiled at Teresa, “Yes, Teresa, Murdoch deserves to be happy. So does Johnny. He told me he has never celebrated any of our holidays. Not American or Mexican. He doesn’t know what to do.”

“Oh, poor Johnny.”

“I tried to tell him about Christmas and what’s expected."

Teresa tucked her hand through Scott’s arm. “We’ll both have to help him have a wonderful time.”

 

Murdoch and the travelers had only one uneventful overnight camp, which was a relief to Murdoch after Val’s ominous words.

It was almost lunchtime the following day when Murdoch pulled on the reins to stop the wagon on the top of a long hill.  “Look children, there’s Lancer, as far as the eye can see.”

Murdoch and Johnny's long journey to find Maria was finally over and their Christmas Holiday was about to begin.

Johnny drew his horse abreast of the wagon and looked down the hill. They could finally see the hacienda. He looked across at Val. “Race ya, with that old nag of yours.” He took off at full gallop with a grin.

“Now that boy cheats. He’s got the fastest mustang and he knows mine is getting’ old. Murdoch, when it comes to horses, that boy knows his stuff,” Val yelled, as he galloped after Johnny.

Johnny walked Diego under the arch, waiting for Val to join him. “Howdy, slow poke,” he greeted Val.

Val scowled. “You cheated.”

Johnny took a deep breath as he looked around, his expression unusually serious. “I just can’t believe it Val. I have a place that is really my home. I’m going to find out how my pa does Christmas. With a brother, too.”

“Yes, that’s really something, Johnny.”

“And you’re here too, Val. I will have everyone that’s family with me this year. And it’s the first time ever I get to see how people celebrate Christmas.”

Val scratched his nose and cleared his throat. For the moment he didn’t know what to say. He was relieved when Johnny spoke again which meant he didn't have to.

“Stay the night Val and I’ll ride to town with you tomorrow. I need to buy my family presents and these kids too.”

“Sure, thing kid.” He thought of all that the Romero kids had been through, especially Brigitte. “I think I’ll get the kids some presents, too. They deserve a good Christmas and I’ve got a feeling your family will give them the best Christmas ever.”

 

Murdoch pulled the wagon to a stop close to the house while Johnny and Val led their horses to the barn.

Teresa and Scot were already waiting on the steps, having seen the wagon approach.

“Murdoch, welcome home,” Teresa hugged him, then went to Maria, “Maria, I’m so glad you all made it. You must be exhausted.”

Murdoch helped Maria down while Rosa helped the younger children. She held a sleeping Helena in her arms.

Murdoch made the introductions while the children looked around with wide eyes.

“Hi everyone. I’m Scott, Johnny’s older and much wiser brother.”

Manuel smiled at his words, but the other children looked uncertain.

“Cousin Johnny is very clever,” Rosa declared stoutly.

“Oh, never mind him,” Teresa said, frowning at Scott for confusing the children, “We’re so glad you’re all here and we hope you will have a lovely Christmas with us.”

Teresa took Rosa’s hand as she said to Maria. “We have the children’s rooms all ready. I’ll take them upstairs and show them their rooms, then they can get washed up for the evening meal. I am sure you and Rosa would love to clean up as well.”

“Si, my dear Teresa. I think we’ve swallowed a mountain of dust.”

“Scott, did you and Teresa get everything I asked for? These children need a special Christmas. It will be very hard for them without their parents,” Murdoch said to Scott as they walked inside.

Scott looked relieved. “I’m glad to hear you say that Pa because Teresa and I even added more gifts.”

Murdoch slapped him on the back. “Well done, son.”

 

Later that evening, after supper, Murdoch led the children outside to play. They were so excited as they saw a small playground with three swings and some balls and bats and wooden wagons filled with blocks for the younger ones.

Johnny grinned at Murdoch then ran out to be with the children.

“Well Pa, I think we’ve got eight children out there playing, not seven,” Scott said.

“I think you’re right, son,” Murdoch laughed, watching Johnny chasing Manuel, only to trip and roll around in the dirt.

