The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

The Greatest Gift of These...

 

 

 

Two more days. Johnny smiled at the same time as he felt a surge of dread. How could one day bring so many different emotions to the forefront? On one hand, he was looking forward to this. On the other, he wondered if it would turn into a disaster.

Scott was happier than he'd seen his brother. Whistling unidentifiable tunes that he assured his younger brother were Christmas Carols. Johnny took his word for it. He only knew one Christmas song himself. It did bring a smile to his face to watch Scott.

And Teresa! You would think Christ really was coming again the way she acted. Running around the house, inspecting every decoration to make sure it was in the exact place she'd put it. Making sure her brothers did as she told them and when. She held no quarter where her decorations were concerned. They would be perfect. Period.

She'd even insisted on going with them to cut a tree and it had taken four hours until she'd found a satisfactory one. Two more hours to cut it and haul it into the wagon bed. Scott and Johnny had been exhausted and frozen by the time it was done. Even Murdoch couldn't gripe at how long they'd been gone once he saw the glow on the girl's face. She was definitely proud of her choice.

Johnny had no intention of disappointing her, either. Lest he face her wrath. He'd done that a time or two and did not wish a repeat performance. His greatest worry was the gifts he'd bought. He didn't know these people very well. He hadn't a clue what to get them or if it would be right. He kept envisioning that morning and the pained expressions as they opened their gifts from him. Well, he had tried. What more could he do?

Maybe next year would be easier. He hoped so. Hoped he would know them all better. Surely, he would. Well, except for Murdoch maybe. He was the toughest to buy for that was a given! Johnny had felt physical pain worrying over his selection for the old man. Finally, he'd decided and thought the hell with it. He figured he'd know for sure if he'd made a mistake as soon as the man took a look.

Another smile graced his face as he turned Barranca to head after an errant cow. Ranch work didn't stop for anything. Not even Christmas. Murdoch had told them that day itself would be work-free. Until then, he'd decreed, life would continue as usual. Which didn't make getting those presents any easier. Both Scott and Johnny had a race on their hands. Running into town two and three times a week all month was wearing on them both after a hard day's work.

Well, it was done now. All that was left was to enjoy the day, hopefully. He was unconvinced it would be as perfect as Teresa swore. She'd regaled them with stories of past Christmases at Lancer. Always with just a tinge of sadness in her voice as she spoke of her father. Johnny's heart ached for the girl. It was just over a year ago that Paul O'Brien had been murdered. They had all done their best to keep her occupied and she seemed to be doing pretty well. There were times, though, when Johnny had seen the grief on her face, heard it in her voice. It was those times that his anger rose. Thinking of all Pardee had taken from these people and this valley.

Shaking these thoughts away, he concentrated on his work and listening to the now nerve-numbing whistling of his brother.

*****

December 24th was a normal day at the ranch. That evening, the family gathered in the great room. Covered in greenery and colorful ribbons, the firelight cast dancing shadows across Teresa's hard work. She smiled at the atmosphere it created and thought again, as she did most every year, of redecorating.

She had lit a million candles it seemed and they enhanced the tranquility of the cozy room. Though it was by far the largest room in the house, her magic touch had reduced it to the feel of home; love, peace and calm exuding from the very air.

Murdoch began reading aloud from the bible as he did every year. Johnny and Scott were both entranced by the unusual soft reverence of his voice. Hanging on every word, drinking in every moment and burning it into their memories.

Johnny closed his eyes as he listened and felt better than he ever had in his life. More at peace with himself than ever before. The past few weeks had brought another struggle for him. Fighting hard to keep the demons of the past away. This time of year, more than any other, had always found him melancholy. Always, he had secluded himself away somewhere during the holidays. Unwilling to look upon the dregs of humanity who shared his fate.

Saloons and cantinas all over the border were filled with men like he. Alone, no family, no friends, no love in their lives. Every gunfighter, thief and run of the mill low life sought out refuge in a bottle at this time of year. Johnny didn't need to watch them. He had his own mirror to reflect within.

