Word count 14,120
Murdoch watched with a frown on his face as his two sons rode toward the house. He had told the two of them to fix a bridge that was out, and instead they had disappeared. They had flagrantly defied his orders, and it wasn’t the first time, but by God it was going to be the last. Only one man on this ranch called the tune, and if they intended to stay, they’d better realize that.
He let his gaze wander past the riders to the majestic mountains surrounding the ranch, and he sighed. He had built this ranch up from nothing with plenty of hard work and luck, and no one was going to destroy it, not even his sons. They needed to buckle down and start following orders. They had been home for not quite a year, and for a while things had gone relatively smoothly. Oh, there had been the usual arguments and problems as the boys adjusted, but Murdoch felt that things were gradually improving.
This last month, however, it seemed that they were going out of their way to annoy him. They had become comfortable at the ranch, and no longer did things his way without question. They both had their own way of handling things and their own ideas on what should be done. Murdoch had to admit, usually they had good ideas, but that wasn’t the point. They should at least get his approval before doing things counter to the way he had told them to do it.
He watched as they rode into the yard and dismounted. Usually the boys got along so well, but lately it seemed as if the two of them were always arguing about something, too. He could tell by the stiff set to Scott’s shoulders and the pronounced slouch to Johnny’s that they had been fighting again. Well, as soon as they walked in that door, they would forget about whatever petty quarrel they’d had with each other. He would make sure of that.
The door opened, and he heard the scraping of boots on tile, and it irritated him. Couldn’t they pick up their feet?
“BOYS!” He heard the footsteps hesitate, and he knew they were debating whether to ignore him, and that made him angrier. “Get in here NOW!”
He heard the shuffle of boots, and a moment later, his sons appeared. They walked over to the desk, and calmly looked at him. Their attitude infuriated him. They didn’t seem the least bit apologetic.
“WELL?” he thundered.
“Well what?” Johnny asked sarcastically.
“Well what do you have to say for yourselves?” Murdoch ground out.
“About what?” Scott asked tiredly.
“About disobeying my orders! I TOLD you we needed to fix that bridge, and I meant TODAY, not next year! You need to learn to do as your told!”
“We can fix it tomorrow,” Scott fumed. “We were busy doing something else today.”
“Now what could possibly be more important than fixing that bridge?” Murdoch asked angrily. “The river will be up shortly, and we’ll need it.” He gave them an appraising glance. “What did you do? Go into town and have a beer?”
“Yeah,” Johnny drawled. “We were just sittin’ on our butts all day, enjoying the weather. By the way, if the river is blocked, we’ll really have trouble, won’t we?”
Murdoch looked at him in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“He means, Sir, that an oak tree fell across the main channel of the river where it crosses the south pasture. Since most of the men were working on that downed fence line, WE spent all day clearing the tree out of the water,” Scott ground out.
Murdoch swallowed and dropped his eyes, for the first time taking in their muddy clothes and boots. “I’m sorry.” The next minute his eyes were flashing again. “Next time, let somebody know what you’re doing!” he growled. “I’m not a mind reader.”
Johnny merely shook his head and stalked off, and after a moment, Scott followed. “If you don’t MIND, Sir, we’re going to go get cleaned up. We wouldn’t want you to worry about what we’re doing!”
Murdoch angrily watched them go. Didn’t they understand the need for communication? He stood up abruptly and stalked over to the liquor cabinet. He opened the bottom cupboard, and pawed through bottles of tequila and brandy for several minutes, then stood up.
“TERESA!” he bellowed.
He looked again while he was waiting, and then yelled again. “TERESA!”
The girl came running into the room from the kitchen, her hands covered with flour. “What’s wrong?”
“Where’s my scotch? There should be plenty left!”
Teresa shook her head. “Well don’t look at me, I haven’t been drinking it!”
“Do you know where it is?” he asked sarcastically.
“NO!” She shook her head. “You probably drank it.”
“I’d remember if I drank the last bottle! Somebody else has obviously been helping themselves, and heaven help them when I find out who!”