“I think I’d better show Johnny how it’s done,” Scott added as he ran down the steps and joined them.

“Me too,” Teresa called out, running across to where Rosa was pushing a giggling Helena on the swing.

Even Brigitte had a big smile on her face as she went higher and higher on one of the other swings.

Maria and Murdoch looked on. It was good to see the children so happy.

“I must say, it feels good to have children once again in this…” He stopped awkwardly and looked at Maria.

She put a hand on his arm. “In this house,” she finished for him. “Yes, it does indeed. I did the wrong thing taking Johnny away from you, Murdoch. I’m sorry.” Her eyes filled with tears.

He patted her hand. “Well, at least he’s back here now. Let’s keep the past in the past. It can’t be undone.”

“No,” she agreed sadly, “It can’t be undone.”

 

Early the next morning, Murdoch walked outside and found Johnny sitting on one of the swings.

“It’s kind of early for you to be up, isn’t it son?”

Johnny was looking thoughtful. “You’re doing a good thing for these kids, Murdoch.”

“What is it, Johnny?” Murdoch asked gently. Johnny was looking unusually pensive.

Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know. Seeing you do all this…I guess it got me thinking about what it would have been like it mama hadn’t taken me away from Lancer.” Johnny looked up. “You and Carlos, my stepfather, are different as night and day.”

Johnny rarely spoke about those times, but Murdoch sensed that perhaps now was the right time to let him talk, even if it was difficult for Murdoch to hear.

“What type of man was Carlos?”

Johnny shook his head as he thought back to those times. 

“He wasn’t like you,” was all Johnny eventually said. “He did give mama a lot of jewelry and stuff—but he gave that to his other women as well,” he added darkly. “I…I made the mistake of catching him one time with a married lady. He wasn’t too happy about that and I felt the pain for a long time. He said he was teaching me to stay out of his and my mama’s business.”

Murdoch pressed his lips tight and clenched his fists.

“I guess I learned quickly to keep quiet from both mama and Carlos. Mama would…” He hung his head and didn’t go on.

Murdoch dropped a hand to his shoulder.

Johnny took a deep breath. “I’m so glad she’s not drinking any more, Pa. I shouldn’t have told you any of this. She’s not the same person now, Pa.”

“I know, Johnny,” was all Murdoch could think of to say, even though his heart burned for what his boy had gone through. “I’m so sorry for what…”

“It’s not your fault, Pa.” Johnny smiled up at Murdoch. “And Carlos is dead, and mama has changed. Heck, even I’ve changed.”

“Me too, I hope,” Murdoch added. “Well son, let’s forget about the past this Christmas and enjoy all that this season brings. You hungry?”

Johnny grinned. “I sure am, Pa.”

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

After breakfast, Murdoch said to Scott, “I want you and Johnny to go out to the north pasture, where all the blue spruce grow.  I want you to find one tall enough for the living room.”

“Well, little brother, are you game to go find a tree or do you want to hang around and find what little work pa will give you?”

“You know my answer to that Scott. Why would I want to stay here and work when we can spend the day pretending we are looking for a tree,” Johnny said with a wink, knowing Murdoch could see him.

“Hush, Johnny. I don’t want Pa to hear that after we find the tree we have other plans,” Scott said in an exaggerated whisper.

“All right, boys, that’s enough funning. Just make sure you find me the best tree you can. Johnny’s mother told me she had never had a Christmas tree after she left here.”

“That’s right, Pa,” Johnny said, before popping one last biscuit in his mouth.

Murdoch shook his head. “I can’t imagine her doing that as I remembered she loved the Christmas season. We still have ornaments she let Johnny help us make, with cute little messes on them but he so enjoyed making them.”

Johnny looked at Scott with a horrified look. “I sure hope you’re not aiming to put those on the Christmas tree.”

Murdoch laughed. “We’ll see young man. Now get going, both of you.”

A fierce wind was blowing and the sky was an ominous grey but they were lucky enough to come across what Scott said was ‘the perfect tree’ in the very first stand of trees they came to.