Opening his eyes, he noticed Scott watching him with a look of concern. Johnny smiled fondly at his brother, letting him know he was fine. The smile that was returned was one of affection and relief. Johnny almost shook his head. Scott sure took this big brother business seriously. He knew some of Scott's efforts at being happy during this time were for his sake.

It brought him a huge measure of comfort to know his brother thought so much of his welfare. He wondered, not for the first time, about Scott's childhood Christmases. But the older man was wont to talk about it. Johnny figured he was trying to spare his feelings. It wasn't necessary. Knowing Scott had a good life was all the gift Johnny would ever need. He only wished he had the words to explain that to Scott. But he didn't. Like so many times in his life, especially since coming home, he couldn't find the words to express his true feelings.

His eyes wandered to his father, still reading, and he had to smile. There was so much more to Murdoch Lancer than the gruff, stern man he'd met that first day. Johnny had seen things. Moments in time when Murdoch showed his gentle side. Usually, it was with Teresa. But sometimes, he'd seen it with a neighbor in trouble or a stranger in need. Once or twice, he'd witnessed it toward himself.

Those fragments sustained him. Kept him hoping and dreaming of the life he could have here. He knew his father had no idea those rare moments were what kept him here at all. He knew better than anyone, Murdoch believed Johnny only stayed for Scott.

But that wasn't true. Yes, having a brother had been something of a miracle for him. Needing him had been a pure shock. But the greater need was for a father who actually cared. Johnny had seen that caring in those infrequent moments.

He suddenly realized Murdoch was looking at him and he smiled softly at the older man, receiving a fond smile in return. Yes, he felt good tonight. Really good.

Murdoch looked up from his reading to find Johnny watching him intently. He couldn't read the expression on his son's face but it seemed to be contentment. He hoped it was. This one was so hard to know. So difficult to get close to. He knew a lot of that was his own fault. Johnny's beliefs for most of his life had made it hard for Murdoch to find the courage to try breaking down those defenses for fear that all the anger and hatred would come to the fore. More than that, that it was all still there. But the smile he'd just received told him different. It was the soft smile. The one he'd come to recognize as genuine affection.

Scott and Teresa had been on the receiving end of that smile so many times. Even that horse of his. But Murdoch had, until now, never experienced it given for him. He thought that was the greatest gift his son could give him this night and he was sure Johnny wasn't even aware of it.

Scott had not missed the exchange and his heart burned with even more warmth. Listening to his father read from the bible had been a bit surprising. The man's tone even more so during the telling. Watching the slight smile that seemed plastered to Johnny's face was testament for him that this family had more than a chance of working.

But this last exchange between father and son convinced him completely. He loved Christmas. It was his favorite time of year. Part of him had been missing the east coast snow and his grandfather. But tonight, he knew he was exactly where he belonged. Where he had always belonged. He fought back the sadness that thought evoked and focused on the here and now. These three people were all that mattered in his world tonight. He was at peace.

Murdoch stood to replace the bible, then had a thought. He walked over and sat between his sons on the sofa. Opening the book to near the middle, he showed them the records kept there. His marriage to Catherine, Scott's birth and her death, his marriage to Maria and Johnny's birth. Paul's death and Teresa's birth were also inscribed in the sacred tome. The Lancer family history was also there. Dating back to Murdoch's great-grandparents. He explained the bible was a family heirloom, passed down through the generations.

Both young men leaned into their father to read the entries and Murdoch smiled as he looked down on the light and dark heads.

"Well, we have a bigger birthday to celebrate right now," Johnny grinned. "Which reminds me, I was planning on going to midnight mass if that's okay."

"Of course, son. We'll leave a light on for you," Murdoch smiled.

"Could I come?" Scott asked.

"Why?" Johnny queried a bit suspiciously.

"Well, it occurs to me I don't know anything about the Catholic faith. And since my brother is Catholic, I'd like to learn."

Johnny shrugged his shoulders. "Fine with me, Scott. Just hope your knees are in good shape," he grinned.

