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Mary Ann

 

 

The Christmas That Almost Wasn't

Disclaimer – Not mine but wish the boys were…
Thank you to my beta, Lori, for her fast work to help get this posted before I left for Christmas

 

Just After Thanksgiving 

Johnny and Scott rode quickly across the north pasture, hoping to get home before dark but knowing they were still miles away. As they cantered along Scott gazed at the trees that were lined like sentinels above and to the left of them. Suddenly he reined in Ghost and called to Johnny to stop. Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt and turned back to Scott.

“What’s wrong?”

“Look up there; it’s the perfect Christmas tree.” Scott pointed to a clump of trees above them and near some rocks.

“They’re in the rocks!”

”Yeah, but the one I’m looking at is near the edge of that ledge. See it?”

“I think so.”

“Let’s check it out; it’ll only take a few minutes.”

Within minutes they were riding along a rock ledge on which grew several trees, but which was still wide enough for both horses to move side by side. As they reached the tree, Scott dismounted and quickly walked around it.

“It’s perfect! And not that big, it’ll be easy to get home,” he said excitedly, walking around the fir tree again.

“Hey brother, it’s too early to cut it down now. It’d be really dead by Christmas. But it is really a perfect one.” Johnny had to agree with his brother.

“We have to remember it. We can come and get it in time for Christmas.”

“Yeah. We will remember it. I don’t think I’ve seen a nicer tree. Now can we head for home?” Johnny asked with a smile at his brother.

“Yep.” Scott and Johnny mounted and turned their horses; after working their way off the ledge they were soon headed for the hacienda, both taking a last look at this year’s Christmas tree. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

December 23rd 

“Johnny, I want you to check the bridge going into the southern pasture. With the rain we’ve had lately, I want to be sure it is still standing; this freezing might have weakened any rain damaged part. Scott, I need you to…”

“Sir, I’m going after the Christmas tree this morning. It’ll probably take most of the day since it’s in the north pasture.” Scott interrupted his father before Murdoch could give him his orders for the day.

Murdoch gave Scott an unhappy look, and then gave in with a smile; he had forgotten the brothers had talked about finding the perfect Christmas tree earlier. “All right, then since you will be up there, check the line shack to see if anyone’s been in there and if it needs to be restocked; there’s been a few drifters going through the last couple of weeks. That shouldn’t take you to long and it isn’t that far out of your way.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll do that as soon as I get up there.” Rising from the breakfast table Scott moved to the rack where his coat and gunbelt were hanging. “I should be home before dark, and with the tree.” He smiled a thank you at Teresa as she handed him a package of wrapped sandwiches. Buckling on his gunbelt over his lean hips he shrugged into his coat, slapped his hat on his head and turned to the door. “See you all later.”

”Hold on a second, I’ll go out with you.” Johnny gulped down the last of his coffee and followed Scott, grabbing his gunbelt and throwing on his jacket and hat. Teresa barely had time to hand him his lunch pack.

The brothers made their way across the courtyard heading for the barn, a chill breeze sweeping over them.

“You sure you can get that tree by yourself? I could talk Murdoch into letting me help you, we could check the bridge tomorrow,” Johnny said hopefully.

Scott looked at his younger brother, “I think I can get it done. If you get the bridge checked we could go into town tomorrow for last minute shopping, or something.” He grinned.

“Or something sounds good Boston.” Johnny laughed as they entered the barn.

Several minutes later their horses were saddled and ready to go. Scott went into the tack room and got several lengths of rope and a large piece of canvas and tied them onto his saddle. Leading KC he moved to the barn door and picked up the ax he had placed there the day before, a piece of canvas tied over the sharp ax head, tying it to his saddle he pushed the door open and the brothers walked outside. Shutting the door again Scott and Johnny looked at the grey sky then mounted their horses.

“I’ll see you later Boston. This weather looks like it might let loose with rain or snow today. Be careful.” Johnny said as he turned Barranca to the south.

