STAVE FIVE : THE END OF IT

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But it was his own bedpost. His own bed. His own bedroom, still in the predawn dark before the winter sun poked long pale fingers through the gaps in his own curtains. His own night candle, guttering to its tiny death in the candlestick.

His own hand turning black before his eyes.

The candle flickered out, leaving him in darkness.

He bit down hard on the words that bubbled up, just in case Teresa was up already and would hear him. Besides, he was turning over a new leaf, remember? He shook the hand rapidly. Nothing broken. The fingers were bruising already and would stiffen up later for sure, but they still worked well enough to twist buttons into their holes and tie laces as he scrambled into his clothes.

He rubbed the uninjured hand over his chin. Bristly, if not to the Jelly Hoskins level of achievement. It wouldn't do to face the future unshaven so he rummaged in the dresser drawer for the spare candle. He could shave in the dark if he had to, but a man shouldn't start his new life with sticking plaster on his chin if he could help it. It wouldn't be seemly.

It wasn't until he was washed, dressed, shaved and ready to face the new day that he let himself think about it.

He still didn't know if it had all been a dream, or if by some benign magic he'd been granted visions of the past, present and future. He didn't care, either. It didn't matter. It had been a hard lesson to see how far he'd cut himself off, how he'd exiled himself so far that he was squandering the second chance he'd been given with his sons. Fool that he was.

Now he had the chance to prove to them that they'd never been abandoned or repudiated. Well, maybe Scott had been a little bit abandoned. Technically. But he hadn't meant it like that and it hadn't been done willingly, however slow he'd been to show them that he wanted them here, now, for more than just to save the land.

Maybe another man would have laughed and cried as he thought about the Spirits and what he'd seen; or frisked and danced as he dressed himself, delighted with his chance of a new life; or flutter and glow with his good intentions; or twitter about the glory of church bells and a cold dawn. But that wasn't Murdoch Lancer's style. He was too big for frisking and fluttering. Besides, he hadn't changed that much. But he did stand for a moment beside his dresser, after he'd taken several things from the top drawer, staring hard in the looking glass to imprint on himself the memories of everything the Spirits had shown him. A sharp nod to his reflection was all the sign he needed to complete the bargain. That, and a silent moment of gratitude to Paul O'Brien.

Downstairs the house was quiet, the rooms still dark but for a sliver of golden light under the kitchen door where Maria Morales was already getting breakfast. He walked through the great room, needing only the dimmest of light to thread his way through the furniture. He was grinning when he passed the spot where the Second Spirit had reclined on its couch of agricultural produce. Of all the things he'd seen that would leave their indelible mark on him, the sight of Sam's bare chest had to be the most unwelcome.

Well, almost the most unwelcome. It was entirely possible that The Little Darling of the Sierras won that race.

It struck him that he didn't know what day it was. Paul had said that the Spirits would come to him over three consecutive nights, but there had been no correspondingly consecutive days between them. Of course, Spirits were mostly active at night, he supposed, so perhaps they just dispensed with the hours of daylight in Spirit world? Whether they did or not, it had been a confusing sort of time sequence and he wasn't at all certain he'd kept accurate count. But whatever the day, there were a couple of people he needed to see. He walked down the passageway to the back door, and out into the yard.

Someone came out of the barn as he crossed the yard: Jelly Hoskins, holding a lantern low and bathing his feet in yellow light. He jumped when he saw Murdoch, then drew himself up, stiff and defensive. His shoulders hunched as if ready to ward off a blow. Murdoch knew now what Jelly was expecting, this odd, pugnacious little man who expected nothing but blows, but who had been all that stood between half a dozen children and complete, feral destitution. Looked at in that light, Jelly wasn't so bad.

He could have wished for a Jelly to help Johnny, all those years ago, when his twelve-year-old son walked out of the mission orphanage and disappeared into the border towns. Johnny could have done with a Jelly Hoskins then.

"Boss," said Jelly, caution and curiosity at war in his tone.

"Jelly." Murdoch looked the little man up and down. "Jelly, what day is it?"

"Eh?"

"What's today?''

"Today, boss? Why, it's Christmas Day."