Scott was sure his knees were no longer in good shape as he rode home with his brother. But he had learned a great deal about Catholicism. Johnny had seemed to want to share this part of his life and Scott was glad there was something from his brother's past he'd talk about. Then again, it was a fairly safe subject.

They headed straight to the barn and bedded the horses, talking quietly about the mass. Scott was glad the priest had spoken in Latin. He could understand the message easily as could his brother. Something else they had in common.

Scott smiled as he thought of what little they really did have in common. The fact that they were so easy with each other seemed a paradox. He'd mulled this over many times in the past months, never seeming to find an answer. Maybe there was no answer. Or maybe it was as simple as being brothers. Blood ties. Still, he didn't think so. He'd seen brothers who'd grown up together who were not as close as he and Johnny. No, there was something else.

He'd worked harder on this relationship than any other and he knew Johnny had as well. It seemed to be a need for them both more than a want. Scott had a lonely childhood but nothing compared to what his brother had endured. Maybe, though, that loneliness they both had felt was part of why they were so close now.

"Scott?"

His head jerked up and he looked at his brother over Remmie's back, confusion adorning his face. "What?"

Johnny chuckled softly. "I asked you if you were tryin to make that horse bald."

Scott looked down and realized he'd been brushing the same spot over and over. His face flushed a little and he apologized to his horse.

"You were a million miles away, brother," Johnny commented.

"No, I was right here, really," Scott smiled.

Johnny looked at him quizzically then smiled. "Feliz Navidad, mi hermano," he said softly.

"Feliz Navidad," Scott replied with his own smile.

They headed to the house together, still talking about the mass when Johnny slowed his stride.

Scott looked over at him then followed Johnny's gaze. "Something wrong?"

"No. Murdoch said he'd leave a light on but it's awfully bright in there," he observed.

Scott frowned. "Yes, it is. You think Santa's here?" he grinned.

Johnny laughed. "Maybe. Let's go scare the pants off him."

Scott smacked his arm. "That's not a nice thing to do."

"Well, I haven't been on his list for a long time. Reckon I need to remind him I'm still around."

Johnny was laughing as he threw an arm around Scott's shoulder but the older brother wasn't amused. The comment made him sad as he once again thought of how his brother had spent past Christmases. He tried to shake it off and focus on the moment and why the house was lit so brightly.

They entered quietly, just in case no one was still up. Both removed their gunbelts and hats, hanging them on their places by the front door. They stepped into the great room, surprised to see Murdoch sitting at his desk.

Johnny sauntered over and smiled. "Waiting for Santa?"

The look he received wiped the smile from his face. Scott stepped up beside his brother, a feeling of dread overcoming him.

"What's wrong, Sir?"

Murdoch stared at them both for a long moment. The brothers could tell he was working to keep himself calm. This only made them both feel more guarded.

Johnny finally couldn't stand it. "What is it, Murdoch?" he demanded.

After a twitch of his lip, Murdoch answered. "I decided to go through the mail tonight. I hadn't had a chance lately with so much going on. I found this letter most interesting," he said as he waved the missive before him.

"What is it?" Scott asked.

"It's from a man in San Francisco. He says he's coming here and expects to arrive Christmas Day at the latest."

"Are we gonna have to drag it out of you?" Johnny asked as Murdoch hesitated again.

He shot his son a curt look before going on. "He says he has a matter of great importance to discuss with me concerning my son. He apologized for the timing but said it couldn't wait."

Johnny's face went blank, his eyes icy. It was Scott who asked the ultimate questions.

"Which son and what matter?'

Murdoch shook his head slowly. "I have no idea. The letter doesn't specify either."

"Well, what's his name?" Johnny asked harshly.

"Farmer. Asa Farmer. He's an attorney."

Both boys searched their memories and both shook their heads, indicating the name was not familiar.

"Well, whatever he wants, I suppose we'll find out soon enough. Was there anything else in the letter? Any clue as to what he might want?" Scott asked.

"No, just what I've told you."

"Then I'm goin to bed. Reckon we'll find out soon enough what he wants. I just hope it doesn't spoil Teresa's Christmas," Johnny mumbled the last sentence and headed upstairs.