“See you this afternoon. I’ll be careful.” Scott told him as he nudged KC away from the barn with a wave to Johnny.

It was noon when Scott finally reached the ledge where the tree stood majestically, its branches covered in a light dusting of snow. It had started to snow an hour earlier and the wind was still blowing. He had stopped in at the line shack and found nothing disturbed; now he was anxious to get the tree and get home, out of the snow and cold wind. Scott tied KC near the end of the ledge, and carrying the canvas and ropes, he walked along the ledge, eyeing the tree. He calculated where it should land when felled, then carefully laid out the ropes and placed the canvas over them; he would wrap the canvas around the tree and tie it up, making it easy to drag home. The canvas was large enough that none of the 9 foot high tree would touch the ground. He retrieved the ax from his saddle and was soon chopping down the tree. It fell just where he wanted it to; with a quiet whoosh it landed in the center of the canvas. As he started to move to tie it up he stopped; he could feel the hairs on his neck stand up, as if someone was watching him. Glancing around he could see nothing but the snow coming down and swirling softly all around him; the ledge was almost covered with it. He stepped towards the cut tree and heard a low growl. Before he could do more than turn to face whatever was there he saw a tawny shadow leap at him. He swung the ax as hard as he could as the cougar attacked. A paw with extended claws raked across him from his left shoulder to his right side, and agony erupted through him; he stepped back as the ax connected hard with flesh. His booted foot slipped on the slick snow and he tumbled backwards over the edge, rolling almost 15 feet over rocks and brush before slamming into a large rock. He heard a snap as darkness crashed down on him.

On the ledge above, the cougar, in pain from the ax buried deeply between its foreleg and chest, went after the horse tied nearby. KC reared back so hard that one rein broke and the other came untied as the cougar hurled itself at him; in fright and pain KC took off, heading for home with the wounded cougar after him. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 

Johnny rode into the barnyard in the late afternoon; he put up Barranca and was soon in the house standing in front of the roaring fire, rubbing his cold hands together. Murdoch, who had been working on the books, rose and poured him a shot of tequila, then stood beside him. 

“Bridge is fine. Only one board needs to be replaced, but it’s not a danger. Scott’s not here yet? It is cold and windy out there, snowing up high too.” Johnny sipped the drink, letting the warmth soak into him.

“Good. No, Scott isn’t here yet, I expect him soon though. I hope he didn’t get stuck in the snow.”

“He should have been coming back so shouldn’t have gotten into it. But I guess he could have gotten caught in a in a little snow up there, it’s higher than here,” Johnny said as an uneasy feeling overcoming him. “I should have gone with him.” 

“Son, I am sure he can get a tree by himself. He had everything he needed.”

“I know, but…” Johnny couldn’t shake the feeling. “Maybe I’ll go meet him.” He started to turn away.

“Johnny, he is fine. It will be dark in less than a half hour, you could miss him if he comes back a different way.”

For a moment Johnny stood undecided. He finally decided that Scott might not appreciate him coming to look for him, so with a slight grin he decided to wait; dinner would be ready shortly and he was hungry.

“All right, I’ll wait. He should be home soon anyway I guess. It’s cold outside, and this fire feels mighty good.”

Another hour passed, dinner was served and eaten, and the dishes were washed. Johnny was in the living room, waiting for his brother to get home. Full darkness had fallen a while ago and the wind had picked up. Shivering slightly Johnny paced to the fire, then back to the French doors. Murdoch was staring out the window too. Teresa was trying to do some mending but found herself staring into the fire more than sewing. Finally she rose.

”I’m going to make some more cookies,” she said and headed for the kitchen.

Silence fell over the room again. Slowly the hours passed. The Grandfather clock was striking ten o’clock; Johnny was dozing on the couch, Murdoch was reading the paper, and Teresa had retired. Suddenly there was a knocking on the door. Johnny was on his feet and moving before Murdoch could get up.

Throwing the door open, Johnny stopped; Steve Bennett, the foreman, was standing there.

“KC is back. You better come and see.”