Once they’d chopped it down, they put it in the wagon and rode home, feeling very pleased with themselves.

Murdoch saw them riding under the arch and went outside to meet them as they pulled up near the front door.

“Well boys, that sure is the perfect tree.”

Johnny looked around. “Where are the kids?”

“Rosa and Teresa have been busy with them. I think they’ve been making decorations for the tree. Now let’s get it inside and set up.”

Johnny looked at Scott. “So, who decorates the tree?”

“We all do, brother,” Scott said with a grin.

Once they had the tree standing in a corner of the room near the fireplace, Murdoch called out to Teresa to bring the children.

The children rushed inside, their eyes wide when they saw the beautiful tree. Rosa carried a box filled with the decorations they’d been making and Teresa had the candy cane and the older Lancer decorations in another box.

Johnny tugged one of Rosa’s braids. “What have you kids been up to?”

“I can’t tell. It’s a secret,” she replied in an important voice.

“Yeah?”

“Come on, Johnny, take this for the tree,” Teresa said, giving him a paper something that could have been an angel if you looked really hard.

Johnny looked at it suspiciously. “This ain’t one of the decorations I made as a kid, is it?”

Teresa laughed. “No, Helena, the littlest made it.”

Soon the great room was a flurry of activity and laughter and sometimes arguments about where each decoration should be placed. It turned out Louisa had a very critical eye and could be very bossy with the younger ones. And she wasn’t the only one who was fussy about where the decorations should go.

“You can’t put that candy cane there, Johnny, as it’s too close to the one that’s beside it. They have to be evenly spaced, like so.” Scott took the candy and re-positioned it a few inches to the right.

Johnny looked like he was about to argue the point when Maria came in, looking relaxed after a rest in her room. She clapped her hands with delight when she saw the tree. “Oh, it’s magnificent,” she cried out.

“They’ve done a good job decorating, haven’t they.” Murdoch beamed at her. “It’s a long time since this old house had the laughter of little children as well as one seventeen year old child!” Johnny and Scott were now arguing about where a candle should be placed. Teresa told them they were both wrong.

Murdoch smiled to himself. He just couldn’t believe that Johnny was home and after all these years his laughter – and his arguing - was once again filling the house.

The rest of the day passed quickly. Christmas Eve night found them all sitting around the Christmas tree, its candles twinkling cheerily. They’d had dinner but instead of looking sleepy, the children seemed to be on edge and excited and kept looking towards Rosa and Teresa. Johnny heard Brigitte whisper to Louisa, “Is it time yet?”

Teresa stood up and looked at Murdoch, Maria and Johnny. “The children have a surprise for you. They wanted to thank you all for rescuing them.”

While she’d been talking, Rosa had ushered the children out of the room. The adults could hear some murmurings and other muffled sounds coming from the other side of the door and then Rosa came back into the room and announced, “The children would like to present to you ‘The Christmas Story.’”

Into the room, came ‘Joseph’ and ‘Mary’, Manuel and Louisa, dressed in flowing robes that looked very much like sheets with ribbons tied at the waist.

It was a simple presentation, with the other children doubling as needed to be shepherds and wise men as Rosa narrated the story of Mary and Joseph, the inn with no rooms and Jesus (a reluctant Helena) being born in the stable.

There was thunderous applause by the audience as they finished.

Maria had to wipe away a tear. “Thank you, children. That was very special. And we remember tonight that the Birth of Christ brought the Death of Christ which led to the greatest gift of all; the gift of life brought to us by the gift of love.”

“Amen,” Murdoch said quietly.

Teresa smiled at the children. “So, you’ve helped us think about the true meaning of Christmas as we celebrate Christmas Day tomorrow.”

Once the children had hugged everyone and said their good nights, Murdoch had Maria bring out hot chocolates and shortbreads as an after supper treat for the adults.

As he looked around the cheery room with its festive decorations and candle-lit Christmas tree, Murdoch’s heart was full of thanks. So much so that for the moment he didn’t think he’d be able to speak. After a minute or two, he held up his mug of chocolate as a toast. “Merry Christmas to all of you. And my thanks that you’re all here to share this special time with me.”

