The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Snow Angels

 

 

 

Second in the Scotland series, preceded by New Traditions and followed by Scotland Bound

 

Scott and Johnny Lancer huddled themselves almost into their horses necks as the snow began to fall harder. They knew they were in trouble an hour ago. Coming home from Sacramento through the mountains had sounded like a good idea. It would take two days off their trip and they'd be home well before Christmas. Now, they were both cursing the idea as the wind whipped up, pelting them with icy snow.

Johnny reached out a nearly frozen hand to his brother to make him stop. Pulling his sweater off his mouth, he had to yell to be heard over the wind. "We have to find shelter now!"

Scott could only nod his understanding. He was sure his lips had frozen shut a while ago.

Johnny squinted, straining to see through the white wall surrounding them. Trying to get his bearings, he pointed to his right and spurred Barranca on. Scott followed, hoping his brother had a clue where they were going.

Half an hour later, they could make out the structures that were only fifty feet away. Johnny headed for the barn. He dismounted and quickly pulled the door open as his brother led both horses into safety.

They allowed themselves a moment to breathe and shiver before realizing they weren't alone. Two draft horses were stabled in the cozy stalls. They saw the covered wagon off to the left.

"Well, hope they don't mind company," Scott stated.

"Don't much matter cause they got it," Johnny retorted.

They took care of their mounts, both giving extra attention to the poor horses who were as cold as they. Once satisfied the animals were taken care of, they gave each other a long look and shrugged.

********

Bracing themselves, they opened the barn door and headed for the shack. Not bothering with convention, Johnny flung the door open and stepped inside and to the right. Scott was right behind him and Johnny shut the door forcefully.

Four pair of wide eyes met their entrance. They quickly pulled the cloths away from their faces. A man, a woman and two young girls watched in surprise.

"Hi," Johnny said.

"Guess you got caught in the storm, too," a tall, thin, graying man answered.

"Yes, we sure did," Scott replied, stepping up to the fire.

Johnny joined him, crowding closely so as not to keep the warmth of the fire from the children beside it.

"I'm Johnny Lancer and this is my brother, Scott," he introduced, extending an icy hand.

"Jeremiah Wilkins. My wife Annalee, our daughters Rachel and Carrie," the man replied.

"Where you folks headin?" Johnny asked.

"On our way to Oregon."

"Long way," Scott commented.

"What about you?"

"Morro Coyo. We thought we'd cut through the mountains, save time," Johnny laughed softly.

"Bless you," Scott said as the youngest girl sneezed.

Johnny frowned, looking closely at the child for the first time. "That sounds bad." He could hear her wheezing. She was blonde with big blue eyes. She couldn't have been more than seven. Her sister had browner hair and eyes. Johnny judged her to be about nine.

Her mother gathered her into her arms and rocked the girl. "She's been sick since we left San Diego."

"You folks have any food?" Scott asked.

"Not much, mister."

"Well, we have some provisions. We'd be glad to share," he offered.

The man's face flooded with relief.

"Come on over and help me get this stuff out of the saddlebags," Johnny said to Mr. Wilkins.

*******

In the far corner of the room, Johnny spoke to the man. "How long have you been here?"

"Since this mornin."

"And you don't have much food?" Johnny cocked a brow.

"We was plannin on resupplyin in the next town," he explained.

"My sister always packs some herbs when we go on a trip. She says if anybody's bound to get hurt, it's either me or my brother," Johnny grinned. "Think your wife could make up a tea for the little one?"

Once again the man's face showed his relief. "Thank you. I been worried about Carrie. That cough and wheezin don't sound too good."

"No, it doesn't. Maybe the storm will ease up and Scott and I can do some hunting. Get some meat."

"I was waitin for that very thing. Was beginnin to think .... well, there's always the horses," the man said, dipping his head.

Johnny shuddered. No way in hell was he eating Barranca! He'd starve first. "This should get us through tonight," he mumbled.

Johnny took the herbs to Mrs. Wilkins and her eyes teared up as she thanked him. He smiled softly at her. She was a plain woman with brown eyes and hair pulled back in a soft bun. As she went about preparing a tea, Johnny ventured toward the girls.

"You ladies mind if I sit here?"

"No sir," Rachel replied meekly.

Johnny smiled at them both and sat next to Carrie. "Bet you don't feel a bit good, do ya?"

She only shook her head.

"Your ma's gonna fix up a tea for you. It might make you feel a little better," he explained. Frowning, he saw she was shivering. "I'll bet if you where to sit right here on my leg, you might warm up a bit. What do you think?"

Carrie shot a look at her father who nodded but watched closely. She climbed onto Johnny's lap and snuggled inside his coat.

"Better?"

She only nodded.

Johnny smiled at the shy child. Scott smiled inwardly at his brother. He always seemed to know how to talk to kids.

******

Scott ventured forth and sat near Johnny. Chewing his lip, he reached into his saddle bag that Johnny had deposited nearby. He pulled out a deck of cards.

"Do you ladies know how to play Old Maid?"

"I do," Rachel replied excitedly. "Carrie's too little," she added, casting a glance at her sibling.

"Well, maybe me and Carrie will watch and learn how to play," Johnny smiled.

In response, Carrie snuggled closer to Johnny and stuck her thumb in her mouth.

"Here, child, drink this," her mother said as she placed the tepid tea to her daughter's mouth.

Carrie clamped her mouth shut and shook her head.

"Here now. I came all this way through a blizzard to bring you this tea and you're not gonna drink it?" Johnny said.

She arched her neck and looked up at him, seeing the serious expression on his face. "Like Santa?"

Johnny smiled. "Well, sort of. Santa brings presents and I bring medicine. Drink it, honey. It'll make you feel better," he softly urged.

She smiled sweetly and drank the tea. Mrs. Wilkins took her and settled her on the thin blankets by the fire. Johnny got up and grabbed his bedroll, rolling it out and covering her with the two blankets. He then grabbed Scott's and readied Rachel's bed.

"You don't have to do that," Mrs. Wilkins said.

"Kids need to stay warm, ma'am," Johnny simply stated.

Once the children were settled and the Wilkins had called it a night, the brothers sat shoulder to shoulder, their backs pressed against the wall.

"That was nice, brother," Scott whispered.

Johnny shrugged. "What else was I supposed to do? Hope this storm lets up soon."

"Me too. I hate to miss Christmas."

Johnny laughed. "We won't miss it, Scott. It'll be here and so will we, somewhere."

"True, but I'd like to be home."

"Yeah," Johnny sighed softly.

"You okay?"

"Sure, just tired. Goodnight, Scott."

"Goodnight, Santa," Scott grinned.

******

The storm had stopped during the night. When the Lancers arose, they checked the windows and frowned at each other.

"What do you think? Four feet?" Scott estimated.

"About that. We need to check the horses and try to hunt up a deer," Johnny considered.

"Snowshoes would be nice," Scott grimaced.

Johnny smiled. "Come on, let's trudge out to the barn." On the way, Johnny told Scott of Mr. Wilkins statement about the horses.

Scott was as adamant as his brother. No way was he eating Rembrandt.

Barranca nickered grumpily when they walked in. "Hey, I ain't exactly havin a fun time either, ya know," Johnny retorted.

"If you'll feed them, I'll scrounge around and see if there's anything we can use in here," Scott said.

He found some old snowshoes, one pair that was in pretty bad shape. Johnny was only too glad to allow his brother the privilege of wearing them. On the way back to the house, they grabbed some wood from the box.

"Wonderin where you two got off to," Mr. Wilkins said as they came in.

"Good morning. We were tending the horses and snooping around," Scott smiled, showing him the shoes.

"I'll have some breakfast in a minute," Mrs. Wilkins said.

"Just coffee, ma'am. We have some huntin to do," Johnny replied, knowing there was scarce enough to feed the kids.

"You have to eat," she countered.

"We're fine, ma'am, really," Scott emphasized.

Once more the women looked like she might cry and quickly turned to the stove. She poured two cups of coffee and handed them off, unable to look the two men in the eye.

********

"I don't know how you're gonna find anything out there to hunt. Must be a good four feet of snow, not to mention the drifts," Mr. Wilkins commented.

"Well, my brother has a unique tracking ability, sir. I'm sure we'll find something," Scott spoke.

Johnny hung his head and stared into his cup, fascinated by the brew suddenly. He looked up when he saw two small feet appear.

"You gonna shoot a deer?" Carrie asked.

"I'm gonna try, little one."

"Hope so. I'm hungry."

Johnny smiled. "I know but you sound better. How do you feel?" he asked as he felt her forehead.

"Better," she smiled and proved it by jumping up and down.

"Well, you keep drinking that tea and you'll be draggin all of us out of here," he laughed.

She giggled and ran over to hide behind her mother's skirts.

"Ready?" Scott asked.

"Yep," he replied, getting up and retrieving their rifles. He grabbed his lasso as well.

"Are you planning on roping a deer?" Scott grinned.

"No, but I ain't luggin it back on my shoulders either," Johnny teased.

"I'll be glad to go with ya," Mr. Wilkins offered.