Everyone slept in the next morning, no one making it downstairs until seven a.m. None of the men had slept well wondering about this mysterious guest who was to arrive sometime today. Even his arrival time was unknown.

Murdoch was grumpy. He hated surprises and he'd spent the majority of the late night hours coming up with all kinds of scenarios in his head. Most of them having to do with Johnny. He couldn't imagine this having anything to do with Scott. His elder son had no past to speak of.

Teresa frowned at them all and, as she sat breakfast on the table and took her place, she let her feelings be known.

"I hope you all get over whatever has you in such a foul mood. It's Christmas and we all have so much to celebrate," she explained.

Murdoch smiled weakly at his ward. "I'm sorry, darling. I'm sure we'll perk up after this delicious breakfast." He shot his sons a look that told them they would indeed perk up, or else.

Scott and Johnny took the hint and both smiled fully at Teresa; privately pledging to themselves they would not let her holiday be spoiled by anything.

They were acutely aware of Teresa's inner struggle. Always putting on a brave front for the family when inside, she grieved for what she'd lost. On separate occasions, both brothers had been a shoulder for her to cry on these past two months.

"Well, good! As soon as Murdoch and I get back from church, we can open presents," she beamed.

Murdoch chuckled at her exuberance while Johnny winced and prayed they would like their gifts. He found it odd that he should worry so much over such a thing. Never in his life had he had to fret over gifts. When his mother was alive, Christmas was celebrated in church but never at home. There were no presents, no tree, no special dinner, no visiting friends and certainly no family.

Since her death, he hardly had the need or desire to buy gifts. There was no one for him to give them to anyway. Though, on an occasion or two, he'd indulged in giving himself a present. Usually, a high quality bottle of tequila or an expensive dinner when he could afford it.

Scott watched his brother's torrent of expressions as they flew across his face at alarming speed. What could he be thinking about? he wondered. He, too, was determined to make Teresa's day memorable. He only hoped this uninvited guest would not be bringing bad news. Though he couldn't imagine what else it could be. What was so important that it couldn't wait until after the holidays?

Once Murdoch and Teresa were off to church, the brothers settled near the fire, drinking coffee and lost in thought.

"No idea then?" Scott said suddenly.

"Not a clue. Name doesn't mean a thing and believe me, I thought about it all night," Johnny replied.

"Me too. Well, I suppose all we can do is wait and hope it's not bad news," Scott sighed.

Johnny snorted softly at this. "We can hope all we want but you know if it was good news, it coulda waited."

Scott's brows knitted. "Not necessarily. It could be this attorney is coming to tell one of us we've inherited a fortune from a distant relative."

"I ain't got no distant relatives. Do you?"

"I don't know. I didn't know I had any not-so-distant relatives a year ago," Scott grinned.

Johnny laughed. "True, brother, true. Well, no sense driving ourselves loco over it," he sighed.

"Right. We'll just stop thinking about it," Scott nodded, knowing that was an impossible task.

Johnny nodded his agreement, more to Scott's thoughts than his spoken word. "Want to go for a ride?"

"Mmmm, no, I'm quite content right here."

Johnny smiled. Content. That was such a nice word. Until last night he'd been very content. Now, he was anxious, worried and a little ticked off at the situation as a whole. Why did something have to ruin every nice thing that happened? He sighed softly.

Being on edge made him restless and he stood and walked around the room, checking the decorations to make sure none had gotten knocked off kilter. Lord help them if anything was out of place. Miss Teresa would have a cow. He almost laughed out loud at that thought.

"Scott? Whatever this is about, let's not let it ruin this for Teresa. Okay?" he asked softly.

"Agreed, brother. Nothing is going to ruin this day for her," Scott stated adamantly.

It was nearing noon when the surrey returned home. Teresa's cheeks were red from the cold and excitement. She came into the room like a hurricane, checking everything over with an expert eye. Satisfied, she went to the kitchen to see how dinner was coming.