Johnny bolted out the door and ran to the barn, his father and Steve a short ways behind him.

The bay stallion was standing head down in the barn in the aisle; his left hip had a long bloody gash on it. As Murdoch and Johnny looked at it closer, they could make out a claw mark.

“Cougar?” they both said at the same time.

“That’s what I think it was. One rein is broke off at the bit the other is okay. It looks like he ran quite a ways.” Steve said.

“We have to go after Scott.” Johnny turned towards Barranca’s stall.

“Johnny, there isn’t anything you can do right now. It’s dark. We wouldn’t be able to see him in the dark; we could pass right by him if he didn’t hear us. We’ll leave first thing in the morning,” his father said.

Johnny’s head dropped, “We could take lanterns.”

“There isn’t enough for all the men, we could still pass him. We have to wait until morning.”

“Damn it! I knew something was wrong! I knew I should have gone out when I got back!” Johnny erupted in anger. “Now I have to wait for morning. It could be too late! He’s out there with just a jacket; a cougar... its cold and snowing higher up…It could be too late…”

”Johnny, it’s all we can do for now. It isn’t your fault, it’s no one’s. Unless you want to blame winter or Christmas for whatever’s happened to Scott. Now let’s gather the things that we might need in the morning, then we’ll get some rest and we will be off at first light. KC needs tending to also.” Murdoch’s calm voice broke into Johnny’s anger.

Johnny looked at the tired stallion standing in front of him, “I’ll take care of him,” he said quietly and reached out for the dangling rein.

“Thanks son. We’ll get things lined up for the morning,” Murdoch touched Johnny’s shoulder as he led the bay down to his stall. Murdoch and Steve moved towards the door, talking over what they would need the next morning.

Within an hour Johnny was in his room and trying to get some sleep as his father had suggested. He was having a hard time falling asleep worrying about Scott. Finally he dozed off. As he slept he dreamed. He was looking for Scott in deep snow, but he couldn’t find him; all he found was large pools of blood stained snow. He ran calling for Scott and then he found a huge cougar with blood stained face and paws watching him from the snow covered ledge. The cougar seemed to be laughing at him as he frantically called for his brother; as it licked its paws off; large yellow eyes followed his every move.

With a cry Johnny woke up, his heart thundering in his chest, scared to death of what the dream signified. He got out of bed; there was no way he could go back to sleep. He was worried for Scott, hoping the dream was just a dream. Dressing quickly he then made his way down to the kitchen; it was just after four and wouldn’t be light for another two hours. He wasn’t going to wait; if he left now he could be almost halfway to the tree’s location by sunup. Quickly he built up the fire and got a pot of coffee on; while waiting he made a couple of sandwiches for his breakfast, and then made several more; it might be a long day. Packing them into a pair of saddlebags, he checked to make sure he had a blanket and some bandages in them also, then poured himself a cup of coffee. He filled a canteen and hung next to the saddlebags. Next he went to the gun cabinet for a rifle and some ammunition.

Back in the kitchen Johnny finished his coffee, then picked up the saddlebags and canteen just as Murdoch walked into the room.

“What are you doing?” Murdoch asked.

“I’m heading north. If I find anything I’ll shoot in the air to let you know. Scott wouldn’t go any other way than the trail to the north pasture, it’s the fastest. The tree was on a ledge north east of the line shack about four miles. The main trail goes right by the ledge. I’ll meet you somewhere around there.”

“Johnny...”

“I’ll be fine. I have to go.” Johnny opened the door.

“We’ll be behind you, give us a half hour.” Murdoch said as Johnny disappeared into the dark.

Johnny rode north and was a couple of miles from the hacienda when he first encountered a light dusting of snow covering the ground, making the darkness a bit lighter. It was another hour before dawn started to light the eastern sky, the east wind was blowing the light snow in swirls around Barranca’s legs. When it was light enough to see he started looking for tracks, sure that KC would have come this way. It took him another half hour before he found the stallion’s tracks cut deeply into the now frozen, snow dusted ground. He stopped and looked ahead, but it was still too dark to see very far, and with the wind blowing the snow around it made it even harder to see. Looking behind him, he could just make out riders fanned out across the rolling fields heading slowly in his direction.