"That's okay. Scott and I work well off each other. We'll be back in no time. You stay here and tend to your family," Johnny said.

Scott smiled and nodded, then opened the door. They slipped out quickly to keep the cold out.

*******

"They're so nice," Mrs. Wilkins said.

"They're a godsend," her husband replied.

"What are we going to do, Jeremiah? We'll never make it to Oregon." Her eyes had a weary, sad look as she searched her husband's face.

"Now, Annie. Don't you worry none. We'll make it. Might have to stop and take work along the way. Still, that free land is just somethin we can't pass up on."

"I know," she sighed. "Well, I can get work, too. Rachel's old enough to look after her sister."

"You know I don't like you workin."

She looked at him, astounded. "And just what do you think I do all day long while you're out in the fields?"

The man chuckled a little. "Alright, mother. You know what I mean. Anyway, try not to worry so. The good Lord will show us the way."

"You're right. He sent those two young men to help us through this blizzard. He'll be with us on the rest of our journey," she smiled and laid her head on his shoulder.

******

Hip deep in snow, the Lancer brothers trudged bravely throw the blanket of white. Neither talked much at first, both in their own thoughts. Not surprisingly, about the same thing.

"Are we going to ignore it?" Scott finally asked.

"No. He told me they were planning on laying in supplies in the next town they came to," Johnny sighed.

"To have only come from San Diego, they didn't have much to start out with."

"Yeah, I'm thinking it was all they had though," Johnny frowned.

"Those children are too skinny. The parents don't look any better."

Johnny grinned at this. "Skinny like you used to be, Boston?"

"I was slim, not underfed," Scott protested.

The smile left Johnny's face, replaced by an almost painful expression. "Well, I just hope we can find somethin for them to eat tonight."

His head came up and he stopped, pulling on his brother's arm.

"What? Did you see something?" Scott asked, straining to find movement in the tree line.

"No. Just look at that, Scott. It's so peaceful and quiet here," Johnny whispered reverently.

Scott looked out over the virgin white blanket. The hint of sunlight glinted off the snow-capped tree limbs, shimmering with thousands of sparkling lights. The ground looked as if it were covered in millions of diamonds. He made himself perfectly still and listened to the overpowering silence that engulfed him. He felt it, that peace Johnny referred to, and had to smile.

"It is beautiful, brother."

Johnny inhaled deeply and could smell the scent of the snow. He smiled at Scott and winked. "Come on, I smell deer," he laughed.

*******

Thirty minutes later, they had found a tree to set up a blind and hunkered down. It was surprisingly not too cold as there was no wind. Good thing, Johnny thought. Wouldn't want that deer to get a whiff of our scent.

After waiting another half hour, Johnny tensed. Scott heard it as well. He slowly moved his rifle into position and waited.

The buck meandered from behind a tree and stopped to strip bark. He munched enthusiastically at his breakfast as the brothers watched in fascination.

Giving each other a sideways glance, Johnny nodded for Scott to take the shot. He grinned ear to ear and set his sights on the twelve-point beauty. He hesitated for a second, hating to take down such a beautiful animal. But one thought of the girls in that shack and he squeezed the trigger.

The deer went down immediately and Johnny slapped his brother on the back. "Good shootin."

"Thanks," Scott replied a bit flatly.

"We have to eat, brother."

"I know but he's a beaut isn't he?"

"He is that. Come on. Best get to him before the cats do."

Johnny tied the hooves together and wrapped the end of his lasso around his shoulder. He started dragging the animal and Scott took the rear. Partly to protect their catch and partly to assist his brother if needed.

They traded off pulling the beast twice before making it back to the barn. Once inside, Johnny dropped the rope and leaned against a stall.

"Whew! We ought to be eatin off him til spring!"

"I hope not!" Scott protested with a laugh.

*******

Scott had done some hunting before coming west but had never dressed a deer himself. Johnny pulled out his knife and set to work, showing his brother the techniques for getting the most meat.

It wasn't a pleasant task and neither relished in it. Johnny moved quickly with his work and Scott laid the strips out. He pulled the canvass off the wagon to lay out the meat.

"Johnny, look at this."

Johnny stopped and walked over to the wagon bed. He frowned and shook his head. "You think they really are headin to Oregon with no more than this?"

The wagon bed contained two thin mattresses, a few crates and a trunk.

"They won't make it. I have to wonder why they would decide to leave in the middle of winter."

"Because by the time they get there, it'll be spring," Johnny explained.

"Still, leaving right before Christmas," Scott shook his head.

"Not our business, Scott. Come on, let's get this meat inside."

As they approached the shack, they could hear the laughter from the girls. Their moods improved immediately and they barged in like conquering heroes.

"Who's hungry?" Johnny asked.

"We are!" Came the chorus of two.

"Well, tell your mama cause I can't cook!"

"I'll vouch for that," Scott piped in.

"Looks like you boys had some luck," Mr. Wilkins commented.

"We sure did. There's plenty more in the barn, as well. It was a twelve-pointer," Scott said.

"You boys get over here by the fire. You must be half froze," Mrs. Wilkins commanded maternally.

*******

After eating their fill, everyone in the shack felt more content. Carrie climbed on Johnny's lap and snuggled in much as she had the night before.

Johnny smiled and wrapped her into a warm embrace.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"Thank Scott. He shot the deer. Had to let him. Big brothers like to feel like their lookin out for us younger ones. Sometimes you gotta let 'im feel important," he confided quite seriously.

Scott shot him a look of disbelief and shook his head. "Don't you listen to him, Carrie. Little brothers need looking after. They are always getting into trouble."

Rachel scooted over next to Scott and he wrapped an arm around her. "Big sisters have the same job, you know. It's up to you to make sure Carrie stays out of trouble."

"Why?" she asked innocently.

"Yeah, why?" Johnny parroted.

"Well ..... I'll tell you but you have to promise to keep it secret. You can't ever let little brothers or sisters know our big brother and sister secrets," Scott said and leaned down, whispering into the girl's ear.

She began to giggle then fell out laughing once he'd finished. Johnny and Carrie eyed them both with suspicion.

"Alright, what was that all about?" Johnny asked.

"I'm sorry but that's a secret, Johnny."

"What if I'm a big brother some day? Maybe I'll need to know that secret," Johnny countered.

Scott's eyes widened in surprise. "I hate to break it to you, Johnny, but I don't think you have to worry about that."

"It's okay, Johnny. Rachel will tell me. She can't keep a secret," Carrie stated.

Johnny grinned at the child in his arms. "You're a smart one," he whispered.

"Time for bed, girls," Mrs. Wilkins said.

The young ladies moaned and went about preparing for sleep.

*******

"Think you're smart, don't ya? Carrie will tell me," Johnny said.

Scott shook his head. "You're a bigger kid than they are."

"What's your point?" Johnny grinned. He settled back and closed his eyes, still smiling.

Someone was tugging on him, wanting him to wake up. He sighed and repositioned himself, hoping they'd go away. But the tugging became persistent and he cracked his eyes open.

Carrie was pulling furiously on his coat sleeve.

"What's the matter, honey?" Johnny asked.

"I got to go," she said desperately.

Johnny came fully awake at this announcement. "Okay, wake your ma."

"No, she ain't been feelin good. She tries to hide it but I know. Pleeeaassee."

"Okay, okay. Settle down. Where's your coat?"

She grabbed the coat and he silently put her in it. He picked her up and eased the door open, closing it quickly behind them.

Johnny hated for her to use that outhouse. God knew how long it had been there. But there was nothing else suitable and she didn't seem to mind. He waited patiently for her in the snow. His teeth starting to chatter after a while.

He tapped on the door. "You okay?"

"Almost done," she yelled back.

"You're too little for it to take this long," he mumbled under his breath. "Hey, I'm goin to check the barn. You stay right outside this door til I get back, hear?" he called.

"Okay."

Johnny frowned and wondered why she wanted an escort. She didn't seem the least bit afraid. He shrugged and made his way behind the barn to take care of his own needs. I'm out here, might as well, he thought.

******

She still wasn't out when he returned and he shook his head. Knocking, he called to her. She didn't answer and he tried again. No answer still. Johnny was starting to worry. He took a breath and opened the door wide so the moonlight could spill in. Carrie wasn't there.

That little rat. She went back to bed, he thought. He trudged back to the shack and let himself in. Johnny bent down over her blankets but she wasn't there. He peered through the dark, grateful for the fire, but she wasn't with her sister or her parents either.

"Carrie?" he whispered. He checked by Scott and came up empty. Worried, he shook his brother awake.

"Carrie's gone," he said in a low voice.

"Gone?" Scott answered in a normal tone.

"Ssshhh! I took her to the outhouse and she disappeared."

Scott looked at his brother as if he were crazy. "Johnny..."

"Come on, help me find her."

Scott sighed and grabbed his coat. Shrugging it on, he walked quietly past the others. Once outside, he needed an explanation.

"She was takin forever. I told her I'd be right back and to wait for me. I was only gone a minute. When I came back she was gone. I figured she went back inside but she's not there. Where could she be, Scott?" he spilled out in one breath.

"Calm down, she couldn't have gone far."