Murdoch walked in a minute after her with a questioning look on his face. Scanning the room and finding no strangers, he relaxed a modicum. "Not here, yet." It was an observation, not a question.

Scott answered him anyway. "No, it's been quiet all morning."

"Look, whatever this is, me and Scott agree it shouldn't involve Teresa," Johnny spoke up.

"Well, that makes it unanimous, then," Murdoch nodded. "I just hope he waits until after dinner," he added grumpily.

The family ate at one o'clock then convened in the living room to open presents. Teresa was unaware of the undercurrent of dread that consumed all three men. They did an expert job of fooling her. She was delighted and proud the holiday had been such a success so far. No one wanted to disappoint her.

After gifts were exchanged and Johnny was satisfied his choices weren't a complete disaster, Teresa excused herself for a nap. She'd worn herself out the last few weeks and it was beginning to tell. She promised to be refreshed and ready for supper, though it would be a light meal of leftovers after the feast at midday.

Johnny drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair, then stood and walked to the French doors, staring out at the yard and the road beyond.

He started to comment on the authenticity of the letter when he saw movement far down the road. Johnny opened the door and stepped outside followed by his father and brother.

"Can you see who it is yet?" Murdoch asked either of his more visually keen sons.

"Not yet. Too far away," Johnny replied.

They continued to stare until the buggy was close enough. Johnny's shoulders sagged. "Stranger," he mumbled.

They stepped into the yard to greet the visitor. The man was about sixty, white-haired and somewhat rotund. He grunted as he stepped out of the buggy then straightened his suit jacket as he faced them. He was about Johnny's height, pale blue eyes that were alive with intelligence. His smile revealed perfectly straight white teeth.

"Mr. Lancer, I presume?" he asked as he extended a hand to the eldest man.

"Yes, I'm Murdoch Lancer. These are my sons, Scott and Johnny."

Mr. Farmer looked taken aback. "I didn't know you had two sons."

"Come in out of the cold, Mr. Farmer," Murdoch said, curious beyond belief. His thoughts whirled with the possibilities. But he decided to stop trying to guess and just wait to hear the man out.

Farmer looked appreciatively around the great room then settled in a chair near the fire. Scott served coffee and settled on the sofa next to Johnny.

"Lovely home and so beautifully decorated," Farmer commented then sipped his coffee.

"Thank you. We like it," Murdoch said graciously.

Farmer set the cup down and retrieved his satchel. He opened it and pulled out a folder, placing it on his lap and settling the satchel at his feet. He placed both hands across the folder and looked at all three of them before setting his eyes on Murdoch.

"Now then. I'm sure you are all quite curious. First, let me apologize for disturbing your holiday. It was most unintentional. But, you see, the circumstances were a bit complex."

"What circumstances are those, Mr. Farmer?" asked Scott.

"Well, it is my secretary who deserves any credit. She found an old calendar of mine while cleaning out a file cabinet. There was a note on the front with the date December 19, 1870."

"December 19th? That's Scott's birthday," Johnny chimed in.

Farmer smiled. "Indeed it is, young man. As soon as she showed it to me, I remembered the case clearly. She found it on the eighteenth, you see. Well, I immediately set about making arrangements and writing the letter to you, Mr. Lancer. Unfortunately, being the holiday season, traveling here took twice as long as usual."

"So this is about Scott?" Murdoch asked.

"Yes," was the simple reply and Johnny melted into the sofa cushions with relief. A smile tugged at his lips as he glanced at his brother.

"Please, go on," Scott said, seeing the look but ignoring it. He was just as pleased that it wasn't about Johnny's past.

"Of course. Well, I should begin at the beginning, shouldn't I? Twenty-five and a half years ago, I received a letter of enquiry for my services as an attorney. The letter was from Mrs. Catherine Lancer. She expressed her needs most succinctly. She asked that I set up a trust fund for her then unborn child. Mrs. Lancer had received a trust from her grandmother and wanted it transferred to her child. Well, it was a simple matter really. The only caution she gave was that no one was to be told of the trust." Farmer stopped here and frowned.