Murdoch let himself smile, broadening the grin when he saw Jelly take a step backwards in consternation. Of course the Spirits had managed everything in a single night. Of course they had. "I haven't missed it then."

"That ain't too likely." Jelly hesitated. "You okay? You seem a mite confuzzled."

"I've been damned confuzzled, Jelly! Look, I want you to do something for me. Do you still have all that greenery in the barn?"

Jelly nodded, but he looked wary.

"Good. All right, you aren't going to church this morning, I take it? I want you to do me a favour while we're at church and then..." He hesitated, looking at the frightened, lonely little man before him and changed the 'And ask Maria to give you some Christmas dinner' to "And when we get back, I'd like you to join us for the Christmas meal, Jelly. I heard you're a mean checker player and I'd like some real competition. Neither of the boys is much good at it. That all right?" He hid a grin at Jelly's slack-jawed astonishment, gave him his orders for the morning and walked on across the yard, conscious at every step that Jelly was staring after him with his mouth open, astounded into silence.

He reflected that he'd better make the most of it. It wouldn't be often that Jelly Hoskins was struck dumb.

Cipriano, by contrast, was a man of few words and those were measured and weighed. Just as in the vision, he and Isabella were sitting alone in a house so full of the fragrance from Isabella's kitchen that Murdoch had to wonder if she had slept at all since the final Posadas the night before. She greeted him with grace, but Murdoch saw the sidelong glance she gave her husband. This was unusual behaviour from him, he knew. He accepted the cup of chocolate caliente she pressed on him, and the three of them sat and drank in comfortable silence for a few minutes while Murdoch gathered his thoughts and the Roldàns waited politely to be told what it was he wanted.

"It's about the hands," he said, abruptly. "I was... I wasn't at my most generous yesterday, Cip, and I've thought better of it since. I know that we arranged for some extra food for today, but there's nothing in that out of the ordinary for them. It's just more of the usual. That's not sitting well with me this morning and I'd like to do more."

Really, Cipriano's fixed stare was more than a little unflattering.

"Trouble is, it's late to get in very much more for them. I thought I'd talk to Higgs about opening up his place for me after church and I'll bring back tobacco, and fruit and candy. But I thought you'd be able to come up with some ideas for making today more of a holiday."

Cipriano turned the fixed stare onto his wife. While Murdoch was secretly pleased to have cracked that imperturbability at last, it really wasn't flattering at all. Cipriano cleared his throat. "Perhaps things to amuse them, Patrón? Cards, and checker boards, maybe a few dime novels." Cipriano smiled at last. "Although maybe not dime novels about the Border Hawk, eh?"

Murdoch snorted out a laugh. "I've heard Johnny's opinion on those. If I brought one of them home, I think he'd shoot me, Christmas or not. Good idea, Cip."

Isabella glanced over her shoulder to the kitchen door. She gave a soft laugh. "With regard to food, Patrón, I cook for a multitude, every time. So does every other woman on the estancia. We will deal with that. Leave it to me."

"Thank you," said Murdoch, and though it wasn't fulsome, it was heartfelt. He swallowed the last of his chocolate and stood up to go. They rose with him, still looking as if they couldn't quite grasp what was going on. They deserved to know. Murdoch said, with some difficulty, "You said to me yesterday that it was time for me to change, Cip, and I told you I couldn't. I've learned since that I was wrong and you were right."

Cipriano smiled and nodded his approval, and the expression in his eyes was warm and affectionate. He didn't ask Murdoch to explain himself, but just accepted what was offered. But to Murdoch's everlasting astonishment, Señora Isabella, for all her proud reserve and poise, reached up and laid her hands on his shoulders. She looked into his face for a long, quiet moment before nodding and stepping back.

"Bueno," she said, simply.

It felt like a benediction and maybe he should bow his head, like being in church. It was certainly an uncomfortable emotional moment that would have any man desperate to escape. From the amusement on her still-beautiful face, the Señora knew exactly how he felt as he took a couple of steps backwards, his face flushing.

Not looking where he was going was his undoing. He trod on something hard and almost lost his balance, arms flailing. Isabella swooped to rescue whatever it was under his feet. The small wooden horse of his vision.

"Arturo's," said Cipriano, whose hand had shot out to grasp Murdoch's arm until he regained his equilibrium.