Johnny turned back to the north and nudged Barranca into motion. He followed the tracks for another hour until he spotted something in the snow ahead and kicked Barranca into a fast canter. Approaching the mound, the horse suddenly shied away, blowing hard through his nose. Johnny tried to get the stallion closer but he refused. Finally he dismounted and ground tied the stallion, then walked towards the shape. He felt a chill as he saw the thing from his nightmare. Stooping beside the cougar he checked it over, seeing blood all around the front of it. He rolled the dead cougar over and found the ax buried in its chest, part of the handle broken off. Straightening, he looked around, KC’s tracks were fairly clear; they came from the direction of the ledge, still a good half hour’s ride away. Returning to Barranca he debated whether to go on or wait for the riders to catch up with him. He quickly mounted and kicked the golden stallion into a fast canter; he had to find Scott, something was very wrong. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 

Scott woke to cold and descending darkness. He was shivering; snow was drifting slowly down upon him. For several minutes he lay still and tried to think of where he was, what had happened. Finally he started to sit up and involuntarily cried out in pain as fire burned across his chest and side. His head was pounding. Taking a deep breath, he carefully pushed himself into a sitting position gritting his teeth to keep from crying out again. Looking around he saw that he was in the jumble of rocks well below the ledge. He slowly rose, using the rocks to pull himself up. He stood and fought against darkness and pain as he swayed for several moments, his head spinning. Taking another deep breath, he stepped away from the rocks and slowly and carefully made his way through them, looking ahead for his horse. After what felt like hours he found where he had tied KC; just a rein was left hanging there. Standing still for several minutes he tried to get his thoughts in order; knowing he had to move or chance freezing he finally turned towards the trail home and started walking. As darkness fell he continued on, thinking he was on the trail, not realizing he was wandering back and forth across it. The darkness deepened and the snow started to swirl around him in the wind. Shivering, he pulled the shreds of his shirt across his bloody chest, feeling his ribs grate together with the movement. Gasping in pain he kept walking, and tried to hold his jacket together over his chest as the wind fought to pull it out of his hands. He knew he had to keep going, he couldn’t stop; he was afraid he might not wake up if he did. Thoughts ran through his head and he concentrated on one important one; it was almost Christmas, and he didn’t want to disappoint his brother by not being there for their first real Christmas at home.   

As the night wore on Scott started to trip and fall. The first few times he managed to get up, but the fifth time he lay in the snow feeling the wet and coldness seeping through his jacket and shirt. He lay there for a long time then laughed, thinking, ‘It’s funny; the cold snow is cooling me off!” He knew he had a fever and the cold almost felt good on his chest. Finally it got too cold and shivering he managed to get to his feet once again and staggered on, the wind pushing him along, towards home, he hoped.

Scott hurt all over; he wasn’t sure where he was anymore, nothing looked familiar in the dark, and his thoughts ran disjointedly through his head. The ground was white and he was so cold all he wanted to do was got to bed and sleep. Suddenly he tripped on something and went down hard, his breath knocked from him in a gasp. He rolled partly over and lay looking up for several minutes, sucking air back into his lungs, knowing he couldn’t go any farther. Scott realized he was under a tree and sort of out of the wind. He felt around for the tree trunk and crawled closer to it. After a painful struggle he was sitting, leaning back against the trunk with the tree blocking most of the wind. For long minutes he sat there, listening to the wind blowing through the branches above him; his hand fell to the ground and he felt pine needles around him so he tried to brush them up against him as much as he could, thinking they might help him stay warm. After several minutes he gave it up; it hurt too much, and he was so tired. Drawing his knees up, he rested his left arm across them and laid his head on his arm, thinking that the sky was getting brighter, but he wasn’t sure with the snow blowing around. After a few moments he was asleep. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 

