The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Suzanne

 

 

Away In A Manger

A Lancer Christmas Story

Chapter One

“Boy, Murdoch, can't this wait until after Christmas?”

From where he stood in front of the fire, Johnny looked across to Murdoch sitting at his desk.

One look outside at the grey day was enough to convince anyone that staying right in front of the fire warming their ass was exactly where they ought to stay. And a morning spent out in the cold rounding up strays only added more weight to his argument.

He rubbed his hands along his slowly roasting butt to warm them up as well. It had been freezing outside.

Murdoch didn't even lift his head as his fingers flicked through a pile of notes. “Shush, you're messing up my counting.”

The front door banged then Scott walked in. Any hope he'd had of talking Murdoch out of this fool idea died a sudden death when his helpful brother told them, “Jelly's got the horses saddled,” as he pulled on his gloves. Scott already had his hat and jacket and gunbelt on so it didn't look like Johnny was going to get any help from that quarter.

“You don't have to sound so happy about it, brother,” he told Scott.

Murdoch finally lifted his head and gave Scott a pleased nod, then fixed his eyes back on Johnny.

“Johnny, it's taken me nearly two years to persuade Old Hobbs to sell me Ericepaius and if he sends word that it's today or never then it's going to be today.”

Johnny bowed at the waist.  “Ee-ris-ee-what?”

“Ericepaius.”

“Well what sorta name is that for a bull?”

“Quite a good one in fact, brother,” Scott said, coming up to the fire, “considering the fact that that bull has sired the top priced calves this season.”

He stood next to Johnny, giving him a bit of a shove with his shoulder to get him to make more room.

The leather on Johnny's pants was heating up so much it was beginning to smart anyway, so he didn't mind moving a bit. A half-turn would warm his right side so he shuffled his feet that way as he gave his brother a long look. “I got a feeling you're about to impart some of that fancy learning from Harvard in my direction.”

“Well, you  did  ask. In early Greek creation mythology, the name Ericepaius was a form of the name Phanes.”

“And who the hell was Phanes?”

“Well, it's complicated. These Greek gods had a few different names but for now we'll say he was the god of procreation.”

“Procreation as in ‘creating'?”

“Exactly – making babies in other words.”

And that tickled his sense of humour. “I guess someone knew what they were doing when they named that bull. Can't imagine it was old Hobbs though.”

Murdoch stood up, clearing his throat and walked across to the fire. “A bit of respect when speaking of your elders wouldn't go astray.” Johnny threw him a grin. He kind of liked it when Murdoch pretended to be the strict father – although he wondered from time to time under the funning, how much Murdoch hoped his words would stick. 

“And,” Murdoch looked at Scott, “that isn't the sort of talk I want to hear when Teresa's around so you might want to keep that sort of information to yourself. Besides,” and Murdoch's eyes rested on both of them now, “Hobbs just calls the bull Eric .”

Johnny stomped his foot. “Well I'm calling it a pain in the…butt,' he finished, thanks to an elbow in the side from Scott as Teresa walked in from the kitchen drying her hands on her apron. At least, that's where he guessed she'd come from, judging by the food stains on her white apron and the smudge of flour on her right cheek.

“Speaking of which…” Scott looked downwards. “Yours is well and truly warmed by now. We should be going.”

Johnny screwed up his face and threw a look in Murdoch's direction but his old man had that ‘do-what-you're-told' look on his face as he handed Scott the envelope of money. “We'll see you boys back by supper. Teresa's got something special planned for Christmas Eve.”

Johnny looked Scott in the eye and raised his brows. Home by supper? That meant with a bit of luck they had enough time to make a detour to Morro Coyo on the way. Maybe grab a beer? No, a hot coffee might be needed by then. Then there was Susie and that pretty red-head Scott had taken a liking to at the Red Dog. They really ought to wish them a merry Christmas - just to be sociable of course. And…

Teresa was tapping her foot. “That's right, so no stopping off in town. You need to come straight home.”

Her voice crashed him back to earth. He rubbed his butt again. “T'resa, Hobbs's place isn't even anywhere near the road to town.”

Even Scott looked a bit put out. “Unless he's moved since we last rode there.”

“Oh, I know what you two are like.  Any  excuse.” She put her hands on her hips.

Well that got them both spluttering but Murdoch put a hand on his and Scott's shoulders. “Now, now, I'm sure these two will be more than happy to come straight home on Christmas Eve.”

Johnny locked eyes with Scott across Murdoch's chest. Scott wasn't looking openly mutinous but then you couldn't always tell with him.

“Johnny, Scott…” Teresa was using that pleading voice; the one she used when she wanted to wrap Murdoch – or them - around her little finger.

“…it  is  our second Christmas together and we were all so new to each other last year but  this  year...” then her eyes drifted towards the tree he and Scott had chopped down and hauled inside. And she didn't actually say it but somehow the words that she'd been ‘cleaning and polishing and baking with the women for days' sort of hung on the air and if that didn't do it the start of tears brimming up in both her eyes certainly did the trick.

Scott moved across to her. “Teresa, we have no intention of missing your special dinner.”

“'Course not.” Not when even the Christmas Tree was somehow managing to fix him with one of Teresa's  ‘how-could-you-Johnny'  stares.

Murdoch's grip on his shoulder got a little tighter for a moment there and he gave his old man a quick look. “You know we wouldn't do that, Murdoch.”  And this time he meant it.

Murdoch shook his shoulder a bit and he caught that certain look in his old man's eye. Sometimes a man didn't need a fire to warm his insides.

Scott had already given Teresa a kiss then started walking towards the door when he half turned around. “We'll be looking forward to it, won't we Johnny.”

Teresa looked happier but she still shooed Johnny out the door. “Then you'd both better get going. It's a long ride to the Hobbs place.”

“Okay. I'm goin'. I'm goin'.” He grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair and shrugged it on as he walked.

“And be careful of that bull - he's going to be the most valuable piece of stock we have,” Murdoch called after them.

Johnny took his gunbelt from the hatstand then wrapped it about his hips. “Let's just hope all the cows look at Eric that way,” he muttered loud enough for Murdoch to hear as he jostled the two ends into place before buckling it.

Murdoch just humphed as he walked over. “And don't take any nonsense from Hobbs. The price was agreed on.” He handed Johnny his hat from the stand.

Johnny took his hat and was about to put it on when he caught sight of what looked to be a bottle wrapped in brown paper that Murdoch had tucked under his arm, probably while Johnny was strapping on his rig.

Murdoch had to have seen him looking at the bottle but he'd plastered that blank look on his face – the one he used when he didn't want Scott or Johnny asking questions – and stood there holding the door open.

So Johnny just stuck his hat on and walked out the door then headed across to Barranca. He didn't look any happier than Johnny to be going out again. Scott was already tightening his horse's girth and looked keen to get moving.

The cold air nipping at his face reminded Johnny just how warm the fire had been. It was hard to keep the slight grumble out of his voice. “Well old Hobbs'd have to be the biggest skin flint around. Just how much are we buying this bull for?”

“Two thousand dollars.”

Johnny let out a whistle as he tugged on the cinch.

“That's pretty high, Murdoch,” Scott said, putting his foot in the stirrup then swinging into the saddle.

“That bull is the best breeding stock around. As you said before, Hobbs has been getting the best prices for four years.”

Barranca turned his head to see what Johnny was up to. “So how come he's selling?” Johnny asked Murdoch, giving Barranca a couple of comforting slaps low on his neck.

Murdoch shrugged. “I guess I made him a good enough offer.”

“Yeah, but what's the rush now that it couldn't wait until after Christmas? We're already short-handed with half the hands down in Mexico for Las Posadas.”

Murdoch came across and ran his hand down Barranca's nose as Johnny mounted. “With Hobbs – who knows? All I know is that he was annoyed I could only send you boys on Christmas Eve. He wasn't going to sell at all if you couldn't get there before then.”

Scott's eyes met Johnny's for a second. “Knowing Hobbs I suppose you had to sweeten the deal a little,” he said.

“Why that old coot, Murdoch! Don't tell me you fell for that old trick? That's not like you!”

Murdoch didn't look the least embarrassed. “Johnny, I've been dealing with Hobbs since before you were out of diapers. Bought my first stock from the man. Nooo, if Hobbs  didn't  have some sort of a swindle in the deal  then  I'd be concerned.”

Scott's grin was almost as wide as his as Johnny looked down at his old man.

“Guess someone'd have to get up pretty early in the morning to put one over on you, Murdoch.”

Murdoch stuck out his bottom lip but you could tell he was pleased. “Just don't dawdle or I'll have Teresa asking Jelly all evening to check if you're back. And I don't like the look of the weather. Jelly thinks we're in for fog.”

Scott grinned as he pulled away from the house. “Fog won't bother us, Murdoch – with Teresa baking all afternoon we'll simply use our noses to sniff our way home.”

“Oh, and this is for Hobbs,” Murdoch said, taking the brown package from under his arm. Stepping up to Barranca he lifted the flap of Johnny's saddle bag and slipped it in.

“That for sweetening the deal, Murdoch?” Johnny asked as Murdoch buckled the strap.

“No Johnny, this is what's called a ‘Christmas present'.”

Johnny looked across at his brother but Scott was looking as curious as he was. It was best to choose his words carefully at a time like this. Johnny stared down at his hands on the pommel. “I didn't know that you and old Hobbs were such good friends.”

When he looked up Murdoch had a thoughtful look on his face. “Well Johnny, sometimes seeing a man when he's older doesn't tell a lot about the type of man he once was.”

Johnny sniffed and rubbed the back of his hand across his nose but his stalling didn't help any - clearly Murdoch wasn't going to tell him any more about Hobbs.

Giving up he said, “Be seeing yah, Murdoch,” as he pulled Barranca away from the house then waved.

Murdoch waved back.

“Hurry home, boys. We'll be waiting.”





They kept their pace up the first half of the journey before settling into a steady walk. There wasn't a breath of wind but the cold was the type that seeped right into your bones. Scott didn't seem to mind. He had that ‘I'm-from-Boston' look on his face. He even looked like he was enjoying himself.

After a bit Scott said, “You know you didn't tell me much last year about what you did at Christmas when you were growing up.”

It was probably a guilty smile that tugged at his mouth when Scott looked at him. “I didn't tell you much about anything last year.”

“That's true.”

He knew Scott was waiting but he was never good at starting this sort of a conversation.

“This Las Posadas – did you do that?” Scott eventually asked.

Good old Scott - seemed like he was getting to know his brother a bit too well.

“Sure. When I was a kid at least.”

The horse's hooves thudded a few more times along the dirt road that wound its way between the open pastures before Scott said, “I don't really know what that entails.”

For just a moment there he was seven years old, letting go of his ma's hand so that he could push to the front to see the Santos Peregrinos. It was like he got a whiff of the excitement all over again.

“Well, you've kinda got to be there to understand it all but it's nine days of all sorts of stuff.”

Scott raised an eyebrow. “Well that's helpful. I feel so enlightened now.”

He flicked out his hand and whacked Scott on the arm. “I'm gettin' there.”

“Slowly.”

“You want me to tell you all this or not?”

Scott held up a hand. “Take your time, brother. I've got the whole trip over to Hobbs's ranch when all is said and done.”

Johnny rubbed the back of his neck. “It ain't easy. I don't know the English words for some of it.”

“Oh!” Scott nodded with sudden understanding and he relaxed a bit more into his saddle.

“They have this big line of people walking through the village…”

“A procession.”

“Yeah, that's the word.”

“Who's in the procession?”

“Kids mostly; the ‘Virgen Maria' on a burro with ‘San Jose' by her side, then other kids are angels, then you have the Santos Reyes…”

“Three Kings?”

“Yeah…and then come the shepherds…and they all hold lanterns.” It was funny how all the words of his childhood came back to him like they'd been just sitting in a corner of his mind waiting all these years. Santos Reyes, Virgen Maria, San Jose; words he'd once whispered with a sign of the cross because Julio warned him he'd go to hell and burn in the fires if he didn't.

“So then what happened?”

“Well, they'd stop at a house and ask if there was room there for them to stay.”

“Which of course there wouldn't be.”

“Um…no…so then they'd head to the next house.”

“And there'd be no room there either I suppose.”

“Yep. It was funny...” He laughed to himself.

“What was funny?”

“I remember wanting San Jose to knock on our door every year. I guess every kid made the same wish.”

“He never did?”

“Nope. But then, we shifted around so much and I didn't know how the people in the villages worked those things out. To a kid it all seemed like it just happened by accident but I guess they had it all organised before the day.”

Scott nodded. “You're probably right. So then what happened?”

“Well, when they got to the third door they're told there's no room but they're welcome to use the stable.” He grinned across at Scott. “And then it's party time, brother.”

“Clever way of teaching the bible.”

Johnny raised his brows. “You think so? I guess I never looked at it that way but you're right - there wasn't a child in a Mexican village that didn't know what happened at Christmas time. We knew all about the shepherds out in the fields and the Wise Men showing up with their gifts.”

“I had a nurse who liked to read to me from the bible when I was small. And of course, Grandfather always insisted on going to church.” Scott hesitated the smallest bit before he said, “What about your mother, Johnny?”

He shrugged. “I don't remember a whole lot about her at Christmas except that we had this el Nacimiento.”

“El Naci…what?”

“El Nacimiento. You know, little statues of Joseph and Mary and…”

“Oh, you mean a nativity scene.”

Johnny shrugged again. “I suppose I do. Anyway, she carried it about with her and it came out every Christmas. She'd find someplace special for it and then cut some Flor de Noche Buena; you know, the flowers with big red leaves - Teresa's grows ‘em - and put bunches of them in a jar or vase.”

He had an idea Scott's eyes were on him so he looked across. Sure enough, Scott was looking at him. “What? I grow two heads or something?”

“No. It's just that, well, when you didn't come to church with us last Christmas I just thought that maybe you'd  never  gone to church.”

“Well, I'm not sure my mother was always welcome but she'd go along anyways and always made me go, too. She'd walk right up the aisle with her head held high and sit in whatever seat she chose and sure enough, some man'd always move along and make room for the two of us.”

Scott didn't reply that time, just kept looking along the road apiece. “And in case you're wondering,” Johnny added, “she would've tanned my hide if she'd been alive and known the trade I chose. She didn't hold with guns and killing.”

“I'm sure she'd be proud of you now at any rate.”

Since Murdoch had called him home, sometimes the anger he could hear in his voice when he spoke of his mother surprised him, but lately his voice just got quiet when her name came up.

“Well, it doesn't seem to matter anymore, you know. I guess one time what she would've thought ate at me a bit - but that was before I came back here. Besides, it wasn't as if her choices in life were much better than mine. And she sure gave me plenty to need to forgive her for – so I'd say we're probably even.”

Scott didn't say anything. Just nodded. That was one of the things he liked about Scott.

For the next mile or so he was lost in the colour and smells and crowds of Las Posadas so he was a little surprised when Scott said, “And here's Hobbs's ranch – for what it's worth.”





“Hello the house!”

It was odd that Hobbs didn't come right out to meet them. Mostly he'd do that with a shotgun in hand, even when he knew who was visiting.

Johnny rested both hands on the pommel and leaned forward while he looked around. The place hadn't had a lick of whitewash in years but Hobbs was a stickler when it came to the care of his stock. Murdoch had told him that. Said you never had to worry about an animal you'd bought from Hobbs. It might be a dustbowl in front of the house but the fields behind the stand of oaks were green and lush and any cattle he could see grazing out there looked to be in prime condition.

Sure enough, the barn looked sturdier than the timber house although it appeared that Hobbs had been doing some work about the house lately. He could see some new planks where there'd been holes in the porch flooring and the pane of glass in the attic window was a big improvement over the boards he'd seen nailed there last time. The bushes that had been let loose to grow up and cover the side windows had been cut back as well and there were new shingles on the roof. But what really shocked him was the small pot of Flor de Noche Buena sitting on the porch railing, standing out against the grey of the day.

“Ooh, brother, do you see what I'm seeing?”  Scott suddenly said under his breath.

Johnny twisted on Barranca to see Hobbs coming out of the barn – then stared hard. “That can't be Hobbs, can it?”

“I'm afraid so.”

“Well, what's happened to him?”

Scott sounded as dumbfounded as Johnny felt. “I think he had a bath.”

“And a shave.”

“And put on some new clothes!”

Johnny shook his head. “Nope, it can't be the same man.”

Then Hobbs was calling out, “Hello b-b-boys!”

Sure enough, there was that same high-pitched raspy voice, round face and scraggy neck – but gone were the three day old whiskers and the faded pants and checked shirt that had been patched so often it was hard to tell which part had been the original material.

“Mr. Hobbs,” Scott called out real polite while Johnny tipped his hat before he followed Scott's lead and swung down as Hobbs approached them – Hobbs or his twin brother that was.

“You get all spruced up for Christmas, Mr. Hobbs?” Johnny asked. He even managed to keep his face straight. With most of Murdoch's friends they were on a first name basis but for some reason neither of them had ever called the old timer anything other than Mister. Which was kind of odd when you considered that Hobbs had a way of talking as if he was afraid of his own shadow; everything came out half way between a plea and a whine.

“The b-b-bull's in the b-barn. You got the money?”  You had to have a real big imagination to see a welcoming smile on Hobbs's face. Word was he didn't smile, sing or dance. What Johnny did see was the usual gleam in his eye when the old coot was doing business. He bet Hobbs had fooled plenty of people with his stutter and his whine but the truth was Hobbs was as tough as nails and could sniff out a shady deal before it was even offered to him.

Scott slipped his hand into the inside pocket of his jacket and brought out Murdoch's envelope. “Two thousand in cash – just like you specified.”

“T-t-two thousand?”

The old geezer's voice raised a notch as if someone was trying to strangle him. Oh boy, here it comes.

“T-t-two thousand?” he asked again.

It'd take more than that to ruffle Scott's feathers. “That's right, Mr Hobbs. Two thousand is the amount our father agreed on with you.”

“B-b-but that was b-before! I told him! I told him you had to take Eric by the twenty-second or it'd be another five hundred.” He was swinging his head about so much that the loose skin under his chin was starting to wobble like a turkey's when they got to warbling.

Scott's stance didn't change. “No, Murdoch specifically told us the sum agreed on was two thousand and he won't pay a penny more.”

“W-well, what's he tryin' to do? Squeeze the life outta me? S-s-windle an old f-friend!” The old boy looked like he was about to cry any minute. Scott looked at Johnny and rolled his eyes. Worst of it was that Hobbs could carry on like this until it got dark, all for the sake of an extra dollar or two.

Johnny crossed his arms. He'd had enough. It was getting colder by the minute, he hadn't seen the sun all day and what little light there was showing this late in the afternoon was about to disappear from the sky entirely.

“Mr. Hobbs - it's been a long day and me and Scott here just wanna get home. Teresa's got a special Christmas Eve supper waiting for us.”

“Christmas!” The old guy spluttered the word then his eyes darted towards the house as if the word had set off some chain of thinking in his head.

Johnny gave Scott a look and found his own expression mirrored on Scott's face: it looked like Hobbs was starting to lose his mind. Dealing with a Hobbs who was sane was hard enough, let alone dealing with one who was crazy. It was best they took matters into their own hands.

Johnny gave Scott his reins then started walking purposefully towards the barn. “So where is Eric? In the barn?”

Scott followed on, leading the horses until he got near the barn and looped the reins over the hitching rail.

A low whistle from Scott made Johnny turn around. “I hope that's not Eric's handiwork,” Scott was saying.

“Th-that little ole hole? No, I caught me a stallion a week or two b-b-back. Had the devil in him, that one – never saw the likes of it. I tried ta stable it and the b-b-lamed thing went plum loco.”

Johnny walked back a step or two and stood even with Scott and they both stared at the hole in the barn wall. It was a decent enough size alright. The horse had busted through the wood like it was kindling instead of thick planks.

“Do me a favour, don't offer to sell that one to our father,” Scott told Hobbs. “Johnny and I don't want to get stuck with all the repairs.”

“Oh, that one's a t-terror all right,” Hobbs agreed, almost sounding as if he enjoyed Scott's joke. “Come on through and I'll get Eric for you. Hurry up, now,” he huffed out as if he was too old for even this light exercise. He'd fooled Johnny the first time they'd met until Murdoch had whispered in his ear that Hobbs was only a few years older than Murdoch himself and as strong as an ox.

“So what's this bull like?” Johnny asked. He didn't know why but he was starting to get a bad feeling about this.

“Why Eric's just as d-d-ocile as a lamb.”

“So how come you're selling him all of a sudden? Murdoch said he's been trying to buy this bull from you for years.”

“True enough but like the good book says there's a season for everything.”

“Never knew you to start quotin' scripture before.”

“Well, there's a lot of things you don't know about me, Johnny Lancer,” Hobbs snapped back, losing something of his usual whine. Johnny kept quiet. Seemed like he'd touched a sore spot and he certainly didn't want to stir up any trouble just now.

They walked into the barn and sure enough, there was Eric standing in a clean stall with fresh hay and looking just as calm as can be.

“Whoee, he's a beauty all right, ain't he, Scott,” Johnny breathed out, staring at the wide chest, large head and big shoulders. They could have been looking at a black buffalo. Murdoch had definitely landed Lancer a prize winner with this bull.

“He sure is,” Scott said. “You must be sorry to part with him, Mr. Hobbs.”