"You had no idea, Mr. Lancer?"

Murdoch shook his head. "No, I didn't. I knew she had a trust but, quite honestly, this is the first time I've even thought about it."

Farmer nodded. "Well, she explained in the letter that she wanted no one but herself and her husband to know. I can only guess she never got around to telling you. I am so sorry for your loss, late as the sentiment is. I never met the lady in person, but I could tell from her letters, she was exceptional."

"She was that," Murdoch said softly.

"And so we come to the reason for my visit. The child was to receive the trust on his twenty-fifth birthday. I can only assume she would have contacted me had she lived. As it is, the task is mine. Not an unpleasant one, I might add," he smiled but no one returned it.

"What I'm trying to tell you, Scott, is that your trust fund has been placed in your name only. It's in the Bank of San Francisco awaiting you."

Scott nodded blankly at the man. His mind turning over the facts. His mother had taken measures to insure his welfare before he had even been born. She had made sure he would not want for anything and that no one could manipulate the money. He could only assume that's why she never told her father. And, he assumed, she simply never got the chance to tell his father. She loved him.

He'd been told it so many times throughout his life by his grandfather. Your mother loved you, Scotty. How many times had he heard it? But this, now, was like a blow to the chest. He was left breathless with the knowledge. It was as if she were reaching out across time and space to him. Telling him herself that she did indeed love him. A lump formed in his throat and he swallowed hard, unable to dislodge it.

Murdoch stared into space feeling unsure of what exactly he felt. Obviously, Catherine had thought this through. Had spent some time in correspondence with this lawyer to set it up. He had to assume she wanted everything to be in place before telling him. Then, with Haney's raids intensifying, she must have simply forgot to tell him. She probably thought she would get the chance later. He bowed his head and closed his eyes.

Johnny watched them both caught up in their thoughts and emotions. He wasn't sure what to make of any of this. It seemed an almost simple thing. A mother watching out for her son's future. But in these circumstances, he understood the high emotions. He noticed Farmer looked totally clueless and had to smile a little.

"Mr. Farmer, I don't even want to know how you managed to rent a buggy today. But, it's getting late and by the time you get back to town, everything will be closed. Why don't you stay here tonight and have supper with us?" Johnny offered.

"That is most generous of you, young man. I would be grateful and I'm afraid I didn't make any friends with that gruff fellow at the livery," he smiled.

"I noticed you had your bags in the buggy. Let's go get them and I'll show you to a room. Supper's in about an hour," Johnny said as he led the man out of the room and gave his family some privacy.

"I do have some papers for Scott to sign," Farmer mentioned once outside.

"That can wait. Scott needs a little time to take it all in," Johnny said, trying to sound casual.

Farmer stopped as they were headed back inside. "I know it's none of my business, but why are they both so .... overwhelmed? It isn't as if Mrs. Lancer just passed."

Johnny studied the man for a minute, chewing his lower lip. "It's complicated," he said and figured that was more than enough.

Farmer smiled and nodded his understanding. Being an attorney, he'd seen more than his fair share of complicated family life.

In the great room, Scott and Murdoch were silent for an interminably long time. At long last, Scott ventured a look at his father.

"This was sure a surprise," he commented in a soft voice.

Murdoch took a deep breath and smiled at his son. "She loved you so much," he managed to croak out.

"It's funny. I was thinking that Grandfather told me that so many times. But, I don't know, it just didn't really mean as much hearing it from him. This seems ..... I don't know, it's like she's telling me herself." Scott shook his head. "I'm not even sure what I mean."

Murdoch stood and walked to the sofa. Sitting beside his son, he wrapped an arm around Scott's shoulders. "I understand, son. You knew she loved you because everyone told you so. Now, you have proof of her love for you. And it isn't the money, I know that. It's the gesture. The fact that, before you were even born, she was taking care of you. Trying to make sure you were safe, happy and had all the advantages possible. Just like any mother would want for her child."

Scott grimaced a little but held back the sarcastic comment he wanted to make about not all mothers doing that. He looked up and, for the first time, realized they were alone.

