Turning up the collar of his jacket, Scott Lancer lowered his head into the sharp, biting wind. The bright warm sunshine of the early morning had vanished as dark grey clouds built in the northwest. The wind driven clouds scudded across the somber sky and an ominous heaviness weighted down the water laden horizon. Rapidly dropping temperatures promised a drenching downpour. It would be several hours before he was back at the hacienda and he had resigned himself to a thorough soaking before he arrived home. He suppressed a shiver as an icy gust knifed through the fabric of his trousers and bit the bare skin poking out at the cuffs of his sleeves. He was glad he had brought gloves, but wished he had added an extra layer beneath the rest of his clothing. Even though the morning had been crisp, the blue sky and sunshine had not suggested the need for more. California in mid- December was not the same as Boston where there was probably already a foot or more of snow. He had allowed the mildness of the early day to lull him into a false sense of security even though he knew how quickly weather could turn during the winter. Even here in California.

He urged his mount to a slightly faster walk. He had too far to travel to demand a more vigorous pace from his horse and the now unburdened pack animal he led at the end of a tether. Sighing, he pulled his hat further down over his forehead hoping to ward off the rain he could smell on the wind. If he was lucky, the temperature would not drop far enough to turn the rain into snow even at this higher elevation. Though a cold soaking might actually be worse. He had taken extra time securing the last line shack and as a result had started for home much later than he had planned. Murdoch would worry when he did not return in the time he had promised, but he hoped it would quickly be forgotten.

Nickering nervously, his horse began to sidestep, sensing the approaching storm. Scott spoke soothingly to the animal. The last thing he wanted was to be unseated by a spooked horse. Behind him the pack animal echoed the unease of his mount.

"And to think I could have spent a comfortable day working around the house," he said to the twitching animals. "You could be in your nice, warm, dry barn and I could be sitting in front of the fire with a cup of Teresa's coffee doing the weekly ledgers."

But that would mean Cipriano's nephew would be out here in the cold wind and right now Alexandro was needed at home with his very pregnant wife. Salina had twice miscarried and this third pregnancy had been long and difficult. She was due at any moment and even though it was normally Alexandro's responsibility to stock the northern line shacks with winter provisions, Murdoch was not going to order him away from his wife. So Scott had volunteered to take care of provisioning the shelters on the northern most borders of Lancer. It was a simple task, would only take two days, and at the time had seemed far preferable to balancing the books. Though, truth be told, as nervous as Alexandro was about his wife's impending delivery, Scott wondered how much help he would actually be to her. Like any other husband and soon to be first-time father, he would probably wear a hole in the floor pacing outside her room.

Scott smiled to himself and was so absorbed in his thoughts he could almost hear the cry of the newest member of Lancer's extended family. It was only when he heard the cry a second time that he sat straight in the saddle and pushed the brim of his hat back off his face. Straining his ears against the wail of the wind, he was certain he had imagined the infant's cry. Some trick of the wind moving through the trees would explain it. He shrugged, pulled his hat back down low over his face, hunkered into his jacket collar and urged his the sorrel forward.

Seconds later he stopped. He had not imagined it. And his ears were not playing tricks on him. He definitely heard the cry of an infant. A human infant. Not a bobcat or coyote or some bird crazy enough to be out in the weather. Twisting in the saddle he listened intently for the sound to repeat hoping he could determine the direction from which it came.

There it was faintly, off to the left. The sound caught between the steadily building roar of the wind gusts and the brief lulls. He knew the path he was following narrowed in that direction then forked into two separate paths. The path to the left led along the edge of a sharp vertical drop and the right hand fork lead towards the Lancer hacienda. When he reached the place where the road divided he strained to hear the phantom sound. The cry came again, broken this time, not by the wind, but by a weakening of the source. Urging his horse along the left fork, he studied the ground looking for any sign of tracks that might lead him to the infant. He wished he knew a fraction of what Johnny did about tracking. Studying the hard ground, he moved forward, praying the baby would cry once more. As he did the first cold splat of rain landed on the ground in front of him. Within minutes the rain was pounding a steady tattoo on the brim of his hat, his shoulders, and the road in front of him. Any sign left by whoever he was following would quickly be obliterated.