“Well, like I jest t-t-told yer brother here, there's a t-t-time for sowin' an' a t-t-time for reaping.”

“An' a time for selling bulls,” Johnny broke in quickly. No sense in reminding Hobbs what a great deal Murdoch was getting here. He eyed Scott and gave a quick nod in the direction of the door. “Scott, give ‘im the money.”

“Oh, right.”  Scott tore himself away from looking at Eric and for a second time got the money out to give to Hobbs.

Johnny wasn't going to waste any more time. He opened the stall, then walked to the back of the box to untie the rope. He kept a cautious eye on the bull but so far so good. It hardly even bothered to look at him. It took a couple of tugs to turn him but sure enough, just like Hobbs had said, the huge black animal let itself be led out of there without so much as a rumble.

“Ya see, J-Johnny. I told ya he was gentle as a lamb.”

“Well yeah, that's what you said all right.”

With the money exchanged they both got ready to mount up.

“Oh, wait a minute. I've got this ‘ere present for your pa.”

He was so surprised for the minute that he almost forgot the wrapped bottle in his saddle bag. It looked like presents had been exchanged between Murdoch and Hobbs for some years.

Hobbs disappeared into the house but he was soon out again with a small brown bag.

“Here you go,” Johnny said, leaning down to give him Murdoch's present.

Hobbs handed the brown bag to Scott before taking the bottle from Johnny. “Your pa's gonna love this.”

“I'm sure he will,” Scott said and even Johnny was ready to believe he meant it.

Johnny couldn't imagine Hobbs giving Murdoch anything that his old man'd love, seeing as most of the things Hobbs treasured was stuff he'd got hold of because it was either dirt cheap or broken.

Hobbs stuck out a surprisingly bony finger. “That bottle is all the way from St Louis. B-B-Beaumont's Elixir.”

“Beaumont's Elixir?”

“I had me a salesman come through day before yesterday. Me an' him did a bit of a deal. Soon as I saw it I knowed it was j-j-jest the thing to give your daddy. Now don't you boys go and open it before you get home!”

Johnny gathered up his reins and swung Barranca around. “Well, we'd better be going.” He gave Hobbs a wave then headed out the gate, Scott following.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Hobbs,” Scott called out.

Johnny looked back just the once. Hard to believe it, but Hobbs was actually looking kind of sad – like he was losing his last friend. He'd never thought the old guy cared about anything. For the minute there he even felt bad about taking Eric.





Eric might have been as docile as a lamb but he was as slow as a tortoise. No amount of pulling on the rope would make the damned thing go any faster. Scott had even broken off a branch and tried swatting Eric on the rump but the bull didn't even bat an eye. Just kept to its slow plod as if it had all the time in the world – which is exactly what neither Scott nor Johnny had.

The sun had just about disappeared completely and with it came the swirling white mist that was starting to get thicker by the moment. Fog; he hated the damned stuff and this time of year it could sit in the valley for days. Sometimes it was so bad you could hardly see your horse's head let alone where the path was.

“I don't like the look of this weather, Johnny,” Scott said, bringing his horse alongside Barranca.

“You an' me both, brother. You know Teresa'll have our hides if we're not back in time for supper.”

“Come-on Eric!” Johnny gave another couple of tugs on the rope but Eric didn't even bother to look in his direction. “He's as stubborn as old Hobbs, ain't he!”

“Maybe once we're on Lancer land we could just tie him to a tree and pick him up tomorrow?”

Ooh, the idea was tempting, but… He wrinkled his nose. “Leave a bull worth two thousand dollars tied to a tree? I dunno, Scott. Knowin' our luck some drifter'd come along an' shoot him and eat him for their Christmas dinner.”

“Yeah. You could be right. But someone's going to be shooting  us  if we don't get home for Teresa's Christmas Eve dinner.”

“What do you think she's planning? She hasn't let me in the kitchen all week.”

“I've got a few ideas.” His brother was looking real smug. “But I'm not telling.”

“Ooh, I bet you earned yourself your fair share of split lips when you were a kid, too!”

Scott laughed at that but he was quick to go back to that superior smile of his that he trotted out every once in while to annoy Johnny. “Ah hah, but I could always be trusted with a secret.”

He looked at Scott, trying to figure out which way to play this. Truth of the matter was, once Scott had that set to his jaw, there wasn't any known way that Johnny could get him to tell. Boy, he hadn't even cared what Teresa was doing until just now – but now everything inside him wanted to worm the truth out of Scott.

He knew Scott was watching him and one look across at Scott told him that his older brother knew  exactly  what he'd been thinking. He tried to keep his face straight but he was torn between wanting to deck Scott one and laugh out loud and his mouth started pulling itself into a smile before he could fully stop it. “Oh, I guess I'll find out sure enough when I get home.”

Scott studied him for second like he sometimes did before that smirk got wider on his face. “Yes, I guess you will, brother.”

There was nothing like a chat with Scott to pass the time but it came as a bit of a shock to see how thick the fog had gotten in the last few minutes. He could still see Scott riding by his side easily enough but when he looked behind, Eric's rump was starting to disappear as the bull trailed along behind Barranca.

“This fog is eerie, isn't it,” Scott muttered, looking around as well.

“Gives me the willies!”

Just as he said that Barranca stumbled. Johnny held him together but he was clearly favouring his right hind leg on the next step. He pulled back on the reins. “Whoa boy.”

Scott pulled up as well. One look at his brother's expression before Johnny swung down was enough to tell him that Scott was thinking exactly the same as him.

Johnny ran his hand along Barranca's rump then down his leg to the hoof he was holding off the ground. Lifting the foot he breathed a sigh of relief. It was nothing worse than a stone and with a bit of luck, Barranca had only just picked it up.

Scott had come up behind him and now held out his knife ready for Johnny to take. “Looks like we might be in luck,” he said quietly as if saying the words too loud might be tempting fate.

Johnny took the knife with a grunt, keeping his eyes on what he was doing.

If the stone was wedged in tight…

His fingers felt kind of fat and awkward with the cold as he felt for the stone then pried at it. “Well, would you look at that!”

“Came out straight away. Any damage done?”

“None that I can tell for now. Let me walk him a bit to check.”

Scott moved out of his way, then stood there stamping his feet a few times while he watched Johnny lead Barranca along. “This cold makes you want to go,” he muttered.

“Well if you go looking for a tree, don't get lost,” Johnny told him, only half joking.

“We'd better make like foghorns,” Scott grinned as he walked away. Johnny watched him disappear into the fog for a moment, grinning to himself when he heard Scott singing, “ We three kings of Orient are…Bearing gifts we traverse afar…”

Barranca was walking all right and that was a relief. Eric was still trailing along behind, stopping whenever Barranca stopped and starting whenever Barranca got going.

“Whoa fella,” Johnny said soothingly, putting his hand up to Barranca's nose.  He nickered and tried to rub his nose against Johnny's hand.

Johnny bent down to check out the hoof one last time. Scott was up to the chorus now. His voice was a bit muted with the fog but he could hear him singing, “Oh-oh, Star of Wonder, Star of Night…”

Scott could certainly hold a tune well. He'd told Johnny last year that it was an American Christmas Carol. Of course at the time Johnny hadn't let on that he knew some Mexican ones as well. What was that one his ma used to sing to him? 

“A la rururu, nino chiquito,
Duermase ya mi Jesussito.
Del el efanto hasta el mosquito,
Guarden silencio, no le hagan ruido.”


Funny words now that he came to think about it. The mosquito he could understand – the damn things seem to be everywhere – but what the heck was an elephant doing in a stable and what…?

It sounded like a rumble at first - a rumble coming right out of the fog – and by the time he looked up he was too late.

Dios!

 

Chapter Two

“Johnny. Johnny.”

Johnny heard a voice and opened his eyes – wide! What the…?

“Just take it easy, now,” the voice told him.

Well that was a fool thing to say because he hadn't moved a muscle. Oh yes he had – he'd opened his eyes. And that was funny because he hadn't known they'd been closed. He blinked. Then blinked again and this time Scott's face got clearer. Scott's face? Why the hell was he staring at Scott's face?

“Johnny, what happened?”

What happened? He didn't know anything  had  happened. No, something must have happened because here he was lying on the ground…and it was hard…and cold. He moved an arm and got an elbow under him. He lost sight of Scott's face for a second there. Thought he was going to lose something else for a second there as well.

“Hold on a minute, Johnny. Take it slow. Can you talk?”

Well of course he could talk but he was having a hard time keeping his eyes open. “No ele…elephants.”

“Elephants? Johnny, what are you talking about?”

He squinted up at Scott with one eye. Something told him he'd just said the wrong thing only now he couldn't quite remember just what it was he'd said. He quickly looked away from those searching eyes of Scott's. Catching sight of his hat lying on the ground just in front of him, he reached out and grabbed it, then put it on his head. That felt better. He'd just sit here awhile until he got his breath back. Getting back a brain that worked might help as well.

“Johnny, you said there were ‘no elephants'?”

If Scott would just shut up for a bit and stop going on about elephants.

“You mean to tell me with all that Harvard learning you don't know there ain't no elephants in…in…” He sat up a little straighter and looked around. Nope, he wasn't in Mexico. Trouble was, now that he thought about it, he didn't know where he was. “Ah…in…ah…where we are now,” he finished. Damn, just how dumb did all that sound?

It was getting harder to see with all the fog around – Scott's face kept blurring around the edges. Scott must have been having trouble seeing as well – the way he was hunkered down next to him and staring hard at Johnny's face like that.

“But you just said…” Scott's voice trailed off; for some reason Johnny staring right back at him made him stop in mid-sentence. Instead he said, “Johnny, when I got back I found you flat on your back and out cold.”

“You did?”

“I did.”

He looked carefully at Scott. His brother didn't seem to be joking.

“Don't you remember what happened?” Scott asked him.

He thought hard but all he could come up with were the words ‘elephants' and ‘mosquitoes.' He looked up quickly at Scott.

“You remember?” Scott jumped in.

Johnny shook his head just as fast. “Nope, don't remember a thing.”

“Well, what were you doing?”

The  thoughts  were  in his  head somewhere … or maybe they were out there mixed up in the damned fog…or maybe the damn fog had got in his head…or maybe…

“Johnny, do you know what you were doing?”

Scott was starting to make him feel guilty. Not that he knew why but sometimes guilt had a way of sneaking up on a man. “Sure I know what I was doing.”

“Well?”

“Well…” Suddenly what he'd been looking for floated in from somewhere. “I was checking Barranca's foot. He got a stone jammed in his shoe.” He felt real sure – not to mention relieved - of his facts all of a sudden. “Now give me a hand up. We've got to get back…for supper,” he added, feeling like he was playing his trump card.

“Whoa, not so fast, brother.” Scott put out a hand and parted some of the hair above his eyes. “You've got a huge lump forming on your forehead.”

“I have?” Well that was news to Johnny. He felt around his forehead gingerly with a couple of fingers. Sure enough, just under the hair on his forehead, an egg was starting to form.  “Ow.”

Scott turned his head and looked behind him into the fog. “Didn't you always warn me about turning your back on one?” he said with a nod of his head towards Barranca.

Johnny stared back at him, careful to keep his face blank. Well, as it turned out that wasn't so hard right now. But Scott's words didn't add up - why would Johnny be warning Scott about horses of all things! It was best to feel his way a bit here – Scott was looking a bit smug. That could mean he was setting Johnny up for one of his jokes. “I've warned you about a lot of things, brother,” he told him warily, moving so that his butt was back underneath him.

Scott began to smile. The sort of smile he gave when he was one up on Johnny. “Ooh, brother, I'll bet you a week's pay that our ‘docile as a lamb' bull rammed you one.”

For just a second his head thumped badly – then he remembered. That damned bull! Eric! He looked around but couldn't see a sign of it in the fog. Nope, it didn't sound like a wise bet to take – not the way Scott was grinning at him like that. “You keep your money an' I'll keep mine.”

Of all the… Letting himself be charged by a bull. 

Scott grinned even wider. “You're sounding a little testy there. Must mean I'm right.”

“So give me a hand up and let's get going,” he grumbled back.

Scott wasn't finished playing games – it took Johnny a bit to work out which hand to grab.

“Yeah, we'd better get moving,” Scott agreed as he hauled him to his feet. “This fog is getting thicker by the minute.”

Johnny took a look around. He was standing in a very quiet, white, cloudy world. Even Barranca's sudden snort and the jingle of his harness when he moved his head sounded sort of muffled. They didn't have many minutes of daylight left either by the looks of it.

He took a long hard look at Eric – he could see the animal now that he was standing. The darned bull was just standing there behind Barranca looking like butter wouldn't melt in its mouth. “You an' me have got some reckoning to do,” he told it under his breath as Scott mounted up. One dark eye stared back at him.

“Are you sure you're feeling okay?” Scott called across as his own butt hit the saddle.

Johnny stuck his boot in Barranca's stirrup and swung up.

“Yep. Ain't a thing wrong with me that a warm fire and a bellyful of food won't fix. Let's get going.”

With that he urged Barranca on. The rope attached between Eric and his pommel gradually went taut and after a bit of a pull he sensed Eric following along behind.

The fog was thick all right. They had to ride in single file and no faster than a walk; the path wasn't particularly wide and neither one of them wanted to ride head-on into a tree. Scott rode up front and Johnny followed behind, with Eric plodding along and bringing up the rear.

Funnily enough, now that they were in the fog, it didn't seem quite so cold – but it was so quiet that all you could hear was Eric and the horses blowing out a breath as they walked…and walked…and walked. It was slow going and seemed to be taking forever. In all this fog you could walk right off the edge of the earth and never even know it…just find yourself floating on clouds.

“At least we know we're still on the path by the sound of the horse's hooves striking some of these small rocks.”

Johnny nodded.  Somewhere at the back of his mind he had a feeling that he should have been more worried than he was. But it was a special day, wasn't it? Everything was fine and they were almost home now.

“How's Ericepaius doing?” Scott called over his shoulder

He didn't really want to talk. It was starting to feel pretty pleasant just floating along in all the white stuff.

“Johnny?”

Scott was looking back over his shoulder now. He really should answer. He should. “Um…what did you say?”

“Ericepaius-how's he doing?”

“Okay, I guess.”

“Teresa's going to be upset but at least she'll realise this fog has slowed us down.”

“Yeah.”

“Johnny?”

Scott's tone nagged at him. He squinted ahead at his brother – a dark blur against all the white.

“Yeah, Scott!” he called back, louder this time. It wasn't too often that Scott got on his nerves but right now he was feeling…feeling just plain ornery. Like Jelly got when…well, like Jelly got all the time. Must be because something was tugging at his mind. It was something he needed to ask Scott - that's what it was - only he just couldn't remember what the question was. And then all of a sudden it just popped into his head. “Erice-a-what?” he called out.

There was a moment's silence before Scott called back, “Ee-riss-eh-pye-uss,” very slowly.

Scott could have been singing a song the way he stretched out the word like that. That's funny, something just clicked in place in his head - singing! He'd been singing about elephants and mosquitoes and - he looked up. Dios, he'd never been more glad to see home. He didn't think they'd ever get there. He pulled Barranca to a quick halt and swung down. If they were fast enough, they could sneak inside and…

“You know we're really late already, don't you?” Scott asked him as he pulled up ahead of Johnny. Scott made it sound as if it was  his  fault.

“I know, I know. Murdoch'll probably have our hides.”

Johnny looked around for Jelly. He figured after all they'd been through the least Jelly could do was come outside to stable their horses.

“Have you got some plan, brother?” Scott asked, still seated.

“Nope. All I wanna do is get out of this damn fog. Come on, Scott. Let's head inside.” He tied Barranca to the hitching post by the patio, then started to loosen his girth strap.

“It's not like you to give up this easily.” Scott sounded surprised as he rode closer.

“A man's gotta know when he's licked.” He threw Scott a grin. “And right now the thought of standing in front of the fire warming my ass again is enough to make me willing to swallow every ounce of pride I've got.”

Scott pushed his hat back. “Well that I can understand.”

“Good, then let's head inside.” Johnny turned and started walking.

“So what are you doing now?”

“What do you mean, what am I doing?” he snapped back. “I'm…I'm…”

Scott finally got off his horse. Well  that  was a start! A united front was always best in these circumstances and even though he thought that Murdoch would take their side…

“Johnny, we need to get home. Murdoch and Teresa are expecting us for dinner.”

There was no need for Scott to talk to him slowly like that as if he was Jelly and had to be told everything twice. He had half a mind to yell at Scott but he didn't; just talked to him real polite. “I know that, Scott.” It wasn't as if Scott was the only one who was tired. It had been a long day and Johnny, for one, had had enough. Hell, he was so tired he could hardly keep his eyes open. 

“Johnny?”

He batted Scott's hand away, then turned around and started heading for the front door. “Let's just get inside, Scott. We'll argue about this later.”

“Johnny, we're not home yet!”

Johnny rolled his eyes. It must be some Christmas joke or something. Christmas; he'd almost forgotten it was Christmas. He looked towards the house. Murdoch would usually leave a light burning for them or he'd wait up, pretending he had work to do if they were getting back late from a trip. But he couldn't see any light.

Scott came up behind him. “Johnny, this is the old mission. It's not Lancer.”

Not Lancer? What the hell was he talking about?

Scott pointed to his head. “You must have hit your head pretty hard. You're confused.”

Johnny stopped walking and stared at the ground for a long second or two. It wasn't like Scott to lie to him. Not Lancer? He lifted his head and looked around. With all the fog it was hard to make out a damned thing – but he could see some sort of building.

“Johnny, it's just the old mission. The one we passed on the way to the Hobbs ranch.”

Johnny took a closer look; fog, all he could see was damned fog. But Scott was looking at him so he thought he'd better say something. Where did Scott say they were? “Well, sure. I knew that.” It took a lot of effort to say that but he was pretty pleased with the result. Scott seemed to back off a little so Johnny did what he'd been wanting to do for some time – he hit the sack - and he would've been asleep in two seconds flat if Scott had just shut up but his brother's voice was going on and on and on and on until he'd had enough of it. “Scott, just leave it be, huh! I've gotta sleep.”

“You can't sleep out here on the ground, Johnny. Look, why don't you get on Barranca and we'll ride home – to Lancer. Then you can sleep as much as you want…and in your own bed.”

Well nothing about that offer sounded tempting. He was perfectly comfortable where he was right now. No way was he moving. Not even with Scott yanking at his arm. “You go, Scott. I ain't movin' till sunup.”

“Johnny, be reasonable. You're not thinking straight.”

He curled himself up tighter and put his hand under his cheek. Maybe his pillow was a little harder than usual. “'Night Scott.”

No matter how hard he tried he just couldn't block out Scott's voice and his stomping and his asking and his tugging on his arm. “Johnny, I can't ride out and leave you here!”

“My head hurts, Scott.” As soon as he said the words out loud he realised why everything was so darned hard to understand – because he had a train with a full head of steam running through his head. Dios it hurt.

Well at least that shut Scott up for a second until Johnny could sense Scott squatting down next to him. “Is it bad?”

The only thing bad right now was talking and thinking, and breathing wasn't going down so well just now, either. “Yup.”

Scott was quiet again for a bit and Johnny could feel himself drifting further and further…

“Johnny!”

He jumped and opened his eyes. Damnit-all.

“Johnny, I was talking to you.” Scott was sounding mad. It didn't take much to rile Scott up sometimes.

“S'all right, Scott.”

Scott started talking to him real slowly again as if he didn't understand plain English. “Johnny, I'm worried you've gone and done something serious like fractured your skull – and if that's the case you shouldn't be standing or riding. Remember when Hank did that and Sam made him stay in bed and lie flat on his back for a couple of weeks without sitting up?”

“Sounds like heaven to me right now, brother.”

“I'm going to have to get Murdoch - we're not far too from Lancer – but you need to stay awake. Can you do that, Johnny until I come back with a wagon? Just rest here without falling asleep? Can you do that, Johnny?”

“Yep.” He didn't know what he was agreeing to but if it meant shutting Scott up, he'd agree to just about anything right now.

“I'll leave Eric here with you. I'll tie him and Barranca to this post.”

He told Scott that was good and he'd see him in the morning and tried to get back to sleep but Scott was shoving a canteen in his face, asking if he wanted a drink.

“Nope. Just let me be - I'll be all right. Faced down a lot worse hombres than this one.”

“Johnny, just try to stay awake until I get back, okay?”

He lost track of how long he lay there but with Scott's words ringing in his head like that he didn't dare close his eyes – not when Scott seemed to think it was so important that he kept them open. So he did. For hours and hours. And then they just got so sore and heavy that he had to rest them – just for second. So he did that too.





Johnny's eyes opened slowly.

He'd done something wrong. He wasn't quite sure  what  but he had that uncomfortable feeling he always got when he and Scott were standing in front of Murdoch and trying to explain why they hadn't done just exactly what Murdoch had told them to.

Sticking an elbow into the ground he sat half-way up. Ground! He looked around. There was no doubt about it – he was lying on a clump of grass. Real thick grass but grass all the same.

Mierda! What the hell was he doing outside – asleep of all things? And with Scott's jacket over him?

He felt for his gun. Sure, he could feel the weight resting on his hip but he checked anyway.

It was still foggy. Still foggy? Okay, that meant he must've known it was foggy before.

Pulling  his  legs  underneath  him,  he  dragged  himself to  his  feet  until he stood up - even if he wasn't standing exactly straight. A snail could move  slicker  than  him right now. He could just about hear all his bones creaking. Well that's what he got for being fool enough to sleep outside without a fire or a bedroll on a cold night.