"But she's so little. She could have been swallowed up in this snow," Johnny pointed out.

Scott realized his brother was right. "Wait here, I'll get lanterns from the barn."

******

They shined the light on the snow and found her tracks quickly. Following along they found her sitting on an old log staring at the sky.

Johnny breathed a huge sigh of relief as he walked up and sat next to her.

"I told you to wait for me. You scared me half to death!" he chastised.

"I'm sorry," she whimpered.

"What are you doing out here, honey?" Scott asked.

"Looking for Santa."

"It's a little early for Santa to come yet," Scott smiled.

"Oh, he don't ever come to our house. I just thought I could see 'im fly by," she explained.

Scott swallowed hard and looked at the ground. Johnny closed his eyes for a second before focusing back on her.

"Santa never came to see me, either," he said softly.

"Were you bad, too?" she asked.

"No, Carrie, and you're not bad either. Sometimes, well, Santa has so many kids to see .... he don't have time to get to everyone. He has to make the best of that one night. I know he feels sad cause he don't get to visit all the children all the time."

"Seems like he could pick different ones every year," she said.

Johnny smiled at this. "Seems so, don't it? But, listen, you never can tell when he might show up one year and make up for all those years he missed."

"Did that happen to you?" she asked hopefully.

"It sure did. But you have to be very patient. See, it didn't happen for me until just this year."

"Really? But, it ain't Christmas, yet," she said, wide-eyed.

"Well, I happen to know it's gonna happen. And believe me, it'll make up for all those other Christmases and then some," he smiled.

She smiled brightly at him. "I can wait."

"Good girl. Now, how about we go back inside. I'm freezin!" he laughed and swung her up on his hip.

Scott stood where he was for a minute, watching them walk away. He shook his head vigorously as the cold air caused him to tear up. At least, that's what he told himself. He rubbed his eyes and went back inside.

*******

Scott awoke the next morning with a renewed sense of purpose. He was determined to get them all out of there this very day. He walked out to the barn and checked the wagon carefully. At least it was in good shape. Better than the family it was carrying for certain.

He hitched up the team and climbed onto the seat. Saying a quick prayer, he flicked the reins and the horses moved out into the snow. Smiling to himself, he pulled up on the reins.

"Morning, Santa. Ready to deliver them presents?" Johnny grinned.

"No, I'm ready to get us out of here though."

"Don't see how you're gonna do that. Unless you can make that wagon fly."

"Johnny, my boy, perseverance is the key. You have to want it to happen and will it so," Scott declared.

Johnny crossed his arms over his chest and considered this. "That so? You gonna will this snow to just disappear?"

"No, I am going to see how far from a real road we are."

"That's easy. Bout five miles south."

Scott stared at him. "You know where we are?"

"Sure. Did you think I just picked a direction and got lucky? I knew this shack was up here. Brother, you assume too much," he shook his head, grinning.

Scott rolled his eyes. "And just when were you planning on telling me?"

"Well, I figured when it was safe to leave," Johnny replied.

"That would be now, brother. I have no intention of spending Christmas on this mountain. And I don't want those kids to either."

That statement motivated Johnny. "Okay, let's take a little walk and see what's in store for us."

******

"I think we can do this," Scott said.

"If one of us drives the wagon down, we can use our horses to get the Wilkins' to the road," Johnny planned.

"Exactly. It might take a couple of trips."

"But, that's no big deal. The problem is the wagon. I think we'd better talk to Mr. Wilkins first. I mean, it's his property we're talkin about maybe wrecking."

The brothers agreed on their plan and returned to the shack. After explaining what they had in mind, Mr. Wilkins shook his head.

"I don't know. It ain't much, but everythin we got's in that wagon."

"Okay, since this is our crazy idea, we'll make a deal. If we bust up your wagon, we'll replace it," Johnny compromised.

"Right! And if the wagon makes it but something gets broken, we'll replace that," Scott smiled.

"No need to put yourselves out like that."

"Mr. Wilkins, we would like to get home before the holiday. But we are not going to leave you and your family stuck up here. Now, Johnny and I really think we have a good chance of pulling this off. What do you say?"

The farmer sighed and turned to his wife.

"I sure would like to get out of here, Jeremiah," she said, casting a glance at the girls.

"Alright, I'll go along with it, but I'm gonna help," he said.

"We'll take all the help we can get," Johnny grinned.

*****

The path they'd chosen was a rough one, careening through the thick trees. But there was also less snow here, the ground more protected from the limbs overhead. Getting the wagon this far had been a chore in itself. They had lost count of the times they'd been bogged down in the snow.

Johnny and Scott both knew that if those branches decided to take leave of their load, they'd be in a fix for sure. Scott held the reins and Johnny held the halter as they slowly made their way. Mr. Wilkins walked to the side so he could sight any problems Johnny couldn't see.

The horses did their best to stay sure-footed but still slipped several times. Scott's heart leapt to his throat so often he thought it would take up permanent residence there.

Johnny had a death grip on the halter as he slid right along with the horses every time. His arms began to ache from the strain but he grit his teeth and kept going.

For two hours they kept it up until they finally made it to the road below. Bringing the horses to a halt, Johnny sat down right where he was and sucked in air.

Scott released the reins and slumped over in the seat, exhausted. Mr. Wilkins looked at both of them and shook his head.

"I don't know if you two are smart or just plain stubborn."

Johnny started chuckling then began to roll in the snow, laughing hard. Scott rolled off the bench and stumbled over, falling next to his brother, holding his sides. Tears ran down his face as he laughed.

"S..sorry," Johnny chuckled, trying to bring himself under control.

"We've been told we are stubborn once or twice," Scott said, bringing on another deluge of laughter.

"Maybe should've added crazy to it," Mr. Wilkins mumbled.

*******

By the time they walked back to the shack, Mrs. Wilkins had wrapped up the deer meat, straightened the cabin and even saddled the horses.

All three men were more than a little surprised.

"Well, I said I wanted to get out of here," she said, her eyes shining brightly.

Mr. Wilkins walked up and touched her forehead. "Aw, Annie, ya got a fever."

"Nothin to worry about. I'll be fine once I'm off this mountain. Now, I thought you could ride down with Rachel and Johnny and Scott can come back for me and Carrie."

"Sounds like a plan to me," Johnny smiled a little. He didn't like her color and flashed a look at his brother.

"Under one condition. You make some of that tea for yourself and stay by the fire until we come back," Scott said.

"Fine."

Johnny took Mr. Wilkins and Scott took Rachel as they set off back down the mountain.

"Mr. Wilkins, your wife needs a doctor," Johnny said quietly so Rachel didn't hear.

"I know. Is there one around here?"

"Closest is in Morro Coyo which is on the other side of our ranch. Best if you come home with us. We can send for Doc Jenkins."

"I can't put you boys out no more," he protested.

"You're not putting us out. It's the easiest and best solution. Besides, it's going to be a while before you can start on your trip with her sick. You might as well have a comfortable place to stay. We have plenty of room and Teresa is the best nurse around. No arguments now," Johnny said firmly.

"Yes sir," Mr. Wilkins replied and Johnny could almost feel the man smiling.

******

They had to spend the night on the road. There was no other option. The closest town was Morro Coyo and they were half a day from the ranch when it got too dark to go on. Johnny cooked the deer meat and Mrs. Wilkins was made to stay in the wagon with the children. He used the last of Teresa's herbs to make her a tea. Her fever was growing and all were worried.

As they sat by the fire, Scott voiced his concern.

"I ain't never seen her sick before. Oh, a little sniffle now and again but nothin bad," the farmer said.

"Once we get her to the ranch, she'll feel a lot better," Johnny said confidently. Inside, he was as worried as the rest. The provisions were almost gone except for the meat. At least they would have that should something unexpected happen.

Nothing did happen and the next morning they set out. The Lancers, while worried about the woman, couldn't contain their happiness that they would be home in a few hours.

The weather was cold but much better once out of the mountains. The sun shined down, warming them somewhat.

As they passed under the gate, Scott and Johnny had to force themselves not to gallop to the house.

Both smiled as they saw Murdoch and Teresa walk out of the house. Jelly came out of the barn as well. The frown their father was wearing did nothing to dampen their mood.

"Welcome home, boys," Murdoch called.

"Good to be home, finally, sir," Scott smiled.

Johnny dismounted and shook hands with his father, kissing Teresa on the cheek. "Brought some friends with us."

"So I see," Murdoch said tentatively.

"This is Jeremiah Wilkins. Our father, Murdoch Lancer," Scott introduced.

"Mr. Lancer, these boys of yours are a godsend," he said as he shook hands.

"His wife's in the back and she's sick. She needs Doc," Johnny explained.

"On my way," Jelly said, heading back to the barn.

"Well, let's get her into a warm bed," Teresa smiled.

*****

More introductions were made as Mr. Wilkins went with his wife. Johnny and Scott commandeered the girls and took them to the kitchen. Maria smiled brightly at her boys and made hot chocolate.

"She's gonna be okay. Doc will fix her up," Johnny said, noting the glum little faces.