Johnny finally reached the ledge and found the tree lying on the canvas, but no sign of Scott. He started to look around and found some spots of blood. Walking around he found a place on the edge of the ledge that looked like something had slid off the edge. Minutes later he had made his way down and was checking the jumble of rocks below the ledge. He found a large rock with blood on it then Scott’s hat near by. Finally he found boot tracks heading out of the rocks. He continued looking until he found the slight mark of a boot in the snow, heading slightly south west. Scott was moving south towards the hacienda, but not in a straight line. Leading the stallion he followed the faint tracks through the blowing snow. Several times he lost them and had to circle back and forth before he found them again. A short while later he found blood on the frozen ground, then more tracks. He froze. These weren’t just Scott’s tracks; there were cougar tracks on top of Scott’s. He mounted and started following the cougar tracks, sure the animal was following Scott. He saw his father and Steve in the distance and signaled to them; more riders were coming behind them. 

Murdoch and Steve came towards him at a gallop, so he halted Barranca and waited, knowing they didn’t have time to waste. 

“Scott’s hurt. There’s a cougar tracking him. We need to find him fast,” he told them as another rider appeared out of the swirling snow.

“Send for the doctor. We’ll find him.” Murdoch said as he looked at Steve. Steve nodded and turned towards the approaching rider. Within minutes the rider was moving away at a run, and Murdoch and Steve had fanned out and were riding off to one side of Johnny.

Johnny watched the ground and saw where Scott had fallen again; there was more blood there this time. The cougar tracks had walked all around the blood spot, and they looked very fresh. Ahead he could see a stand of trees and wondered if Scott had gone into them, but his tracks suddenly veered to the right, as if he was going to go around them. Johnny followed keeping Barranca at a trot, eyes scanning the ground, and the trees now and then.

Suddenly gunshots rang out, six shots, one after the other in quick succession. There was a loud, wild agonized scream then quiet settled over the area. Johnny could hear the thunder of hooves behind him as he spurred Barranca towards the trees.

Reaching the tree line Johnny slowed the stallion and tried to find where the gunshots had come from. Near a large pine tree just ahead of him he spotted a huge tawny body stretched out. A smaller, dark lump was against the tree; for a split second he thought the tree had a deformed trunk, but then realized it was Scott leaning against it with his knees drawn up. Racing to the tree he threw himself out of the saddle as Barranca was sliding to a stop. The cougar’s bloody head was a foot from Scott’s foot. He reached Scott and gently touched the bowed head that rested on the arm across his knees. Scott’s right hand was resting on the ground, still gripping his empty revolver.

“Scott,” Johnny said quietly as he placed his hand on Scott’s shoulder, and knelt down beside him.

For several moments there wasn’t any movement, and then the ash-blond head rose slowly. Pain-filled blue-grey eyes looked dazedly at him.

“Johnny?”

“Yeah, Boston it’s me. You gave us a scare not coming home last night.”

“Sorry. I…I…think I’m lost. Cougar attacked… I think it wanted our tree.”

“Where are you hurt?”

“Um…chest, ribs, head hurts. Hot too...”

“Let me get you up so we can get you home.”

“Okay…”

Scott slowly straightened his legs, letting them rest on the ground beside the cougar’s head. His head slid to one side, “Don’t think I can get up brother.”

Johnny looked at his chest and winced. Slashes from the cougar’s claw went across from his left shoulder down to his right side and were still slowly oozing blood. He gripped Scott’s shoulder and told him, “Just stay still for a few minutes and we’ll get this bandaged before we move you.”

“K...ay… Johnny, I’m cold.” Scott said as a tremor shook him.

“Hold on brother, I’ll get a blanket for you.” Johnny looked up at one of the riders as the man quickly handed Johnny a rolled up blanket. Murdoch dropped to their side, a saddlebag in his hands; he quickly opened it and pulled out bandages and salve.