Something caught his eye. It was his hat - blurry, but definitely his hat - just by his feet, next to Scott's jacket. It looked a long way away down there but he picked it up and stuck it on his head. It felt heavy, like it was wet and soggy.

The light made the fog look even whiter and it swirled like some invisible hand was stirring it with a big spoon.

Relief went through him when he could make out Barranca tethered to a tree, thanks to the light that sort of shone over the top of the fog in the dark.

Whoa, wait a minute! Light? He whipped his head around and looked up, his hand hovering near his gun. Then he ducked and spun around, drawing his gun at the same time. Madre de Dios! Gun in hand, he wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist and stared at the black, silent wings flying off into the fog and the darkness. A bat!  He had half a mind to shoot the damned thing anyways.

He didn't put his gun away. It felt good to be gripping onto something solid – and right now he couldn't think of anything he'd rather be gripping than the cold handle of his heavy colt.

He turned back to the light – a light that shouldn't be there. It made the fog look like a thick wall of cloud all about him. The light was high – high enough for him to need to bend his neck back and bright enough to make him squint. Not even Lancer, all lit up at night for one of Murdoch's shindigs, shone as bright as that.

Gripping his colt that little bit tighter he started heading towards it. The fog swirled and dipped ahead of him. That was the weird thing about fog – it was always just in front of you but you could never reach it. He'd only taken a few more steps when a huge building loomed up out of the night. Directly above it was the bright light – like a star dangling by a rope just above the earth. He had to look away. It was just too bright and his eyes were hurting. He pulled his hat down further, then rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. Once the stinging had stopped, he hefted his gun and crept forward, careful to stop his spurs from jingling.

The closer he got to the building, the easier it was to make out windows and doors and pale adobe walls and he began to breathe just a little easier. No doubt about it – he'd been sleeping in front of the old mission. So the light must be coming from the old bell tower.

A few quick steps had him right up to the building itself. Johnny flattened himself against the wall directly next to the heavy double wooden doors – well, one of them at least, the other had long gone. If he could just still his breathing to a normal rate he'd be able to hear properly. As it was, his heart seemed to be thumping away at twice its normal pace and in his ears instead of his chest.

Mierda. Too late he caught the hint of movement behind. Way too late!

“There's nothing to be afraid of in there.”

Johnny spun around to where the voice came from. Somehow, the fog lifted enough just then so that the light above shone full on the both of them. He didn't let go of his gun – the one pointed straight at her. He didn't say anything at first. Just looked past her and out to the fog still swirling a few feet away. She seemed to be alone.

He brought his gaze back to the girl. She was like nothing he'd ever seen before. The light sort of caught on her hair making it shine like nuggets of polished gold. “You're beautiful.”

She smiled and looked down at the ground – as if she'd never been told that before – and it made him want to toss her up on Barranca and ride away somewhere from all of this fog and darkness to keep her safe. She just didn't seem to fit with this world. He holstered his gun. He felt ashamed now that she'd even seen it his hand.

He looked around – behind him first then he leaned a little to see past either side of her. There was no sign of a horse. In his experience, beautiful girls with golden hair in snowy white dresses didn't just appear from nowhere.

And she still hadn't said another word – just stood there looking at him.

“Well where the blazes did you come from?” he asked her.

She looked up towards the light, then back to him. “Where do you think I came from?”

He grinned. Couldn't help himself. “Right about now, I'd say heaven is the only place I can think of.”

She laughed at that. “You're sweet.”

“Um, no ma'am, I'm a gunfighter – and there's nothing sweet about that.” He didn't know why he went and told her that - maybe because she made him think of Tallie? It wasn't really ‘pretty' girls who didn't mix with gunfighters – it was the innocent ones.

The thought that he was a gunfighter didn't seem to bother her. “Well, sorry to disappoint you but I didn't drop down from heaven, Johnny.”

He was used to people knowing his name but he hadn't expected  her  to know it. He looked her straight in the eye. “So, just who are you then?”

She smiled and he committed one of those mortal sins the padres had always warned him about and even  he  felt ashamed of his own thoughts for a moment there. This girl wasn't a quick tumble-in-the hay sort. Girls like this you married and took home to meet your folks. 

“My name's Gabrielle.”

“Gabrielle?”

Just then he heard another sound from inside the old mission. It wasn't really much of a mission. There was only one building left and that was the church. Everything else had been gutted by the fire.

He quickly looked at her and put a finger to his lips, but she only smiled wider at him. “That's what I've been trying to tell you, Johnny. There's nothing to be afraid of in there. Listen.”

He got quiet and listened, then looked at her. “Is that a baby?”

“You should see the look on your face.” She laughed.

“Well, a crying baby wasn't exactly what I'd expected,” he whispered back. “There must be some squatters inside.”

She walked forward a few steps. “I have no idea. I just peeped in and all I saw was the baby.”

Pushing his hat back a little he stuck his head around the door. Sure enough, right in the middle of the gutted church, was a baby lying in a small feed trough.

He had to be seeing things!

Sticking his head back out he whispered to her, “Well, where's the baby's mother?”

“I don't know.”

Johnny slumped back against the wall. This was all getting to be too much. “Look, let's start at the beginning.” He stared at her more closely this time. After all, it wasn't as if he hadn't been fooled by a pretty face before. “Who are you?”

“Well, I told you…”

“Yeah, yeah, ‘Gabrielle' – you told me that – but what about the rest of it?”

“My father is Obadiah Hobbs.”

“Obadiah!” He had to admit that he was a little disappointed to find out that someone as perfect as Gabrielle had been sired by an old coot like Hobbs – unless there was some other man named Hobbs around here that he didn't know about.

“Hush, someone will hear you. And what are you so surprised about – that ‘old Hobbs' is my father or that his name is ‘Obadiah'?”

He would have liked to have said ‘both' but there was no point in being rude. “I'm just surprised, is all – and that still doesn't explain what you're doing here.”

“You left this behind.” She held up a small brown bag that she must have been holding in her hand. “And there was something else I wanted to…”

“Murdoch's present?” He stared at it. He didn't have a clue how they'd left it behind. Hobbs had given it to Scott but he hadn't seen what Scott had done with it. “So how did you find me in all this fog?” 

“I was following the path but when the fog got so thick I started to worry. I saw the light and found this old building.” She looked up. “Just what is this place, anyway?”

“It's the old mission. Murdoch told me most of it burned to the ground about twenty years ago. They built the new one closer to Morro Coyo.”

He stopped talking all of a sudden. The baby inside was starting to squall loudly.

“We'd better go in and see the child,” Gabrielle said.

He'd rather face down Day Pardee than a crying baby – so he let Gabrielle walk in first then he followed. It was dark in the barn but not so dark that he couldn't see both barrels of a shotgun aiming straight at him.

A voice with as much deadly conviction as he'd ever heard said, “Don't you make a move!”

 



  Chapter Three


Johnny remembered seeing paintings of the Virgin Mary with a blue shawl draped over her head and looking sort of soulful. Well, she was wearing the blue shawl all right, but from what he remembered from La Posada, there was nothing in the bible about the Virgin Mary greeting anybody with a loaded shotgun. Or about her being a scrawny slip of a girl with huge staring eyes. But mostly it was her hands that he noticed. He took one look at those shaking hands and his own hands went straight up in the air as he moved towards Gabrielle. She'd been standing stock still in the gloomy shell of the church, just a little in front of him.

“Drop the gun belt,” the girl hissed over the squalls of the baby. That get-up made her look like poor country folk but the set to her jaw and that hard look in her eyes told him a whole lot more  – that guessing wrong about her could get them both shot.

“Listen lady...”

His boot heel clattered on the dusty boards as he took another step forward, this time putting himself directly between her and Gabrielle. Darn, it looked like that tactic wasn't going to work - the girl stepped forward and raised the shotgun higher, spitting out, “Don't you crowd me, none. Now you drop it!”

“Johnny, don't you think we should do what she says?” Gabrielle whispered from behind him. She sounded pretty calm but then again, she probably didn't know that when it  came to facing someone holding a gun, there was just about nothing more dangerous than a woman with nervous hands.

“Okay lady, I'm doin' it,” he said easily, slowly bringing both hands down to undo his belt, without taking his eyes off her. The weight of it fell into his hands as soon as the buckle was released, then he just as slowly brought it away from his body.  

“Toss it down…now.”

He quickly looked about the place, screwing up his nose a tad while he took his time tossing his belt down. Dios, this was no place for a newborn. The old mission smelled like a barn that hadn't had a good clean in years and that was pretty much exactly what it was – it looked like the locals and anybody else who came by had been using the place to shelter their goats and horses and anything else they might've had. The floor was covered in straw and dung and someone had used some old wood to bang some makeshift stalls together against one of the walls.

If there was a man hiding in the shadows, he couldn't see him, which didn't mean there wasn't one there.

Come on,”  she yelled again. The baby's crying wasn't letting up any and those hands were looking more and more twitchy by the minute. There was nothing for it – he was hardly going to draw down on a woman let alone one who'd just given birth and had a crying baby to feed. “Okay, okay,” he said as calmly as he could while he tossed his gun belt down on the floorboards. “Look, we don't want to harm you or your baby. We just came in because we saw the light.”

“You saw it?” She sounded scared and even surprised by what he said, but not enough to drop the gun.

“Well, if it wasn't for the fog, the whole valley'd see it,” he told her frankly.

She stared at Johnny, the shotgun pointing directly at his belly for all its shaking, then as if she'd just remembered that he wasn't alone, that wild stare fixed itself on Gabrielle, running over her from head to toe.

“So, you two were just going for ride, in all this fog, huh?”

Well, wasn't that just like a woman to think they knew everything about a person by a single look. For himself he didn't care what she thought but it was another thing entirely when it came to Gabrielle. All the same, he kept the irritation out of his voice. “It's a long story – but I just bought a bull from her father. That's all.”

He didn't look at Gabrielle. Someone as innocent as her probably didn't even understand what the woman was hinting at.

The baby's crying was changing from loud mewing to lung bursting waaahs, but the mother made no move to go to it. She just stood there with the gun still aimed right at him. Johnny looked straight in her eyes. She was trying hard to cover it but it was as clear as day to him that she didn't have a clue what to do next.

Raising his voice a little to be heard over the crying he said, “Look, why don't you put the gun down and tend to your baby?” When she still made no move he softened the look in his eyes. “We don't mean you any harm.”

The shotgun wavered just a tiny bit – but she still stared at them both with big suspicious eyes. The baby hardly took a breath before it started its next round of wailing and damn, it was going right through his head. If the mother didn't pick the baby up soon he'd darn well do it himself. Anything to stop the ruckus.

He tried again. “My name's Johnny Lancer, ma'am,” then turning a little towards Gabrielle, “and this is Gabrielle Hobbs.”

Even though he'd been hoping for this, it was still unexpected when the tip of the shotgun tilted forward and hit the dirt with a soft thud like it was suddenly too heavy for her to carry. Then she let it drop the whole way. “It wasn't loaded, anyway,” she told him in a voice that sounded dulled with plain exhaustion. They all stood there staring at each other for a moment. The girl looked done in. He hated to think what she'd been through. He wouldn't have been surprised if she fell down in a dead faint; but the baby was still bawling.

“Don't you think you ought to see to your little one?” he suggested.

It was as if his words pulled her out of a trance; her eyes started to focus again and without a word she turned around and headed over to the feed trough. She slipped both hands under the crying bundle, the other up higher where he supposed the head was – then Johnny got a glimpse of a tiny face and an open mouth inside a shabby blue blanket and straightaway all was mercifully quiet.

For a minute there he thought she'd forgotten about him and Gabrielle, the way she stared down at the tiny thing in her arms. He could just see one small white finger slowly wrapping itself about the mother's finger.

“Well that's got to be the best ‘noise' I ever heard.” Johnny risked a smile in the mother's direction.

“Oh my,” Gabrielle said softly, moving a little closer, “This is no place for a baby on a night like this.”

The woman's head got even lower - maybe she was crying but when she spoke her words were clear enough. “I'm just waiting for Joe to get back. We were on our way to Green River when we got lost in the fog. Joe went out to see if he could find us something to eat and get some wood to light a fire.”

Johnny frowned. “I would've thought the first thing he'd do is go for a doctor. We've got one in Morro Coyo.”

“A doctor?”

“For you and the baby.”

She started to grin – then it got even wider – to the point where he could feel his face start to heat up.

“My baby is six weeks old. You think he was born in here? Mister, you've been singing way too many Christmas Carols.”

“I guess maybe I have,” was the best answer he could come up with. He should have realised there were no signs of a birthing anywhere. He'd blame Scott for that mistake – wasn't he the one singing Christmas Carols?

Scott! Some murky memory tried to pull at him. Scott said something about going back to Lancer, hadn't he? He rubbed at his forehead with the back of his hand then just as quickly took it away when a jab of pain shot through his head.

“Johnny, are you all right?” He felt a hand on his arm and looked down to see Gabrielle staring up at him. One look at her face, even in the half dark, and any thought about a sore head just seemed to float right away.

“Ooh, I am now,” he breathed out.  In the dim light he could just make out that her white dress was actually covered in little yellow flowers. She definitely didn't have wings; that pale blue jacket she wore over her dress fitted her so perfectly that he could see every rise and fall of her breasts as she breathed. No, he couldn't imagine a real angel having this same effect on him.

Somehow he managed to get his eyes back on her face. She was smiling up at him like she didn't quite understand what he meant and that ringing in his head changed to a lot pleasanter sound of birds twittering. She had little dimples that…

“Oh, I just bet you are,” a voice broke in flatly.

He looked up. The girl might just as well have thrown a bucket of cold water over him. She met his look and it was clear she didn't have too high an opinion of him. Or maybe that was towards men in general – he still hadn't seen any sign of this Joe feller she talked about.

But the pinched look about her mouth told another story. He'd seen that on plenty of faces and even remembered the pain that went with it himself. “I've got some sandwiches left over from this morning in my saddlebag. You're welcome to those if you'd like them.”

She shook her head, which was just as well. He didn't have a clue where his words came from. Right this moment he had no idea what he'd even been doing this morning so how the hell could he know there were sandwiches in his saddlebags?

“You really should eat something,” Gabrielle said.

“No thanks.” She straightened up a little with a determined set to her face. “I'll wait for Joe to get back.”

Johnny shrugged. It wasn't as if they could force food down her throat.

“May I?” Gabrielle nodded towards the bundle in the girl's arms. “I just love babies.”

He didn't know what it was, but once a woman with a baby hops on a stagecoach or walks in a room, suddenly all the women are yakking with her like they're best friends. Sure enough the girl thawed straightaway with Gabrielle's words and she pulled the blanket back a little for Gabrielle to see.

Johnny left them to it for a moment while he wandered around. A quick look showed him nothing more than a couple of ancient church pews with what looked like every kid from the valley's name scratched in them. There was a pile of hay in one corner and a solitary lamp that didn't burn too bright sitting on one of the pews. No sign of another horse or buggy or wagon though. Now that was kind of odd, although it was possible this ‘Joe' might've left them someplace outside.

Even odder was the sound he just heard outside. Straining his ears he listened again but all he could hear was a few snuffling sounds from the baby after all that crying.

He looked up to find the mother staring at him. Gabrielle was now holding the baby, cooing softly to it and not taking any notice of anything around her.

“You hear something, too?” he asked the girl. She shook her head but a look of fear instantly flickered in her eyes. “Nothin' to worry about, I promise. I was just wondering, that's all.”

She almost gave him a smile back but something was worrying her all right. At least all the hardness had gone from her face. Maybe the offer of the sandwiches convinced her he wasn't an outlaw or something. She wasn't beautiful like Gabrielle but she had a way about her. It was nice to see the long, wavy, brown hair falling about her face like that from under the blue shawl. Most women in these parts tended to tie their hair back in some way. And you could hardly not notice those big dark eyes of hers. He'd imagine that all she had to do was flutter those long lashes and men'd come a'running. Looking at her closer, she was a bit older than he'd first thought, but not by much he guessed.

He realised he was staring at her and went to look away but her words stopped him. “I'm sorry about the gun, Johnny,” she was saying to him. “I guess I panicked. I'm Mary-Beth.”

Gabrielle stopped her cooing and looked up.

The girl said the last bit as though he should know her. Hell, that was asking a lot when he hardly knew his own name lately thanks to Eric. Eric? He closed his eyes for a second and ran his fingers over his temple as her voice went on.

“You might remember me as just plain Mary Brewster?”

Johnny opened his eyes and looked up. Her smile was pretty forced – as if anything to do with that name brought back a world of bad memories. Mary Brewster? The name rang a bell somewhere in his head.

He shrugged a little and shook his head and could just about feel his brains rattling around inside his skull. “I'm sorry. I don't remember. So Joe's your husband?” he added, more to fill in the awkwardness that all three of them seemed to be feeling now that the talk had turned to her.

Too late he noticed that she wasn't wearing a ring on her finger.

He caught just a hint of hesitation before the fire flared in her eyes like before, “He will be. Just as soon as we get to San Francisco.”

“And just what business is that of yours, Lancer?”

Johnny swung around. With all the bells ringing in his brain he hadn't heard anyone walk in but at least this was someone he knew. He said the name slowly, just because it felt good to actually be sure of something for a change. “Joe Carpenter.”

It was all beginning to make some sort of sense now. Joe's folks were just about the most religious folk he'd ever come across. His mother made a point of crossing the street whenever she saw Johnny coming. She just about turned blue one morning when he and Scott purposely set her up so that Johnny came out the door of Baldemero's just as she was going in. He'd lifted his hat and smiled real wide at her while Scott stood behind so that she couldn't step backwards to escape whatever it was she thought she might catch from Johnny. Well, her chest swelled twice its size – and her breasts were already the size of a couple of full-grown pumpkins – and her face just about turned blue. The two of them had laughed all the way home. 

He'd never had much to do with Joe. He seemed to take after his ma and not just in his mousey brown hair and pale blue eyes; he never hung out in the saloon and only seemed to come to town to buy supplies or for the Fourth of July picnic – and church of course, or so Scott said.

“I asked what business it was of yours, Lancer!”

Joe looked to be itching for a fight but he was damned if he felt like obliging him right now - for some reason his head was aching something fierce - so he didn't use the smile that riled the hell out of people. Well, hardly any of it.

“No business. No business at all,” he shrugged. Nodding towards Gabrielle he said, “We just came in to shelter until the fog lifts.”

Maybe he should have worded that a little differently. The curl on Joe's mouth when he looked at Gabrielle had him sorely tempted to change his mind and hit him one. Clearly he believed everything his ma had told him about Johnny Madrid but one look at Gabrielle should have told him she wasn't that sort of girl. It took a bit, but he kept his tone easy. “You aiming to start throwing stones?”

It was pretty dark in the barn but Joe's face flushed all right.

“Don't you go picking on Joe now,” Mary-Beth said of a sudden.

“Mary.”

Joe started to move across to where she was standing but she had her eyes fixed on Johnny as she said clearly for all the world to hear, “The baby ain't his.”

He heard a tiny intake of breath from Gabrielle but he was watching Mary-Beth. He saw the shame in her eyes but what caught his eye the most was the way it turned to a shining pride when she looked at Joe. That made him look at Joe a little closer. As far as he could see there was nothing especially noticeable about Joe – except maybe the fact that he didn't wear a gun. The brown shirt and pants looked to be store bought from Baldemero's and he'd definitely seen the thick plaid jacket Joe wore for sale there – Murdoch had wanted to buy Johnny one. He guessed the ladies would call Joe fair to good-looking – but most men would have no call to spare him a second glance. He probably had too much confidence to attract the bullies in life but he had none of the front that turned heads when a man walked into a saloon.

“So don't you go judging him none,” she finished quieter.

Then all too quick that spark of pride about what she saw in Joe died out and he had to look away - there was just too much grief in what she so clearly saw in herself. Johnny looked down and changed the weight on his feet. “It ain't no business of mine, ma'am.” Hell,  he  wasn't about to throw any stones her way.

“Oh, no doubt you'll hear all about it soon enough. I'm sure you know what small towns are like.”

His eyes snapped to her. For a moment there his head felt real clear.

Joe was by her side now. He tugged his jacket off then put it about her shoulders. It was odd; the coat might've made her look frail on the outside but inside he saw a woman who was prepared to take on the world if she had to - all for the niño Gabrielle was holding. If she regretted anything, it sure wasn't that little fellow who'd clung to her finger. 

Joe whispered fiercely, “Mary, I don't want you to do this to yourself. We…”

“Joe.”

The single word stopped Joe short. This looked to be an old argument between them. Even still, Joe stood there by Mary-Beth's side with his fists clenched as if he was just daring Johnny to so much as look the wrong way.

Mary-Beth took a big breath. “Joe's a good man – a moral man.” She clutched the baby to herself even tighter. “He's done nothing wrong, other than fall in love with me and be willing to marry a woman carrying another man's baby. I want you to be sure to tell your father that – and all the other wonderful people of this town who look down their noses at anyone who's been fool enough to make a mistake.”

“Ma'am, I don't know exactly what's happened to make you feel that way – but I can tell you for a fact that my old man'd be the first to give you a second chance.” He paused for a second and looked down. Even now that rush of warmth could still surprise him. “He calls it,” and he gave her a small smile, “having faith in a person.”  He was almost sure the tears he saw welling up in her eyes were for the right reason so he let that smile grow a little bigger.