“Maybe you used the last of it when Mr. Cotter came over last week,” she suggested in a deceptively sweet voice.
Murdoch thought about it and then nodded. He’d forgotten about that visit. Benjamin Cotter had come in the afternoon to discuss a mutual business deal, and managed to stay for super, then hung around for some after dinner drinks. Murdoch vaguely recalled finishing off a bottle, but he couldn’t be blamed for forgetting, both of them had been pretty bombed by the end of the evening.
Murdoch nodded slowly. “Sorry, Teresa. I guess I forgot.”
The girl shook her head and headed toward the kitchen, but when she came to the main entryway of the hacienda she stopped and stared at the tile.
“Those two slobs tracked mud all over my clean floor!” Teresa fumed. She whirled back toward her guardian. “Can’t you make them wipe their feet before coming into the house? I’m tired of cleaning up after those two!”
Murdoch nodded wearily. “I’ll talk to them,” he promised.
He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. He heard Maria come in and start dusting, singing a Christmas carol softly to herself. He gritted his teeth as he listened, annoyed for some reason that she managed to be in a good mood.He most certainly wasn’t in the Christmas spirit, and he doubted if he would be anytime soon.
Scott stalked up to his room and shut the door. He wasn’t feeling exactly sociable right now, and he hadn’t for several weeks. He didn’t know what the trouble was, but it seemed as if everyone was in a foul mood lately. This was the first Christmas he’d celebrated in California, and he couldn’t help but compare it to the ones he’d spent in Boston. Usually, the servants started decorating right after Thanksgiving and everyone was firmly in the Christmas spirit by now. Days were spent shopping for just the right gifts for everyone, and the nights were spent at endless parties and get togethers.
He snorted. It was only three weeks until Christmas, and there hadn’t been one hint of the holiday season at Lancer. The one trip he had made into town hadn’t been any more cheering. Not one of the buildings had decorations, and the townspeople’s attitudes certainly hadn’t been any better than those at the ranch.
He had tried to find something to give his family for gifts, but hadn’t been able to find anything suitable.It was absolutely frustrating. It looked like he’d have to make some excuse to ride to Stockton, and that meant fighting his father for a day off, and then putting up with his brother’s smart comments about goofing off. He had half a notion to forget about it. It just didn’t seem worth it, not with the mood everyone was in.
He went over and stood by the window, trying to get up enough energy to go wash up. That was another thing. He was afraid he was actually becoming used to being dirty, and that thought intensified his depression. He and Johnny had spent all day slopping around in the freezing cold stream, chopping off branches and dragging them out of the way. They had worked in virtual silence after the argument they had had that morning.
He and Johnny had left before first light, hoping to get the bridge finished by the end of the day. On the way to the work site, they had spotted the fallen tree, and gone over to check it out. They had stood and stared at it for several minutes, and then Johnny had sighed.
“Looks like we’re gonna have ta get this taken care of before Murdoch’s bridge.”
Scott nodded in agreement. “I wonder what Murdoch will have to say about that.”
“It don’t matter. If we don’t get the bridge done, it will be an inconvenience. If we don’t clean this mess up, the whole pasture could flood.”
“Well, we’d better get busy.”
Johnny nodded. “I’ll go back and get some heavier axes.”
“Why? We have axes with us that can do the job. It’ll take you two hours to get to the ranch and back.”
“So?” Johnny had argued. “Choppin’ up that big old tree with the axes we have with us will take forever.”
“Not any longer than it will take to go back and get different ones.”
“I don’t know about you, but I plan on goin’ into town tonight, and if we don’t get this done I won’t be able to.”
“So we had better get started, hadn’t we?”
Johnny had glared at his brother, but had finally acquiesced, although far from gracefully. From the time they had started, Johnny had made little comments about how long it was taking and how much easier it would be with proper tools.
By the time they were ready to stop for lunch, Scott had realized that he had been wrong, but he had stubbornly refused to acknowledge it. He knew that if his brother hadn’t made such a big deal about the whole thing, Scott would have given up and ridden back to the ranch hours ago, but he refused to give Johnny that satisfaction.
