This story is an orphan – that is, the writer has not been active in the fandom for a long time, and the story has been rescued from the old, defunct Yahoo groups. So that we don’t lose the story entirely, we’re storing it here.
However the original author still owns this story. Should they reconnect with the fandom at some point, we will naturally respect whatever they want to do with their story.
Word Count 1,859
(Sarah’s Christmas House)
A lone figure stood next to his horse at the highest point over-looking the ranch. The business of cattle ranching seemed the same as usual with a few improvements. A new building stood behind the main barn and a dozen or so green horses bucked and pranced about in a new corral. He smiled and dropped his head, letting his mind slip back to the first time he set eyes on Lancer. Sitting on the back of a buckboard then, with his half brother and foster sister up front. Both complete strangers to him, not knowing till that day that they even existed. But he knew about the man waiting for them down in the valley.
A hard man from what he remembered from the stories he was told. A husband and father that pushed his wife and son out one day telling her never to come back. So the boy learned to hate the father, until the day he found out the truth. How his mother packed him and a few things up to chase after a gambler. The fact was the old man still loved his wife and son. Oh, he was still a hard man, but fair. One thing he found they did have in common, they both did things their own way. Guess that was why they butted heads too often.
Looking up again his mind went to the day he left. Had it really been two months and with no word to anyone. It wasn’t his plan to be away so long when he left for town that night. He just wanted to cool off after butting heads with Murdock…again. Sitting in the saloon he was trying to decide what to do when the telegraph agent found him. A message from his past “She is dying come now,” it read. His mind was made up. After giving the agent a tip for his telegraph and making him promise not a word to anyone, he headed south.
Traveling to the nearest boarder town gave him plenty of time to relive his childhood. His earliest memory was being left with an aunt and watching his mother ride away. How many times had she done that, he lost count. As a man, he understood now that she really did love him. She always made it up to him when she returned. But back then with only the reasoning of a child, he couldn’t help but feel abandoned.
Still with the gambler that lured her away from his father, the two of them were always off on a con. They never ended well for her. Either the gambler would get drunk on their earnings and beat her, or if the con fell through the outcome was the same. On such an occasion, Johnny, now lingering between boy and man, the gambler was to beat his last. Defending his mother Johnny beat the drunkard relentlessly till he fell back hitting his head on the stove and died. Everyone knew the gambler’s reputation and it was ruled an accident.
Johnny became restless and set out on his own, moving in and out between boarder towns and Mexico. His aunt did her best to teach him reading and writing. He knew enough to get by, but harder lessons were always waiting down the road. He became fast with a gun and hired out many times to ranchers or causes of the underdog. He would send money to his mother and aunt when he could, always with the same note, “I’m doing fine and will come see you soon, I promise.”
Now he made good on that promise, as he pulled his horse to a stop at the edge of town in front of his aunt’s house. A gray haired woman stepped out the door and shielded her eyes against the sun.
“Johnny, I wasn’t sure you would come.”
“Hi Aunt Rosita, how is she?”
“Not good Johnny, the doc says she may only have a few weeks, a month at the most.”
He dismounted and started to walk past his aunt to the house. Reaching out she stopped him.
“Your mama’s out of her head, her mind is back at Lancer. She holds and fusses over a doll she calls Johnny. I don’t know if she will even know you.”
He put his hand on his aunt’s shoulder giving her a gentle squeeze and continued on into the house with his aunt behind him. He made his way to the bedroom and stopped just inside the door. My God, he thought. What lay there was just a shell of a woman from the beautiful mother he once knew. She had her eyes closed and was softly humming a Mexican lullaby to the doll she held. Johnny remembered it from his childhood. A tear slipped from his eye, he quickly wiped it away and stepped back to let his aunt into the room.
“Maria,” she said softly making her way to her sister’s bedside. “We have a visitor.”
Maria stopped humming and opened her eyes looking past her sister to figure of a man standing in the shadows.
“Come closer,” she said just above a whisper.
Johnny walked hesitantly to the foot of the bed, fighting back tears. She searched his face as if seeing him for the first time.