“Merry Christmas, Murdoch…Pa,” they chorused back to him, with more than one pair of eyes glistening slightly as they held up their mugs in return.

That night, before he fell asleep, Murdoch spent a considerable time giving thanks for the people in his life. For the first time in many years, he felt that his cup was truly running over.

The      hacienda was cold and dark at 5.30 in the morning, but that didn’t stop Rosa and Brigitte rushing into Teresa’s room. “Miss Teresa! Wake up. It’s Christmas. Please! We have presents under the tree and we’re all awake.

Teresa lifted her head from the pillow. There was no denying the excitement on their faces.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll knock on Murdoch’s door and see if he’s game for getting everyone up. Does this sound all right to you girls?”

Knocking on Murdoch’s door, Teresa quietly said, “Murdoch are you awake? The kids are wanting to start the day.” She didn’t get a reply so she went down to the kitchen. Already the aroma of breakfast was filling the air.

“Good morning, Maria,” she said to their housekeeper. “Have you seen Murdoch?”

Maria pointed to the door leading to the living room and that’s where Teresa found Murdoch staring at something. She started to smile. Johnny was asleep in one of the chairs, next to the now darkened Christmas tree, last night’s fire a mass of glowing embers, fortunately still throwing off some heat.

Murdoch looked at her and smiled. “I gave him the job of blowing out the candles.”

“Who would have thought that would have tired him out,” he whispered back with a grin.

“Murdoch, don’t you think we should wake him before the girls come down and make all their noise?”

Murdoch laughed quietly. “I think two have already seen him. But yes, we’d better wake him.”

 

None of the children, including Johnny, were impressed with the idea that they had to have breakfast before they could receive and exchange their presents, but Murdoch wouldn’t be moved. Johnny even tried his most endearing smile.

“Son, I believe we should eat first and I will not change my mind just because of your smile.”  Murdoch patted Johnny along the back as he pushed him toward the kitchen. “Now go and sit down at the table with the others.”

Everyone’s frowns quickly turned to ones of delight when they saw Bunuelos and maple syrup waiting for them. Rosa ran up to the housekeeper and hugged her. “Thank you so much. Mama used to make these for us for Christmas. We all love them.”

Once Murdoch had prayed over the food everyone began eating. The pile of Bunuelos disappeared very quickly and then they all rushed into the great room where the presents were waiting for them under the tree.

Johnny and Scott handed out the presents and each child opened their present with a scream of delight. All the girls received dolls with porcelain faces and wavy long hair. “Ooh, so beautiful,” Rosa exclaimed. “We lost our dolls in the fire but they didn’t have pretty faces.”

Manuel received a hunting knife and the younger boys received spinning tops and bats and balls. Manuel looked at Johnny. “Johnny, I got a hunting knife. Can you take me hunting? I think it will be fun.”

“Sure. Scott and I will both teach you.” Then Johnny turned to Murdoch. “Gosh, Murdoch, I don’t know what to say.” He gestured to the magnificent saddle at his feet, with the Lancer ‘L’ engraved on the side.

“Just ‘thanks’ will be okay,” Murdoch smiled. “Now your saddle matches Scott’s.”

Johnny had admired Scott’s saddle ever since he’d come home to Lancer. “I guess this means,” and he rubbed his hand along the engraved L, “I’ll never forget where home is.”

“That’s right, son.”

Maria’s eyes were shining as well. “Thank you for the necklace with Johnny’s birthstone.”

Murdoch looked embarrassed at her tears. “I just wanted to make you happy.”

“You have, Murdoch,” she said, her gaze on Johnny and the children. “You have.” 

 

Bunuelos - Here is a youtube video of how it was made the old fashion way.

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

The children had a wonderful time Christmas Day, but it was over all too soon for them. Victor went to bed asking if they could come again next year.

The following days the Lancers kept them busy with hay-rides around the ranch, visits to Green River and picnics, when the winter sun decided to shine.