Scott was beginning to fear his pursuit was hopeless when he saw the first signs - crushed vegetation at the edge of the trail. Looking farther downhill, peering through the drumming rain, he could see other broken branches and scrapes where the grass had been torn away. Could a wagon or cart have left the path here? The road was barely wide enough to accommodate more than a small cart or buggy at this point and the downward slope of the hill angled sharply. Dismounting, he tied the two animals and began to descend the hill. Slipping and sliding on the quickly forming mud, catching at the broken vegetation to keep from falling he desperately hoped for any sign to lead him on. Then he heard the baby, its voice muffled and less distinct. Pushing forward he almost fell down the hill as he came to a sliding stop against the side of an overturned two-wheeled cart. Protruding from under the cart was the torso of a man, his head twisted at an impossible angle his eyes staring blindly into the rain. Even though he knew the man was certainly dead, Scott touched the icy flesh of the man's exposed neck to assure himself there was no pulse.

Carefully picking his way around the meager contents of the spilled cart, Scott scanned the thick brush for signs of another person. A soft groan caught his attention and he pulled away the brush to see a splash of red fabric peeking out from around a thick tree trunk. Two legs were exposed beneath the fabric. Scott slid the last few feet to the tree and knelt beside the woman leaning against it. She was a young girl, Mexican by her coloring and dress. Across her forehead was a deep gash, blood from which had covered half her face, her lower lip was swollen and a bruise was darkening along her jaw. Her left arm hung awkwardly at her side but cradled in her right arm, wrapped in her shawl was a tiny bundle which chose that moment to scream.

At the sound of her infant's strident voice the young woman's eyes opened. She hugged the bundle to her and shushed the child, talking in a cooing singsong voice. It was only then she seemed to realize Scott was there. She blinked owlishly, trying to focus on his face. For a moment she seemed surprised, but she showed no fear of this stranger.

"Don't be afraid," Scott said as he gently touched her arm. "I'm here to help you. I heard the baby crying and followed the sound." He was not even sure she could understand him, but hoped his tone would convey his concern.

"Por favor, Senior," she said in a rasping voice. "Please. Take my baby. Please." She struggled to hand the infant to Scott.

"I'm going to help both of you. Get you both out of here," he said firmly.

"No." The woman fell back against the tree, exhaustion leaching the color and expression from her face. "Too much blood. She came too fast. Too early." Her breath was a hiccoughing gasp. "Too much blood."

It was then Scott noticed the spreading stain soaking the fabric of the dark blue skirt she wore. It could only be blood and it was too much.

The woman took a deep shuddering breath. "The donkey spooked. Mateo. My husband." she paused choking back a sob, rushing to tell her story. "Soon I will be with my Mateo. We will travel to heaven together. But my little one will not go."

Scott knew in his gut the woman would never survive the trip to Lancer. She seemed to sense the same. "Do you have family? Someone I can take her to?" Scott had very little time to ask questions.

The woman was weakening as she spoke, each word an effort. Shaking her head sadly she said, "No. No family. Only my Mateo. You must care for her."

It was becoming harder and harder for her to talk and Scott found himself bending close to hear her words. Scott swallowed the lump forming in his throat. Even as he admitted she was doomed, he was scheming how he could carry her back up the steep slope he had slid down and transport her back to Lancer. He was not going to leave this infant without parents, without the love of its mother. Not if he could help it.

"You rest. I'll get a rope and blankets to move you."

"No. No. Her name is Hermosa. Hermosa Beatriz Rivera Lopez." Once again the woman attempted to thrust the bundled infant into Scott's arms. "She must live."

Scott knew the minute he accepted the infant, her mother would stop fighting. There was one thing he had to know before that happened. "When she asks me about her mother, what name shall I tell her?" he asked softly.

"Evita."

Slowly, reluctantly Scott slipped his arm under the bundle and lifted Hermosa from her mother's arm. The young woman silently mouthed 'Gracias', sighed deeply, and slumped sideways. Scott felt for her pulse and found nothing. The tiny infant in his arms wiggled. For a moment Scott knelt on the ground. The rain pounding down washed the blood from Evita's face. She was beautiful and so young. Much younger, he knew, than his own mother had been. He should bury her and Mateo. The thought of leaving them exposed to the elements disturbed him. But the chill rain was already soaking through his clothes. First he must honor Evita's dying wish and get himself and his charge to shelter as quickly as possible. Silently, he promised he would come back to bury them as soon as he could. He rose to his feet and quickly looked through the young couple's scattered belongings hoping to find something dry and warm in which to wrap the baby. There were two small carpet bags, one of which contained adult clothing. He grabbed a dry shawl and shirt. In the other was a baby's gown and second blanket.