Although Murdoch didn't know if he'd ever quite achieve that again, he was grateful for the assistance, and said so. He took the little horse from Isabella, adding that he wanted to be sure his big feet hadn't done any damage.

The toy was old and battered, and needed repainting, as Cipriano explained. "It was Jaime's long ago, when he was Arturo's age. I thought I would find time today to paint it. Arturo says it needs to be a palomino now."

"Like Barranca?" Murdoch grinned.

"But this is Barranca, Patrón." Isabella gave him a kind look when he stared, confused. "Jaime and Johnny would fight over it, when they were very small. Johnny always wanted to keep the horse and Jaime wouldn't let Barranca go."

All Murdoch could do was to repeat the name, his big fingers closing over the toy. "Barranca?"

Cipriano touched the toy horse cradled in Murdoch's big hands, and then gave Murdoch the gift of something he'd hardly dared hope for. "Johnny knows about this. Isabella told him when he first came back, when he was recovering from being shot. It gave us hope, when Johnny called the palomino after the toy he'd wanted as a child. It ties him to us, to the estancia and to Lancer."

Murdoch stared, wordless, desperate to understand.

"Johnny Madrid had never known or wanted a horse called Barranca, Murdoch, but Johnny Lancer had fought to keep it. That's why it gave us hope. It told us that not only was the lost child home at last, but that the lost child wanted to stay." Cipriano held out his hand. "Feliz Navidad, my friend. Feliz Navidad."

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Breakfast was a quiet meal.

Murdoch wasn't quite ready to show his change of heart (and even less sure how to go about it), not until Jelly had done his part and set the scene for him. And besides, Johnny was still in Morro Coyo and wouldn't be joining them until after the service at Green River. He'd said he'd ride over to meet them after early Mass, and then come on home with them, Scott explained in a carefully controlled tone. Murdoch would have to wait. It wouldn't be the same without Johnny there.

So Murdoch stayed his hand, so to speak, after allowing Teresa to fuss over the bruised fingers. He said he'd woke suddenly and flung out his hand, which had come into painful contact with the bedpost. Stretching the truth a mite, perhaps, but not too badly. He looked down at Teresa's bent head as she worked on his fingers. Her braid had slid to one side and he could see the little curls on the nape of her neck, making her look very young and vulnerable and causing a surge of protectiveness to well up in him. God willing, he'd make sure that she never had to settle for a spinster's career. The Reverend might not be the right man for her, even if she were old enough to be seriously thinking about a husband, but it would be Murdoch's privilege to take care of Paul's girl until the time came.

He thought breakfast went pretty much as usual, although Scott and Teresa kept sneaking little puzzled looks at him and once Scott blenched when Murdoch made a joke. Over by the stove, Maria crossed herself more than once. Murdoch didn't quite understand why the pleasant conversation he initiated about Christmas should have them looking so nervous, but he persevered. Teresa cheered up considerably when he suggested they all attend the Church Christmas Social and Ladies Aid Progressive Barn Dance. It was probably poor fare for Scott after the social delights of Boston, but he was pleased to see his elder son's good manners. Scott entered into Teresa's raptures with calm good sense.

Church was pretty much as usual, too. Murdoch greeted friends and acquaintances cheerfully and managed a word with Higgs, who lit up like a Christmas candle at the thought of more profit. Sam Jenkins joined them in the Lancer pew, still a little stiff after their disagreement the day before and apparently not expecting the vigorous handshake with which Murdoch greeted him, if the way he winced and shook his fingers repeatedly was any indication. Murdoch was glad to see that Sam was properly dressed, although he forbore to say so. It would be too difficult to explain. Teresa stared at the Reverend with bright eyes and a half-smile on her face. Murdoch may have made a mistake there, he thought, watching the Reverend lean down from his pulpit and apparently address his entire Christmas message of love and kindness to a congregation of one. A mention of the Kiss of Peace had two young people red faced and ruffled, and Murdoch having to review, already, the lessons he'd learned from the Spirits. It was a struggle, but he managed it. Nothing might come of a boy and girl infatuation, but if it did... well. He'd accept it. As compensation for the discomfort the thought brought him and mindful of the Second Spirit's unwarranted musical criticism, he sang the old hymns and carols with hearty enthusiasm and good cheer.