Joe put an arm about Mary-Beth. “There's a big difference between a man who chooses to kill for a living and a girl who got tricked by a smooth talking stranger – a world of difference. So don't go thinking that you an' Mary-Beth have got something in common, Madrid.” 

Boy, it looked like Joe was the spitting image of his mother - without the pumpkins of course. Johnny didn't see any need to drop his smile so he kept it right on his face as he ignored Joe. “So how come you two are heading off to San Francisco on Christmas Eve?”

“That's none of your business, Madrid,” Joe spat out.

This time he looked at Joe. “The name's Lancer.”

Joe's looked mulish but Mary Beth said, “Oh Joe, all this arguing is silly.” The baby was starting to get restless again and she took him from Gabrielle. “We only came in here because we saw the light as well. It was a Godsend. We were lost in all the fog and going round and round in circles.”

There it was again – that feeling like he ought to remember something and then his head snapped up. “Anyone hear that?”

The three of them looked at him blankly.

“Hear what?” Gabrielle asked, tilting her head to the side and looking at him with a puzzled look that made his heart start doing cartwheels. She looked so out of place in the old mission. He couldn't understand how Joe and Mary-Beth didn't seem to notice just how special she was.

“Johnny…”

She was like nothing he'd ever seen before. Like… 

“What did you hear?” she asked.

Like…

The next moment Gabrielle's face was back in front of his and the scary thing was something told him she'd never gone anywhere - which meant that he was doing the wandering. “Nothin'…it was nothin',” he mumbled. Except maybe he was going crazy. He turned back to the other two – anything to get away from those eyes of hers. “Have you two seen anyone since you got in here?”

“Just the two of you,” Joe answered civilly enough.

“You mind if I pick that up again?” Johnny nodded towards his gun belt. “I think I ought to see what's goin' on up there in the bell tower.”





The door to the belltower turned out to be a panelled oak door in the right wall of the chapel. Johnny grabbed hold of the old brass knob and slowly turned it.  Mary had sat down in one of the pews to nurse her baby and Joe had been standing in front of her when he'd last looked – as if he'd wanted to shield her from the likes of Johnny.

“Well now, look at this,” he breathed out; the knob had turned easily without a squeak as if it had been oiled recently.

“Are you sure you should go up there?” Gabrielle whispered, her breath touching his ear with all the force of a butterfly kiss.

He didn't know how it was but her mouth was just a kiss away when he turned his head to answer her. All he'd have to do was just lean forward. It wouldn't take much. If ever a pair of lips just begged to be kissed…and what perfect lips…

And Dios, what the hell was he thinking?

He straightened up and so did she and for a second there he saw a flash of disappointment in her eyes. Hadn't he told himself she wasn't that sort of girl? No wonder she was looking at him like that.

“Um.” He cleared his throat then pulled his hat down further and turned back to the door, jiggling the knob like he meant business. “There's nothing scary about a light in a belltower, ma'am.”

And then her hand was on his arm and she was looking up at him with just the sweetest look on her face. “Do you think I should go with you?” She probably couldn't tell just how close she was to him through the thickness of her skirts but the way she was making him feel right now, going with her to some place dark and secluded would be a real bad idea.

“No ma'am.”

Gabrielle screwed her face up and stepped back, tightly holding her hands together. “I don't know. I just don't like the idea of you going up there alone. What if it's some sort of beacon for outlaws or something?”

That look of concern in her eyes almost did it. The idea of some place dark and secluded was starting to sound very tempting.

“Johnny?” She was starting to move closer…when the baby started bawling and that cleared all the fuzziness in his brain and he could think straight. The first thing he did was pull out his gun; then he spun the chamber, checked that it was loaded, and held it up for her to see. “Then I guess if there's anyone up there, they're in for a surprise.”

She looked very solemn. “Oh.”

Something sank a bit inside him as he slipped the gun back in his holster. He'd got what he wanted, hadn't he? Stands to reason that a girl like her would…

Her lips were warm and soft against his cheek, just like he'd thought they'd be. He closed his eyes, surprised as the kiss lingered just that moment longer. When he opened them, she was looking at him, clearly waiting for some sort of response. “What was that for?” It was an uneven whisper at best.

“Maybe it's some of that ‘faith' you were talking about.”

He didn't think this was the ‘faith' Murdoch had in mind when he'd asked if people had shown Johnny any when he was wandering around border towns – but he had to admit, Gabrielle's idea of faith would have been more than acceptable at the time.

“Well, thank you, ma'am.” He kept his tone polite. He had a pretty good idea that Joe and Mary, especially Joe, were watching his every move by now – and he sure didn't want them to get the wrong idea about Gabrielle. But boy, that innocent look of hers was making his heart start racing again. “Just wait here. I won't be long.”

“Be careful.”

He turned back to the door. It was stiff but it opened without too much difficultly – just a few squeaks – but once he stepped through it he was standing in almost total darkness save for the patch of light that made its way into the base of the stairwell from the lamp burning in the church. He looked up. The bell tower looked to be nothing more than a narrow and very steep circular stairway – what little he could see of it anyway. Other than the first few steps, the rest of it was in total darkness. He had two choices; struggle up there in the dark and maybe kill himself by missing a step; or light a match and maybe tell the person who lit the lamps, if they were still up there, that he was coming.

“I found this.”

He'd been so deep in thought that her voice just about made him jump. Spinning around he found Gabrielle standing in the doorway with an old lantern in her hand. Even as he watched, she put a match to the wick and it flared and caught alight.

He frowned at her. “You sure you're Hobbs's daughter?”

The question seemed to take her by surprise. “I told you I was.”

“Yeah?” Johnny rubbed a hand across his chin. “I thought you mighta been from someplace else.”

She giggled as she passed him the lantern. “I'm no angel, Johnny.”

The glass was black with smoke stains but it gave off a reasonable amount of light. He fidgeted with the handle for a moment before saying, “Well, I guess I'd better get going.”

“Be careful.”

“You said that already.”

“Well, I guess I'm saying it again.”

“I guess you are.” He could've stood there all night looking at her, but somehow he tore his eyes off her and turned and faced the stairs again. They looked even steeper with the flickering light spilling on them. By the time he'd gone up a few steps, she was out of sight.

Up and up he went. It was cramped and cold and dirty but at least he knew for sure that it wasn't something ghostly waiting for him up there. He could see what looked to be a man's footprints in the dirt on each step, but the stairs were so scuffed and the light from the lantern he held was so dim that it was hard to tell if the footprints went down as well as up.

He continued upward, around and around and around and around, sticking to the outside of the steps because the inner part wasn't wide enough for his foot. The place stank of cold, crumbling stonework. Could you smell ‘cold?' Maybe not. His spurs were jingling awful loud. Every little sound echoed up and down the stairwell.

Just how high was this damned thing? His head was starting to spin like that tornado he'd seen outside Nogales once; scared the hell out of him with all that noise and the wind and the rain. His pinto hadn't liked it much either. He'd hightailed it in the opposite direction and when he looked back the tornado just lifted up into the air and was gone – just like that.

He was going to have to stop if he didn't get to the top soon, and take a breath. Why would anyone be putting a light up here anyway? Gabrielle had been worried about outlaws but rustlers would be more likely. It wasn't as if the stage came through this way. Not that that would stop it from being outlaws. But chances were it was ‘someone' doing something they weren't supposed to – otherwise he wouldn't have been bothering to make himself dizzy by creeping up here in the dark with all these twists and turns and…whoa!

He flattened himself against the wall and blew out his lantern – bright light was flooding down the steps ahead of him. He had to be at the top.

He put the lantern down on the step then took out his gun. After the gloom of the stairwell, the light made his eyes hurt.

It took a second to slow his breathing then, trying not to squint too much, he crept up another two steps until his head poked up into the bell tower itself – and found it empty. Well, empty of any bell. Instead, along the bar where the bell had once hung, were three lit lanterns hanging by a rope.  Just three.  It didn't seem possible that three lanterns could be so bright that he could barely stand to look at them.

And right then everything started spinning. Johnny put his head down and pressed the back of his hand to his forehead. He grabbed hold of the railing they'd built at the top step and closed his eyes. He didn't feel so well. It took a bit but finally everything stayed still and he didn't think he was going to heave. At least he felt well enough to walk around the tiny space. They must've taken the bell and put it on the new mission when it was built. The only things up here now were the remains of a few old bird nests and a couple of hearts scratched on the stonework telling whoever was dumb enough to climb all the way up here that  ‘Sarah loved Thad'  and  ‘Rosie loved Tommy.'

The belltower had four walls and each one had a huge window-like space that started about waist-high. Picking one of them he looked out. The fog hadn't cleared any and still hung close to the ground. From up high like this it looked like the world had been turned upside down and the trees were growing in clouds instead of dirt. The fog had been damned cold but up here the air was warm and dry and there wasn't a cloud in sight – just a black sky full of stars and a moon that had just come up over the mountains.

Gabrielle would've liked it.  Pity he hadn't suggested that she come up here with him – then maybe he could've encouraged her to show him some more of that faith.

It was the movement that caught his eye. Just a few weeks back he'd been tracking a mountain lion that had been attacking the herd. He'd been high up in the rocks looking down on the grassland when he'd seen the grasses part and sort of sway as the mountain lion got closer and closer to the herd. Only it was the fog that was moving this time; not a lot but enough for him to see that there was something moving down there. Something moving towards the old mission – and moving fast.

 



Chapter Four

By the time Johnny reached the last few steps of the bell tower, the stone walls and floor were starting to whirl like a spinning top. But at least he'd got down in one piece. For a bad moment there he'd thought he'd be going down the quick way when he forgot how narrow the width of each step was and his spurs had caught on the very first one. From then on he'd been careful about placing his foot sideways on each step.

He'd stood and watched the movement through the fog from the bell tower long enough to see horses and riders break through. Three of them in all. Now that he was at the bottom of the tower he didn't know how much time he had before the riders would be upon them. Five minutes maybe if they kept up the same speed? And Dios, if the walls didn't keep still he was going to puke.

By the time he got to the stairwell door he had to give in to the swirling or find himself on his knees; he put the lantern down on the floor and grabbed hold of the lintel. Then he tried taking a few deep breaths while he rested his forehead on the back of his hand. This was all that darn bull's fault.

T he bull's fault?

Eric!

He lifted his head. Damn-it; he'd been riding back to Lancer with Scott, leading that damned stubborn bull! So where was Scott now?

“Johnny?”

The only pretty, musical voice around here was Gabrielle's and she was just the girl he needed to talk to. He turned to her then grabbed either arm and looked her straight in the eyes. “Listen, when you were waiting outside the mission, did you see my brother, Scott?”

Her eyes widened and he could feel her shrinking into herself. “I thought…I mean…”

As beautiful as she was he wanted to shake her just then. All night long wisps of memory had been coming and going and he sure didn't want this latest one about Eric and Scott to just slip away as well. She  had  to know something.

“Look, I remember checking Barranca's shoe – then wham, nothing but one big headache. And Scott was…” He scrunched his eyes closed for second, trying to get the memory back. “He was laughing I think – something about the bull.” When he opened them again all he saw on her face was a blank look. “Now come on, you must've seen Scott.”

She put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, Johnny. I'm sorry. When you came up to me outside the mission, you were by yourself. I just thought Scott must've ridden on home and left you to lead daddy's bull.”

Johnny thought about that. “Why would he do that? That doesn't make any sense,” he muttered, mostly to himself.

“I don't know. All I know is that the two of you rode off together. When I found the tonic left behind, I thought if I rode fast I'd catch up to you and your brother. But then the fog came down and I got lost and saw this light… I'm so sorry…I…”

His ears heard her but his brain was mostly trying to fill in all those missing pieces – all those little snippets that were still swirling around in the fog somewhere.

And then he remembered the reason he'd nearly killed himself running back down those tower steps. Dios, he sure hoped Scott was all right but he had to deal with what was going on here first.

He brought his gaze back to Gabrielle. He felt bad seeing her eyes swimming with tears – and such pretty tears, too. “Hey, it's okay.” Darn, he hadn't meant to frighten her by gripping on to her so tight like that. He loosened his hold then ran his hands slowly up and down her arms. “I'm sorry,” he whispered, and he couldn't keep his eyes from her upturned face. She had to have the most kissable mouth he'd ever seen…

I  saw your brother.”

Johnny let go of Gabrielle – reluctantly he had to admit – and turned around to consider Joe for a bit. No one could look more at home in the gloomy old church than Joe with that sour look on his face. What the hell did Mary Beth see in him anyway? By the looks of it, even having to breathe the same air as anyone he didn't like stuck in his craw. And he clearly didn't like Johnny.

“You saw Scott?” Johnny frowned.

“That's right. When I was outside.”

“Hunting,” Johnny filled in helpfully. That's what Mary Beth had said he was doing. Only it was hard to shoot anything if you didn't wear a gun and you'd left your unloaded rifle with Mary Beth.

“He was headed towards Lancer. Riding fast,” Joe went on in that dogged way he had about him.

“And you saw him in all that fog? Now just how likely is that?”

Joe's eyes flickered towards Mary Beth. “Believe what you like, Madrid, but I'm telling you, I saw your brother ride by.”

Johnny took a breath then let it out. None of this was making any sense. He took a good look at Joe, then narrowed his eyes and cocked his head. “Seeing as you're so good at seein' through the fog, maybe you can tell me who's heading this way?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I'm talking about  riders.  I couldn't see who they were but they looked to be heading this way.” Joe just stood there but it didn't take a fool to see that this news wasn't totally unexpected and Johnny had just about had enough.  “Aw phftt, you wanna tell me the truth? You expecting company?”

Mary Beth clutched the baby that little bit tighter. “Oh, Joe.” At least she was starting to wilt but it seemed the more annoyed Johnny got the more Joe dug his heels in about saying nothing and hell, time was running out.

“Look, I don't know what trouble the two of you are in but there are three riders heading this way and I'd sure like to know if it's someone I should welcome or shoot before I go out there.”

The word ‘shoot' woke them up all right. Mary Beth looked shocked. “Oh, but you can't.  Joe.”

Joe shifted his stance the tiniest bit. “My mother might have sent someone to look for us,” he finally admitted. “Some of the hands.”

“Or,” and Gabrielle looked up as if she could see right to the very top of the belltower, “it could be whoever that light was left shining for.” And none of them thought that would be a good thing the way the three of them fell silent. Johnny didn't think it would be such a good thing himself, for that matter. He listened in the quiet. There was still no sound of horses yet.

“Johnny, what did you find up in the belltower?” Mary Beth eventually asked.

Johnny looked at her. “Just three lanterns hanging up there for all the world to see.”





He knew three pairs of eyes were on him as he took out his gun then spun the chamber. Without looking up, he said, “Stay here.”

He headed across to the half that remained of the original two doors into the church. He'd seen plenty of missions like this one. It must have been pretty grand in its day. The size of the church they stood in gave him some idea of that. But the fire and time hadn't done much for the rest of the place. Crumbling, broken walls covered in ivy was all that remained of the rest.

He must've gone five steps when Joe decided to spring back into life. Johnny heard his feet on the stone floor and then a hand was grabbing at his arm. “Madrid…” He waited for Johnny to turn. “There'll be no shooting.”

“Well that's up to whoever it is heading this way.” He looked past Joe to Mary Beth holding the baby. “But if me and my six gun are all that's between keeping these ladies and that baby safe, then you can be sure there'll be shooting.”

Even in the dingy light Johnny could see Joe's face go all slack and then Joe swallowed – hard – like he was trying to find his bones again.

“I see we understand each other,” Johnny told him.





Johnny leaned against the doorway.

It was eerily silent out there. Just a silent, white world with nothing moving in it. With the fog, visibility was probably down to ten or fifteen feet.

He felt another hand on his arm – but this one was small and white and he didn't have a problem with it touching his arm or any other part of him for that matter. Then a body pressed against his side and Gabrielle couldn't have got any closer to him if she'd tried.

“Who could it be?” she whispered.

And wasn't that the very thing he'd been asking himself.

“No idea - but I guess we're about to find out.”

Her eyes went to the gun he held in his right hand then travelled up to his face and he found himself staring down into her eyes again. He'd been doing that a lot lately. He'd known plenty of girls who got a thrill out of what he did – girls keen to take him to their bed so that they could whisper their questions in his ear when he was groaning with only one thing on his mind. But when he felt the shiver that went through her, he knew she wasn't one of those kind of girls.

He put a hand to her face, gently rubbing her cheek with his thumb. She closed her eyes and moved her head a little, like a kitten does when you pet it. Her skin was so soft. “It's not safe for you out here,” he eventually whispered.

He looked over his shoulder to where the others were waiting – and watching him – and he took his hand away from her face. He didn't want them thinking bad of Gabrielle. It wasn't her fault that every time she came near him all he could think about was kissing her lips and her eyes and that pretty neck and...

He shook his arm free of her hold and nodded towards the others.

“Go on. Get back over there with Joe and Mary Beth. And tell them to put those lanterns out,” he added.

She didn't say a word. Just turned and went.

He didn't watch her go. Instead, with a twirl, he dropped his gun back in its holster, then stared out into the fog – and waited.





He could hear the horses now. Even see them in his mind as they thundered through all that fog, sucking in the air with every stride. And then they broke through.

Madre de Dios. He pushed his hat back further on his head. They definitely weren't cowhands from the Carpenter ranch. His gun was in his hand before he even knew it.

They were big horses – two bays and the largest of the three was a black with a blaze - and they came flying out of the fog like a pack of wolves was after them. For a moment all he could see was a mass of long legs and tails and tossing heads and manes as they milled around the clearing in front of the old mission, like they still had plenty of fire in them.

It didn't surprise him one bit that the riders were on a par with the size of their mounts; three men and each with a year's worth, or more, of bushy beard. The cold wasn't going to trouble them any; they wore buckskin pants and jackets and fur caps and over their shoulders each of them wore a fur hide. Bear most likely. He couldn't see if they carried guns but each of them had a rifle on their saddle and at least two of them had a knife strapped to one of their boots.

Johnny stared at them from the shadows. They seemed to be looking for something or someone the way they rode about the clearing – first looking up at the light, then trying to peer into the mission itself. They looked edgy…wary.

He'd heard tales of mountain men but had never really met any. Murdoch had told him one time that with over-trapping and beaver hats going out of style, there wasn't much call for their line of work. And heck, there was barely any buffalo left to hunt for that matter. He knew a few still clung to that way of life – living up in the high country and coming down a few times a year to trade and buy supplies - but you didn't see many of them in Morro Coyo, especially as the fur trade had pretty much died out. Trappers were a dying breed all right. Maybe someone should've told these men that. More to the point, what the hell were they doing at the old mission on Christmas Eve?

He hefted the gun in his hand then in the end put it back in its holster.

There was no sense in creating trouble where maybe there wasn't any. It was possible they'd only come to the mission because they'd seen the light and needed shelter. Yeah, it was possible…

It was time to start some introductions and find out. No sense in beating around the bush. He was just about to step out of the shadows when the trapper on the rear horse sort of folded sideways and hit the ground with a thud and an “Oomph!”

The other two twisted in their saddles to look down at the man on the ground.

“Miles, we told yah not to go pourin' that Red Eye down yer throat, didn't we.”

‘Miles' sat up looking pretty sorry for himself but didn't say a word.

“Yah jest never listen, do yah. Frank an' I, we warned yah, didn't we?”

“Gold'n, if you hadn't been so intent on tryin' to make a mash on that little dark haired gal in the saloon, we wouldna been hangin' around that town an' Miles wouldn't have got himself all liquored up.”

“Now you know we had to lay up in Spanish Wells on account of my knee.”

“Your knee? Aw, what a load o' bull. Yeah, an' I told you when the padre was gonna meet us.”

“Yeah, as I recall you yelled it out at the top of her lungs loud enough for the whole dadburn town to hear.”

Miles, now bare-headed, scrambled to his feet. He stood there swaying for a bit, all the while staring blearily about the place while the other two dismounted the normal way.

It seemed that this was as good a time as any. Johnny walked forward and picked up the coonskin cap that lay on the ground. Keeping his voice low so as not to spook anyone, he said, “Um…I think you might be looking for this.” He held the cap up in his hand for them all to see.

Miles looked at Johnny like he'd just appeared out of thin air but he didn't make a move. It was the other one that came forward, the one the other trapper called ‘Gold'n or some name like that. Up close, Johnny could see he only had one good eye. The other one had a droopy lid and looked half closed.

“Now where the blazes did you come from young feller?” he asked, coming close and peering at Johnny but making no move to take the cap. He must've been as big as Murdoch but not as solid. Now Johnny might not be quite as fussy as Scott when it came to taking baths but by the smell of it, this man hadn't had one in months - years even. He felt sorry for whichever little dark haired gal had caught the trapper's eye – no pun intended. It was probably Lilly. Seemed like a darned hard way to make a…

“I wouldn't,” said Johnny quickly.

The one called ‘Frank' froze. His hand hadn't even made it half way to the gun Johnny could now see in a gunbelt under all that fur before Johnny had his gun out and pointed straight at him.

“We-ell, if that don't take the rag off the bush,” Frank said slowly, keeping his eyes glued on Johnny. “You ever see anythin' like that Gold'n?”

“Nope, I don't believe I ever did.”