Johnny wrapped the blanket around Scott’s shoulders as Murdoch eased Scott’s jacket off of him, then cut his shirt off. Scott shivered as the cold hit his heated chest.

“Just a few minutes son and I’ll have you bandaged and we’ll get your jacket back on, and more blankets to keep you warm,” Murdoch said as he worked.

“Murdoch? You’re here too…Got to get the tree. Johnny… I got it down, was ready to wrap it when the cougar…it went after KC. Is KC home? Is he alright? I hit it with the ax, I hope I killed it. Guess not, it came after me… almost had me again…” Scott rambled.

Johnny held Scott as Murdoch wrapped the bandage around him. They got his jacket back on him, though Johnny would have preferred to just use a blanket as bloody as it was. As they finished, Scott roused himself again and looked around at the men standing near by.

“I want to go home. But I need to get the tree so we can have Christmas…”

”Don’t worry about the tree son, we will get it home,” Murdoch told him. As Johnny wrapped another blanket around Scott, Murdoch carefully stood up, his back feeling the strain of kneeling at an awkward angle.

“Steve, will you send someone to get the tree?” Murdoch asked as he and Johnny helped Scott to rise.

“Jose and Clay are already going for it.” Steve answered as they moved to the horses.

“I’ll take Scott.” Johnny said, mounting Barranca lithely.

“Johnny I have the…”

”Forget it Murdoch. I can see your back is bothering you. Now just get Scott up here and let’s get him home.”

Murdoch gave in; he didn’t think he could hold onto Scot for the trip home with his back acting up. Steve and two hands gently lifted Scott onto Barranca’s saddle, and Murdoch tucked another two blankets around him. Scott’s head leaned back against Johnny’s shoulder as he turned Barranca away from the trees and towards home. Johnny could feel the heat from Scott warming his chest.

Within minutes everyone was heading for the hacienda, except Jose and Clay, who had gone for the tree and Jeff, who decided on his own to stay behind to skin the cougars.

It was late afternoon when they arrived back at the hacienda. Johnny had been talking quietly to Scott off and on and a few times Scott would talk to him as he drifted in and out of consciousness. When they arrived at the house Scott had passed out once again. The doctor’s buggy was in front of the white hacienda, and he was waiting for them at the hitch rack when they pulled up.

Johnny let several ranch hands take Scott and carry him inside and to his room, while another hand took the tired Barranca to the barn for him. He followed Scott and the men into the house, not wanting to leave Scott. Slipping into Scott’s room he sat on the floor at the head of the bed and watched Doctor Sam Jenkins start to work on his brother, with Teresa helping him. Murdoch stood in the doorway watching.

Scott moaned in pain and Johnny reached up and grabbed his right hand. Scott’s head twisted back and forth for several moments then his eyes opened and he looked at his brother, their gazes locked for several long minutes, Johnny slid onto the bed beside him and told him,

“It’s ok Boston, go to sleep I’ll be here with you. You need to let Sam get you put together.”

Scott tried to smile but it came out as a grimace, then his eyes closed and he slipped into unconsciousness.

Sam sighed in relief, “Thanks Johnny. I might not have to drug him, but if he wakes I will. I need to clean these scratches out well before I sew them up. There’s a little infection already setting into one scratch, I don’t want it to spread. He has two broken ribs, but they are low, so won’t interfere with the other bandages. He has a lump on his head but it is minor, nothing there to worry about. He was lucky, no frostbite, he does have a slight case of hypothermia, but he’s warming up well now, so should have no lasting effects from it.” Sam told them as he started to clean the deep scratches.

Scott suddenly squeezed Johnny’s hand hard and he yelped in surprise at the tight grip.

“Sam, he’s awake. He’s crushing my hand,” Johnny gasped as Scott’s eyes flew open from the pain.

“No…” Scott cried out as he tried to move away from the pain burning through his chest, half rising from his bed.

“Hold him Johnny; I have to get the syringe filled.”

”No! No morphine!” Scott said as he tried to jerk away.