Just as he was about ready to give up and go for the axes, Johnny had stalked over to Barranca, and without a word he had jumped on the horse and taken off at a dead run. Scott wasn’t sure if his brother was simply going to get the larger equipment, or whether his hot tempered brother had decided to go into town anyway.
Several hours later, he got his answer when Johnny came riding up and threw some axes at Scott’s feet. Without another word, Johnny dismounted and started working. Scott’s conscience started working on him, however, and he finally spoke up.
“Look, I’m sorry. I was wrong.”
Johnny didn’t even acknowledge him, but kept on hacking away at the branches.
“I said I was sorry,” Scott tried again.
Johnny stopped and looked at him. “Ok. You’re sorry. Now let’s get this job done, so I MIGHT be able ta get ta town tonight.”
Angrily, Scott nodded his head and went to work.
The sun was barley showing over the nearby hills when they finally removed the last of the tree. Scott had tried several times to get his brother to stop and leave for town, but Johnny had rejected the offer. Scott had argued with his brother that he was more than capable of finishing the job, but Johnny had still refused. Finally Scott gave up, but not before making a comment about Johnny feeling sorry for himself and wanting to be a martyr.
Scott doubted if Johnny even knew what the word ‘martyr’ meant, but his brother had taken exception to the tone, and launched himself at Scott. The blond had been taken by surprise, and they had both gone sprawling. The two men rolled over and over on the bank, until they finally slid down the slope and landed in the freezing creek, effectively ending the battle.
Neither one had apologized, and they had finished their work and ridden home without a word. Normally, one or the other would say they were sorry, for no other reason than to just to get things back to normal, but Scott just wasn’t in the mood. He had apologized already, and figured it was his brother’s turn.
With an oath, he turned and grabbed some clean clothes before heading out to the bathhouse. Maybe he’d feel better after he cleaned up and got something to eat. Maybe.
Johnny headed out toward river to check the banks and make sure they were holding up. He snorted softly. He really didn’t know why; if the river DID flood, there was no way they could raise the banks for its whole length. It had been raining steadily for almost a week, and the river level was rising dangerously. He didn’t know why he couldn’t just stay in the nice, dry house, but Murdoch had been adamant. He snugged his hat down lower on his head in a vain attempt to keep the rain out, and then resigned himself to his fate.
He and Scott had been working out in the rain every day, and he was tired of being wet and cold. They had finished fixing the bridge the day before, and he THOUGHT Murdoch would have mercy on them and let them stay home, but apparently his father was convinced that he and Scott wouldn’t melt. Johnny wasn’t so sure. He had the feeling he was working toward a pretty good case of pneumonia, and his mood darkened even more. At least he wouldn’t have to work with Scott today. They hadn’t come to blows since the day they cleared the river, but that didn’t mean they were getting along any better.
Johnny sighed. He hated being at odds with his brother, but for some reason he just couldn’t help it, and he had the feeling Scott couldn’t, either. Usually when one of them was in a grumpy mood, the other one would tread a little lighter, and the mood would pass. This time, however, they BOTH were in a poisonous frame of mind. Johnny couldn’t even say why, exactly, except he knew that everyone at the ranch was grumpy.
Teresa had just about bitten everyone’s heads off the last few days, and just this morning she had almost turned violent when Johnny asked her to mend his shirt. Usually she seemed almost pleased when he asked her, but this time, she had stared at him in stony silence before snatching the garment from his hand and stalking off. Their meals had been eaten in thick silence, and there was nothing in the hacienda to even indicate Christmas was a mere two weeks away.
He was a little disappointed. His Christmases before he had come to Lancer had been non existent at best and miserable at worst. He had spent several of his Christmases, including the last one, behind bars. He couldn’t remember ever getting a present for Christmas, or any other occasion for that matter. As a child, he had never received anything, although his mother had always tried to convince him he had received presents the year before. It had worked for several years. She would describe the grand and expensive toys and clothes he had received, and get angry with him when he couldn’t remember them. He would apologize, and she would make him feel guilty for being so ungrateful that he couldn’t even remember such fine gifts that he would be miserable for days. She would use his ungratefulness as an excuse to not give him any presents that year, and he would be convinced she was right. It was many years before he finally figured it out, and when he finally confronted her, all he got for his efforts was a whipping.