Frank was the tallest of the three. It didn't look like any of them were that keen on bathing but Frank looked to be keen on fighting if that mashed nose of his and the muscles bulging under his clothes were anything to go by.

The one who came off his horse was the runt of the group and even he would've had a couple of inches over Johnny.

Johnny tossed the cap in Miles' direction then took a step back so that he could keep all three of them covered. His nose seemed to like this distance better as well. “You mind telling me why you're here?”

“Ain't that somethin'. I was jest about to ask you the very same thing, boy,” Frank said. He looked to be the oldest of the bunch if the grey in his beard was anything to go by. His buckskins might've started out the colour of Johnny's own jacket but now they were stained dark with grease and dirt and wax and who knew what else.

Johnny regarded the three of them for a moment. “Me? I just stopped here to wait out the fog.”

“All by your lonesome?”

“That's right.”

And it was right then that the baby woke up – and it didn't wake up quietly. One minute everything was quiet and the next minute it was squalling loud enough to be heard all the way to where they'd built the new mission the other side of Morro Coyo.

Johnny didn't bat an eye.

“Now I thought you said…” Frank didn't get any further than that. It was the suddenness of it all that made Johnny jump – that and the fact that he'd never heard anything like it before. La Llorona herself couldn't have made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up like this noise did. Dios. All he could do was stare.

The other two had turned towards Miles as soon as he started. It was a wail like the women did when someone died – that was the only way he could describe it. No words – just pure grief. And the man was rocking back and forth on his haunches with his head tucked into his arms and babbling away in some sort of gibberish.

Johnny didn't know what to do. The man clearly needed some sort of help – but even as he moved, Frank and the other one grabbed hold of Miles and one of them started yelling something – not as if he was angry, more like you do to a dog or a small child when you really want them to listen and do what you say.

And Miles didn't sound all that different to a dog right now. The wailing had turned into something more like a whimper and the rocking slowed down and he was drooling from his mouth.

Johnny moved in closer, ready to do something if he had to protect Gabrielle and Mary Beth and the baby. He'd seen a few lunatics in his time and he sure didn't trust one. But even as he had that thought, Miles sort of collapsed into himself and went limp.

Johnny looked behind him. He wondered what the others must be making of all this. He half expected to see… And the next second his gun went flying from his hand and his back then his head hit the ground causing sparks of light to start going off in his brain like firecrackers and every bit of air in his body went out in a whoosh.

Air. He needed air so badly it hurt.

But before he had a chance to grab another breath Frank straddled his chest and grabbed at his throat with those huge bear paws of his. Johnny tried twisting and squirming but the man weighed a ton and hell, first of all red flames were licking at the corner of his sight and then it turned to a thick black smoke that seemed to take hold of his brain and he was floating away with it, further and further and feeling lighter and lighter and… And that wasn't good – wasn't good at all.

Pure fear kicked in and somehow he got his legs bent and bucked for all he was worth and Frank sort of tipped forward but it was enough for Johnny to roll to the left on his hands and knees and whoop in a huge breath of air. His gun. He had to find his damned gun. But it was so damned dark in the shadows and…

The kick took him right in the gut and out went the air he'd just found and nearly anything he'd eaten the last two days and for a second there he rocked on his knees with his cheek pressed hard in the dirt and all he could think to do was moan he felt so bad.

Get up. He had to get up. Now.

And he did. Stumbled some but he staggered to his feet quicker than Frank expected and even came up swinging with a doubled fisted roundhouse blow that took Frank in the chin and near broke both Johnny's hands. But Frank didn't even go down - just stood there swaying like a tree about to topple.

Johnny was on his feet now. A quick look showed the other two trappers watching but who was to say they wouldn't join in if things went bad for Frank? And who was he kidding: Johnny winning this fight was one bet no gambling man in their right mind would take.

Frank had stopped swaying now and it was like someone waved smelling salts under his nose because all of a sudden he looked directly at Johnny and started coming. Well, there was nothing else for it – Johnny stood there and waited for him to come.

Frank was grinning as he came close. “You had enough, boy?”

Johnny sucked in a gulping breath. “I thought... we'd only just got… started,” he managed to get out, before he had to duck.

The fist whistled over his head and Johnny jumped up as Frank's momentum carried him forward a little. This time Johnny's fist sank deep into Frank's gut, then another punch landed on his chin then a third hit his chin again and hell, what did it take for the man to go down? And Mierda, there was a fist heading towards Johnny's chin. He ducked…then ducked again…and with any luck…

Hitting the ground a second time was even worse than the first. This time when he told his body to get up it didn't even pretend to listen.

And now Frank was heading towards him. He could just about feel the ground shaking as his footsteps got nearer. If Johnny was going to make a move, now was the time. Right now.

It wasn't real stylish - just a sluggish roll onto his knees – but it was a start. Come on, Johnny boy.

Then a hand grabbed his collar and he couldn't do a thing to resist the pull as he was hauled to his feet like some drunk who'd passed out on the street.

And now he was standing facing Frank - a ‘Frank' who was looking awful blurred. Frank was enjoying this all right – his nose might be bleeding but any fool could tell he could sniff a victory and he was about to make the most of it.

Well, Johnny had his pride. He tried to straighten…had to get ready for the blow…but everything was going sort of numb and he was so damned tired. Frank's fist was getting closer…hell, did he even care?

Dios,  the baby…Gabrielle…Mary Beth…

 


Chapter Five

Johnny pulled himself up, thanks to Frank holding onto him by his shirt at the throat. He had to do…something…couldn't leave Gabrielle and …Mary Beth and her kid to the mercy of these damned… mountain men. Joe he wasn't so sure about.

Everything was swimming in and out of focus. That kaleidoscope he'd looked through once was an awful lot like this; all he could see was a blur of light and dark and somewhere in the middle of that mess was Frank's bloody face leering at him and going round and round and round.

Frank drew his arm back and Johnny tensed for the punch that was about to come his way…

“Let him go.”

A trickle of hope – that's all those words caused – but it was enough to wash away some of the blurriness.

Frank didn't let go of Johnny; he pulled him in closer until that bear fur around his shoulders just about tickled Johnny's nose. But at least he didn't hit Johnny.

“An' jest who might you be?” Frank wheezed, looking over Johnny's shoulder. It turned out that Frank's breath was better than any smelling salts for clearing a head if you could stop yourself from heaving; now nothing was spinning when he looked up at Frank.

“I said, let him go or I'll use this.”

Johnny risked a quick look back towards the mission. It was still a bit blurry but he could see that Joe had come out a few feet from the doorway, with the empty shotgun held rock steady in his hand and aimed at Frank's belly. For a man who hadn't had much experience shooting at people, Joe sounded like he meant what he said.

Another quick glance showed Miles and Gold'n's hands were hovering near their guns but so far they hadn't drawn them. Things could get ugly here real fast if they decided to do just that.

Johnny looked up at Frank. “You'd better listen to my friend back there, Frank. He never misses and that light up there is pretty bright. He could shoot a fly off your shoulder at this distance.” Joe probably wouldn't take too kindly to being called his ‘friend' but he'd take the liberty seeing as Joe's gun was pointed at Frank and not him.

Frank growled low under his breath like a cougar that had just had its dinner swiped from under his nose. He wasn't happy.

Now that his sight had cleared, Johnny could see his gun out of the corner of his eye. It wasn't far from his right boot. But when his eyes flicked back to Frank's, he could see that Frank had seen the gun, too. And Frank knew that Johnny had seen it…and Frank knew that Johnny was just itching to get his hands on it.

Johnny tried lifting his hands like he was surrendering. “Look, I'm not aiming to shoot anyone if that's what you're thinking. Not unless you mean harm to a couple of women and a baby.”

“An' jest what makes you think we're gonna trust the likes of you?” Gold'n spat. “Seems to me a woman and a kid'd make a pretty good cover for what you got planned. It don't take a blind man to see the way you wear your gun.”

Baa…baa.

Johnny's head jerked around – and so did Frank's.

Baa baaaaa.

Into the clearing in front of the mission wandered a sheep of all things…and then another.

“Well, I'll be,” said Frank, letting go of Johnny. “Looks like we got ourselves some supper, brothers, if we can catch one o' these here critters.” And that's just what he set about doing.

Johnny didn't waste any time picking up his hat and his gun but the brothers didn't even seem to care now. They were busy lumbering around in circles trying to catch a couple of sheep who clearly didn't want to be caught.

Johnny was pleased as he put his hat back on his head then checked his gun: at least he hadn't been imagining things before. He was sure he heard a sheep bleating somewhere outside the mission from the time he got here; he was beginning to think that Eric had done something worse instead of just giving him a lousy headache. Well, at least Scott wouldn't have to be worrying anymore – if that brother of his ever got back here.

Scott.

He scrunched his eyes shut and put a hand to his forehead. Dios, Scott had said something about going home to get Murdoch…something about being worried about Johnny's head. It must've had something to do with this lump that Eric had given him. He groaned. What a Christmas Eve this was turning into. And Teresa had wanted them to come straight home.

Johnny opened his eyes and looked around to see Joe still standing there with the rifle pointed at Frank. At least the girls had had enough sense to keep out of sight but there was no telling what might happen if the baby started wailing again.

“You can put your gun down, Joe,” he called, about to holster his own. Hell, the rifle was empty anyway.

“And that sounds like a real smart idea,” said a new voice, close by.

Johnny spun around. Two men were riding into the clearing – both carrying guns and both aiming them at him and Joe.

Joe looked to Johnny and all Johnny could do was nod his head. Joe dropped the rifle.

Damn-it. They'd been set up. No wonder Frank and his ‘brothers' – if that's what they really were - hadn't cared if he'd picked up his gun or not. They must've been in cahoots with these others two. Not that the newcomers looked anything like mountain men – more like drifters who were fast with a gun and on the lookout for a fast buck.

“You deaf, boy?”

Johnny hadn't seen this third man. He was older than the other two - and more scrawny and he wasn't riding a horse. He could have appeared from thin air but more likely he'd been hidden from view by the fog and trees until he walked into the light.

“Nope, I ain't deaf.” There was nothing else for it - Johnny dropped his gun. And as he did he noticed something else: the two riders now had their guns trained on Frank and his brothers and the two sheep had stopped running and were now trotting - if sheep ‘trotted' – up to the two on horseback like they were old friends. Or even shepherds maybe. These three were a whole lot cleaner than the mountain men but that didn't make them any less dangerous. In fact, from the way they carried their guns, Johnny had an idea that they might be a whole lot worse.

Frank and Gold'n looked plain mad through and through. Miles was cringing behind them like he wanted to run out into the fog and dark and not come back. Johnny could see his mouth working but no sound came out, then Miles' eyes fixed on the light in the tower – as if he'd somehow get help from there.

They were going to need help from someone.

 



 Chapter Six

“Damn-it-all ta hell, Frank. I told you to shut yer darned big bazoo in town, didn't I? Well, didn't I?”

Gold'n wasn't taking any notice of the gun held on the three mountain men as they stood in a half circle next to Johnny and Joe. He was ready to have at it with that brother of his.

“An' if you hadn't been foolin' around with that little gal we woulda been here hours ago and not lost in all this dang-blamed fog.”

“Gentlemen.” The scrawny one smiled. “You can sort out your differences later – after you've handed over your ‘offering.'”

Offering? That seemed like a strange word to use but one of them had talked about meeting the padre, hadn't they?

Johnny looked towards the mission door. They were only about ten feet away from it now but he couldn't see any sign of the girls. He hoped they'd taken the baby and gone and hid out in the belltower. Or better still, headed out the back way and hid behind a bush in all the fog.

“Hey, I wasn't the one who took his eyes of Miles and let him get so liquored up he could hardly sit his horse.”

“Come on, just get it out. Which one of you has it?” The older of the other two waved his gun at them. They'd dismounted and stood a little away from the other man. The sheep had found a bush to munch on now they weren't being chased.

“Didn't the big one say the Padre was gonna meet them, Deek?” the third man asked. Well, he was more of a kid, really. He looked twitchy – but not twitchy because he was scared. And Johnny didn't like the way he held his gun.

“I ain't foolin' with no padre, Deek. Now, which one of you has it?” He walked up to Frank, then Gold'n. “Hurry up, or Ralph here just might start getting impatient. An' he's got a real itchy finger at the best of times.”

“They're sure ugly bastards, ain't they.” Ralph smirked. “I doubt anyone'd be too upset if they never got back to their little ole camp up in the hills.”

Frank and Gold'n looked at each other. Then Frank nodded. But neither of them looked too happy.

“You want all of it?” Gold'n asked through clenched teeth.

Deek sneered. “Well, what do you think -  Cyclops.

The droopy eye twitched when Deek said that name. Even Johnny, with his lack of book learning, knew what it meant. Frank started that low, rumbling growl again but this time he was fierce enough to even make Deek take a step back. It was only Ralph cocking his gun that made Frank go silent. But unless he was mistaken, they'd made a bad mistake these three. A wounded grizzly was always the most dangerous.

“Aw, forget about it, Frank,” Gold'n said. “Come on, let's get this over an' done with.” He looked at Deek. “It's all in our packs.”

Deek prodded Gold'n. “Well, what are you waiting for? Go and get it.”

Joe was close enough to lean towards Johnny. He clenched his fists and spoke in an undertone. “There's only three of them and five of us.”

Johnny shook his head. “Yeah, but that's three with guns against five without. That's not exactly the type of odds I want to take on when Mary Beth and Gabrielle are inside the mission.”

“Hey, you two there. You just shut up – ya hear me?” Deek and Ralph had followed the brothers over to their horses – that just left the older one guarding Johnny and Joe. And Johnny was tempted - real tempted – to make a move. He took a deep breath. Nope, for the girls' sake it was just too risky. His head felt a lot better but that fight with Frank had taken a lot out of him – and he'd need to be clear headed and fast to take on these three alone. But with Frank's and Gold'n's help…and even Joe…well, they had a chance when the time was right. So, for the time being he just stood there with his hands on his hips and dug the back of his boot heel into the ground. Just marking time.

It took a few minutes for the brothers to get their offering out. Whatever is was, they were handling it with care.

Deek gave his gun to Ralph to hold, then took the parcel wrapped in paper from Frank. He unwrapped it – and Johnny held his breath.

“Well, what the hell is this?” Deek was holding a mason jar in his hand.

“Yeah, what kind of a joke is this? That ain't no treasure,” the one near Johnny said.

“Stop your bleating, Sam. You sound worse than those sheep. You boys been preserving fruit for the padre?” Deek asked, like he didn't care one way or the other.

“You wanted our offering. We gave it to you,” Frank growled from somewhere under that beard of his.

“Fruit, huh? So I guess you can always go and preserve some more.” Deek held the glass up high like he was ready to smash it on the ground.

“No!” both Frank and Gold'n yelled.

Deek looked pleased with himself. “See, I told you it wasn't fruit. So, what is it?”

Frank clamped his mouth shut, looking madder than ever. That rumbling was starting again.

“It's oil,” Gold'n said, coming forward with another mason jar.

“What, lamp oil?”

“Nope. Eucalyptus oil in that jar an' this one's got Pepper tree oil in it.”

Even Johnny was stumped by that one. “What the heck?” he asked Joe, under his breath.

Ralph was openly laughing by now. “Ooh, that's a good one. We followed these three lunatics out here in all this fog for some jars of oil. If that don't beat all. Serves us right for listening to scuttlebutt. Let's just kill'em now, to make this worth our while.”

“It isn't worth nothing,” Joe said quickly.

“And what do you know about this, boy?” Deek asked.

“My mother uses these oils. She pays a good price for Eucalyptus oil. She uses it for fevers and colds and cuts and soap making. Same with Pepper tree oil. She swears by it for toothaches and my grandpa uses it for his rheumatism.”

“Well, next time I get a toothache I'll come runnin' to the padre, then,” Ralph grinned but his eyes were stone cold dead. “Let's kill'em.”

“You ain't seen the gold, yet.” The words sounded forced through Frank's mouth.

But Miles sounded worse – he sounded like his throat was being ripped apart. He'd fallen in a heap on the ground and was moaning like he was possessed. Next minute he'd be frothing at the mouth if they didn't do something.

Johnny looked at Joe. “Don't even think about it.” Ralph had his gun trained on them both before they even had a chance to make a move. “You don't think I'm gonna let Johnny Madrid get the drop on me, do yah?”

Johnny smiled at him. “I don't know. Why don't you try me? You've got a pretty big mouth with a gun in your hand. Why don't we even the odds a little?”

“Uh uh, Johnny-boy. I've heard about you. Even seen you in action a coupla times. You didn't do half-bad against Frank here but comin' up against a mountain like him must've dulled your edge. I wouldn't want to be taking no advantage.”

Johnny never liked being back-handed – especially by a deadbeat kid like this one. And damn, it stung.

Johnny slowly put a hand to his mouth, wiped it, then looked at the blood on his fingers. “I guess I should thank you for being so considerate.”

“Any time, Johnny-boy. Any time.”

Miles had quieted down by now. Gold'n dragged the small box Miles had been holding away from him, while Frank held him still.

Deek took the box and tucked it under his arm. “We'll trade you, lunatic. You can keep your precious oils and we'll just take the gold.”

Johnny watched him carefully. It was odd that Deek didn't look inside the box – unless he already knew what was in it? Or maybe he didn't want the other two to see what it held because he didn't aim to share? Whatever the reason, he'd started walking backwards towards his horse. It was out front of the mission, quite close to Barranca.

“So what're we gonna do with these five?” Sam asked, looking around. “Deek, you ain't gonna leave'em here are yah? They'll talk.”

Ralph looked across at them. He was a mean looking kid – but how much of that was talk? And suddenly he felt real bad about Teresa back at Lancer busy cooking and fussing and him not there to make her happy. That was all women seemed to care about at Christmas – that they had their family around to fuss over them.

Deek called over his shoulder. “Okay, Ralphie. Looks like you got yourself some fun.”

Ralph was looking at Johnny real hard now, like he couldn't take his eyes off him.

“For God's sake – it's Christmas Eve,” Joe burst out.

“Hey, that's right,” Deek yelled as he stowed the small wooden box in his bedroll. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman let nothing you dismay, Remember Christ our Saviour…” he started singing at the top of his lungs.

And then out of the night came Eric. He didn't paw the ground, he didn't blow a head of steam, he just came charging at full bore. Johnny had never seen anything like it. For the moment he even sympathised with Deek when he saw the sort of thump the bull could give – and  had  given once tonight already. Deek never stood a chance. And neither did Ralph. Johnny's boot hit Ralph's hand while he was staring at Deek or Eric or both and the gun went flying through the air, landing in front of Joe. He didn't waste any time in picking it up.

“Here you go, Johnny.” Joe was smart enough to keep the gun aimed at Ralph while he moved across and handed it over.

“An' we got this one, Johnny,” Gold'n called out.

Frank was holding Sam by both ankles while Sam shrieked and wailed like a girl. “I didn't do nothin'. I wasn't gonna do you any harm. It's Christmas Eve, ain't it!”

Frank looked at Gold'n. Disgust was writ all over his face. Then they both turned to Miles.

Miles was still crouched on the ground but he began to sit up straighter and then his eyes went to the light that was still shining up in the belltower. Frank didn't look happy – and neither did Gold'n – but after exchanging looks, Frank let Sam fall to the ground with a thud. Frank then frisked him for any guns or knives while Gold'n went through his saddlebags and bedroll.

Johnny and Joe did the same to Ralph. Deek still hadn't moved. It looked like he'd be out for some time. Unless he was dead and he never woke up. The thought didn't bother Johnny too much just then.

There was still no sign of the girls. Johnny didn't want them running out here and complicating things any.

Ralph was pretty cool. He'd just stood there with his hands tucked in his belt and watched what was going on around him. But the twitches were still there.

“So Madrid, what are aiming to do?” The voice wasn't sounding quite so confident now. Johnny peered at him. Ralph was really just a kid.

“You got any family, Ralph?”

Ralph looked taken aback by the question. “What do'you mean?”

Johnny spoke slowly. “Family: mother, father, sisters…”

“Yeah, I got family. I got me a ma.”

“Where does she live?”

“Silver Springs.”

“Silver Springs, huh?”

Ralph nodded.

Johnny pursed his lips and looked down at his boots. Teresa would want them shining bright as a new pin for tomorrow.

“You ever killed anyone, kid?”

Ralph had that sneer down pat. “What's it to you?”

“I owe you a backhand kid. Don't tempt me. Now, did you ever kill anyone?”

Ralph's eyes dipped. “Nope. I don't reckon I ever have.”

“Your ma always done right by you?”

A look of shame crossed his face. “My ma'd still darn my socks if I asked her.”

“You reckon if you rode fast enough you could be there by morning? In Silver Springs I mean?”

Ralph looked confused. “Yeah…I suppose I could.”

Johnny grabbed him by the arm and let him feel the strength in his fingers. “You wouldn't get lost in all this fog, would you?”

Ralph looked hard at Johnny and Johnny stared back until a flicker of understanding – and maybe relief - crossed the kid's face. “No, sir.”

“No sir, what?”

“I mean, no sir, I won't get lost.”

“Fog can be a tricky thing - it's easy to lose your way. Good thing is, there's always a way back. You just gotta find it.”

Ralph was nodding now and this time his eyes weren't looking confused. He didn't look totally convinced but at least he seemed to be thinking on what Johnny had said. “Okay, kid. Get goin'. You've got a long ride ahead of you.”