“Do I know you,” she finally asked? “You look familiar.”
“I just have one of those faces I guess that looks like another.” Then choked out, “Some say only a mother could love.”
“What’s your name son?”
Johnny had to think fast he wasn’t sure given her frail condition what would happen if he he gave his real name, “James, Ma’am. I was just passing by and noticed your place could use some fixing.”
“Well I don’t know, Rosita, do you think Murdock would mind if we hired him on?”
That was too much for Johnny, he excused himself and left the room.
Rosita assured her sister that Murdock wouldn’t mind and she would go tell the young man he was hired. Maria went back to humming. Rosita found Johnny outside leaning against the barn unable now to hold back his tears. She held him a long while not saying a word, just letting him cry.
Days stretched into weeks, Johnny kept himself busy with repairs during the day and sitting by his mother after supper. Sometimes reading to her, it seemed to comfort her. Maria had moments of clarity, speaking in the present, but still not recognizing him. It would only last a few minutes, then she wandered back to Lancer.
One night, quite late he sat dozing in the chair next to his mother’s bed. Far in the distance he heard her calling his name. He shook off the cobwebs of sleep realizing it wasn’t a dream. His mother awake and lucid was calling his name.
“Johnny, oh Johnny, you’re home. I’ve missed you so.”
He quickly knelt at her side and took her hand.
“I’ve missed you too, sorry it took me so long.”
“No apologies son, you’re here and that is all that matters now.”
Maria’s health seem to rally after that night. Still bedridden, Johnny would carry her out to the yard to the huge oak tree. Where his aunt would spread a blanket and the three of them would have picnics. There were a few buggy rides too when she was feeling up to it. Until the night she slipped away from them for good, she never retreated back to Lancer.
One night as he stuck his head in her room to wish her a good night, she asked him to come and sit for a few minutes.
“Johnny, I need to talk to you about your father.”
“Mama, that’s not…” She cut him off.
“Hear me out son, I need to tell you this, I fear my time with you is coming to an end.”
He took her hand in his and looked into her face. The deep lines that were there the first day he arrived had softened over the past month, returning her beauty. He saw the determined look in her eyes, he prepared himself to listen.
“Johnny, I want you to find him, I want you to know the kind of man he really his.” She sighed deeply and continued. “He…he didn’t throw us out Johnny. I…left him. I didn’t want to be stuck out on that ranch in the middle of nowhere. When I took up with Jake I thought it would be an exciting life. Well…we both know where that got me…us. Can you ever forgive me?”
Johnny placed his fingers on his mother’s lips. “Hush now, there is no need for that.”
“Johnny, please I need to know you don’t hate me. I don’t want to go to my grave with this hanging between us and promise me you will find him.”
“Mama, I could never hate you, I forgive you and I promise.”
“I know I broke his heart, tell him I am sorry.”
“I will mama, I will.”
Those would be the last words spoken between them. Late in the night Maria breathed her last. Johnny buried her under the oak tree where they spent their last happy days together. It was a fitting resting place. The repairs were finished now and his aunt knew he would be moving on. He had told her all that happened to him the past two years, being united with Murdock and finding out he had a brother. He couldn’t say why he didn’t tell his mother. She seemed to be at peace that night after they talked. Maybe if she had lived longer he would have. One more visit to where his mother’s body lay, a hug for his aunt and he rode off…toward Lancer.
Looking down the valley again he saw a rider leave the ranch and start up the up the pass toward him. He knew by the way the man sat in the saddle it was Scott. Johnny mounted his horse and waited. As Scott drew up along side he greeted Johnny.
“Hello brother. You coming home? Pa’s waiting for you.”
“Pa is it?”
“Yes…after all this time it just seems natural now.”
Johnny looked down in the valley again. Another rider stopped just where the ground began to rise. He knew it was Murdock. He then looked back over the trail from where he had just come. Looking back into the past perhaps and saying goodbye. He no longer felt the restlessness that had burned in his soul for so long. He had come full circle, he was at peace.
Turning back to Scott, he smiled and said, “Ya brother let’s go home…to Pa.”
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