Johnny and Scott even took Manuel hunting and taught him how to catch small animals and Johnny showed him how to fire the rifle to take down a deer. He was thrilled when a wild hen walked into his trap.

By New Year’s Eve, the sad times with Aguado seemed to be a million miles away and even though they all missed their parents terribly in their hearts, they managed to be joyful and happy most of the time.

After dinner, Maria sat them down in the great room.  “Well children, we had a very good holiday. Tonight, we will be celebrating New Year’s Eve. It will be the last night we stay here.”

Every face dropped a little.

“Tomorrow we are going home,” she added in a gentle voice.  “I will not make you go to bed early unless I see you falling asleep. Midnight is such a long time for you little ones, still I hope you had a good time.”  Maria smiled and hugged the children.

Manuel looked at Maria with a calculating look. “Does this mean if we stay up until midnight, those of us who are awake can celebrate with a drink? Just one drink, please?”

“No child, you are too young, you may think it’s all right, but Murdoch would never allow it. And neither will I.”

Manuel looked mutinous. “Johnny drinks, I saw him one night when I got up to get a snack. He had Tequila. I asked him if I could have some and he said no. He said Murdoch would have his hide if he…” He suddenly went red. “Uh oh, I guess I just spoke too soon. Please don’t tell Johnny I told you. I don’t want him to get into trouble.”

“Manuel, you don’t have to worry about Murdoch finding out. He’s bound to hear when he hears me yelling at my son!”

Manuel’s face fell even more. “I didn’t mean to get Johnny into trouble.”

“Never you mind.” She patted his shoulder. “Why don’t you children get some of the games out? Murdoch and his sons will be coming in soon.”

When the clock struck twelve, there were only three Romero children, and Rosa, still awake.

The rest of the group gathered around the fireplace and Murdoch told them how much he had enjoyed their visit and that they’d be leaving in the morning. “And you’ll always be welcome here at Lancer.”

He noticed how much Rosa’s face glowed at his words. She seemed to be very taken with his scamp of a son, Johnny.

“Thank you, Mr Lancer,” the older children chorused while Rosa gave Johnny a blushing smile.

Louisa and Manuel looked a little down-hearted about leaving, so Murdoch added, “And when you get back to Palo Verde you’ll find a special surprise waiting for you.”

Their faces brightened a little at that and they went up to bed with lighter steps.

Maria smiled her thanks at Murdoch and then they all toasted – Johnny had milk in his glass – to a prosperous and happy new year.

 

The next morning after breakfast, they all gathered around the wagon, with a spare horse tied to the back, to head back to Palo Verde and a new life for the children.

“Scott, Johnny and I will be home as soon as we can. You and Teresa take care of the old place for me, please.” He gave Teresa a hug then Scott and Johnny helped the children into the wagon.

“Wait, Murdoch,” Teresa said. “I want to give each of you a hug. It was such a lot of fun having you here.”

The children tried to smile but some of their lips trembled at having to say goodbye and they all hugged Teresa fiercely from their seats in the wagon, as did Rosa.

Johnny swung up onto Diego while Murdoch handed Maria and Rosa into the wagon and with a slap of the reins they were off.

 

Scott and Teresa waited until the children were too far away to return their waves and then they went inside.

Scott looked at Teresa, “We’ll have a quiet house now until Johnny comes back.”

“I guess you’ll have to pull down the swings now that they’re gone?”

Scott rubbed his chin, reminding her of Murdoch. “No, I don’t think I have to tear down the swings. Johnny really enjoyed them,” he laughed.

“Well so did I,” she retorted.

“Okay,” he tweaked one of her curls, “I think I’ll just leave them.”

Teresa gave one last wave at the faraway wagon then hugged him. “Thanks, Scott.”

As they walked inside, Scott said, “You know, I’m really going to miss those children”
“So will I,” Teresa sighed.

 

The weather favored the travelers as they returned to Palo Verde. There was no camping out this trip – Murdoch made sure they stayed in a town in warm comfortable beds each night.