Johnny watched Ralph stumble across to his horse like his legs could hardly carry him. Those first steps on the way back were always the hardest. Once he'd mounted, Ralph looked back at Johnny  – then he dug his heels in and rode out.

Sam had been put on his horse – backward - by Frank and Gold'n and Deek had been hauled over his saddle, still dead to the world. Johnny supposed that someone had bothered to check him – but maybe not.

Then both horses were given a whack on the rump and they galloped off into the night – the two sheep baaing and following them.

Joe and Johnny watched as the brothers picked up the two mason jars of oil and the small wooden box. Funny, these mountain men didn't look nearly as big now. Then the five of them stood there looking at each other under the light from the belltower with the fog and the dark still pressing in on them from either side. Funny how you can feel a kindred feeling for someone but not know anything much about them.

Johnny shuffled a bit then cleared his throat.

“My name's Johnny Lancer. We…my father and brother and I… own a ranch about a forty minute ride from here.”

If they wondered about the name, neither Frank nor Gold'n said anything.

“My name's Joe Carpenter. I'm travelling to San Francisco with my fiancée and her baby.”

It was kind of awkward shaking hands all round, but they did. Then Johnny and Joe stood there looking at the mountain men again…and waiting. If ever he was curious to hear someone's story, Johnny was sure curious now…

 



Chapter Seven

“Johnny, are you all right?”

“Joe, is it safe to come out yet?”

The girls were standing at the door of the mission, Mary Beth holding her baby and Gabrielle with her arm about Mary Beth's shoulders. They looked cold and worried.

Johnny and Joe raised eyebrows at each other – then looked back at the mountain men who'd walked a few feet away so that they could talk without being heard. Well, Frank and Gold'n talked – Miles just stood there and every so often he'd look up at the light in the belltower like it was his salvation or something and then his head would drop again. It was pretty clear, though, that the other two were trying to talk him into something.

“What d'you think they're up to?” Joe asked, looking in the same direction as Johnny.

Johnny shrugged. “I don't know. I just hope they don't decide to eat us for supper.”

Joe grinned. Well, that was a first. Still, it usually turned out that most men had a sense of humour somewhere, if you looked hard enough. “By the way, I owe you one for sticking your neck out with that empty shotgun of yours.”

“You don't owe me nothing, Madrid.”

Then again, maybe he was wrong.

Joe squared his shoulders. “You came out here to face these men for the sake of the girls' and Mary Beth's child and I thank you for that. I was…I was proud to stand by your side.” He stuck out his hand.

“I was doing a fair amount of falling flat on my face as I recall.” Johnny shook Joe's hand then nodded in the direction of the mission. “I think the girls ought to wait in there a bit longer. At least until we know some more about these three.”

“He's right, Mary Beth. You'd best stay inside for now.”

Neither girl looked happy. Johnny watched as Joe led Mary Beth back inside. That just left Gabrielle standing there in the doorway – all alone. So Johnny took his hat off and walked up to her.

Wrapping his arm about her and pulling her into the shadows seemed like the only thing to do when she was looking so down. “I'm sorry about all this. Just as soon as Scott gets back, we'll take you home.”

His words didn't seem to cheer her up much. And if it had been anyone else, he would've said those pouting lips of hers were just begging to be kissed.

She sighed, then put a hand up to his cheek. “Ooh, Johnny, look at your poor face.” Her touch was feather light as she ran a finger along his jaw. “We were so frightened for you. Mary Beth and I were getting ready to throw rocks at them.”

“You were, huh?” Her touch on his face was kind of distracting.

And then she ran a finger across his lips. “Are you sore here?” she whispered.

“Mmm…maybe…” He closed his eyes.

“Perhaps we should find out…”

He couldn't say he'd never heard a line like that. Couldn't even say he'd never set himself up to hear a line like that. All the same…coming from Gabrielle? Had he heard right?

“Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny Madrid? A warning bell sounded somewhere in the back of his mind, but her breath against his ear felt way too sweet to listen. He whispered in her ear, “Gabrielle,” then tightened his grip about her waist and started drawing her in even closer. Besides, you just had to look at her to know she wasn't one of those women who wanted a piece of him because of his reputation with a gun.

“Johnny, they're coming back,” Joe called out right then.

Dios.

He opened his eyes and looked down. Gabrielle was staring up at him - all innocence and perfection and ready to kiss him. Trusting him.

“Johnny,” Joe called again.

He turned around to see Joe striding out the door, still holding that empty shotgun.

“I've gotta go, Gabrielle. You go wait inside with Mary Beth and don't come out unless we say.”

He went to walk away but she wouldn't let go at first - then she let her hands trail all the way down his arm until she got to his hand. She covered his hand with her two smaller ones. “Be careful.”

He couldn't walk away and leave her like that. So he kissed her. Just the once. And on the cheek. But she must've had the softest skin his lips had ever touched. “I'll be seeing you. Now head inside.”

He didn't look back at her. He didn't think he'd ever leave the shadows if he did that.





By the time he'd joined Joe, the mountain men were standing in front of him. Well, Frank and Gold'n were – Miles was a little behind them. For a few seconds, everyone stood there just staring at each other again, until Frank jabbed Gold'n in the ribs with his elbow.

Gold'n glared at Frank and rubbed his side. “Ow. I thought you was gonna start this powwow.”

“We agreed that  you  were.”

Gold'n grumbled a bit more but then he looked at Johnny with his one good eye. “Frank, here, ain't too good at apologies – or backin' down, as you can see by that nose a' his. An' we didn't knows you was a rancher – we thought you mighta been somethin' else.” His eye wandered to Johnny's rig.

“Well, I used to be something else at one time. Not any more, though.”

And that brought a big grin out on Gold'n's face. “We'ell, don't that just go to show. Miles said we oughtta trust yah.”

“Yeah, he's always been the best of us when it comes to judgin' people. Ain't yah, Miles.”

Miles shuffled forward because his brothers were prodding at him but his face didn't show much. It was doubtful there was much in his head to show. Considering he didn't seem to talk, Johnny had no reason to believe a thing Gold'n said about Miles' approval of him.

“We don't know what it was you said to that hardcase, Ralph, but Miles here was a'listenin'. That's why he said we oughtta trust yah.”

Johnny's gaze switched to Miles but Miles face still showed nothing. But it was a fact only Miles' would've heard what he said to Ralph. And then he noticed that Gold'n was squinting at him now. In fact, when he looked around, both Joe and Frank were looking at him real curious as well. He supposed they wanted to know what he'd said to Ralph.

He ducked his head and shrugged. “I just did what my old man woulda done if he'd been here. He's a big believer in ‘second chances.' And it  is  Christmas Eve.” He shrugged again. He didn't want to tell them what he'd said to Ralph. He wasn't one to think things through much. That was Scott's job. He just did what he did. And sometimes he got it right and sometimes he got it wrong. Who knew, maybe Ralph was riding off to find more trouble – or maybe he was headed straight home to his kin.

“Well, I'm sure glad I didn't give  you  a second chance, Johnny.” Frank grinned, and patted Johnny on the head like he was a good boy. “You sure pack a hell of a wallop for a little feller.”

Gold'n chuckled. “Yeah, you sure woke up the wrong passenger, Frank. When Johnny came at you after you'd slugged him, I thought for the minute that he was about to clean yer plow.”

Johnny put up with the head thumping but he put his hat on and moved to the side as soon as Frank took his hand away. A pat on the head from Frank was enough to fell a man. And his head really didn't need any more grief right now. And it didn't help that he could sense Joe grinning and enjoying the situation.

It was like talking to two grinning grizzlies but Johnny was starting to get used to their size. Having Murdoch for a father helped. “Well, I gotta admit, Frank had me seeing stars.”

Gold'n slapped Frank on the back when he heard that, just about raising a cloud of dust from the bearskin. Frank was liable to split his mouth if his grin got any wider. It looked like these two didn't get praised too often if that was all it took to get them this worked up.

Johnny scratched a spot near his temple. This might be as good a time as any to get some answers. “Ah, you mind telling us just what it is you're doing here?”

The smile dropped from the brothers' faces and Gold'n got nudged to do the talking again but he looked even more reluctant this time. “We ain't told this to no-one else, ‘cept the Padre.”

“Well, ‘cept when the liquor does the talking,” added Frank.

“Sometimes it jest becomes too big a burden to carry, yah know?”

He knew something of carrying a burden but it had been a long time ago. “I guess I know what you mean.”

Gold'n and Frank took big breaths under their buckskins and furs and nodded their heads. Miles just stood there. But no-one started an explanation and Johnny was just about ready to start shooting something if they didn't cut to the chase soon. He was getting a crick in his neck from looking up at them this long and he hadn't forgotten Gabrielle waiting for him back in the mission. “So why were you bringing an offering to the padre?”

Frank dropped a hand onto Johnny's shoulder. “It's because of what happened to Miles.”

“It weren't Miles's fault though.”

“An' he were jest a kid at the time.”

Johnny looked at Joe – this didn't make any sense to him either by the looks of it.

“Perhaps you should start at the beginning,” suggested Joe.

Frank took his hand off Johnny's shoulder and gave Gold'n another elbow in the side. “You tell it, Gold'n.”

Goldn's eye drooped more than ever. “We…ell, it all started the worst night of our lives. It was Christmas Eve, twenty years ago. We'd lost our ma and pa that year to the fever, an' Miles an' us had come into town to go to Midnight Mass an' light a candle for our folks.” Frank's hand shifted to Miles's shoulder now and he made Miles shuffle forward so that he stood between Gold'n and him.

“We don't rightly now what happened next. Frank and me was waiting outside and we didn't know anything was wrong until the flames were licking all the way up the walls and then little Miles come out and fell down at our feet with half his clothes burned off and sobbing something awful.”

Goldn's voice had got more and more scratchy as he went along – until now it broke all the way. “He didn't mean it – and how was anyone tah know that she'd gone an' left her baby asleep behind the pews? But no one knew till it was too late.”

Dios. Johnny could see it all in his mind.

He'd seen big men cry before - big, tough men like these even. Tears had a way of bringing them down to the same level as everyone else. But Miles didn't cry. Wherever he was, he was someplace else, not standing on this very spot twenty years ago.

Frank took out an old bandana and scrubbed at his face, then passed it to Gold'n, before he took up the tale. “The padre was real good about it. Miles was only thirteen when it happened and he made sure no one knowed that it was Miles who'd been in the church. The padre knowed it musta been an accident. They buried the poor little babe and we got Miles patched up but…but our Miles never talked again.”

Johnny couldn't help but look at Miles again. Dios, how did a kid of thirteen live with that all their life? Well, he guessed they didn't. It looked like part of Miles had gone away a long time ago.

“So that's why you bring an offering?” Joe asked. “As recompense for your…?”

He stopped on that word – and even if the brothers were as hazy as Johnny as to what ‘recompense' meant, they all seemed to know what the next word was going to be. You only had to be within hearing of a Padre and you were bound to hear the word ‘sin' bandied around once or twice.

“The Padre was hoping it'd make Miles feel better…”

And fill the church coffers no doubt.

Gold'n broke in. “…if we was to bring an offering. So we worked all that next year. Did some prospectin' and trappin' and Miles was happier away from the town. Seein' a baby would set him off somethin' dreadful.”

“An' the only thing that seemed to make Miles happy was working towards bringin' our offering down each year.”

“So's that's what we done – for twenty years now. We jest keep enough fer ourselves to live on and the rest we bring down here.”

Johnny remembered what penance was all about – but Madre de Dios, he'd never heard of it going on for a man's whole life. He shook his head at that.

“The gold I understand…but what's the oil for?” Joe was asking.

“Well, Miles never was much good at prospectin' or trappin' but he's always had a head for understandin' the forest and what grows and how to fix hurt critters. He learned all the oil stuff from an old guy we helped one time. Said he was a…a…what was that word Frank? Boater or something?”

“Bot-nist. He said he were a bot-nist.”

It sounded like the sort of word Scott would know but Johnny was still trying to work out how they could spend their whole lives, year in, year out, putting their ‘offering' together; bringing it down here for the padre, then going back to do the same thing the next year. Especially when the new mission had been built years back. Dios, just the thought of it had him starting to boil.

And right then, Miles started shaking and pointing.

When they looked around, they could see an old padre in a brown robe coming out of the fog, leading a donkey. He walked past Barranca, gave Eric, who was looking especially pleased with himself after decking Deek, a pat on his rump, and then came across to where they stood.

“Francis, Goldwyn, Miles. How good to see you all. And you have some young friends with you I see.” The padre had a quavery voice. When he came into the light, he didn't just look old, he looked ancient. In fact, everything about him looked ancient; his eyeglasses were a bit bent, his robe was ripped at the bottom and patched in a few places and even the donkey looked like it had travelled at least one road too many. For all that, it looked to be a spry old thing - as did the padre – as they made their way across the clearing.

But instead of looking pleased to see the old man, Frank and Gold'n were frowning and any minute, it sounded like Frank was about to start growling again.

“You're not Father Miguel,” Gold'n said, with Frank rumbling something beside him.

He was right. Father Miguel was Mexican. It was hard to pick where this padre was from. His skin was lighter than Johnny's – more like creamy, faded parchment, but he had a trace of some sort of accent. Not like Scott's. Some other country, maybe?

The padre put his eyeglasses further down his nose to look over the top of them at Frank and Gold'n. “Yes, you're quite right. I'm not Father Miguel but will you look at these! Did you ever see anything as beautiful this time of year?” The little guy beamed at them all, somehow managing to take in all their faces as he held up a handful of  Flor de Noche he'd taken from the donkey's pack . “The ‘Flower of the Holy Night.' You should appreciate these, young man. Your country has some lovely traditions wrapped up in the Flor De Noche, Johnny.”

Johnny couldn't fault the padre's Spanish, but he stiffened when he heard his name. He hadn't met a padre yet who wasn't a nosey pain the butt. It looked like this one had made it his business to find out who-was-who as soon as he hit town.

Frank was almost hopping from one foot to the next by now. You could just about feel the ground shake. “Well, where the hell i s  Father Miguel. We hafta see him – right now.” He looked across at Miles who seemed to be shrinking further and further into his buckskins and furs.

The padre's face dropped when he heard that. “Ah, that might be a bit of a problem then. You see, Father Miguel is no longer with us…”

“He got moved some place else?” Gold'n sounded hopeful.

“Ah, no, Goldwyn. For your sake, I'm sorry to say, that Father Miguel was greatly blessed and went home to be with our Lord.”

“Um…Padre?” Johnny pointed to the padre's hand. His donkey was having a grand old time making a tasty supper of the Flor de Noche.

“Oh, bless me.  Bethlehem!  He  is  rather fond of them.” And he started a tug of war to get them from Bethlehem's mouth. “But before Father Miguel died,” he said over his shoulder with a bit of a grunt, “he told me  your  story. Oh bother.” He let go of the Flor De Noche and Bethlehem happily chomped away on the last of them. “Oh well, I can always pick some more.” And he started fossicking in the pockets of his robe.

Johnny and the others waited.

In the end, Gold'n said,  “Padre!”

The little guy looked up, shifting his eyeglasses again to stare at them all. “Oh, bless me.” He looked surprised to see them all standing there. It looked as if the Padre would be following in the footsteps of Father Miguel before long. “Bethlehem should have reminded me that you were there.”

Johnny looked at Joe. Joe raised an eyebrow.

“Now, now, think kindly of the aged, Johnny Lancer.” The Padre came up close and waved one of his bony fingers in Johnny's face but a twinkle never left his eye. “I'm sure you've spent some time, here and there, talking to your horse. Most of us do at one time or other you know.”

Only Murdoch could make him feel like this. “Sorry ‘bout that, Padre.”

“Padre, this is real important,” Frank interrupted, taking his coonskin cap off his head then starting to twist it in those huge hands of his. Any minute now the big man would be down on his knees.

The padre looked serious. “Francis, I  do  apologise. Now, where were we?”

“You were talking about Father Miguel,” Johnny reminded him.

“Ay, yes, yes, yes. Thank you, Johnny. That's right.” The Padre turned to the brothers. “Father Miguel wanted to make sure that I'd light the lanterns for you so that you'd be able to find your way in the fog.”

“So we can hand our offering to you then, Padre?” Frank started to look hopeful again.

The little padre. “But first I have a duty to perform here.”

Whatever else Miles might be, he didn't seem to have trouble understanding what was being said. As soon as he heard this, he reached into his furs and buckskins and pulled out the small box that Deek had tried to take. Then, holding it in both hands, like it was full of something valuable, he carried it across to the padre. For a moment there, he looked like he was about to kneel – but he didn't, just stooped down and handed it over.

The padre took the box. “Thank you, Miles. Let's see if this offering will be large enough to wash away your guilt.”

Johnny cringed at those words. Talk about laying it on thick. No doubt the Padre would be spouting about ‘sin' any minute now. It was a pity – for a minute there he'd thought he might be different to the other padres he'd met; the ones like Father Miguel. Still, Johnny was impressed with the way he opened the box – he took it in his hands like it was fit for a king or something and covered in jewels. But up close, it was only a battered looking thing with a broken hinge and torn, faded red velvet lining. Lying inside the box, was a brown leather pouch that looked like it had seen better days as well.

They all watched in silence as the padre tipped the contents of the pouch onto his hand. Out came some bank notes, a few coins and a couple of tiny gold nuggets that couldn't have been worth more than maybe a lousy hundred dollars. Madre de Dios, they'd worked their fingers to the bone for a few lousy dollars. And they were going to give it all away. Every cent they had.

The padre raised his eyebrows, then looked at Miles. “This is all you have to show for one year's work?”

“There ain't much need for skins no more. You gotta know that, Padre. An' then Miles took sick an' we had to buy him some medicine and we didn't have much luck with our prospecting. Gold'n broke his leg last July an' we had to stay round near the cabin till it healed enough for him to walk. But is it enough? We was hopin' that this'd be the last year? That maybe we woulda paid off Miles's debt this time. That's all we got.”

The old padre looked disappointed all right. “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Such a lot of effort and so little to show for it.”

The Padre had the facts right but maybe that wasn't what Scott would call the most ‘tactful' thing to say right now. The brothers looked crushed.

Gold'n shuffled forward. “Padre, we was hopin'  real bad  that this'd be the year that Miles…” He and Frank looked at each other. “Padre, he ain't talked since that night. We was hopin' that once the debt was paid, well, that he might start, you know, livin' again.”

Couldn't the padre see they'd given up any chance they had to live some kind of normal life - get married, have a passel of kids - all for the sake of Miles? Dios. Johnny's throat ached and he swallowed.  He  had a brother.

But the padre just seemed to be treating things like it was all some kind of a joke that he and Bethlehem could share. “My dear boys.” He shook his head then took off his eyeglasses and gave them a spit and polish on the sleeve of his robe.

Johnny wanted to flatten him – even if the old guy was a padre and it was Christmas Eve.

The padre stuck out his bottom lip and shook his head two more times. “If someone had kidnapped Miles that night, how much would you have paid to get him back? One hundred, one thousand, two thousand dollars? Everything you had?” The little old padre held his glasses up to the light and squinted at them. He wasn't even looking to see what his words were doing to the brothers.

But Frank and Goldwyn had both nodded at that last amount. They didn't even need to look at each other.

“Exactly.” The padre looked pleased with them both then turned to the sack the donkey carried. He was probably looking for his bible to hit them over the head with it – just like a regular Gospel sharp. Johnny could hardly bear to look at Miles. Any moment he expected Miles to start his wailing again. Hell, the padre might just as well have ripped his heart out as say all that he'd said.

Frank and Goldwyn had shrunk a foot apiece. “Yer right, Padre. There ain't nothin' we could do to pay for a debt like ours.”

Johnny had had enough. “Dios, Padre, is that the best you can do?”

Even Joe looked disgusted. “Miles was just a kid when it happened. He never meant to do any harm.”

The padre just about had his nose in the donkey's pack but when Joe said that he stopped his fossicking and popped his head out, quick as a bird. “Oh, dear. I forgot to tell you, didn't I?”

“We don't wanna hear no more,” Frank said. No rumble, no growl. He talked like a man that was already dead.

“Miles, Frank, Goldwyn. I came with a message for you tonight: ‘Peace on earth – goodwill towards all men.'”

None of the brothers would even look at him.

The padre's face was beaming now. “Boys, go in peace. Your debt has already been paid.”

It was Frank who looked up first. “What in blazes are you talkin' about? First you tell us there ain't nothin' we can ever do – an' now yer tellin' us that the damned debt has been paid. Wel, make up yer damn blasted mind, will yah.”

The padre tucked his hands into each opposite sleeve and rocked back on his heels a few times. “Um, well, I'm somewhat embarrassed to have to admit that Father Miguel made a mistake when he made you bring your offering.”

“A mistake?” growled Frank.

“Yes, Francis. Hmm…how best to explain this?” He muttered the words, absently patting Bethlehem on the neck.

Johnny was tempted to tell him to ask the donkey – it would probably make more sense. Hell, the padre could've come up with something better than this. Whatever happened to absolution and signs of the cross?

The padre finally turned to the brothers, his hands pressed together like one in prayer. “Boys, let me explain it to you like this…”

And in spite of himself - Johnny hoped.

And one quick look at the brothers showed that they were hoping, too.

The padre looked up into the faces of Miles and Gold'n and Frank - and smiled at them like a father would who cared about his kids. “You see, boys, this debt was paid for before it even happened; why do you think a child was born in a manger all those years ago?”