Over the years he had seen how other people celebrated the holidays, and he had been eagerly awaiting his first proper Christmas. He was looking forward to buying gifts for his family, and he cautiously hoped they might buy some for him. As Christmas slowly crept closer however, he was starting to resign himself to the fact that evidently Murdoch didn’t celebrate Christmas any better than his Mama had. Even though he would never say anything, he was bitterly disappointed. With an effort, he stopped dwelling on his disappointment, and started paying attention to what he was supposed to be doing. The quicker he did his job, the quicker he could get home and dry off.
Johnny could hear the river as he approached, and as Barranca neared the edge, Johnny could see the banks were almost completely covered with the swiftly moving water. Automatically, he glanced up hoping to see a break in the clouds, but the sky was as dark as it had been all week. He decided to follow the river for a while to make sure there was no trouble upstream that they should know about. He knew if he didn’t, Murdoch would have his head.
He rode along, only half paying attention to the roaring water. Instead, his mind returned to the upcoming holiday, and he wondered if he should go ahead and purchase presents anyway, or if the rest of his family would even care. He glanced down at the river, and squinted his eyes as something rushed past. He couldn’t quite catch what it was, and he hesitated, wondering if he should check it out. Finally, he decided he was wet enough, and he urged his horse on.
Automatically, he kept glancing over at the water, almost expecting to see something else. When he did, it almost didn’t register at first, then he turned his horse and spurred him along the bank after the rapidly moving object. As he rode, he tried to figure out what he was seeing, and he finally figured out it was several articles of clothing. He pulled his horse to a halt and frowned, wondering where they had come from. He glanced up the river, and saw several more objects approaching. He watched them come, and identified a child’s doll and a butter churn being whipped along in the churning water.
Johnny’s brow wrinkled in thought, and then he saw something else. Being rapidly carried toward him was a huge mass of something, but his mind couldn’t quite grasp what he was seeing. Whatever it was kept getting stuck on the trees sticking out into the water, and then the current would tear it loose and send it spinning onward. As the object got closer, he suddenly realized he was seeing a wagon bow with cloth attached, and the implication finally crashed down on him. He turned Barranca upstream and spurred the horse along the bank, looking desperately for the rest of the wagon, and hoping he was in time.
A few moments later, Johnny saw the rest of the wagon lying on its side in the rushing river. He spurred Barranca faster when he saw a man hanging onto the overturned frame, awkwardly clutching a young child. Standing on the bank was a woman, huddled next to several other youngsters. Johnny pulled his horse to a quick stop, and jumped off, grabbing his lariat as he dismounted. He ran over to the bank and threw the rope at the man, but the stranger made no move to reach it. Johnny glanced at the people huddled on the shore, making sure there were no obvious injuries, and then he tied one end of the lariat to the saddlehorn. He swiftly tied the other end around his waist and waded into the water, down stream of the wagon.
The current was partially blocked by the debris, and Johnny was able to make his way almost out to the man, but the rope wouldn’t allow him to quite reach him. Johnny could see the man was weakening, and he yelled at him over the roar of the river.
“Toss me the kid.”
The man looked up, bewildered, but only held on tighter, and Johnny tried again. “Throw him to me!”
Just then the wagon shifted, and the man lost his precarious handhold. He fell into the raging water, and Johnny made a desperate grab at the man’s jacket as the two of them were swept past him. With a final lurch, he managed to snag a sleeve, and he fought the river for several moments for possession of the two people. Finally, Johnny was able to draw the man nearer, and he grabbed the man’s arm and dragged him even closer. The water was still trying to pry the two from Johnny’s grasp, and he knew the cold was starting to affect him. He yelled at his horse.