"Doc Jenkins is the best doctor around," Scott encouraged.

"You got a big house," Rachel said.

"Yeah, it is big. Little girl could get lost in such a big house," Johnny teased.

"Well, brother, what do you think we should do with these young ladies?" Scott asked.

"I think we should turn them over to Maria for a nice hot bath," Johnny grinned.

"Si, a hot bath is first. Then a nap and supper," Maria ordered. "I will need clean clothes for them."

The brothers nodded and took their leave, knowing the girls were in the most capable hands.

They brought in the trunk, noting how light it was. Johnny shook his head. "Looks like we're goin to town, brother."

"It looks that way," Scott agreed.

"Town? You just got home and I still don't know the story here," Murdoch grumbled as he walked in.

"Gonna have to wait, Murdoch. Those girls need some clothes. These are all rags," Johnny said, holding up a too-worn dress.

"Can you find them a couple of shirts to put on until we get back? Maria's giving them a bath," Scott asked.

"I'm sure I can find something. They're cute," Murdoch smiled.

"Smart, too," Johnny added.

*

The boys made it back three hours later. Both swore they weren't leaving the house again until spring. But they had bought out the store as far as little girlâ€s dresses went. Mrs. Mahoney helped them with the other essentials neither man had a clue about.

When they walked in, Sam was in the living room with Murdoch and Mr. Wilkins. Johnny took the packages and headed upstairs before Mr. Wilkins could see him.

"How is she?" Scott asked.

"I think with rest and proper nutrition, she'll be fine in a week or so," Sam reported.

"That's good news," Scott smiled in relief.

"Mr. Wilkins was just telling us about how you came to meet," Murdoch stated.

"I was tellin your pa what a godsend you boys were."

"Well, I don't know about that," Scott blushed slightly.

"Don't know about what? And since when don't you know everything?" Johnny teased as he walked in.

"Very funny. Where are the girls?"

"Sound asleep upstairs. Two little angels," Johnny smiled.

"Sounds to me like you two are the angels," Sam said with a cocked brow.

"You been hittin Murdoch's Scotch again, Sam?" Johnny asked.

"No, I've been hearing how the two of you helped this family when they were in dire straits," Sam retorted.

"We were all in a fix, for sure," Johnny mumbled.

"Four feet a snow, I'd say ya was! If there's trouble ta be found, you two'll find it. Ain't never seen the like," Jelly pronounced from the dining room.

*******

Mrs. Wilkins fever started going down that evening and her husband had dinner with her in her room. Rachel and Carrie decided they were attached to Scott and Johnny's hips.

Teresa was removed from her place at the table unceremoniously as Carrie plopped down next to Johnny. She managed to fight the laugh but the smile on her face was as wide as a canyon.

After dinner, the girls were shown some of their new clothes and Teresa helped them into the nightgowns. She was not allowed to tuck them in, however, as they insisted on the brothers for that honour.

As the days passed and Christmas drew near, Mrs. Wilkins recovered nicely. She insisted on helping with the household chores, saying it was the least she could do.

Scott and Johnny talked to Murdoch about the Wilkins' situation. It was agreed they would stay on until after the holidays.

Christmas decorations began to appear all over the house and the scent of pine permeated every corner. Along with that was the aroma of baking as the women went full steam ahead. The tree went up and the girls enthusiastically helped with the trimming.

Johnny noticed a change in Mr. Wilkins as he watched his children become engrossed in the season. He decided to find out what was on the man's mind.

He asked the farmer to take a walk with him while Teresa kept the children busy stringing popcorn. He took him down toward the lower pasture where Barranca was grazing.

*******

"Somethin bothering you, Mr. Wilkins?"

"Johnny, I appreciate all you and your family have done. Havin you show up at that shack with your brother was a miracle. I hate to sound ungrateful, but ...."

"But what?"

"Rachel and Carrie. They're all fired up about Christmas. I know they deserve it but I ain't never been able to give 'em much of a holiday myself."

"You think we're spoiling them?"

"Oh, I don't know about that. I'm just afraid come next year they'll be expectin more'n I can give."

Johnny stopped walking and Mr. Wilkins stopped and faced him. He looked at the man for a long moment before speaking.

"When I was a kid, my mother couldn't afford Christmas presents. We went to church for Mass and that was it. I guess it's really the way it should be but, well, kids hope for more. I understood, just like Rachel and Carrie understand. Kids see more than we give them credit for. All I'm saying is; they know this is special. They know you love them and that's all that really matters, isn't it?"

Mr. Wilkins stared at him for a long second before smiling. "You're too young to be so smart."

Johnny laughed softly at this. "I'm not so smart. That's Scott's job. I just know something about doing without. Sure ain't nothin to be ashamed of. All a man can do is his very best. After that, the rest is up to luck or whatever you believe in."

"Reckon my luck changed for a while when I met you and your brother."

"So, no more feeling bad? I mean, it's Christmas," Johnny smiled as if that day made all days better.

******

Christmas Eve arrived and the girls could not contain their excitement. They managed to keep themselves as close to the tree as they could get. Scott had a hard time not laughing aloud as he watched them try to be clandestine.

"If you two don't get to bed soon, Santa won't stop here. He doesn't come to houses where the children stay up so late," he grinned.

"Scott's right. Off to bed with you, now," Mrs. Wilkins smiled.

"Do we have to?"

"Just a little longer, pleeeeaassee."

"What's all the fuss about?" Johnny asked as he walked in.

Mouths dropped open and eyes widened as they took in the black suit complete with string tie. Scott got up and rounded his brother.

"Well, what has you so smarted up?" he grinned devilishly.

"Don't be cute," Johnny warned.

"What are you dressed up for, son?"

Johnny dropped his eyes and stared at his boots. "I'm goin to church," he mumbled. Looking up, he used his glare to dare any of them to say a word. "If that's all right with everyone."

"Of course but we always go for Christmas morning service," Teresa said.

"I'm Catholic, Teresa. I'm going to midnight Mass. Anyone is welcome to join me," he offered, hoping no one would.

"I think I'll wait until morning, son. A little late for me," Murdoch smiled.

"I second that. But I would like to know why they have it at midnight?" Scott asked.

"It's believed that Christ was born at the stroke of midnight," Johnny explained simply.

"Well, then I guess it makes sense. I'd be glad to go with you if you want the company, brother."

Johnny tensed ever so slightly, then grinned. "How are your knees?" he laughed.   "No thanks, brother. I'd just spend the entire time explaining it to you."

"Well, that's true. Have .... enjoy yourself," Scott shrugged, not sure what the right sentiment would be.

*****

After Johnny left and the Wilkins took the girls up to bed, Scott and his father sat quietly in front of the fire.

Scott chewed his lip, pondering if he should tell Murdoch about Johnny's talk with Carrie on that snowy night in the mountains. He thought better of it. Sad was not the feeling he wanted to evoke tonight.

"Is the Yule log ready?" he asked instead.

"It should be. I put Jelly in charge. I suppose we'd better get it in here," Murdoch sighed and stood up.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing, son. I don't want to light it tonight though. I don't want Johnny to miss it."

"Alright. We can sit it next to the hearth so it will be sure to be dry," he smiled knowingly.

Of all the traditions of Christmas, lighting the Yule log was Murdoch's favourite custom. He had explained to his sons how Christmas was not really celebrated in Scotland. It was not an 'official' holiday. Still, his parents had managed to make it a holiday for their children.

Johnny had enjoyed the story of Hogmanay. He liked the idea of visiting neighbors and friends, bringing gifts. It wasn't that different than the Mexican celebrations for Christmas which start in the middle of December.

Scott had been fascinated with both cultures and had seen the Mexican festivities first hand. Murdoch had all but given up on having any kind of Scottish celebration. Teresa had at least tried to bake a black bun cake last year but it hadn't been pretty.

********

Johnny walked in the house at about 1:30 in the morning, dead on his feet. He sighed gratefully that the fire was still going in the living room. He walked over and stood at the hearth warming his hands.

"How are your knees?"

Johnny didn't turn but his smile was wide. "A little sore."

"You'll have to explain that one to me sometime."

"Waiting up for me, brother?"

"Couldn't sleep. I was hoping to catch Santa," Scott said surreptitiously.

Johnny laughed. "Seen him down the road. He said he ain't comin cause you were a very bad boy this year."

"Me? I have been nothing but perfect. Are you sure he wasn't talking about you?" Scott teased.

"Nope. He specifically said Scott Lancer. I tried to reason with him but he's a stubborn old coot."

"I think it must have been Santa's evil twin," Scott cocked a brow.

"Come to think of it, his suit was pretty dingy and his beard wasn't all that white. You know, it could have been old man Danvers."

Both young men burst out laughing at the thought of the local drunk playing Santa. Johnny walked over and plopped down next to his brother on the sofa.

"How was Mass?"

"Same as always, brother. Every two minutes you're down on your knees for a prayer. I crossed myself so many times, my elbow's achin," Johnny grinned.

Scott laughed. "So, what made you decide to go?"

"I don't know. Just got to thinking about things," Johnny shrugged, becoming sullen.

"Merry Christmas, brother," Scott smiled.