"Where did Johnny go?"

Murdoch chuckled a little. "He's settling Farmer in for the night. You didn't even hear him offer the man room and board."

Scott smiled. "No, I didn't."

"Are you alright, son?"

Scott pulled in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Yes, Sir. I feel a little sad but mostly, very happy. Very ..... content."

"It was a wonderful gift," Murdoch observed.

"The best I could ever get, I think."

Johnny headed to the kitchen, glad to see Teresa was up from her nap. He explained Mr. Farmer and all that had transpired. By the time he finished, the girl's eyes had welled with tears.

Johnny shook his head and hugged her, marveling at the things that made women cry. He helped her prepare the evening meal of leftovers. They decided to freshen everything more since there was company now.

An hour later, they sat at the table once more and Murdoch said another prayer of thanks. Privately, he thanked his first wife for her generosity and foresight.

Scott said a special prayer as well to his mother, hoping and believing she could hear him.

As the meal wound down, Farmer spoke. "I do have some papers for you to sign, Scott. Just legal formalities," he explained.

Scott only nodded.

"How much money is it?" Teresa asked bluntly.

Johnny nearly spat the drink of water in his mouth and Murdoch cleared his throat loudly.

"I think that's a private matter, darling," Murdoch gently chastised a red-faced Teresa.

Scott smiled at her enthusiasm though. While that would have been a crude remark in Boston society, here among family, he didn't consider it an insult at all.

"It doesn't matter, anyway. It's the thought behind it that counts," Scott replied.

He shared a brief look with his brother. Johnny's eyes were smiling brilliantly at him. A look Scott recognized and never felt completely comfortable with. Johnny was ready for some teasing.

They adjourned to the great room and Scott signed the needed papers and received a passbook for the account. He didn't even look at the balance. He tucked it on his shirt pocket and, after bidding goodnight to an exhausted lawyer, settled down with his family.

Johnny stretched out his legs, crossing them at the ankles as he spread his arms across the back of the sofa. Sinking into the cushions, he regarded Scott.

"So, brother, drinks on you?" he grinned.

Murdoch chuckled and Scott laughed outright. "Sure, brother. What's your pleasure?" he asked as he headed to the sideboard.

"Oh, whiskey's fine," he said after a brief pause of consideration.

Scott settled on the sofa after serving a round.

"Aren't you the least bit curious of the amount?" Murdoch asked.

Scott shrugged and pulled the small book out, opening it up. His eyes grew wide as his mouth fell open. He seemed to go a bit pale as he stared disbelievingly at the numbers.

Johnny sat up straight, concerned by the look on Scott's face. He reached over and touched his brother's arm. "Hey, you okay?"

Scott blinked twice then looked at him, his expression unchanged.

"Well, come on, Scott. It can't be that bad," Johnny smiled.

Scott shook his head slowly as if trying to disagree. His mouth opened but no sound came forth. He offered the book to Johnny who took it with a chagrined look.

"Whoa! Two hundred, eighty-seven thousand dollars!?"

Murdoch's brows went up then wrinkled together. "You can't be reading that right," he said.

Johnny tossed the book at him and shrugged, sinking back against the sofa once more.

Murdoch stared at the sum for a full minute before looking at them both. "That's what it says. Scott, you are a wealthy man," he said, a tinge of something not quite right in his voice.

"It would seem so," Scott whispered, his voice still not in full force.

"And sixty-eight cents," Johnny added with a taste of sarcasm for his father.

"I just can't believe it. I never would have dreamed it was that much. What am I going to do with all that money?"

"I just want you to know, Scott, that I'll help in any way I can." A slow grin spread across Johnny's face.

Scott looked at him, seeing the devil that was his brother at times. "This is serious business, Johnny. This is a huge responsibility," he replied without scorn.

Johnny shrugged. "If it's that much of a burden, give it away."

"Give it away?" Murdoch fairly shouted.

"Why not? Lots of people could use it, or some of it anyway," Johnny said.