Scott blenched again. The boy must have cloth ears.

Murdoch held back at the end to speak to Reverend Petersen. He wasn't entirely sure how to broach his topic, but the young man's friendly demeanour was encouraging. "You caught me at a bad time yesterday, Reverend. I was not as... as open to the idea of celebrating Christmas as I should have been. But I've changed my mind about that. I've talked with Mayor Higgs and if you and some of the orphanage helpers would care to call by the Mercantile this morning, he'll provide you with toys and candy enough for a fleet of orphans."

Petersen, who had been dodging about trying to see past Murdoch to where Teresa and Scott were talking to Sam in low and urgent tones, stopped still and stared. His mouth dropped open. Murdoch gave him an encouraging smile, and the man started like a deer.

"I'll talk to you tomorrow about what needs to be done longer term." And here Murdoch leaned forward to whisper a sum in Petersen's ear.

The Reverend's eyes widened and his mouth formed a perfect O of wonder. "That's very generous!"

Murdoch shrugged. "It contains a few years' worth of arrears," he said and with a nod he gathered up his family and Sam and herded them over to the Mercantile, where Higgs's clerks were boxing up the Lancer hands' Christmas. Johnny was already there, sitting on a barrel of biscuits and leafing through a dime novel. He raised a lazy hand in salute but almost fell off the barrel at Murdoch's cheerful greeting. He looked shocked.

"He's been like it all morning," Scott said to Johnny with a shrug, in what he obviously thought was a whisper.

"Uh-huh." Johnny's sidelong glance had him looking as skittish as a colt. "Is he sick?"

Murdoch only smiled, giving his sons an indulgent look.

This time Johnny did fall off the barrel.

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Teresa first.

Jelly Hoskins was waiting for them on the verandah when Murdoch and Teresa drove up. He'd spruced himself up considerably and somehow even found time to trim his beard and get hold of a clean shirt. He didn't look as disreputable or as downtrodden and defeated.

The smugness was still intolerable.

He greeted Murdoch with a big wink. "Done it, Boss. And though I says it myself, Jellifer B. Hoskins has an eye for this sort of thing and I made a right good job of it. Place looks mighty fine. Fac' is, I shoulda been a artist." He took the reins of the buggy horses and beckoned Walt Junior over to collect them. "That Doc Jenkins followin' on behind with the boys? I'll let Jose know to come and get his buggy hosses, and then I'll be right in."

Teresa looked her question at Murdoch as Jelly bustled away.

"Jelly's joining us for Christmas dinner," confessed Murdoch.

It was lucky there wasn't a barrel handy for Johnny to fall off, but his soft-voiced 'What the hell?' had a peculiarly carrying quality. He seemed shocked. Murdoch shrugged it off, offering Teresa his arm and leading her into the great room. They stopped just inside the doorway to take it all in.

Murdoch had described what he wanted. As best he could, he'd told Jelly about the room as it looked during the visit of the Second Spirit. He'd described the great swags and garlands of pine and holly, explained about the way they'd been looped with strings of cranberries and lit with little candles. He'd told Jelly to do the best he could with what he had.

Jelly had done just that. Jelly had excelled himself; what he'd created far outstripping any of Murdoch's expectations. Jelly had done things that no superlatives could describe. Jelly had... well, Jelly had done the best he could with what he had. It was as well, though, that he earned his living as a handyman. He'd have starved in a garret as an artist.

That there were swags and garlands was not in dispute. Murdoch's mind's eye had seen beautifully symmetrical garlands tied to thin ropes, dripping with gilded pine cones, their fragrant, curving lengths held up at intervals with perfectly circular wreaths of holly with wide trails of red ribbon. What he got was a jagged line of pine branches strung straight as a die, if precariously, between the pictures on the walls. Here and there a toyon branch did duty for the spiky holly of Murdoch's childhood and added a splash of red-berried colour. Toyon had been jammed behind each picture frame, too, and a line of pine cones stood on their ends across the mantel, alternating with cored apples doing duty as candleholders.

"Good lord," said Scott behind him.