“I don't get it,” Frank blurted out.

“Me neither,” Goldwyn said.

The words of that carol Scott had been singing came back to Johnny. He never had understood all that stuff. Two long tears coursed down Miles' face – but he must have understood something, because underneath the beard and all that dirt and sweat, it was like the sun had come out on his face.

 



Chapter Eight

Frank and Gold'n grabbed hold of Miles and hugged and slapped each other.

Johnny knew what a smile could do: a baby's smile gave him the strength to keep his mouth shut when the rurales came at him with their fists and sticks, wanting to know who else had been a part of the failed revolution he'd got caught up in.

Joe went inside to the girls and the padre came over and stood near Johnny with his arms folded and a satisfied look as he watched the brothers. “There's no better present than the gift of peace.” Johnny looked at him. He probably owned nothing more than a patched robe and a worn-out donkey but he looked like a happy piece of work. It also struck Johnny that the padre wasn't looking or sounding quite so doddery now. It made a man think.

“I've got a feeling you've been playin' games with us, Padre.”

“My boy, sometimes it's wiser to come in the back door when you've got something to say, otherwise you risk having the front door slammed in your face.”

Johnny pushed his hat back further off his face to get a good look at him. “You mean to say that all that dithering was nothing but an act?” At least the old guy had the grace to look even a little embarrassed behind his eyeglasses at being caught out.

“Johnny, I've found that a truth ‘unearthed' is usually held dearer by the discoverer, than a truth that is simply handed to them on a silver platter. The latter seems to have the habit of simply blowing away with the first puff of wind.”

“So you sort of ‘beat around the bush' before you get to the point, huh? Ain't that a bit sneaky, for a padre?”

His eyes twinkled again. “None of us is perfect, Johnny.”

Johnny kicked a rock by his boot. “Father Miguel sure wasn't by the sound of it.” It skittered across the clearing and out into the night and made Bethlehem turn his head.

The padre sighed, giving the donkey a rub behind its ear. “Don't be too hard on him, my boy. We all start this journey with good intent.”

“Yeah, but some of us don't finish it too well, do we?”

“Just be sure your own journey finishes well, Johnny – but so far, you seem to be taking the right paths.”

Johnny ducked his head. He wasn't so sure of that.

“And speaking of journeys…” The padre tugged on the rope and Bethlehem walked forward a couple of steps. “I think I need to talk to Joe Carpenter about one.”

Johnny looked towards the mission. He hadn't had much time to think about Joe and Mary Beth and their little one, but now that he did, it didn't seem right for them to be travelling in all this fog and it being Christmas Eve and all. But from what Mary Beth said, it sounded like Joe's folks showed him the road, and all because he wanted to marry Mary. Sure, townsfolk would talk because she was carrying another man's baby – but if you gave people enough time, most of them were pretty good at forgetting. “Padre, maybe you can talk some sense into Joe. This is no night for them to be…”

“Johnny,” the padre interrupted him softly. “I think we're about to discover if there's a strong wind about.”

Johnny turned to see what the padre was looking at – and saw Mary Beth walking out of the mission and into the light thrown down by the lanterns in the belltower. She was headed straight towards the brothers, with her baby in her arms.

Johnny wasn't so sure that this was a good idea.

Frank and Gold'n were the first to see what she was up to. They looked at each other like they weren't sure either, but then Gold'n shrugged and grabbed Miles by the shoulder, forcing him to look at who was coming.

Right then the baby let out a bit of a squawk and you would've thought Miles had just seen someone's throat cut by the look on his face and the trembling that took hold of his limbs. With the bearskin about his shoulders, he looked more like a wild animal than ever.

“It's okay now, Miles,” Gold'n told him. “Don't take on, so.” But his brother was mouthing ‘no' and getting ready to run. And he would have, too, if Frank hadn't got behind him and grabbed hold of his arms and made him stay.

“There ain't nothin' to be afraid of,” Gold'n kept saying, like he was calming a skittish horse. But Miles looked scared all right. And the more he struggled the harder Frank held him in place.

Mary Beth was only a couple of feet away from him now.

“Here, Miles,” she said in a clear, steady voice, “I want you to see my baby.”

Johnny looked back towards the mission to see what Joe thought of all this. He'd followed her out but he was standing back and that told Johnny a lot.

As soon as Mary spoke, Miles stopped struggling – but he looked frozen now. The only part of him moving, as Mary Beth walked the last couple of steps, was his eyes – and they were wide with sheer terror.

Mary kept walking. “You can't hurt him none – not by just lookin' at him. I know you'd never want to hurt him.” 

He had to admire Mary Beth's grit. The mountain men were big and ugly and stank worse than a family of skunks but Mary Beth stood in front of them, talking to Miles like he was no different than a man she might meet at a church social. She was talking too softly for Johnny to hear but she had Miles under her spell – or the baby did – because after a while, Miles leaned forward, and took a look at the bundle she was holding in her arms. Mind you, he could have been reaching out to pet a rattle snake he looked so fearful.

Mary Beth just smiled up at him. The little fellow was still awake because Johnny could see an arm waving out of the bundle. And after a few minutes, Miles started to look less scared - even almost happy. And then Mary Beth had to wreck it all by holding out the baby for Miles to take. Johnny sucked in a breath. He could have told her when you were taming a horse you had to take it slow.

“Have faith, Johnny,” the padre murmured.

Johnny looked around. He'd forgotten the old man was still there.

“She's goin' too fast. He can't take it – not after all these years. It takes time to settle into something new.”

“Sometimes a bit of a push doesn't hurt. Just because we don't like it, it doesn't mean it's not good for us.”

Johnny looked at him. He couldn't work out if the padre's words were as innocent as they sounded. Why did he have a feeling they were directed at him as well? And then Miles moved. “Well, will you look at that.” Sure enough, Miles had reached out and now that little baby was nestling in his arms and cooing like it didn't have a care in the world, while Mary Beth looked on.

“I guess you were right, Padre. Mary Beth sure…”

And that was as far as he got before the ground started lifting and pitching him sideways. If it hadn't been for the padre grabbing hold of his arm, he would've fallen flat on his face.

“Johnny, you're looking quite woozy, my boy. I think we'd best get you inside the mission where you can lie down.”

“I'm okay, padre. I've got to see to getting Gabrielle home and…” They were the only words he could get out. His mouth didn't want to work right now.

“Johnny? Padre, is he all right?” Gabrielle came along the other side of him. He could feel her arm around his waist. It had been years since he'd been too drunk to sit a horse after a night in town – but he could still remember that it felt an awful lot like this.

“Let's get him inside, my dear. He probably just needs a good rest.”

That was exactly what he needed. His aching head was crying out for a soft pillow and a dark room. That whack on the head he got from Eric must've been harder than he thought. He'd be the laughing stock of the ranch if this got out. Scott would never let him live it down. Neither would Jelly for that matter.

Between the three of them, he managed to shuffle inside. When they got inside the mission, Joe grabbed hold of him and the padre let go, which was just as well because Johnny had been doing his best not to put any of his weight on the old guy, as frail as he looked.

He'd never felt happier about getting inside a church and sitting on a pew…well, lying on a pew was more like it.

Gabrielle's hand was soft on his face. She was asking him something…and he wanted to answer her…but he was just so damned tired.





“Mary.
  Go to Bethlehem!”

It was the tone of the voice that woke him – but the words themselves had him thinking of  Las Posadas and Santos Peregrinos and dusty Mexican villages and Flor de Noche and el Nacimiento.  But all that was another lifetime ago; when he'd been plain little Juanito, just one of the many poor kids who played in bare feet and lived on the outskirts of town.

He kept his eyes closed and rubbed his nose. Something was tickling him. Maybe that's what had woken him. Of course, it could be Jelly getting back at him for that time he'd snuck into the old man's room with one of Dewdrop's feathers and...

“Johnny. Lie still. You're hurt,” a voice whispered in his ear.

When he opened his eyes, Gabrielle was staring down at him. He took a quick look around. It was still dark outside by the dingy light inside the mission – so maybe he hadn't slept too long. For now he was content to just lie there and look at her. Gabrielle had her hand on his chest and for the moment that was a good place for her hand to rest and it made it easier for him to ignore the arguing that was going on somewhere.

When he moved his head he realised someone had put a fur under it to cover the hard wood. His head   still ached but it seemed to be improving.

Gabriel pushed the hair back from his forehead. “Does your head still hurt?”

“No, it ain't too bad now.” He couldn't say the same for his heart – it was doing cartwheels and pumping way too fast. She smiled down at him and ran her hand along his cheek and he almost stopped breathing.

“Here, maybe you should take some of this.”

He squinted up at the bottle she held in her hand.  “Ain't that Murdoch's present?”

“That's right. ‘Beaumont's Elixir.' The bottle says it can ‘cure a headache and a hundred and one other maladies.'”

Johnny eyed it. He'd never tasted a medicine yet that he'd enjoyed taking. Besides, it was Murdoch's present. “What if my ‘malady' happens to be the one hundredth and second?”

“But Johnny, it might help you feel better.” She was running her finger around his ear, now.

“Nope, I'm not using Murdoch's present.” But his resistance was weakening, especially when her finger started trailing its way down his neck where his shirt was open.

But right then the voices in the church got a whole lot louder.

“But Joe…”

“Mary, get on Bethlehem. We're leaving.”

“Joseph Carpenter, I'm telling you to come home right now.”

Dios,   pumpkins!

The cartwheels stopped and so did any warm, sleepy feelings. He grabbed hold of Gabrielle's arm. “What's going on out there?”

Gabrielle peeked over the pew in front of them. “I think that's Joe's mama. She showed up a short while ago and the two of them have been at each other's throats ever since.”

This time when Gabrielle tried to keep him down, he pushed her hand away and sat up. Joe's ma wasn't looking anywhere near ready to pull in her horns.

“Ma, I've been over this with you and Pa this afternoon. I love Mary Beth. I'm not leaving her.”

Joe helped Mary Beth get settled on the back of Bethlehem but Joe's ma wasn't looking anywhere near ready to pull in her horns. Those pumpkins of hers puffed up like a bellows every time she took a breath and the feather in her silly, blue hat quivered like it was alive. “Joseph, if you'll just give me a chance to explain.”

Joe turned and looked at her this time. “Explain? Yeah, I'd like to hear you explain what you were thinking when you got Matt and John over there to give Mary Beth five hundred dollars under the proviso that she leaves Morro Coyo and never shows her face around here again.”

Her face, and everything else about her, sagged. “That was your Pa's doing. He thought Mary Beth was after your money.”

“I know. And that's why we're not taking any of it with us.”

Joe took the little one from the horse trough and placed him in Mary Beth's arms. She looked down at her baby then looked at Joe – and all Johnny could see in her eyes was trust and love. It was like she and Joe were the only people in the world right then. Joe was a lucky man all right.

Johnny looked around. “Where's everyone else?” he said out the side of his mouth to Gabrielle.

“The padre left after leaving Mary Beth the donkey,” she whispered back. “Did you know that both Mary and Joe are on foot? They're planning to walk out of the valley and keep walking until Joe can find some work to pay for their stagecoach tickets to San Francisco. That's the craziest thing I ever heard.”

It sounded crazy to Johnny as well – but not when he looked at Joe. “A man like Joe's got a lot of pride in that straight back. What about the mountain men? Where are they?”

She shuddered and screwed up her face. “Those awful men were in here for a little while. They said they wanted to say goodbye to you. I think they're outside getting their horses ready to go.”

Joe was leading Bethlehem forward now.

“Joe, at least take the horses I've brought with me for the two of you. You can't go all the way to San Francisco on nothing but a donkey.” Mrs Carpenter wrung her hands.

“I'm sure it's been done before, Ma. And if I can't have your love and your trust, then I don't want anything from you.” He stopped right in front of her. “So I guess it's good-bye.”

And this was all wrong. Johnny knew it. Maybe he recognised that look in Joe's eyes because he'd made this same mistake himself. Maybe he'd even seen that same look in Murdoch's eyes that Mrs Carpenter was giving Joe right now. He swung his legs to the ground and stood up in the pew – and it was the first time Mrs Carpenter noticed him.

“Johnny Madrid. What are you doing here?” Just looking at Johnny made that feather in her hat quiver even more.

“And it's a pleasure to meet you again, ma'am, too.” Okay, maybe he stretched out his drawl a little more than usual – but even Murdoch couldn't object to the words he used. And he was trying to be understanding – just like Murdoch had asked him all those months ago. He'd said that she really  did  do a lot of good work in the valley; helping out when someone was sick and baking goods for those who needed them. He'd told Johnny she was the kind to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dirty if there was a job to be done. He'd put his hand on Johnny's shoulder – “She just isn't quite so forgiving when it comes to ex-gunfighters. Her eldest boy lived by his gun for a while. Died that way, too.” He'd forgotten about all that. It had been a good while since he'd had anything to do with her – other than that time when Scott and he set her up in Baldemero's.

Joe frowned at her. “He goes by ‘Lancer' now, ma – not Madrid.”

It was probably wise to say nothing to Mrs Carpenter, so Johnny just gave Mary Beth a bit of a smile, then turned to Joe. “Joe, don't you think it's kind of cold out there for Mary Beth and the baby? Why don't you come back with me to Lancer? Maybe we could work something out?”

Joe held out his hand. He looked grateful but Lancer clearly wasn't far enough away from his own ranch. “Thanks Johnny – but no thanks.” He shook hands with Johnny. “I think the sooner we leave this valley, the better.”

Damn, Joe was so stiff-backed; no way was he going to bend. And Joe's mother didn't look much different – even though she looked crushed right now. “I've got a few of the boys with me. Joe,” she said, in a small voice. “I'll get them to leave the horses – just in case you change your mind.” She took one last look at him, then she pulled her shawl about her and walked out of the mission – almost colliding with Frank and Gold'n and Miles as they walked in. Their bulk made the burnt out church feel smaller. Miles looked a bit wary when he walked in – but mostly he just had eyes for Mary Beth and her little one.

Frank held out his hand. “Johnny, we come to pay our respects to you all afore we leave. We sure are pleased to have met you, Johnny. Nothin' like meetin' a man we'd be pleased to ride the river with.” He grabbed Johnny's hand and shook it like he was trying to shake his arm off but Johnny grinned through it all. He'd taken a liking to Frank and his brothers. He wouldn't mind riding the river with them himself.

“Yeah, Johnny, we'll look out fer yah next time we head down this way. We be sure glad to know you.”

“Thanks Gold'n.” Goldwyn's handshake was gentle as a lamb's compared to Frank's. He'd probably be able to draw his gun this time next week – once the bruising wore off.

Then Miles shuffled forward but he went to Mary Beth seated on the donkey. He was carrying the beat-up wooden box. Without a word he held the box towards her.

Mary Beth hesitated – and Johnny liked her all the more for it. He could see she understood the honour but also knew it was just about all the money the brothers owned in the world.

“Miles…I…” She smiled at him, with tears in her eyes. Miles took off his coonskin cap and nodded at the baby, then held the box out again.

“Miles was sorry that he weren't wearin' his best bib and tucker, ma'am but we told him you wouldn't mind none,” Gold'n said.

“And I don't mind. I don't mind at all.”

“He jest wanted his last offerin' to be to the little one, there. We came by it honest, ma'am an' that's the Simon pure.”

“An' we'd be real honoured if you'd take this, ma'am,” Frank added.

And then all three brothers looked at her expectantly from under their beards and grime.

Mary smiled at all three of them and anyone would've thought she was receiving a treasure chest of gold the way she took the box from Miles. “Thank you very much, Miles. I feel real honoured – and I'll tell my baby the story of this night, every Christmas Eve.” Then she held out her hand for Miles to take.

Miles looked at it like his heart was about to burst out of his chest, then he took her hand in his big, grimy paw and bent down and kissed it.

Johnny knew Mary Beth didn't think too much of herself, but he couldn't think of many people who wouldn't be calling her a lady right now.

The brothers got ready to take their leave and Johnny was just about to say goodbye when he thought of something. He didn't know what made him do it – but he grabbed the bottle Gabrielle had left on the pew. She'd put it back in its paper wrapping and it looked pretty much the same as when Hobbs had handed it to Scott and him.

“Here. Merry Christmas,” he said to the brothers, handing the package to Frank.

“Is this a present?”

The brothers looked at it like they couldn't believe their eyes.

“For us?” Gold'n asked sounding even more amazed than his brother.

Johnny shrugged. “Sure.”

Frank shook his head and stared at the package. “We ain't never got a present before.”

“Not since our folks passed on,” choked out Gold'n, staring at it as well.

“It ain't much.” Johnny shrugged again. “Just a little something that might come in handy sometime.”

Frank nudged Gold'n. The big man looked too choked up to say anything himself.

“My brothers and me, we would like to thank you, Johnny.” Gold'n said, pulling himself  to his full height and saying each word in a louder voice than usual.

Johnny gave him a grin and a thump in the arm. “My pleasure. Now get goin'.”

They said a few more thank you's as they trooped out and called to Mary Beth and Joe to look after the little one, and then they were gone.

Gabrielle stared after them. “Well, I never.”

Johnny turned back to Mary and Joe. “Well Joe, at least you'll have enough for your stage tickets now. If you insist on taking the donkey, I could get it back to the padre, once you're on the stage.”

“Thanks. I'd appreciate that Johnny.”

“Joe,  wait.”

Everyone turned and looked. Mrs Carpenter came back in the door and ran up to Joe. “I've made a terrible mistake. Both your pa and me.” Joe's face didn't change any – but Johnny had an inkling he was feeling hopeful. “And Mary Beth, I'm sorry for judging you so harshly. We'd be honoured to welcome you and your baby into our family…if you'll let us…and forgive us?”

Mary Beth's face went white. “I…of course…nothing to forgive…”

But Joe was hesitating. “What made you change your mind, ma? Were you standing at the door when the mountain men were in here?”

Johnny wondered that as well. The way Mary Beth had treated Miles showed that whatever mistakes she might've made in the past, she was a good person who deserved another chance and any family should be proud to welcome her.

But Mrs Carpenter looked blank at his question. “I don't know what you mean. When I got outside I went straight to my buggy. I tried to drive away – but I just couldn't.”

“Oh, Ma.” Joe held out his arms and his ma walked into them while Mary Beth looked on with tears in her eyes.

“Well ain't that something,” Johnny said to her quietly as he took the baby so that she could get down from Bethlehem.

“This is the first time I've ever truly felt that it really does exist.”

Johnny looked up from the baby. He sure was a cute little thing. “What's that?”

“Peace on earth…goodwill towards men.”

He knew what she meant. It had been a long time coming in his life as well. Not until Murdoch had brought him home and set him back on the straight road. 

They were both quiet for a moment.

“Hey, you never did tell me the name of this little feller,” he said, holding out a finger for the baby to catch hold of.

Mary Beth smiled down at her baby.

“Emmanuel,” she whispered.

Matthew 1:23
Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name  EMMANUEL , which being interpreted is, God with us.






Chapter Nine

“Well Gabrielle. I'd better see you home,” Johnny said, reaching across to pick up his hat from the pew he'd been sleeping on. The fur they'd put under his head was still there and he left it. No doubt someone else sleeping here one night would be glad to use it.

The mission was quiet now – lonely even - after all the comings and goings from before. The lamp Gabrielle had found for him had run out of oil and that left only the flickering light of a single, almost burned down, candle.

Joe and Mary Beth had left, taking Bethlehem with them. Joe had been a bit worried about leaving them here alone but Johnny told him Scott and Murdoch should be turning up soon. And even if they didn't, his head was feeling much better.

The donkey had left a ‘calling card' but when he looked around, the dung and the strip of fur were about the only signs that anything had happened in the mission that night.

Johnny had just put his hat on his head when he felt Gabrielle come up behind him and wrap her arms about his waist. She rested her head against his back. “Do you have to take me home right now, Johnny?”

Poor kid – she must be cold and tired after a night like this. It must be well past midnight by now. He twisted in her hold to face her and suddenly found her lips very close to his. “Yeah, we gotta go,” he breathed out, “Your pa must be getting worried about you by now.”

“But this is the first time we've been alone, Johnny,” she murmured, undoing his top button and slipping her hand inside his shirt.

“Gabrielle?” he managed to get out before she grabbed the back of his neck to bring his mouth even closer to hers. Dios, she was about to kiss him. And then she  was  kissing him. And she knew what she was doing – she  really  knew what she was doing.

“I've been wanting to do that ever since I first saw you,” she sighed in his ear when she came up for air.

She was making him so dizzy he could hardly talk. “You have?”

“Uh huh. I was watching through the window when you came to Pa's farm. You've been wanting to kiss me too, haven't you, Johnny. I've seen it in your eyes.”

And he had – from the first time he'd seen her. Only how come he felt like someone had just pulled the rug out from under his feet?

“Oh, Johnny.” She was kissing his ear now and running her hands along the band of his pants, then tugging at his shirt.

He grabbed her by the top of her arms and forced her back as gently as he could. “Gabrielle, your old man  and  my old man'll have my hide if either one of them catches us like this.”

Those pretty eyes of hers opened wide. “My father? Don't be silly, Johnny. He hasn't cared about me in years.”

“You sure about that?” He thought back to the whitewash and the fixed windows and the pot of Flor de Noche on the front step.

“Of course I'm sure. He's pretty much wanted nothing to do with me - ever since my mother went back to the city and took me with her.”