“Barranca, back up! BACK!”
The horse obediently took several steps back, dragging Johnny and the other two people onto shore. Immediately, the woman ran forward and hugged the man and the child as they sank to the ground, while Johnny tried to untie the rope from around his waist. The weight it had taken had made the wet knot much tighter, and he finally gave up and cut it, then walked over to where the man was still lying on the wet ground. The woman had taken the child from him and was trying to quiet the frightened child.
“Are you ok?” Johnny asked as he knelt down next to them.
The man shook his head. “I think my leg is broken.”
Johnny gently checked the stranger’s leg. “I think you’re right. It’s going to have to be set.” He looked around, hoping to see some help miraculously appear, but they were alone. He glanced over at the woman.
“Is everyone else all right?”
She nodded and clutched her children closer to her. “We all managed to get out, except for Becky here. My husband went back to save her, but the wagon tipped and sent them into the water.” Her voice became soft. “I thought I’d lost them both. Thank you, you saved their lives.”
Johnny knew the woman and the children were probably in shock, but he needed help in order to get them back to the ranch. “Will you be all right for about an hour? I need to go get the doctor and send a wagon out here.”
The woman nodded numbly. “We’ll be fine. And thank you again.”
Johnny nodded. “I’ll hurry.” He tore off his jacket and draped it around the woman, and then went over and pulled his bedroll off of the saddle. He unrolled it, and snugged it around the man and the children who were huddled miserably around him. The rain was too heavy to even consider a fire, and there was nothing else he could do for them without supplies. He jumped onto his horse. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he promised as he spurred the palomino away from the river.
Almost exactly an hour later, he and Scott returned with a wagon. Johnny had sent one of the hands in to town for the doctor, and Teresa and Maria had piled blankets and containers of hot coffee on the wagon as Scott quickly rigged a tarp over the bed for protection from the endless rain. He and Johnny had pushed the team as fast as they dared in the mud, and had made it back in record time.
Johnny jumped down and went over to the small group. “Is everyone ok?” he asked worriedly. He squatted down next to the woman, who remained huddled on the ground. “We’re going to take you back to the ranch and get you someplace dry.” He reached out for one of the children, but the little girl shrank back against her mother.
“Come on, honey, I won’t hurt you,” he pleaded as he held out his arms once more. At a slight nod from her mother, the child allowed herself to be picked up, and Johnny placed her carefully in the back of the wagon. Scott wrapped a warm blanket around her as his brother went back for the rest of them. It took both Scott and Johnny to lift the injured man into the wagon and get him settled, but they were finally ready to start home.
Scott crawled up front and drove, while Johnny tried to reassure the unfortunate family as he handed them mugs of hot coffee.
“The Doc should be at the ranch by the time we get there, and he’ll fix you up just fine,” Johnny told the man.
The stranger shot a quick look at his wife, and then shook his head. “My leg will be fine. I don’t need him to see it,” he insisted.
Johnny looked at the man in confusion. “It’s a bad break.”
The man shrugged. “It’ll heal.”
Johnny sat back and thought about what the man had said, and as he did, he took in the ragged clothes and the obvious lack of fat on any of them. “Sam is a good doctor, and you don’t have ta worry about payin’ him,” he said softly.
“We don’t want charity,” the man said in a broken voice. “Everything we had was in that wagon. Everything.”
Johnny nodded. “We’ll figure something out. Ok?”
The woman watched as her husband’s eyes closed in defeat, and she nodded at Johnny. “Thank you. We’ll pay you back somehow.”
Scott and Johnny carried the injured man upstairs, with Sam supervising. His wife watched anxiously, but when she started to follow them up, Murdoch stopped her. “Sam will take good care of him.” He nodded toward the children, who were standing forlornly in the middle of the room. “Maybe we should get them into some dry clothes.”
The woman hesitated, and then nodded. “I’m Mrs. Porter.”
Murdoch smiled and held out his hand. “Murdoch Lancer, and this is my ward, Teresa. She’ll find some dry clothes for all of you, I’m sure.”