But when Murdoch turned, taken aback, not sure what to say or do now that his surprise wasn't quite as he'd envisaged it, Scott was smiling and there was no mockery in it. Johnny grinned and beside him, Sam stared, his mouth starting to twitch.

"You do this, Murdoch?" asked Johnny, and for once there was approval in his voice.

Teresa seemed struck dumb. Her hands on Murdoch's arm had tightened so hard that she was probably leaving bruises, even through the thickness of his jacket sleeve. She turned a wondering face to him.

He patted her hand. "I thought you'd be missing your daddy this time of year. He was, well, he was always on at me to celebrate Christmas better. I was never one for it, not since I was a bairn, really, but you know, maybe he was right. I'm not your daddy, Teresa, but he left you in my care. If he'd been here, he'd have been on at me today, so I got Jelly to do this while we were in church. It's for you and for Paul. Well, really for you, and next year you can do whatever you like to decorate. You can fill the entire house with holly and I'll like it."

Hell! He'd got that wrong. Her chin was wobbling and her eyes so wet that the tears just spilled down over her face. She didn't seem to notice. She took in a huge snuffling breath that shouldn't have been as affecting as it was.

"Don't cry, Teresa, honey. Don't cry." He looked around for help, but Scott and Johnny were sidling away, avoiding his gaze, and even Sam was looking so intently at the toyon berries, as if trying to classify the exact genus, that he didn't seem to notice Murdoch's silent pleas. Dammit! For once in his life couldn't he do something right? "Teresa," he said, helplessly. "I thought you'd like it."

Jelly came in behind them just then, chin wagging and beard pushed forward aggressively, his small eyes darting from one to another of them, looking for praise but expecting kicks. "It's a bang up job, ain't it? Took me all morning that did, but I ain't complainin'. I ain't never seen better."

Teresa sniffed up tears and other things that Murdoch would rather not think about. She tried to smile. "Nor have I, Jelly. Nor have I." She reached up on tiptoe to kiss Murdoch's cheek. "Thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I love it."

And then she turned and planted a kiss on Jelly's cheek.

And then suddenly it was all right. Jelly puffed up with pride and delight, all bluff confidence on the outside. Teresa laughed and exclaimed, and dashed the tears from her eyes with the handkerchief that Scott presented to her with a lordly bow. Johnny was dragged around the room by Jelly, to be shown the finer points of the decoration and to be told how to do it 'jest right, so it's none of your hugger-mugger decoratin', Johnny Lancer, but somethin' as fine as cream gravy' and Murdoch saw with pride that Johnny let the old man ramble on and didn't shoot him.

Although as Jelly went on, Murdoch thought that some shootings might be justified, after all.

"So," said Sam in his ear. "You're allowing Christmas in this year, are you, Murdoch? Well, well, well."

"Yes, well." Murdoch hoped the burning in his cheeks wasn't showing. "Well. It's only one day a year." He turned to watch the younger ones promenading around the room admiring Jelly's handiwork. "Oh, and Sam? A word of warning. I'm a more tolerant man than many would give me credit for, but the first attempt you make to take your shirt off will be summarily dealt with. Got that?"

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Scott next.

Murdoch waited until the Christmas feast was over, and they were all sitting around the fire doing what Scott called 'filling up the corners' by nibbling on apples and nuts and candy. Johnny sat on the rug, giving up his usual seat to Jelly, and peeled an orange with deft fingers.

Scott had a cigar in one hand and was sipping from the brandy glass in the other. He looked more relaxed and at home than Murdoch had ever seen him, his long legs stretched out and crossed elegantly at the ankles. Every now and again he offered advice to Teresa, who was battling Jelly in a fierce game of some board game or other that Scott had had sent from Boston.

He grinned at Murdoch when he saw him watching. "I'm just a little worried that all of Teresa's counters are falling on squares marked with things like Gambling to Ruin, or Disgrace."

"Hush! I'm in prison again and must lose a move," fretted Teresa.

"I'm more worried that it appears to think that 50 is old age." Murdoch sighed, then laughed at Scott's grin. He nodded towards the door, invitingly.

Only Johnny seemed to notice them get up and go. His eyes followed them to the door. Murdoch was interested to see that he only relaxed and looked back down at his task when Scott made some reassuring gesture at him. They were learning to be friends, at least, those two, and to look after each other.