Huddling in the meager shelter of the overturned cart, Scott quickly removed the sodden wrap that covered the baby. As he did, her tiny face, still covered with blood and mucus from her birth, twisted into a grimace. Her hands were balled into fists, arms held rigid to her sides. Her legs kicked outward and she opened her mouth to scream her indignity to the world. Despite his haste, some of the cold rain splatted against her body making her scream even louder. He knew the best way to keep her warm was against his own skin so he unbuttoned his clothing and slipped her naked body inside the front of his open shirt so she was cradled between the warmth of his chest and the fabric. Her little hands and feet felt like ice as he bundled the dry shawl around her and closed the front of his jacket. Using her father's shirt he fashioned a sling to hold her in position leaving his hands free to climb back to the top of the hill.

It would be a race to get her back to Lancer in the worsening storm. The last line shack was miles behind him and no other man made shelter between here and the hacienda. He had no choice but to head towards home. Glancing once more at the accident that had left Hermosa an orphan, he breathed a silent prayer before turning to the hill. "She's going to make it," he whispered to her deceased parents. "I'm sorry to keep her from you but she won't be seeing heaven for a long while if I can help it."

The slope he had descended in such haste required greater care to ascend. Scott carefully placed his feet, holding on to the brush and smaller trees, determined to stay upright. He dare not fall with his small burden. The child wiggling against him let him know she was still alive. Slowly, he pulled himself to the top of the slope and was relieved to see both his horses where he had tied them, though they had turned their rumps to the steadily driving wind. Talking softly to the animals he quickly mounted, grabbed the reins of the pack animal, turned and backtracked along the narrow path to the fork in the road he had passed earlier. As he rode the wind was at his back, but he knew when he turned towards the ranch house he would be riding into the full force of the storm.

There was no choice for it. He had to get the baby to safety as quickly as he could. As he approached the fork in the road he paused and pulled his bedroll from where it was tied behind his saddle. Wrapping the blanket around his shoulders and over the front of his jacket he hoped the wool would stave off the rain. Water had already soaked through his trousers and dripped steadily from the brim of his hat. Hunkering into the upturned collar of his jacket he ducked his head and turned. The cutting bite of the wind made him gasp. He felt the baby jerk against him. Whether in response to the icy wind or his own sudden gulp of air, he could not be sure. But, he was pleased to note, her hands and feet no longer felt like small blocks of ice against his skin. Now if he could just avoid smothering her in his attempt to keep her warm and dry all would be good.

"You just ride easy, little one," he said softly, knowing full well she could not hear him over the wind. "We'll be home soon. And then you'll be warm. And dry. And fed." He felt Hermosa wiggle again and he chuckled, which made her shift her tiny feet against him as she responded to the vibration of his voice. "Well, if my talking makes you feel better, I guess I can talk. What would you like hear about? Should I tell you about Lancer and the people there? You're one of us now." Part of Lancer's extended family, he thought. "Or maybe you would like a story. A Christmas story. How about 'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house, Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; The stockings were hung by the chimney with careā€¦'"

As he rode Scott kept up a slow steady monologue. He felt the child settle against him. Could just feel the slow rise and fall of her breathing. She was finally warm and asleep. More than could be said for him. The only dry part of his body was his seat and the front of his jacket. So far the woolen blanket was keeping the water at bay. But his legs and arms were icy and his fingers were beginning to go numb with the cold. It would be at least two hours until he reached the hill overlooking the estancia. Another hour until he was sitting in front of that warm fire sipping Teresa's coffee. He urged his mount to a slightly quicker walk, allowing the animal to pick the easiest path along the muddy road. He needed to focus on his goal, on staying alert despite the numbing cold. He knew how dangerous the combination of rain, wind and cold could be. He had seen soldiers succumb as they lay on the battlefield. He had to stay awake. He had to get Hermosa home. Wrapping the blanket more closely around them he began to tell Hermosa the story of the first Boston Christmas he could actually remember, as much to keep himself alert as to comfort her. This would be his first Lancer Christmas. And he had every intention of being there to enjoy it.

~000~