Teresa stepped up to the woman. “I’ve rounded up a few clothes for the children, and you should fit into one of my dresses. Why don’t you come upstairs and we can get you settled.”
Mrs. Porter nodded, then motioned for her children, who obediently followed the two women upstairs.
Murdoch watched them go, then poured a glass of scotch and went to stand in front of the fireplace, wondering about these visitors that his son had found. He chuckled softly to himself. Leave it to Johnny to find strays and bring them home.
He looked up when he heard the footsteps on the stairs, and his sons appeared. He poured two more drinks and handed them to Scott and Johnny when they approached.
“How is he?” Murdoch asked.
Scott shrugged. “His leg is badly broken, and he might have some broken ribs. Sam is checking him over now.”
Murdoch nodded. “What happened?”
Johnny shook his head. “Their wagon tipped over in the river.”His voice softened. “They lost everything except the clothes on their back.”
Murdoch snorted. “Well, from the looks of their clothes, they didn’t have much to begin with.”
“No, I don’t think they did. They don’t look like they’ve been eatin’ real regular, either.”
Murdoch sighed. “I wonder what their story is.” He looked at his sons. “Did they say anything?”
Both Scott and Johnny shook their heads. “Not a word.”
Johnny looked at his father, the set of his mouth indicating he was serious. “They don’t have any money for a motel. I told ‘em they could stay here for a while.”
Murdoch smiled at his son’s protective attitude. “Don’t worry; they’re welcome here, at least for now. Later we can figure something out.”
Murdoch looked up as Teresa and the Porters walked back into the room. The older woman was wearing a dress of Teresa’s, and the children were attired in various cast offs that Teresa had rounded up when Johnny had first raised the alarm. New clothes would obviously be a priority.
The children cautiously made their way to the fireplace, acting like they expected to be reprimanded.
“It’s ok,” Johnny said as he smiled at the kids. “It feels good, doesn’t it?”
The older boy nodded.
“What’s your name?” Scott asked.
“How about introducing your brother and sisters?” Scott prompted.
The boy hesitated, and then rattled off the names. Murdoch figured that Ben was about ten, his younger brother Curtis around five, and the two girls, Carrie and Becky, looked to be about eight and three.
Murdoch smiled at Mrs. Porter. “You have a fine family, ma’am.”
The lady blushed. “Thank you. So do you, Mr. Lancer.”
“Please, call me Murdoch. Everyone else does.”
The lady nodded, and then stiffened as Sam came into sight. “How is he?” she asked worriedly.
The doctor smiled. “He’ll be fine. He’ll have to stay in bed for a while, but his leg should heal with no trouble.”
Mrs. Porter sighed in relief, then looked worried. “How long before he can work?”
Sam glanced at Murdoch, and then shrugged. “At least a few months. That leg needs time to heal.”
The woman wilted noticeably, and then smiled bravely. “Well, at least he’ll be all right. Thank you, Doctor.”
Sam nodded. “No trouble. I’ll be back tomorrow or the next day to check on him.”
“Supper will be in a few minutes, Sam.” Murdoch said.
The doctor nodded. “I was counting on it,” he admitted. He winked at Mrs. Porter. “Why do you think I came out so quickly and then took my time fixing up that leg?”
Murdoch grinned back. “Let’s go sit down. Maybe Maria will take the hint and hurry up.”
Mrs. Porter guided her children to the table, where they perched uneasily. Murdoch poured the adults some wine, and Johnny jumped up and came back a moment later with a pitcher of milk, which he poured for the kids. He was rewarded with some shy smiles, and the milk had pretty much disappeared by the time Maria walked in with supper.
Murdoch watched as the children’s eyes widened at the sight of all of the food, and he knew he had been right; the Porters had been very down on their luck even before the accident. He watched his younger son’s face, and he knew Johnny had first hand experience as to how those children felt. The thought saddened him, but it also made him proud that Johnny had so much empathy for others after the hard life he had led.
Johnny heaped up their plates, and Murdoch smiled indulgently. “They can always have seconds, Johnny. I doubt if anyone could eat as much as you’re giving them.”