"It won't take a moment." Murdoch closed the door behind them. The hall was cooler as he led the way to the rarely-used formal dining room they'd left only an hour before. "I wanted to give you something for Christmas. It isn't much. At least, it isn't anything new."

He'd left the packet in a drawer in the big sideboard. He hesitated before taking it out and handing it over, but it was too late now to retract. He could only go forward. "These are your mother's letters, Scott, sent to your grandfather over the first two years of our life here. She wrote to him every month, telling him about finding the estancia, all the work we were doing to make it our home, learning Spanish... anything she thought would interest him. She loved it here, you know. The last letters told him that we were expecting you. I suspect he got that one and set out here immediately. Texas was about to be annexed and we knew war with Mexico was coming, and he wanted to get her to safety, I think, if it were needed. As it is... well, you know what happened. She died, and he took you back to Boston. I was in the middle of the unrest here, and fighting to hold onto what she and I had struggled for. By the time I could reach Carterville, you and Harlan were long gone. Still, I thought it might interest you to see how another Easterner coped with a new life here."

Scott, looking astonished, took the package. "But how did you get them?"

"Oh," said Murdoch, working to keep his tone airy. "Your father gave them back to me when I came to Boston to get you."

Scott stared.

"You were five. I got there for your birthday. I would have come earlier, but I was caught up in the war and everything around it. Still, I was planning to go back to make another try to get you, but when I got back here from the first visit, Maria had gone and taken Johnny with her." Murdoch looked down at his feet. This next bit was going to be hard to explain. "I had to make a choice, Scott. I didn't have a great deal of money then. I could spend it in the courts in Boston, or I could spend it looking for Johnny. I knew where you were, and that whatever else happened, you'd be well looked after and happy. Johnny was just lost to me, in a place that was dark and dangerous."

"It's all right," Scott said. He swallowed visibly. "I understand that." A pause. Another hard swallow. "Courts?"

"Yes. That's what it would've taken."

"I see." Scott's tone was clipped, dry. He smoothed his fingers over the package of letters. "Yes. I see."

That didn't bode well for Harlan, who could do with a visit from Spirits himself, if it came to it, and not those from a bottle of the finest cognac either. Murdoch revelled for a minute in the satisfaction. Only for a moment, though. He could afford to be generous. "Your grandfather is very fond of you, Scott. He wasn't going to give you back easily."

"No."

"When you came here that day, with Johnny, well, nothing I wanted to say came out right. So I'll say it now." He remembered the vision he'd had of Scott back in Boston and what Harlan had said. He smiled. "I'm glad you're home, son. I'm glad you're home at last."

Scott nodded. "So am I, sir," he said; and for the first time that 'sir' didn't sound like another stake being set into the fence between them. For the first time, it sounded like a new beginning.

Murdoch smiled and held out his hand. "Welcome home."

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And finally, Johnny.

Murdoch waited until evening was drawing on. Jelly had dragged a couple of hands from their celebrations and was overseeing the harnessing of buggies and horses for the drive into town for the dance. Teresa was doing some last minute primping upstairs, heedless of calls to just hurry herself up. Sam and Scott, over by the bookcases at the back of the room, talked about Homer. Normally he'd join in, but this was more important than the adventures of Odysseus, another wanderer who took years to find his way home again.

Johnny appeared to like the rug before the fire and was back there, ready and waiting. Scott had coerced him into his best suit. With the short, fitted charro jacket and the white linen shirt Isabella Roldàn had embroidered for him, he looked like a young haciendado, and so like Maria that Murdoch's heart ached. He had been such a fool there. Such a damned fool. And Johnny had paid the price for it.

Unaware of Murdoch's scrutiny, he sat sideways to the fire, playing idly with the counters from Scott's board game. His head was bent and the firelight lit one side of his face, leaving the other in shadow. That was his younger boy: half flame, half shadow.

At least Murdoch had thought Johnny was unaware, but nothing got past Johnny Madrid. He could never just be a young man sitting quietly and heedlessly beside his own fireside. Too many years spent wandering in Odysseus's wake had seen to that.

"Well, likely you'll remember what I look like happen we meet in a dark alley."