Johnny returned the smile and wrapped an arm around Scott's shoulder. "Feliz Navidad, mi hermano."

*******

The brothers heard loud whispers behind them and both turned half around on the sofa. Shooting each other a look, they grinned.

"What are you two doing up?" Scott demanded as sternly as he could manage.

"You have to go to bed. Santa won't come if you're up," Rachel insisted.

"That only applies to children. Santa knows us adults won't sneak a peek," Scott explained.

"Come here, you two," Johnny said and waved them over.

They bounded up and each plopped into a lap.

"Now, I know it's exciting but you really have to get some sleep. You'll be too tired to open presents tomorrow."

"How come you're up?" Carrie asked.

"I just got home," Johnny answered.

"Were you helpin Santa?" she asked, eyes wide.

Johnny chuckled. "No, honey. I went to church."

"At night?" Rachel inquired, not quite believing him.

"Some people go to church at night, Rachel."

"Why?"

"I'll explain it to your tomorrow. Right now, you both need to get to bed. Come on, Scott and I will tuck you in."

They picked up their charges and headed up the stairs. Both stopped and looked at each other when they swore they heard bells jingling. The girls made a collective gasping noise.

"I told you. Now hurry up and jump in bed. We'll keep him occupied so he doesn't know you're awake," Johnny said, setting Carrie down.

Scott followed suit and the girls streaked up the stairs. The door closed loudly behind them and the brothers cringed at the sound resounding through the halls.

*****

"Well, go see what it was," Johnny said.

"Why don't you go?" Scott retorted.

"You're the oldest."

"What's that got to do with anything?"

"I don't know but it sounded good," Johnny grinned.

They heard it again and eased the front door open, slipping through quietly. As they stepped to the side of the house, they found the source.

Jelly was standing under the bedroom windows, ringing two small bells.

"What are you doing?" Scott asked from right behind him.

The old man jumped out of his skin, whirling around and causing the bells to jingle again.

"Ya scared the life outta me!"

"Jelly, what are you doing?" Johnny repeated the question.

"I'm just lettin the girls know Santa's been here," Jelly explained, his face reddening.

The brothers laughed quietly. "That was a nice idea, Jelly," Johnny said, patting his shoulder.

"Go to bed, Santa. Morning will be here much too soon," Scott smiled.

"Hmmph! Already here in case ya ain't noticed," the old man said and walked away.

"Good advice, brother. Think I'll take it," Johnny yawned.

"At least we can sleep in."

*******

Sleeping in was a pipe dream at best. Johnny felt the impact that shook him from sleep. He resisted the urge to grab his gun when he quickly realized the weight was light.

Opening his eyes slightly, he peered at the intruder.

"Merry Christmas!" Carrie shouted.

"Ssshhh, not so loud. You'll wake the whole house."

She giggled enthusiastically. "I already did."

Johnny laughed and hugged her then pushed her back gently. "Get out of here so I can make myself decent," he grinned.

She bounded off the bed and was out the door in one second. He sighed and shook his head then threw the covers over it and went back to sleep.

He was sure he hadn't even made it into slumber again when he felt another, heavier plop. "Go away, Scott," he mumbled, eyes still closed.

"No way, brother. If I have to get up, so do you."

Johnny only groaned in response.

"Come on, brother. The day's a wastin. It's Christmas!"

Johnny opened his eyes and met his brother's. They were alight with excitement. He couldn't help the grin that spread across his face. In that moment, Johnny saw his brother as he must have been as a child.

"Okay, okay. I'm getting up. I promise!" he vowed after the 'look' he received.

"Alright, you have half an hour before I come get you," Scott warned.

"Half an hour, right."

Scott had his doubts but he gave his brother the benefit of them and left.

********

Johnny came downstairs and was assaulted by the aroma of food. Looking at the table, he wondered who had been invited for breakfast. Never had he seen so much food.

"Merry Christmas, son," Murdoch smiled.

"Merry Christmas," Johnny mumbled, then smiled brightly. He resolved to not be a grump even though he was still tired.

"How was Mass?"

"Fine, the usual," he answered, sitting down and grabbing the coffee.

Maria walked in with a pitcher of milk. "Feliz Navidad, Juanito."

"Feliz Navidad, Maria," he smiled warmly.

"What's that mean?" Rachel piped up.

"It's Spanish for Merry Christmas," Johnny answered.

"Oh," she shrugged.

"When do we open presents?"

"Carrie!" her mother exclaimed. "Don't be so rude."

Murdoch chuckled. "It's fine, Annabelle. Children lose all manners at Christmastime." Turning his attention toward the child, he said, "we go to church first, Carrie."

She smiled sweetly and nodded.

They all ate to near bursting and gathered in the living room. Murdoch called his sons to the fireplace and together they lit the Yule log.  

"We waited for you," Murdoch explained to Johnny.

"Thanks," he smiled.

Mr. Wilkins told the Christmas story as he had every year for his family. The Lancers were as riveted as the children. Even Jelly was enthralled as the man had a natural storytelling voice.

They all set off for church, all but Johnny. He waved goodbye and went to the kitchen to spend some time with Maria before she left for the day.

*******

They returned from church three hours later. The girls nearly jumping out of their dresses with excitement.

At long last, they were allowed to open their presents. Squeals of delight could be heard throughout the estancia and probably to the barn as well.

Both received clothes but the dolls were the biggest hit. Johnny and Scott hugged Teresa and quietly thanked her for helping pick them out. No one else opened any presents just yet. Carrie walked up to Johnny.

"Didn't ya get nothin?"

He smiled and hugged her. "I don't know. Maybe I was too bad," he teased.

"Nuh uh. You've been good," she proclaimed, then her face dropped.

"What's the matter, honey?"

"Maybe Santa forgot you again," she said, her little lip trembling.

"No, Carrie. He didn't. I have everything I could ever ask for. Why don't you and Rachel take your dolls outside and play before supper?" Johnny's smile convinced her all was well and she ran out the door with her sister.

"What did she mean, Santa forgot you again?" Murdoch asked.

"You know how kids are, Murdoch. Always getting things mixed up," Scott intervened.

Johnny gave his brother an appreciative smile which Murdoch did not miss. Deciding now was not the time, he let it drop.

"Well, me and the missus will leave you all to your Christmas," Mr. Wilkins said, standing.

"Just a minute, Jeremiah. We have a present for you and your wife. We hope you'll accept it," Murdoch smiled.

The brothers were grinning ear to ear as well at the surprised look on their guests faces.

"I think you've given us enough already," Mrs. Wilkins replied.

"Well, despite what you think, I am very grateful to you both. You were there when my sons needed a helping hand and I don't forget that," Murdoch said. He stood and walked to the desk, pulling out some papers.

*******

He walked over to Jeremiah, who was still standing. "I hope you'll accept this in the spirit it is intended."

Jeremiah Wilkins had a befuddled look on his face as Johnny and Scott came to stand with their father. He opened the papers and stared at them.

"I don't understand."

"It's 500 acres of good bottomland. It's located about fifty miles from here but there's a town nearby. It's good farming land and hasn't been used for years," Murdoch explained.

He shook his head. "I can't take this."

"Why not?" Johnny asked.

"It's too much."

"Well, you haven't heard the catch yet," Scott smiled.

"Catch?" Mrs. Wilkins asked, finally finding her voice.

"We get first dibs on your first crop and you have to promise to grow some strawberries. I like strawberries," Johnny explained.

"And you have to agree to let us come visit Rachel and Carrie," Scott added.

"And to let them come visit us," Johnny threw in.

"Why?" the farmer asked.

"We like you and we want you to stay close by," Johnny shrugged.

"Right. What's so great about Oregon anyway?" Scott asked.

"Mother?" Mr. Wilkins looked to his wife.

With tears of joy in her eyes, all she could do was smile and nod her head. She approached each man and hugged him fiercely, thanking them over and over.

Overwhelmed with the generosity, they excused themselves to check on the children.

******

"That was the best idea you've ever had, Murdoch," Johnny smiled.

"Thank you, son. Now, what's say we open a few more presents," Murdoch flashed a smile.

Scott didn't have to be told twice. He headed for the dining room and yelled for Teresa and Jelly. He then dove under the tree and started pulling out their gifts.

Paper was strewn about the room and smiles lit all faces as they thanked each other. Johnny was admiring his new boots from Murdoch. Tan with new spurs already attached. The blanket for Barranca was hand-made and bore a Mexican design. The new romal reins with variegated colors Jelly had made by a master in Morro Coyo. But, most of all, the small hand-painted and framed portrait of his mother had touched him deeply. Scott had it made in Sacramento from the picture Murdoch kept. He knew exactly where he wanted to hang it in his room.

Teresa was overjoyed with her jewelry box and pearl necklace and the fragile lace mantilla she had decided to reserve for church only. She'd dabbed a bit of the perfume from Jelly on her wrists, bringing a huge grin from the old man.

Jelly, for his part, would have been satisfied just being here with this family - his family. But the new rifle from Johnny, the shirt Teresa had made him for 'special occasions', the Cuban cigars from Murdoch and Scott's fancy bowler hat had the old fella near tears.

