Christmas Prayers – Epilogue

By Cadillac Red

How the Lancers spent their first Christmas night together.

The log in the fireplace crackled as it burned down, marking the end of the first Lancer family Christmas, at least the first with both his boys home. Murdoch Lancer sipped his brandy with a deep sense of contentment, and gazed at them with unabashed love. His boys.

They had been home just under nine months now, and during that time two grown men he had barely known had become his world. His reason for taking every next breath. He had once thought that nothing was more important than the vast piece of land called "Lancer." Now he knew how foolish that statement had been.

Murdoch had always loved his sons. From the moment their mothers told him they were expecting, he loved the children that were to come. But he had only met his oldest son once before Scott arrived earlier in the year, responding to a summons from a father he could not recall ever meeting. That was a story for another day.

And Johnny, his younger boy, had been taken from him just before his second birthday. Johnny had no conscious memory of his time at Lancer, although Murdoch suspected he occasionally had glimmers of recollection. But Johnny never said, and the father wondered if that was more hope than reality. He had been so young when he left.

By chance the two sons had arrived the same day, as different as any two men could be. And yet, here they were now, brothers in every sense of the word. He watched as his elder son Scott read aloud from "A Christmas Carol." Scott had been pleased and touched to receive the leather-bound book from Murdoch as a Christmas gift and had begun telling his brother and Theresa about it immediately. Murdoch had suggested he read some of it and the three had returned to the story every chance they had today.

Murdoch took another sip of brandy and closed his eyes, letting Scott's warm, clear voice wash over him. Theresa was rapt but Johnny occasionally scoffed. "Christmas ghosts? I never heard 'bout anything like that in my life." Still, he listened carefully, settled on the floor next to Scott's chair. Johnny had gotten up and refreshed his own whiskey earlier, and Scott's brandy. But he made no noises about going to bed, which told Murdoch he was enjoying his first hearing of the Dickens' tale.

Both boys should be exhausted tonight after their recent ordeal. Murdoch had sent them on a trip to Carson City early in December and the kind of winter storm that came to California once in decades had suddenly arrived, delaying their return. He and Theresa had given up on them making it home before Christmas when they rode in, nearly-frozen and covered in snow, with a daft story about having taken shelter in a line shack Murdoch and his Segundo Cipriano knew had burned down ten years ago. And burning posada lanterns that guided their way home during the blinding blizzard.

None of it made sense. But, somewhat out of character, the big Scot had decided that was not important. By some miracle his boys had made it home to spend their first Christmas with him, and he was grateful. He offered a silent prayer of thanks as he listened to Scott finish the story.

"He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards;" Scott read, "and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!"

"Oh, what a wonderful story!" Theresa exclaimed. "And such a wonderful way to spend Christmas, with all of you." She looked fondly at each of the three men in the room and yawned delicately. "And now, I'm for bed. Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas," the three Lancer men chorused, and then they smiled at each other. It had been a wonderful day, just as the girl said.

"It was a good story," Johnny echoed her thoughtfully. And then his face split with the cheeky grin that always filled his father's heart with joy. It had not changed since he was a baby, that smile. "But I'm still not buyin' Christmas ghosts. Or any other kinda ghosts."

Scott laughed, but his eyes drifted to the wooden nativity set on the mantel. He and Johnny had both been shocked to see it there, and swore they had seen the exact same manger and wood figures in the line shack where they had taken shelter from the storm early on Christmas Eve. The very line shack their father knew did not exist.

"Still, there is something…. magical… about Christmas. At least… at least, this Christmas," Scott murmured.

Johnny's gaze followed his brother's, and he bit his lower lip. "Yeah. There is ….somethin'."

Murdoch shook his head. "I still can't explain… well, anything about your story of the line shack. Or the posada lanterns, boys. But… I did always wonder about how Johnny got that figure of the baby Jesus down from the mantle. He was just a year old, just barely walking, so for certain he could not jump up and get it. But he had chewed it down pretty well by the time we found him."

Scott chuckled. "I guess I should be glad I wasn't here to be just another chew toy."

Johnny pretended to glare at him, but a sly smile broke through. "Oh, I got even stronger teeth now, big brother."