Johnny, sitting on the bed, grabbed Scott around his good shoulder before he could bolt from the bed. “It’s alright Boston. I won’t let him give you the morphine, but how about just a little laudanum? Will that be alright? You need something to help with the pain.”

“All right… Just a little…no more.”

“I promise, just a little bit brother.” Johnny looked at Sam and Sam turned, taking the small glass of water from Teresa he quickly stirred some of the bitter-tasting drug into the water and handed it to Johnny.

“Here Scott, drink.” Johnny pressed the glass into Scott’s hand and helped him get it to his mouth. Scott drank the drugged water down in one gulp, hating the awful taste. Within moments the drug began taking effect and he relaxed back onto the bed when Johnny laid him down.  

“Stay?” Scott asked, and Johnny nodded his head. “I’ll be right here,” Johnny promised, and settled on the bed near his pillow. Scott smiled a thank you as his eyes closed.

Sam set to work, cleaning the scratches carefully. Only part of one scratch was infected, so after a through cleaning of the other three he sewed them closed, leaving the last open so he could watch it to be sure the infection was gone. Putting some salve on the scratches he bandaged Scott’s chest. Setting the two broken ribs, Sam wrapped them tightly then checked Scott’s head again before he stepped back from the bed.

“I think that’s it for now. He needs sleep now. I’ll check that other scratch again later. It is clean, so I am hoping that I got all of the infection.” Sam looked at his still silent friend, Murdoch. “He’ll be fine Murdoch, even his fever is down. Now I could use a drink after I wash up.”

“Stay for dinner? The night?” Murdoch asked as the doctor put away his instruments.

“Yes to both. I need be here tomorrow anyway, so…” Sam replied. He looked over at Johnny and said, “Johnny, if he wakes get him to drink some water. His blood loss wasn’t as bad as it could have been; I think the cold slowed the bleeding down quite a bit. If it had been warmer, he could have easily bled to death. Scott is a lucky young man. Now, how about that drink?” Sam headed for the door, following Murdoch out and down the back stairs to the kitchen where he washed up then went to the living room with Murdoch.

Johnny rose from Scott’s bed and went to his room and quickly washed up, scrubbing his brother’s blood off his hands. He then threw on a clean shirt and hurried back to Scott’s room. Making himself comfortable beside Scott on the bed, he watched the slow rise and fall of his brother’s chest. He placed his hand on Scott’s arm and closed his eyes for a minute, happy that Scott would be all right.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 

Johnny woke suddenly and looked around wondering what had awoken him. A quilt was covering him. Turning his head a little he looked down and found blue-grey eyes watching him. He smiled and Scott returned the smile. 

“How do you feel?” Johnny asked. 

“Fine. Hungry though.” 

“Me too. I think we both missed dinner.” Johnny reached across to the side table and picked up the glass of water sitting there. “Have a drink, then I’ll go see if I can find us something to eat,” he said as he held the glass out to Scott.

Scott eyed the glass then looked at him.

With a smile Johnny told him, “Its just water Boston. You need to drink it.”

Scott nodded and let Johnny help him to a sitting position. Shoving pillows behind Scott’s back, Johnny again held the glass out to Scott who took it and then drank. Handing the almost empty glass back, Scott smiled, “Thanks.”

“That’s okay. I’ll go raid the kitchen. Be back in a minute. Don’t go anywhere.” Johnny hurried out of the room as Scott lay back on the pillows, fighting back the pain that had washed across his chest.

Closing his eyes, Scott remembered the cougar. He had thought he’d killed it with the ax, or that it had died after chasing KC off. He had been half asleep under the tree when it had slowly stalked out of the trees towards him. He had felt a chill go through him that didn’t have anything to do with the cold and pain he felt. The big cat had paced back and forth in front of him not more than fifteen feet away, watching him as if he was its last meal. For several minutes he watched the cat in horror, frozen in place, and unable to move. The large yellow eyes seemed to bore through him, holding him in place. For an instant something had distracted the big tawny cat and Scott was able to draw his gun; when the yellow eyes swung back to him the cat came at him in a rush. He barely had time to get the gun up before he fired, and kept firing until the gun was empty. Several bullets had slammed into the cat and it screamed loudly and finally dropped dead almost on his feet. He shuddered; he had almost been killed, and it was Christmas. ‘Some Christmas present for my brother, if I’d of died,’ Scott thought.