Murdoch had immediately lit his pipe with the special blend of tobacco from England, wondering at Johnny's ability to notice these small things. He hadn't even mentioned he had been out of the tobacco for months, settling for the local brand. He had placed the silver double picture frame with his sons†likenesses on his desk. Teresa's gift that had almost had the Scotsman blubbering. He was quite touched by Jelly's gift, too; romal reins exactly matching Johnny's. He was most anxious to delve into the book from Scott. One he'd been wanting to get his hands on for quite a while now. The Works of Robert Burns; with an account of his life and a criticism of his writings.

Scott's face turned to a frown as he checked through his gifts once more. He counted them up. The hand-made dress shirt from Teresa with beautiful embroidery. The cologne he liked so well but had a hard time finding that Murdoch had given him and Jelly's romal reins. He got up and searched under the tree again thoroughly.

Johnny bit his lip to keep from laughing. "Looking for something, brother?"

Scott shot him a look and walked over to stand over him, hands on hips. "Where is it?"

"Where's what?"

"My present from you."

"Scott Lancer! One doesn't demand presents," Murdoch chastised, not too convincingly.

Undeterred, Scott turned back to his brother. "Well?"

Johnny couldn't take anymore, he burst out laughing. He shot a look at Jelly and got a nod. "Come on, it's outside."

"Outside?" Scott asked suspiciously.

"Yeah, I got you a new outhouse. You'll love it," Johnny said.

For this, he received a jab in the gut.

Scott walked outside and looked all around but saw nothing out of the ordinary. "Where is it?"

"For an eastern dandy, you sure ain't got no manners," Jelly gruffed and walked to the barn.

********

Johnny took Scott's arm and guided him to the corral. Jelly walked out lugging a rather bulky object covered with burlap. He sat it on the end of a low wall by the corral fence.

"There it is. Feliz Navidad, Scott," Johnny said softly. Love and respect poured from the young man's eyes and Scott found a lump in his throat he couldn't dislodge.

He pulled the burlap back to reveal a shiny new saddle. His eyes widened as he took in the intricate carvings and silver studs. His hand soothed over the almost silky leather. The saddlebags were also detailed with silver studs and etchings.

"Etched them fancy doodads hisself," Jelly explained. "And look there," he pointed.

Scott looked at the area near where the saddlebags lay. The Lancer "L" was engraved and filled in with silver.

He looked at Johnny in total shock. "You did this?" he fairly whispered.

"Well, I didn't make the saddle but, yeah, the rest of it. It was pretty plain to start out with," Johnny smiled.

"Did you know about this?" he asked his father.

"No, but it's the most beautiful saddle I've ever seen. You did a fantastic job, Johnny," Murdoch said with awe.

"Thank you, brother. I love it. It's .... it's perfect," Scott stuttered, feeling his emotions threatening to surface.

"It's just a saddle. I'm glad you like it," Johnny said softly, head down.

Jelly shook his head in exasperation. "That boy is an artist. You shoulda seen him workin that leather. Ain't never seen none better and I seen a lot!"

"You have a gift, son."

Johnny cleared his throat, uncomfortable with the accolades as always. "Gettin a little chilly out here."

Smiling, the elder Lancers nodded their agreement.

"Jelly, could you...." Scott started.

"I'll put it away. Got a special place in the tack room all cleared out for it," Jelly said.

*******

Back inside, Scott couldn't stop talking about his new saddle. Johnny was proud and relieved his brother liked it so much. He wasn't sure Scott would go for something so fancy.  

Seeing his son's discomfort, Murdoch changed the subject and drew attention away from Johnny. The young man sighed in relief as the conversation turned.

Suddenly, the room was full again as everyone had come back inside. The girls were happily playing with their dolls near the fire. Johnny and Scott watched them with silly grins on their faces.

Murdoch casually walked over to the sofa and sat beside his boys. "Take notes. That could be your children some day."

Both young men cocked a brow. "You know somethin we don't?" Johnny asked.

"I can only hope and pray, son," Murdoch laughed.

At that moment, Teresa walked in and proudly announced Christmas dinner was ready.

A stampede ensued as everyone made for the dining room table. The finest china had been laid out along with the best silver. Long-stemmed wine glasses were at each place setting. A centerpiece of holly and garland adorned the table. Candles surrounded the centerpiece. An Irish lace tablecloth highlighted the ware.

Murdoch smiled lovingly at his ward. "Everything is just beautiful, darling."

"Thank you. Now, wait until you see what we've made," she smiled excitedly.

Murdoch sat down, a bit wary, remembering last year's fiasco with the black bun cake.

Mrs. Wilkins disappeared into the kitchen with her. A moment later, she, Teresa and Maria walked out carrying platters and tureens. They made several trips as Teresa warned them all not to peek.

Finally, all the food was laid out and she and Mrs. Wilkins unveiled their culinary treats.

Murdoch's eyes widened with surprise. "Is that shepherd's pie?"

"It certainly is. Mrs. Wilkins made it. And there's Scotch Trifle, Churros and Elote Tamales," she beamed proudly.

******

Along with these ethnic treats were the usual fare of turkey with all the trimmings.

Murdoch said grace and everyone started reaching.

Scott looked doubtfully at the additions.

"Just try it, brother. The churros are really good," Johnny said.

"What about this other?" Scott asked.

"The tamales? That's dessert," Johnny grinned.

"Here, son, try this shepherd's pie. It's delicious, Annabelle," Murdoch exuded.

"Thank you. Teresa told me it was a favorite," she smiled happily.

"And now I know how to make it," Teresa nodded.

"This is good, Mrs. Wilkins. And do we have Maria to thank for these churros?" Scott commented.

"You do and you'd better thank her tomorrow," Teresa replied.

"Tomorrow? She's gone already?" Johnny asked.

"She was in a hurry. Said something about her sister visiting."

Johnny nodded knowingly. There wasn't a person alive who loved being with their family more than Maria. He'd spent many evenings alone in the kitchen with her, listening to the importance of familia.

At last, everyone was full to bursting. They convened in the living room once more for Brandy and Sherry. The girls nodded off soon after and the Wilkins said their goodnights.

********

The Lancers, including Jelly, sat around quietly. Each in his own thoughts and all feeling the warmth and love surrounding them. Johnny happened to glance over at Scott and he winked.

Scott nodded and grinned, then stood and walked out of the room. A minute later, he reappeared. He and Johnny walked over to where Murdoch sat by the fire.

Each son took a side and knelt beside their father. Jelly and Teresa gathered nearer, their curiosity piqued.

"Murdoch, Johnny and I got you something else. We hope you'll like it."

"You better like it cause we can't take it back," Johnny grinned.

"Boys, you've both given me so much already," Murdoch protested.

"Well, this is just a little something extra. Open it," Johnny urged as Scott handed over the envelope.

Murdoch smiled and tore open the packet. He looked at the tickets and shook his head. "I don't understand."

"Well, there's a stage ticket to Sacramento and a train ticket to Boston," Scott explained.

"Once you get to Boston, there'll be a ticket for a ship to London and then to Inverness," Johnny added. "We thought you might like to visit with your brothers and sister."

Teresa inhaled sharply. "Oh, how wonderful!"

"Boys, I can't ....."

"Yes, you can. Johnny and I can take care of things here. It's the slowest time of the year anyway."

Murdoch swallowed hard and looked from one to the other. "What made you do this?" His voice low and husky.

"It was Johnny's idea. After hearing you talk about Scotland at Thanksgiving, he thought of this. Grandfather even helped out with the ship schedules," Scott said.

"You leave on the fifteenth of next month," Johnny said.

Murdoch looked at his youngest. "This was your idea?"

"I know, you think I'm trying to get rid of you," Johnny laughed.

Murdoch could only stare at his son. No words would come.

"Jelly, help me with coffee?" Teresa said, sensing they needed some time alone.

"I can't believe .... thank you, both of you. I never thought I'd see Scotland again, much less my siblings."

"If there's one thing we should have all learned by now, it's how important family is," Scott said. Clearing his throat, he stood up. "Now, I think I'll head to bed."

Murdoch stood and squeezed Scott's shoulder. "Thank you, son."

"You're very welcome," Scott whispered.  

  *******

Johnny and Murdoch found themselves alone together for the first time in days. "Son, I don't know what to say. This means so much to me. Thank you," he said.

"You're welcome," Johnny said. Feeling a bit overwhelmed; he wandered over to the fireplace. "Want some coffee?"

"No, I don't think I have room. So, what was Carrie talking about when she asked if Santa forgot you again?"

Johnny looked at him in surprise. "Do you ever forget anything?"

"Not when I'm curious."

"I lost her one night on the mountain. I took her to the outhouse and she wandered away. Scared me to death. Scott and I found her sittin on a log. She said she was waiting for Santa. Hoped to at least see him because he never came to their house." Johnny stopped here, a sad expression flashing across his face.

"Johnny?"

He looked up and smiled. "I told her Santa never came to see me either but he would this year. I told her she needed to be patient. I guess that's what she meant."

"I see," Murdoch smiled sadly.