Three days later they were on the outskirts of Palo Verde with the children begging to be told what the surprise was going to be.

Murdoch held up his hand. “All in good time.” Then to Johnny he said, “Will you ride ahead and tell Father Charles that we will be there in a few minutes?”

“Sure, Pa.” Johnny said, then rode off to the other side of town.

Twenty minutes later, Murdoch drove to the outside of the orphanage where they were greeted by Father Charles and a young nun with a kind face and beaming smile.

The children rushed up and gave the kindly old priest a hug.  “I’m so glad to have you home but I have a surprise for you,” he told them.

Much to their surprise, Father Charles and Maria took them to a new building that was almost finished, behind the school.

“This is what Mr. Lancer had built for us, so that you and Rosa can still be a family,” Maria said. Mr Lancer petitioned the Judge who had given Aguado control of you all. When he found out that Rosa is your aunt, he gave her the legal right to bring you up.”

Tears shone in Rosa’s eyes. “I won’t have to go back to the saloon,” she gasped.
All the children ran to her and hugged her tight.

“Sister Agnes is here to help you all get settled in your new life and she will be here to run the orphanage for the other children in the district.”

Maria’s eyes were full of tears as well. “Murdoch, how can we ever thank you?”

“The smiles of the children and Rosa are more than enough thanks. Besides, it was Johnny’s idea as well.”

Once Sister Agnes had been introduced to seven, suddenly very shy, children, she said to them, “Come inside and see your new house.”

The children and Rosa all ran up the steps and disappeared inside but in a short while they came running out again. “We’re going to have a feast!” they cried out.

Murdoch looked confused but the padre was smiling. “It’s true. The townsfolk felt so bad when they heard how badly the children had been treated that they wanted to make it up to them in some way. Come and see.”

When Murdoch, Maria and Johnny walked inside, they found each of the beds had a soft mattress and pillow and a beautiful quilt, with a rug on the floor for their bare feet on cold nights.

A vase of flowers sat on a sideboard in the main room where a table was laden with wild turkey and roasted vegetables and yams. There was rhubarb pie for desert and a mountain of whipped cream. The cupboards had even been stocked with preserves and jams and other necessities.

Johnny rubbed his hands with delight. “Whoopee, when do we start?”

Maria gave him a stern look. “Not until we’ve washed the dust from our face and hands. Then we can sit down at the table and give thanks for this wonderful blessing.”

 

Johnny found it difficult to say goodbye to Maria the following morning. “Mama, it may be a long time before I see you again.”

She held him tightly. “You have grown into a fine young man, my son.” She looked at Murdoch. “I know you will take care of our son.”

“Maria.” Murdoch clasped her hand, held her gaze for a moment, then let her go and mounted his horse without another word.

The children were all around Johnny, clamoring for his attention. Each one wanted to give him a hug and a picture they’d drawn last night for him and Murdoch to take with them.

Then Johnny turned to Rosa. “Rosa if I’m ever back in town I’ll come to see you and your family.”

“I will be praying for that, Johnny,” she said with a blushing, wistful smile.

Johnny mounted up and all too soon, for both Maria and Rosa, they were out of sight.

 

Two days later, in the dusky evening, Murdoch and Johnny brought their horses to a stop on the hill overlooking the hacienda. Down below they could see lights twinkling in the windows of the hacienda.

“Home at last,” Murdoch said. He always enjoyed stopping here to enjoy the scene below.

When Johnny didn’t reply, Murdoch looked across at him.

“Son, what is it? Did you want to spend more time with your mother?”

Johnny shook his head. “No, Pa, it’s not that I’m sad about leaving her. I’m real glad she’s all right and happy in Palo Verde. It’s just…”

Murdoch waited, then said gently, “What is it son. Tell me what you’re thinking.”

Johnny took a deep breath. “Pa, it’s just that, as I look over this land. I’m thinking how happy I’ve been these past few months. I guess I was just thinking that it feels good to be home and in my father’s house.”

 

 

~ end ~

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