Johnny let go of her arms and took a step back. So that was it. He remembered that look on Murdoch's face when he'd asked him about old man Hobbs. So this was what they shared – this was the thing that had them exchanging presents at Christmas? Funny, he'd never taken Murdoch for the sentimental type.

“Johnny, what is it? Does your head hurt?” She came up close to him again. “I can make it feel better.”

He closed his eyes when her lips started brushing against his neck. “Gabrielle, we shouldn't be doing this.” He tried to close his hand over hers. He had to get her to stop. Right now he didn't know up from down anymore; part of him wanted to keep going and the other part wanted to lock her up and throw away the key until she was safely married. It wasn't that he minded that she wanted to kiss him but…damn, it was like she was a different girl or something…

“Johnny!”

Here was trouble - that was Murdoch's voice.

He looked around and nearly lost his balance – which was just as well as it turned out, because it made it look like Gabrielle was holding him up instead of everything else she was trying to do. At least she was quick to pull her hands away.

Scott walked in next to Murdoch and they were both laden with lamps and blankets.

Scott raised an eyebrow. “Well, you're awake and standing so that's a good sign. And you've managed to find a beautiful young lady to keep you company. How d'you do, ma'am. Scott Lancer.” He smiled and lifted his hat.

Murdoch grabbed hold of his arm and gave him a good once over with his eyes. “Son, are you all right?”

“Sure, I'm fine, Murdoch.”

Murdoch's eyes went to Gabrielle. “Miss Hobbs, how do you do. I'm Johnny's father.”

“Mr Lancer…Scott.” Gabrielle smiled at them both but now she was looking as shy as a newborn kitten. Boy, there'd been nothing shy about the way she'd been pulling at his shirt a moment ago. “Johnny's had a dreadful bump on his head, Mr Lancer.”

And it was too late. He could see she was having the same effect on them as she'd had on him. Dios, she really was no angel.

“Gabrielle!”

Johnny closed his eyes for a second; it was ‘Obadiah Hobbs', of all people. And with his shot gun in hand.

It was too late to tuck in his shirt but at least he could let go of Gabrielle.

Murdoch ignored Hobbs and lead Johnny across to the front pew. “Johnny, come and sit down, son. You're white as a sheet and looking all to pieces.”

“Your shirt certainly is,” Scott added helpfully, lifting an eyebrow for Johnny's benefit as he looked from Johnny to Gabrielle.

Johnny wanted to tell Scott to keep his smart aleck words to himself but the best he could do was throw Scott a dark look as he sat down. It was just as well for Scott that Hobbs was fussing over Gabrielle and hadn't heard what he'd said.

“Gabrielle, you oughtn't have ridden out like that all a…l…lone. It ain't s…safe,” Hobbs wheezed, but Johnny didn't like the way Hobbs eyed him as he spoke.

Murdoch patted Johnny on the shoulder and gave Gabriel his best smile. “Now, Hobbs, the two of them look to be fine. Just as well we met up.” Murdoch looked at Johnny. “We came across Hobbs on our way here. He was looking for Gabrielle and we were looking for you,” Murdoch pushed back the hair on Johnny's forehead to get a look at the bump. “And if you'd told me about  Ericepaius  in the first place, none of this would've happened,” he added in a stern voice to Hobbs.

Johnny's ears pricked at that. “Told us  what  about Ee-ris-ee-whatever?”

Scott turned up the lantern he had in his hand then held it high and passed its light into the darkest shadows of the church. “It turns out Eric doesn't like music – of any kind,” he added, turning back to give Hobbs a dark look.

“N..now, No need to take on again. We h…had this out b…before. You kn…know I was g…goin' to tell your daddy.”

Scott wasn't looking impressed. “When? After most of our hands were knocked out cold?”

Johnny frowned, trying to make sense of all this.

“Oh, Eric ain't b..bad. He j…est…”

Johnny put a hand up. “Hold on a minute.” He stood up and put his hands on his hips and faced Hobbs. “You telling me Eric charges anyone who's singing?”

“Well, he don't m…mean nothin' by it. It j…jest comes natural-like to him.” Finally he caught the look on Johnny's face. “Um…y…yes.”

“You should have told them the reasons you were selling the bull, Pa.” Gabrielle stamped her foot. “Instead of trying to trick them. You told me Murdoch Lancer was your friend.”

Johnny pulled his hat down lower to keep the light from Scott's lantern out of his eyes. “I don't get it. Why did your Pa have to sell the bull?”

“Remember the flyer we were handed the last time we were in Green River?” Scott asked him.

Johnny frowned. He hadn't taken much notice of it since they weren't likely to go to The Palace on New Year's Eve. Although it was probably good for a fight or two come midnight.

“H…here. Take a look at this, Johnny.” It was kind of off-putting seeing Hobbs look so eager, but Johnny took the flyer from him, then smoothed it down so that he could read the fancy print.

“This New Year's Eve,”  he read aloud,  “The Palace of Green River, Is proud to present a con…  'convivial' ?”  He looked across at Scott, who nodded.  “A convivial evening,”  Johnny went on,  “Of Heavenly Music and a Bount-e-ous Re-past. With Special Guest Artist, direct from San Francisco: Gabrielle St John and her Choir of Angels.”

“Now ain't that s…something, Johnny?” Hobbs rubbed his hands together and those beady little eyes of his crinkled into something that could have been a smile.

“Yeah, that's really something, Mr. Hobbs.” He was feeling numb again. His angel was a  saloon singer . And then he felt bad for feeling bad that Gabrielle was a saloon singer.

Gabrielle smiled at him. She was back to looking angelic again and that only made his head hurt more. “So you see, it's important for me to practice every day. Pa warned me not to come out of the house until he'd sold that silly old bull. I guess he didn't trust me; he was worried that I'd forget and then sing while Ernest or whatever his name is, was around.”

“Which is why Hobbs wanted you and Scott to pick Eric up before Christmas Eve, the day Gabrielle was arriving,” Murdoch put in. “Of course, it would have helped if you,” and he gave Hobbs one of his looks, “had warned us and then we'd all be sitting down to the special dinner Teresa prepared for tonight instead of gallivanting around in all this fog looking for Johnny.”

“I'm so sorry Pa caused all this trouble. I'm sure I'd be able to arrange front row seats…if you'd like them,” she added – looking directly at Johnny as if she wasn't so sure of what he'd say.

And to tell the truth, he wasn't so sure right now, either.

But Murdoch was smiling at her. “We'd be delighted.”

Scott could hardly take his eyes off her as well. “I wouldn't miss it for the world. Johnny?”

Scott's boot nudging his own shook him out of his thoughts. Everyone was looking at him. Murdoch looked to be wondering if his head injury was worse than Johnny had said. “Sure, we'll all come along,” he mumbled. “We'd just better make sure that Eric isn't around anywhere.”

She smiled at him but there was a touch of sadness to it this time and that left him feeling like a heel as well.

“Well, c…come on, Gabrielle. I've brought the buggy with me,” Hobbs said, swooshing her out the door with his hands. “With any luck we'll be home before s…sunrise. So, where's the package?” Hobbs wheezed out of a sudden.

“Oh.” Gabrielle looked at Johnny.

“You said in the note you left for me that you was c..catchin' up with the boys to giv'em Murdoch's pr…present.”

“And I did. I gave it to Johnny.”

Johnny didn't look at Murdoch. He had quite a lot to tell his father. “Yeah, she gave it to me.”

That made old Hobbs happy and Murdoch didn't look too concerned about it either way as he pulled Johnny to his feet. “It's time we all went home. Merry Christmas to both of you, Obadiah. And Scott, why don't you tie Johnny's horse to the buckboard and we'll all head for home.”

When Johnny got outside, the fog had almost lifted. Without the fog, the light from the lanterns in the belltower didn't look nearly as bright now.

Johnny leaned against the wall while he waited for Murdoch and Scott to load up the buckboard and tie Barranca up. Gabrielle stood a little in front of him. She didn't look at him and seeing as he didn't know what to say to her that was just as well.

Hobbs went over to check on Eric as soon as he got outside. Johnny watched him. He treated that animal more like a horse than a bull – scratching it behind the ears and saying, “How's my boy,” when he thought no one was listening.

Murdoch gave Johnny a wave to say the buckboard was ready. His head felt okay to sit a horse but it didn't feel well enough to argue with his old man. He pushed off the wall and that's when Gabrielle turned around. “Good bye, Johnny.”  When she smiled at him like that it was easy to forget that she wasn't exactly who he'd thought she'd been. In fact, it was easy to forget his own name. “Have a Merry Christmas.”

“You too, Gabrielle. It's been some night, huh.”

“It sure has. I won't be staying with my father the whole time I'm here. Maybe you can come and visit me in town…one night?”

He toed the ground with his boot. “You'll probably be busy with that ‘Heavenly Choir' of yours.”

“I'd never be too busy for you.” She held out her hand.

“Gabrielle.” Hobbs was already in the buggy and Scott was standing next to it, ready to hand her in.

He hoped her old man didn't notice the way Gabrielle's hand lingered on his when she said her goodbye.

“Well, I'll be seeing you.”

And he realised right then, angel or no, he really was sorry to see her go.

Scott handed Gabrielle into the buggy then placed one of the blankets they'd brought with them about her knees. She blew them all a kiss as Hobbs drove off into the night.

Johnny climbed into the buckboard beside Murdoch. It wasn't Gabrielle he watched as Hobbs drove away. It was Hobbs himself. The old guy couldn't take his eyes off the bull. Murdoch said he'd been trying to get Hobbs to sell Eric to him for two years. And he knew Murdoch had been offering him more than fair price.

Johnny put his boot up on the footboard and rested his arm on his knee. “I don't get it, Murdoch. If Gabrielle's only staying with Hobbs for a few weeks, then why did he sell Eric to us?”

Murdoch gave the reins a flick and set the buckboard in motion. “I think he was hoping that her stay might be something more permanent.”

“She told me that Hobbs hates her.”

“Well, I think he did at one stage. No, not  hate  maybe - but he was bitter for many years. Louisa told him she left because she didn't want the child to grow up in the wild.”

“Just how wild was it back then?”

“Too wild for a dance hall girl from San Francisco. But a fine woman,” he added, as if he thought Johnny was thinking the opposite.

“I never said a thing, Murdoch.”

“Plenty of others have.”

“Does Gabrielle follow her ma?”

“The spitting image. I hear she has a beautiful voice.” He looked sideways at Johnny. “So what did you two do all the while you were waiting for Scott to come back?”

“Murdoch, you wouldn't believe the night I've had.”

Murdoch flicked the reins again. “Why don't you try me?”

Johnny grinned at the tone. “Well, I've been having my own Las Posadas. I met a man called Joseph who was travelling with a Mary who wasn't a virgin; three Wise Men who probably weren't very wise but they could show a lot of people a thing or two about family; some shepherds who weren't interested in looking after sheep; and…and a beautiful angel who turned out to be not quite so angelic as I first thought.”

Murdoch raised his brows. “Sound to me like you've had quite a night.”

“Ooh, yeah.”

He felt Murdoch's eyes on him but his old man didn't say any more - just kept the horses to a steady pace. Every so often one of them would blow out a breath into the cold night. Looking up, Johnny could see a sky full of stars.

He thought back to Hobbs. He'd noticed the look on the old man's face when they were taking Eric from his ranch. It troubled him even more now. “He loves that bull, Murdoch.”

Murdoch sighed. “I know.”

“Gabrielle's got no idea what her old man's giving up for her.”

“You're probably right.”

Johnny turned around. They'd driven in a straight line. He'd still be able to see the light in the belltower from here.

But there was no light. Everything was in darkness.





When they got back to Lancer, Teresa's special meal was still waiting for them. This year for Christmas Eve, she'd had Maria help her prepare some traditional Mexican fare for Noche Buena or ‘Holy Night' – the last night of Las Posadas.

When Johnny walked in the door he found all the food he remembered from his childhood: romeritos, bacalao and sweet and sugary bunuelos and a whole lot of other stuff.  He'd had to explain each one to Scott. “Well, romeritos is baked shrimp and bunuelos is baked cod fish and…”

Scott took it all in and tasted everything and even though everything had been sitting there hours longer than it should have, it all tasted pretty good.

“But no presents, Johnny?” Scott asked, looking around. They were all sitting by the fire now, sleepy from full stomachs and the lateness of the hour.

“Uh uh – that happens on Three Kings Day, brother.”

He was silent for a bit after that. Didn't even realise that everyone was looking at him until he looked up.

“Something bothering you, Johnny?” Murdoch asked.

“Nope, I was just wondering about something.”

He was wondering where those ‘three kings' were now, that he'd met tonight.

Maybe, at long last, their journeying would be over.

Maybe now, they could rest.

And right then, Scott started to quietly sing:

“We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light.”


 



Epilogue

The following week flew by fast. He'd heard that Joe and Mary Beth had got married a couple of days after Christmas. Just a small affair. But he was glad for them both.

New Year's Eve they all drove into Green River to see Gabrielle and her Heavenly Choir. It turned out she could really sing. This was meant to be her big break, instead of singing in saloons in San Francisco. She had a manager for the first time ever - and he'd planned a tour of some of the big towns out west.

Johnny had met up with her a few days before and had a few heavenly hours with her, too. Although it wasn't quite as heavenly as Gabrielle had wanted, he hoped it had still been pretty close. They'd picnicked under a huge oak by the river and it had been one of those winter days when the sun surprised with its warmth. And when they'd got cold, they'd used one of Teresa's patchwork quilts and each other's bodies to keep them warm.

And that was working just fine until Gabrielle's hands reached for his belt. “Gabrielle.” He gently pushed her back on the blanket and took a deep breath.

“Is there anything wrong, Johnny?”

There was hurt in her eyes. And he was sorely tempted to kiss her some more to take the hurt away. “Come on. Stand up,” he said instead, standing up himself then reaching his hand down for her.

There were tears in her eyes now. “Johnny, I told you when we first met – I'm no angel.”

That wasn't what he wanted to hear right now – after all, he was no angel himself and this was hard enough as it was. He put his hand under her chin – then ran it along her cheek, letting his fingers feel how smooth her skin was.

“You've got a beautiful gift, Gabrielle. And you're going to go to a lot of cities and no doubt meet a lot of men.”

She put her head on the side and frowned. He had a feeling she didn't know where he was going with all this. And he tried to think what Murdoch would say to Teresa if she was the one standing here.

“I guess…I guess I'm saying that you want to be able to respect yourself when you look in the mirror each morning. Otherwise you'll find yourself growing old real fast.”

He braced himself. More than likely she was going to slap his face. It wasn't as if he had any right to be telling her this stuff.

For a moment she stared at him – a dark blush replacing the usual creamy colour of her skin. Then she put her head down. “No one ever cared enough to say that to me before.”

Johnny took her in his arms and held her close. “Well, I care.”





A few days later Murdoch and Johnny went to town to pick up supplies. Johnny was just coming out the door of Baldemero's with a sack of grain when he heard Murdoch's voice. “Padre, this is an honour. So you have the task of taking over from Father Miguel? I'm glad to meet you,” Murdoch turned when he caught sight of Johnny. “I think you've met my younger son, Johnny?”

Johnny put the sack down in the back of the wagon. Sure enough, he could see the back of a small figure with a familiar brown patched robe and white hair.

He stuck his hand out as he walked around to face the man. “Padre.”

“Johnny?” a voice said in a thick, Mexican accent. “No, I do not believe we have met.”

Johnny stared at him. “You're the new padre?”

“Si.”

Johnny took a step closer and stared even harder. “So how long you been here?”

The padre beamed at him. “About four days now. Your town is very lovely.”

Murdoch waved his hand about the town. “Morro Coyo is small but it's got a lot of character – and of course it's close to the mission.” The padre nodded and looked around. Murdoch used the moment to growl under his breath, “Johnny, what's wrong? You're staring at him.”

“Sorry, Murdoch,” he mumbled back. Right now his hat was feeling too tight on his head or something. He took it off and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Even after a week he could still feel a twinge when his hand touched the spot where Eric head-butted him. And right now he felt as if the fog was closing in on him again.

He guessed the padre he'd met that night had never actually  said  anything about replacing Father Miguel. He'd just said that the old padre had died. Or else…? Johnny slapped his hat on his thigh. “Padre, you mind me asking you a question?”

“Of course not, my son.

“When did Father Miguel die?”

The padre looked surprised by the question. “It was ten days ago.”

Johnny counted back to be sure. Ten days took the day back to…Dios, Christmas Eve? “And when did you arrive in Morro Coyo?”

“That would be four days ago. And I am very happy to be here.”

“I don't suppose you happen to know what time Father Miguel died?”

Murdoch was looking at him as if that blow from Eric had affected his brain but the padre didn't seem to think there was anything wrong with his question.

“It was very sad. I have been told that every Noche Buena, Father Miguel would make a journey to the old mission to offer up prayers for the nino that died in the fire the night the mission burned, twenty years ago. He was on his way in his wagon when his heart stopped beating. It was very peaceful my son. Nothing to be sad about. You were close to Father Miguel, si?”

“No.” Johnny felt numb. “I hardly knew him.”

Murdoch and the padre shared a few more pleasantries but Johnny hardly heard a word they said. Once the padre had continued on his way, Murdoch turned to Johnny. “What is it, Johnny. You look like you've just seen a ghost or something?”

Johnny kept his head down as he loaded the next sack of grain. “Me? No, I'm fine Murdoch. Just fine.”

“And I thought you told me you'd met the new padre at the mission on Christmas Eve?”

Johnny shrugged. “I must've got it wrong, that's all. You know my head was giving me a lot of trouble that night.”

Murdoch chuckled. “I remember – with your ‘Wise Men' who weren't wise and your ‘angels' who weren't angelic.”

Johnny grabbed the last sack. He didn't want to say anything to Murdoch but, Dios, he had this funny feeling. What if…? Well, what if – maybe - he  had  seen an angel after all?

The sack hit the others with a thump. Johnny stared at it for a good second. And then he had to laugh at himself. What was he thinking? That bump from Eric must've really messed up his head.

He walked over and put a hand on Murdoch's shoulder. “Come on, Murdoch. I'll buy you a beer.”





And so, here they were, heading back to Hobbs's farm. Only this time, Scott was leading Eric. He looked across at Johnny. “It was pretty good of Murdoch to let Old Hobbs buy Eric back.”

“Yeah, well the doc was starting to complain about being called out to the ranch every second day.”

“Yeah.” Scott reached around and rubbed his behind. “That bull can sure move fast.”

Johnny couldn't help smirking.

“Well, I warned you, didn't I?”

After  the event, as I recall.”

“Well, it was your fault for humming some of those songs Gabrielle and her Angels were singing. Or was it one particular angel's song, brother? You and that Sooky seemed to be getting on real well.”

Scott just grinned with his lips shut tight. But after a minute or two he said, “I guess you'll be sorry to see Gabrielle go when she leaves on Monday?”

This time it was Johnny's turn to grin. “Wouldn't you like to know, Scott.”

“Well, I wouldn't waste too much time pining over her, brother. Word about town is that she's got too much class to throw herself at riff-raff ranchers like ourselves.”

“Is that so?”

“Who would've thought a daughter of old Hobbs would have so much class?”

And that made Johnny smile. “Yeah, who woulda thought.”

They were passing under the archway of Hobb's ranch now.

“Well, here we are. Let's not waste any time dropping off this bull.”

Old Hobbs didn't even quibble about the money when he took Eric back. In fact, he paid Murdoch a bonus for taking such good care of him.

“Well, Murdoch said he'd be happy to look after him any time Gabrielle comes visiting again,” Johnny reminded him.

Hobbs gave Johnny a shrewd look. “And I kn…know who'll be the first one ta c…come knockin' on my door when that h…happens.”

Johnny grinned at him. “Well, someone's gonna have to come and pick up the bull.”

Hobbs pointed a finger at him. “Jest c…consider yerself lucky th…that that father a'yours is a fine man. A fine man.”

“Oh, I do consider myself lucky, Mr. Hobbs. Both us do,” he added as Scott walked up to them.

Scott handed the rope over. “Well, there you go, Mr. Hobbs. Eric is all yours.”

Hobbs barely had a word for them once Eric was back. Funny thing was, even the bull seemed to be happier. It had definitely picked up its pace the last couple of miles on the way back to Hobbs's ranch.

Scott and Johnny followed Hobbs into the corral to open the gates for him but once Hobbs led Eric into the barn, Johnny dusted his hands off. He was more than happy to see the last of Eric. The entire ranch had been walking around on tip toes since they'd had Eric because Murdoch had been keeping him in the corral near the barn. Three times he'd busted down the fence because some great galoot had let loose in song.

“So, it's safe to…”

“Uh uh…not yet, brother,” Johnny said, holding a hand up to his lips.

The both listened hard. Then both smiled when they heard the door bang and the board being slid across to shut the damned bull in his stall.

“Whew,” he smiled Scott. “You know what this means?”

Scott grinned at him before vaulting over the corral fence. “I've got a pretty good idea, brother.”

Johnny took a deep breath and sang at the top of his voice:  “I got a ten dollar horse and a forty dollar saddle…”

But he couldn't believe it when he heard the sound of splintering wood. Scott said just one word before he started running.

“Johnneeeee!”







~end~
December 2009

My heartfelt thanks to Lori for her beta work on this story. Thanks amiga! (Of course I've since tweaked so any mistakes are mine.)
Suzanne

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