Johnny chewed his lip and cursed himself. "I didn't want to make you unhappy. That's why I didn't say anything."

"Because it's Christmas," Murdoch said with understanding.

Johnny nodded.

Murdoch's heart warmed and he smiled softly as he watched Johnny drop his eyes. It still amazed him that this son could be so shy at times, so unsure.

*******

After a moment of silence, Johnny spoke. "Think I'll head to bed. All that eating wore me out," he laughed.

"Me too. Johnny, there is something ....." Murdoch stopped, suddenly feeling foolish.

"What?"

"Well, I really loved my present, son. But, I'd like to make a request."

"Puttin in for next year already?" Johnny grinned.

"No," Murdoch laughed. "This is for tonight."

He walked over to his son and Johnny looked up into his face. He couldn't read the expression and he wondered what was going through his father's mind.

"I, um, well, you're too old for me to tuck you in but ..... how about a hug for your old man?" he asked tentatively.

Johnny could not have been more surprised but he couldn't help the smile that lit his face. Without a word, he stepped in and hugged his father. "Merry Christmas," he whispered.

"Merry Christmas, son. I love you," Murdoch whispered back. Instead of the tension he expected to feel in Johnny, he felt him relax even more.

"Te amo, pa," Johnny mumbled.

They parted, a bit embarrassed. Murdoch cleared his throat. "Well, I think I'll check on your brother before turning in."

"I'm sure he's still awake," Johnny smiled knowingly. He watched, totally astonished, as his father made his way upstairs.

Johnny sat down for a minute, still reeling from this event. It was the first time. The very first time he could remember his father ever saying those words to him. He shook his head vigorously. 'Damn, gotta check that flue in the morning. Must be smoky in here. My eyes are watering,' he thought.

******

Murdoch tapped lightly on Scott's door, hoping he wasn't asleep. He shouldn't have waited. He should have approached them both but one at a time was hard enough.

He sighed with relief when he heard Scott call to enter.

"I was hoping you were still awake," Murdoch smiled.

"Just reading a bit. Is everything alright, sir?"

"Oh yes, everything's fine. It's been a good day."

"Yes, it has. I still can't get over that saddle," Scott beamed with pleasure.

Murdoch laughed. "Your brother has a lot of hidden talents."

There was an awkward silence as he stood there, unsure.

"Was there something you needed, Murdoch?"

Murdoch sat on the side of the bed. "I just wanted to say goodnight and, um, well," he reached forward, placing his hands on Scott's shoulders and pulled him into an embrace. "And tell you I love you, son."

Scott's eyes were wide as silver dollars but he was smiling. "I love you, too."

They pulled back and Scott looked into his father's face. "Thank you."

Murdoch frowned. "For what?"

"For telling me and for loving me."

Murdoch's hand smoothed the side of the blond hair. "I thought it was time, past time. I guess Christmas brings out the best in all of us."

Scott chewed his lip for a second. "I'll bet Johnny is still awake," he hinted.

Murdoch laughed out loud. "You certainly take this big brothering seriously, don't you? I've already seen your brother."

Scott smiled. "It's a tough job."

"I'm a very lucky man. Goodnight, son."

"Goodnight .... Father," Scott smiled sheepishly.

THE END

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL AND PEACE ON EARTH!!!

Feliz Navidad (Spanish)

Joyeux Noel (French)

Frohe Weihnachten (German)

Nollaigh Chridheil (Scottish) Jeremiah Wilkins had a befuddled look on his face as Johnny and Scott came to stand with their father. He opened the papers and stared at them.

"I don't understand."

"It's 500 acres of good bottomland. It's located about fifty miles from here but there's a town nearby. It's good farming land and hasn't been used for years," Murdoch explained.

He shook his head. "I can't take this."

"Why not?" Johnny asked.

"It's too much."

"Well, you haven't heard the catch yet," Scott smiled.

"Catch?" Mrs. Wilkins asked, finally finding her voice.

"We get first dibs on your first crop and you have to promise to grow some strawberries. I like strawberries," Johnny explained.

"And you have to agree to let us come visit Rachel and Carrie," Scott added.

"And to let them come visit us," Johnny threw in.

"Why?" the farmer asked.

"We like you and we want you to stay close by," Johnny shrugged.

"Right. What's so great about Oregon anyway?" Scott asked.

"Mother?" Mr. Wilkins looked to his wife.

With tears of joy in her eyes, all she could do was smile and nod her head. She approached each man and hugged him fiercely, thanking them over and over.

Overwhelmed with the generosity, they excused themselves to check on the children.

******

"That was the best idea you've ever had, Murdoch," Johnny smiled.

"Thank you, son. Now, what's say we open a few more presents," Murdoch flashed a smile.

Scott didn't have to be told twice. He headed for the dining room and yelled for Teresa and Jelly. He then dove under the tree and started pulling out their gifts.

Paper was strewn about the room and smiles lit all faces as they thanked each other. Johnny was admiring his new boots from Murdoch. Tan with new spurs already attached. The blanket for Barranca was hand-made and bore a Mexican design. The new romal reins with variegated colors Jelly had made by a master in Morro Coyo. But, most of all, the small hand-painted and framed portrait of his mother had touched him deeply. Scott had it made in Sacramento from the picture Murdoch kept. He knew exactly where he wanted to hang it in his room.

Teresa was overjoyed with her jewelry box and pearl necklace and the fragile lace mantilla she had decided to reserve for church only. She'd dabbed a bit of the perfume from Jelly on her wrists, bringing a huge grin from the old man.

Jelly, for his part, would have been satisfied just being here with this family - his family. But the new rifle from Johnny, the shirt Teresa had made him for 'special occasions', the Cuban cigars from Murdoch and Scott's fancy bowler hat had the old fella near tears.

Murdoch had immediately lit his pipe with the special blend of tobacco from England, wondering at Johnny's ability to notice these small things. He hadn't even mentioned he had been out of the tobacco for months, settling for the local brand. He had placed the silver double picture frame with his sons†likenesses on his desk. Teresa's gift that had almost had the Scotsman blubbering. He was quite touched by Jelly's gift, too; romal reins exactly matching Johnny's. He was most anxious to delve into the book from Scott. One he'd been wanting to get his hands on for quite a while now. The Works of Robert Burns; with an account of his life and a criticism of his writings.

Scott's face turned to a frown as he checked through his gifts once more. He counted them up. The hand-made dress shirt from Teresa with beautiful embroidery. The cologne he liked so well but had a hard time finding that Murdoch had given him and Jelly's romal reins. He got up and searched under the tree again thoroughly.

Johnny bit his lip to keep from laughing. "Looking for something, brother?"

Scott shot him a look and walked over to stand over him, hands on hips. "Where is it?"

"Where's what?"

"My present from you."

"Scott Lancer! One doesn't demand presents," Murdoch chastised, not too convincingly.

Undeterred, Scott turned back to his brother. "Well?"

Johnny couldn't take anymore, he burst out laughing. He shot a look at Jelly and got a nod. "Come on, it's outside."

"Outside?" Scott asked suspiciously.

"Yeah, I got you a new outhouse. You'll love it," Johnny said.

For this, he received a jab in the gut.

Scott walked outside and looked all around but saw nothing out of the ordinary. "Where is it?"

"For an eastern dandy, you sure ain't got no manners," Jelly gruffed and walked to the barn.

********

Johnny took Scott's arm and guided him to the corral. Jelly walked out lugging a rather bulky object covered with burlap. He sat it on the end of a low wall by the corral fence.

"There it is. Feliz Navidad, Scott," Johnny said softly. Love and respect poured from the young man's eyes and Scott found a lump in his throat he couldn't dislodge.

He pulled the burlap back to reveal a shiny new saddle. His eyes widened as he took in the intricate carvings and silver studs. His hand soothed over the almost silky leather. The saddlebags were also detailed with silver studs and etchings.

"Etched them fancy doodads hisself," Jelly explained. "And look there," he pointed.

Scott looked at the area near where the saddlebags lay. The Lancer "L" was engraved and filled in with silver.

He looked at Johnny in total shock. "You did this?" he fairly whispered.

"Well, I didn't make the saddle but, yeah, the rest of it. It was pretty plain to start out with," Johnny smiled.

"Did you know about this?" he asked his father.

"No, but it's the most beautiful saddle I've ever seen. You did a fantastic job, Johnny," Murdoch said with awe.

"Thank you, brother. I love it. It's .... it's perfect," Scott stuttered, feeling his emotions threatening to surface.

"It's just a saddle. I'm glad you like it," Johnny said softly, head down.

Jelly shook his head in exasperation. "That boy is an artist. You shoulda seen him workin that leather. Ain't never seen none better and I seen a lot!"

"You have a gift, son."

Johnny cleared his throat, uncomfortable with the accolades as always. "Gettin a little chilly out here."

Smiling, the elder Lancers nodded their agreement.

"Jelly, could you...." Scott started.

"I'll put it away. Got a special place in the tack room all cleared out for it," Jelly said.

*******

Back inside, Scott couldn't stop talking about his new saddle. Johnny was proud and relieved his brother liked it so much. He wasn't sure Scott would go for something so fancy.  