"Of course, that's something to consider. I don't know. This has all been too much," Scott sighed.

"Well, nothing has to be decided tonight, son. Or anytime in the near future. The money isn't going anywhere. Just take your time," Murdoch advised.

"Yeah and keep your mouth shut. People hear about this, they'll be comin out of the woodwork," Johnny snorted.

"Yes, that's very true. Boys, it's been a wonderful and ..... interesting Christmas. One I doubt I will ever forget. But, I'm going to bed. Goodnight," Murdoch said and rose.

The brothers bade their father goodnight and sat quietly together for a long time. Scott was still in shock and Johnny didn't want to disturb his thoughts. He stood up slowly and as unobtrusively as he could and walked over to the French doors, staring at the reflection of the room behind him in the glass.

Dissatisfied with the view, he eased the door open and slipped out into the night. He perched on the low wall of the veranda and looked up at the cloudless night sky. The stars seemed to be within his reach tonight and he sat marveling at the sight.

"I could do a lot for the ranch with all that money. Build it into an indestructible empire," Scott said from the door.

Johnny kept staring at the stars. "You could travel, too. Spend your whole life doing nothing but what you want when you want."

Scott walked over and sat next to him, his eyes following Johnny's. "I am doing what I want. Traveling would be nice for a while. But, I've done that and it gets boring after a while. You don't think I should spend it on the ranch?"

Johnny sighed softly and turned to look at his brother. "I have a problem with that, Scott. This is a partnership. You spending all that money on the ranch; it kinda seems like me and Murdoch have no say anymore. I know you wouldn't mean it like that but, well, a man has pride in the land he works. When he makes good with it, it sorta gives him a sense of accomplishment. It's the working hard, breaking your back and knowing you did it yourself that makes it worthwhile. Does that make sense?"

Scott smiled and nodded his head. "Perfect sense. But, I can still buy you a beer now and then, right?"

Johnny laughed and wrapped an arm around his brother. "Anytime, Boston, anytime. Speaking of that, are you gonna tell your grandfather about this?" he asked with one cocked brow.

"I hadn't even thought about it. Maybe. Right now, I don't want to think about the money. I just want to think about how it came to me and who gave it."

Johnny nodded. "And why."

"Yes, and why."

"You okay?" Johnny asked.

"Yes. I'm overwhelmed, certainly. But, this is the first time I've ever really felt close to my mother. Just knowing she was thinking of me and wanted to take care of me before I was even born ..... it's ....."

Johnny squeezed his shoulder and smiled understandingly. "I wish you could have known her. But you know one thing for sure; she loved you and she had a heart of gold. Corazon del oro."

Scott bowed his head and smiled. "She would have loved you, too."

"Now, Scott. If your mother had lived, I wouldn't be here. How could she love me?" Johnny asked logically.

"I don't know but I do know that somehow it would have happened. I know that no matter what, you and I were destined to be brothers. That is a truth beyond any other."

Johnny looked at him as if he had two heads. "For an educated man, you don't make much sense sometimes."

Scott laughed at this. "Aren't you the one who is always saying 'it is what it is'? That some things have no explanation? Well, this is one of those things, brother. You and I were meant to know one another."

"Well, if you say so then I reckon it must be true. All I know for sure right now is that I'm tired. I'm goin to bed," he smiled and shook Scott's shoulder before finally releasing the hold he'd had these long moments.

"Goodnight, Johnny. Sweet dreams."

"Oh, I'll have those. Thinking about big piles of money and jumpin into it like a hay stack," he teased as he strode through the French doors.

Scott laughed at his disappearing form then turned back to gaze at the stars. He watched the North Star as it twinkled and seemed to wink at him. A sad smile adorned his face.

"Thank you, Mother. Thank you for giving me life and for loving me so."

With a soft sigh, Scott stood and went inside. Tomorrow was a brand new day, as Johnny would say. And Murdoch was right. He had no decisions to make that couldn't wait. He stopped at the door and turned back, eyes casting once more upward. "Happy Birthday," he whispered.

 

 

~end~

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