"There was one strange thing though. When we put the crèche up the following year, you managed to get the baby Jesus figure again. I found you playing with it the …last morning before,…" Murdoch cleared his throat, and continued. "Even though I had left it on a high shelf to be placed in the manger on Christmas Eve night." He did not mention that Johnny, and his mother, had been long gone before Christmas Eve that year. The big man waited for the pain to come, the rolling waves of regret, anger and grief that went with thinking about his loss of his toddler son, when Maria ran off with another man. But it did not come tonight. Perhaps having Johnny back had healed that open wound.

"What was the strange part?" Scott asked, saying aloud what he knew his brother wanted to know.

"Oh, well, as I said, Johnny was just sitting there, talking to the baby Jesus. Not really words I could understand but as though he was holding a real conversation. I took it from him and said, "How did you get this again, young man?" And he told me Angel had given it to him. That's the strange part. We didn't have a hand, or anyone on the ranch, named Angel. I guess Johnny just made him up."

Scott chuckled, and Johnny smiled. "Maybe it was an imaginary friend. I remember telling my Mama I had a—a… brother. I just remembered that. I told her I had a brother, and he would come and take care of me."

"What did she say?" Scott asked.

Johnny shook his head. "She didn't say anythin'. But my—" he paused, casting Murdoch a side glance—"my… stepfather tole me to stop makin' up stories, or he'd whallop me good. So I stopped sayin' it."

Murdoch exhaled raggedly. "I used to tell you about Scott, all the time. About how I was going to bring him home, and you'd have a big brother. Who would look out for you, take care of you…."

His sons both looked down into their now empty glasses. It was a gesture Murdoch had seen from each of them before but now, well, it was a stark reminder that they were brothers even though they looked so different, and they had spent a lifetime apart. And for the first time, it did not sadden him, it lightened his heart to know they were together at last. Here. In the home he had built for them.

"It seems you remembered some of what I told you, son," he said gently.

"Yeah," Johnny said quietly. "I think I did, even though I didn't remember enough."

"Well, you remember now. And without a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past," Scott said, lightly smacking the back of his brother's head. "I think it's time for me to turn in too…"

Murdoch got up to bank the fire, as Scott offered Johnny a hand up, and Johnny rose and slapped his brother on the stomach. "I'm just gonna think about Christmas Present. Or presents. That's my favorite part of this holiday—"

"Good night, Murdoch," Scott said, shaking his head at the younger man. Johnny echoed "G'night." The two headed up the stairs.

"Merry Christmas, my sons," Murdoch called as he turned down the lamp and followed them off to bed, and a peaceful, healing night's sleep.

A woman's form appeared in the darkened great room, and took shape in the light from the dying fire. Dressed in a soft pink dress, her blond hair fell about her shoulders and down her back. A second woman arrived the same way. This one had long dark hair and wore a similar gown but hers was blue and had Mexican-style stitching.

"Buen trabajo," she said to the first woman with a wide grin that lit her face and warmed her dark brown eyes. "Good work. The line shack was … un milagro."

"A miracle?" Catherine laughed. "Well, thank you. And may I say, the posada lanterns were an inspired choice, too, my dear."

"Muchas gracias, mi amiga," Maria said.

"We did good work with those boys, too," Catherine said. "Getting them home, finally. They are good men…."

"Si. Getting them home the first time was hard. But that snowstorm? Dios Mio!"

Catherine laughed. "Yes. That did require a true… team effort, didn't it?"

Maria smiled.

"And something tells me, we'll be needed again, Maria. For them. And Murdoch. Perhaps again, and again." She slipped her arm through Maria's.

"Por supuesto! Of course! It is good…. To be needed, si?"

"It is. They began to walk back into the fading light from the fire. Catherine stopped. "The crèche though. Did you….?"

"No, not me. I thought it was you—"

Catherine shook her head. "I never thought of it." She looked at the wooden nativity scene she had bought so long ago. Maria's dark eyes followed her gaze.

Suddenly the angel on top of the manger turned her head toward them. And winked. And as the two ghosts of Christmas Past disappeared into the light, a sweet, airy voice whispered.: "God bless them, Every One!"

THE END