Seeing his son's discomfort, Murdoch changed the subject and drew attention away from Johnny. The young man sighed in relief as the conversation turned.

Suddenly, the room was full again as everyone had come back inside. The girls were happily playing with their dolls near the fire. Johnny and Scott watched them with silly grins on their faces.

Murdoch casually walked over to the sofa and sat beside his boys. "Take notes. That could be your children some day."

Both young men cocked a brow. "You know somethin we don't?" Johnny asked.

"I can only hope and pray, son," Murdoch laughed.

At that moment, Teresa walked in and proudly announced Christmas dinner was ready.

A stampede ensued as everyone made for the dining room table. The finest china had been laid out along with the best silver. Long-stemmed wine glasses were at each place setting. A centerpiece of holly and garland adorned the table. Candles surrounded the centerpiece. An Irish lace tablecloth highlighted the ware.

Murdoch smiled lovingly at his ward. "Everything is just beautiful, darling."

"Thank you. Now, wait until you see what we've made," she smiled excitedly.

Murdoch sat down, a bit wary, remembering last year's fiasco with the black bun cake.

Mrs. Wilkins disappeared into the kitchen with her. A moment later, she, Teresa and Maria walked out carrying platters and tureens. They made several trips as Teresa warned them all not to peek.

Finally, all the food was laid out and she and Mrs. Wilkins unveiled their culinary treats.

Murdoch's eyes widened with surprise. "Is that shepherd's pie?"

"It certainly is. Mrs. Wilkins made it. And there's Scotch Trifle, Churros and Elote Tamales," she beamed proudly.

******

Along with these ethnic treats were the usual fare of turkey with all the trimmings.

Murdoch said grace and everyone started reaching.

Scott looked doubtfully at the additions.

"Just try it, brother. The churros are really good," Johnny said.

"What about this other?" Scott asked.

"The tamales? That's dessert," Johnny grinned.

"Here, son, try this shepherd's pie. It's delicious, Annabelle," Murdoch exuded.

"Thank you. Teresa told me it was a favorite," she smiled happily.

"And now I know how to make it," Teresa nodded.

"This is good, Mrs. Wilkins. And do we have Maria to thank for these churros?" Scott commented.

"You do and you'd better thank her tomorrow," Teresa replied.

"Tomorrow? She's gone already?" Johnny asked.

"She was in a hurry. Said something about her sister visiting."

Johnny nodded knowingly. There wasn't a person alive who loved being with their family more than Maria. He'd spent many evenings alone in the kitchen with her, listening to the importance of familia.

At last, everyone was full to bursting. They convened in the living room once more for Brandy and Sherry. The girls nodded off soon after and the Wilkins said their goodnights.

********

The Lancers, including Jelly, sat around quietly. Each in his own thoughts and all feeling the warmth and love surrounding them. Johnny happened to glance over at Scott and he winked.

Scott nodded and grinned, then stood and walked out of the room. A minute later, he reappeared. He and Johnny walked over to where Murdoch sat by the fire.

Each son took a side and knelt beside their father. Jelly and Teresa gathered nearer, their curiosity piqued.

"Murdoch, Johnny and I got you something else. We hope you'll like it."

"You better like it cause we can't take it back," Johnny grinned.

"Boys, you've both given me so much already," Murdoch protested.

"Well, this is just a little something extra. Open it," Johnny urged as Scott handed over the envelope.

Murdoch smiled and tore open the packet. He looked at the tickets and shook his head. "I don't understand."

"Well, there's a stage ticket to Sacramento and a train ticket to Boston," Scott explained.

"Once you get to Boston, there'll be a ticket for a ship to London and then to Inverness," Johnny added. "We thought you might like to visit with your brothers and sister."

Teresa inhaled sharply. "Oh, how wonderful!"

"Boys, I can't ....."

"Yes, you can. Johnny and I can take care of things here. It's the slowest time of the year anyway."

Murdoch swallowed hard and looked from one to the other. "What made you do this?" His voice low and husky.

"It was Johnny's idea. After hearing you talk about Scotland at Thanksgiving, he thought of this. Grandfather even helped out with the ship schedules," Scott said.

"You leave on the fifteenth of next month," Johnny said.

Murdoch looked at his youngest. "This was your idea?"

"I know, you think I'm trying to get rid of you," Johnny laughed.

Murdoch could only stare at his son. No words would come.

"Jelly, help me with coffee?" Teresa said, sensing they needed some time alone.

"I can't believe .... thank you, both of you. I never thought I'd see Scotland again, much less my siblings."

"If there's one thing we should have all learned by now, it's how important family is," Scott said. Clearing his throat, he stood up. "Now, I think I'll head to bed."

Murdoch stood and squeezed Scott's shoulder. "Thank you, son."

"You're very welcome," Scott whispered.  

  *******

Johnny and Murdoch found themselves alone together for the first time in days. "Son, I don't know what to say. This means so much to me. Thank you," he said.

"You're welcome," Johnny said. Feeling a bit overwhelmed; he wandered over to the fireplace. "Want some coffee?"

"No, I don't think I have room. So, what was Carrie talking about when she asked if Santa forgot you again?"

Johnny looked at him in surprise. "Do you ever forget anything?"

"Not when I'm curious."

"I lost her one night on the mountain. I took her to the outhouse and she wandered away. Scared me to death. Scott and I found her sittin on a log. She said she was waiting for Santa. Hoped to at least see him because he never came to their house." Johnny stopped here, a sad expression flashing across his face.

"Johnny?"

He looked up and smiled. "I told her Santa never came to see me either but he would this year. I told her she needed to be patient. I guess that's what she meant."

"I see," Murdoch smiled sadly.

Johnny chewed his lip and cursed himself. "I didn't want to make you unhappy. That's why I didn't say anything."

"Because it's Christmas," Murdoch said with understanding.

Johnny nodded.

Murdoch's heart warmed and he smiled softly as he watched Johnny drop his eyes. It still amazed him that this son could be so shy at times, so unsure.

*******

After a moment of silence, Johnny spoke. "Think I'll head to bed. All that eating wore me out," he laughed.

"Me too. Johnny, there is something ....." Murdoch stopped, suddenly feeling foolish.

"What?"

"Well, I really loved my present, son. But, I'd like to make a request."

"Puttin in for next year already?" Johnny grinned.

"No," Murdoch laughed. "This is for tonight."

He walked over to his son and Johnny looked up into his face. He couldn't read the expression and he wondered what was going through his father's mind.

"I, um, well, you're too old for me to tuck you in but ..... how about a hug for your old man?" he asked tentatively.

Johnny could not have been more surprised but he couldn't help the smile that lit his face. Without a word, he stepped in and hugged his father. "Merry Christmas," he whispered.

"Merry Christmas, son. I love you," Murdoch whispered back. Instead of the tension he expected to feel in Johnny, he felt him relax even more.

"Te amo, pa," Johnny mumbled.

They parted, a bit embarrassed. Murdoch cleared his throat. "Well, I think I'll check on your brother before turning in."

"I'm sure he's still awake," Johnny smiled knowingly. He watched, totally astonished, as his father made his way upstairs.

Johnny sat down for a minute, still reeling from this event. It was the first time. The very first time he could remember his father ever saying those words to him. He shook his head vigorously. 'Damn, gotta check that flue in the morning. Must be smoky in here. My eyes are watering,' he thought.

******

Murdoch tapped lightly on Scott's door, hoping he wasn't asleep. He shouldn't have waited. He should have approached them both but one at a time was hard enough.

He sighed with relief when he heard Scott call to enter.

"I was hoping you were still awake," Murdoch smiled.

"Just reading a bit. Is everything alright, sir?"

"Oh yes, everything's fine. It's been a good day."

"Yes, it has. I still can't get over that saddle," Scott beamed with pleasure.

Murdoch laughed. "Your brother has a lot of hidden talents."

There was an awkward silence as he stood there, unsure.

"Was there something you needed, Murdoch?"

Murdoch sat on the side of the bed. "I just wanted to say goodnight and, um, well," he reached forward, placing his hands on Scott's shoulders and pulled him into an embrace. "And tell you I love you, son."

Scott's eyes were wide as silver dollars but he was smiling. "I love you, too."

They pulled back and Scott looked into his father's face. "Thank you."

Murdoch frowned. "For what?"

"For telling me and for loving me."

Murdoch's hand smoothed the side of the blond hair. "I thought it was time, past time. I guess Christmas brings out the best in all of us."

Scott chewed his lip for a second. "I'll bet Johnny is still awake," he hinted.

Murdoch laughed out loud. "You certainly take this big brothering seriously, don't you? I've already seen your brother."

Scott smiled. "It's a tough job."

"I'm a very lucky man. Goodnight, son."

"Goodnight .... Father," Scott smiled sheepishly.

 

 

 

~end~

To Scotland Bound -->

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL AND PEACE ON EARTH!!!

Feliz Navidad (Spanish)
Joyeux Noel (French)
Frohe Weihnachten (German)
Nollaigh Chridheil (Scottish)


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