Johnny walked into the room at that moment, a plate with several sandwiches on it in one hand and two cups of coffee in the other hand.

“I don’t know if you really should be eating this, but…I guess you can try it, otherwise I’ll see if I can get you some broth or something like that. What’s wrong?”

“This will do. Nothing’s wrong,” Scott grabbed a sandwich and took a bite out of it.

“Brother, I know there is something bothering you. What is it?”

Scott took another bite then looked at his brother. “I thought that cat would have been dead, but it came after me again…I didn’t think I’d be here for Christmas.”

“It was another cat. I found the one that had your ax buried in it. He was maybe 3 miles from the ledge. Was after KC but he didn’t make it. I ran across the second one’s tracks trailing you. That one was bigger. You hit him four times.”

Scott had put his sandwich down. “Oh… Didn’t know there were two of them. All I wanted to do was get home. I had to.”

“Why?”

“Christmas. I wanted to be home for Christmas. This was really your first Christmas here, last year you weren’t here. I wanted this one to be something special for you brother. And instead I messed it all up. No tree, no nothing. Some Christmas, I ruined it.” Scott turned his head away.

“Hey, Brother. You didn’t ruin anything. It will be Christmas Day shortly. We’re all here, nothing is wrong. We are together! There is a beautiful tree downstairs that is all decorated; it did get here. Murdoch and Teresa are here, Sam our friend is here, you are here and…alive. I was scared that I’d find you too late, and when I found those cougar tracks tracking you I was terrified at what I would find. But I found you, and you will be fine soon Doc says. That is all that counts. Isn’t that what you told me Christmas was about? Being with family and friends? Being thankful for that?” Johnny asked.

Scott looked back at his brother, “Yes Christmas is all that, and more. I am thankful that I have you as my brother. You are the most important person in my life and I don’t ever want to lose you.”

Johnny ducked his dark head a moment, then looked back at Scott, their eyes locking. “Brother, you are important to me too; I never had a friend or anyone like you. Just being with you now makes this Christmas special to me. I’ll always be here for you brother. Don’t ever leave me Scott.”

“I won’t, Johnny.”

For several minutes the two brothers sat in silence; bright blue-grey eyes locked with brilliant blue eyes, knowing that they would share this special Christmas that almost hadn’t happened together, their love and respect for each other strengthening the invisible bond between them.

Johnny suddenly smiled crookedly at Scott as the Grandfather clock struck midnight. “Hey brother, how about we go open some presents? I saw a bunch under the tree.”

“I think we need to wait for the rest of the family.”

“By the way, what did you get me, Boston?”

“You have to wait until morning to find out, little brother. I think we could use a little more sleep. I know I am tired.”

“If I have to big brother, I’ll wait a few hours more. Merry Christmas Boston.”

“Merry Christmas Brother.”

 

            MERRY CHRISTMAS TO EVERYONE

 

Epilogue: Three Months Later

Jeff caught up with Scott and Johnny in the barn and, leading them to the tack room, he handed Scott the tanned hides of the two cougars that he had killed. Jeff had done a fine job of tanning them, the hides were soft and pliable. Not knowing what to do with the hides, Scott looked at Johnny, who said, “Well we could put them on the couch, or maybe make bridles or something out of them. Up to you brother.”

Scott thanked Jeff and handed him one, a thank you for tanning them. Taking the larger one he walked back to the house and tossed it over the couch, though he wasn’t sure if he wanted that reminder in the living room. As he walked outside again he thought it might make better bridles. He looked at his brother waiting with their horses by the barn for him and decided; bridles would be a lot better.

 

~end~
2005

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