Murdoch started, and laughed. Part of that was chagrin at being caught out, part was relief at the quiet friendliness of Johnny's tone. "I'm sorry I was staring. I've rarely seen you sit so still. You're always moving. I think you ran before you walked."

Johnny glanced up at him. His eyes were shadowed now, with only an occasional glint in them as the flames beside him flickered. He hadn't changed his stance one iota but Murdoch sensed the tension in him. "That so?"

"Yes, that's so."

Murdoch made no further protestations. It wasn't because this son wasn't a man for words, because no one could say more with so few of them than Johnny could. After all, there had been a world of meaning in those two. But whatever was said, Johnny looked to back up words with action. Otherwise, he'd once said, all a man was doing was blowing out his breath and making noise.

"I have something for you," said Murdoch, fishing the small box from his pocket.

Johnny took and opened it, tilting it towards the flames to see it better. He gave Murdoch a sharp glance, sharp as a knife.

"I bought it for your mother before you were born. She was excited that you were coming, but things here in California were still very dangerous and unsettled. The Lady is meant to be the protectress of the unborn and children. Cipriano was south of the border for me, looking at some breeding cattle, and I asked him to bring me this for her. She loved it. She wore it until the day you were born, and then put around your neck."

"It's a fine one."

"Aye. It was a wee bit extravagant of me, really, and I didn't have the cash to spare. But she wanted one so badly."

A slight smile. "Mama liked getting what she wanted."

"She certainly did." Murdoch managed a creditable laugh, though his chest was aching again. "When she went and took you with her, my one comfort was that you'd be wearing this as protection. I wanted to be the one to protect you, Johnny, to raise you and look after you as a man should, but I couldn't. It made it worse when I realised she hadn't taken this with her. I didn't find it for weeks. She'd pushed it to the back of a drawer, you see."

"I learned, real quick, to protect myself."

"I thank God for it, every night." Murdoch put everything he had into it, to signal his sincerity.

Silence.

Johnny had big hands, but they were slender and skilled. Murdoch would have fumbled with the tiny clasp and chain, but not Johnny. He fastened it around his neck and let the heavy gold medallion slip under his collar. The Virgin of Guadalupe slipped out of sight, taking up the old role she'd been robbed of twenty years before.

"I don't have much of Mama's," said Johnny. He looked up, and the smile he gave Murdoch was the one Murdoch had always wanted to see: open and sweet. There was no mockery in his voice, but only the beginnings of acceptance. "Thank you, old man."

The old man smiled back. "You're welcome, m'hijo." He rested a hand on Johnny's shoulder and squeezed, delighted that he wasn't shaken off. "Feliz Navidad and welcome home."

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The dance was in full swing, with Jelly Hoskins red faced and breathless from calling the tune, and all the young people red-faced and breathless from dancing. Even Johnny was on the floor, promenading Clara Higgs back and forth, and not once looking as though he'd rather be sitting in the corner with his back to the wall. Scott had firmly cut out the Reverend, and had Teresa on his arm. Murdoch watched, feeling curiously contented.

"Are you going to tell me what brought about this little epiphany of yours? It's as if a new Murdoch Lancer has come out of hiding."

Murdoch glanced at Sam and took the whiskey glass the doctor proffered. "Just the old Murdoch Lancer, Sam. But you may be right about coming of out hiding." He sipped the liquor slowly. "You're right about an epiphany, too. I was shown the error of my ways, that's all. I saw what I'd done in the past, what I was doing now that was wrong, and how that would play out if I didn't change. So I decided to change. That's all."

"Shown? By whom? How? When? Good lord, Murdoch, this isn't something that could happen overnight!"

Murdoch choked and laughed. "Funny you should say that! Well, Sam, what would you say if I said I was shown the light by three Spirits, who took me on journeys into the past and present and future so I could see the consequences of what I was doing?"

Sam grinned, a wide and cheerful smile of good fellowship and good friendship. "Oh Murdoch!" he said. "What humbug!"

.

~end~

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A/N - Thank you to all who've stuck this out and been so kind as to comment. For those of you who signed in as guest, I'm sorry I can't reply to you individually, but please know that your feedback is very much appreciated. Thank you!