Johnny looked at the heaping plates and grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Sorry.”
Sam chuckled, and Murdoch caught Scott’s eye and grinned. “That’s all right. There’s plenty.”
The children did an admirable job of finishing their suppers, but they finally admitted defeat. The two youngest ones fell asleep at the table, their forks still firmly gripped in their hands, and the two oldest were obviously having trouble keeping their eyes open. Mrs. Porter stood up and looked at Teresa enquiringly. “We can sleep in my husband’s room, if it’s all right. Maybe you have some blankets?’
“That’s not necessary,” Murdoch protested. “There’s plenty of room. Teresa will show you to your room, and we’ll bring the children up in a few moments.”
Mrs. Porter hesitated, and then nodded. “Thank you, for everything. I just don’t know what we would have done if Johnny hadn’t shown up. We owe you more than we can ever repay.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Please don’t worry about it. It’s the least we can do.”
Mrs. Porter’s eyes welled up. “I’m sorry, I’m just so thankful.” She stood up, embarrassed, and motioned for her older children to follow her. She herded the two children upstairs, following Teresa to the bedroom the girl had made up for the children. She left the younger ones sleeping at the table, intending to bring them up later. Instead, Scott and Johnny picked up the sleeping children and carried them upstairs.
Teresa had asked Jelly to have the hands move some beds for the children into a room adjoining their parents, and she had hurriedly made them up with clean sheets and warm blankets. She had started a fire in the fireplace so the room wouldn’t be chilly, and had even placed some flowers in the room. By the time the men carried the children upstairs, the room was warm and cozy. Mrs. Porter smiled at the girl in appreciation and tucked the two older children in before quickly turning down the covers so the men could place the sleeping youngsters in their beds. Teresa offered to read to the two children who were still awake so Mrs. Porter could go sit with her husband, and the woman gratefully accepted her offer. Scott and Johnny watched for a moment, and then quietly left the room
The two men came downstairs after carrying the children to their beds, and they poured a couple of drinks before sitting down on the couch.
Murdoch looked up from the book he was reading. “Did you get them settled?” he asked.
Scott nodded. “The kids were exhausted. Teresa is reading them a story, but they’re probably asleep already.”
“Mrs. Porter must be tired, too,” Johnny observed. “She looked like she was ready to fall asleep with the kids.”
“They’ve all been through a lot,” Murdoch observed. A trace of a smile formed on his face. “It seems strange to have children in the house.”
Johnny smiled. “Brings back memories, huh?”
Murdoch grinned at his son. “Actually, no. THESE kids are very well behaved. I hardly know they’re here. You on the other hand…”
Scott chuckled. “I can imagine.” He grinned at his brother. “It almost makes me glad I wasn’t around when Johnny was a kid. I bet he was a real brat. He probably would have been getting me into trouble all the time.”
Johnny looked at his father and brother in righteous indignation. “Hey, what is this? You tryin’ ta gang up on me?”
“Definitely,” Murdoch said amicably. “Got to keep you on your toes.”
“I’m always on my toes,” Johnny snorted. “You two had better be nice, or Santa Claus won’t bring ya nothin.”
Murdoch’s eyebrows went up, and he looked thoughtfully at his sons. “What were the two of you planning on doing tomorrow?”
Johnny glanced at his brother before he looked at his father with a grin. “Oh, I don’t know. I thought I’d go into town and find a good poker game and get drunk. Scott here talked me into it. Said we’d done enough work this week.”
“Is that so?” Murdoch asked mildly. “Actually, going in to town sounds like a good idea.”
“It does?” Johnny asked, shocked.
Murdoch nodded. “I think one of you needs to drive Teresa into town tomorrow so she can pick up some clothes for those kids.”
Scott shot a quick glance at his brother. “Instead of working?” he asked his father dubiously.
Murdoch nodded once more. “And I think it would be a great idea for the other one to go out and find a Christmas tree.”
“Are you feelin’ ok?” Johnny asked suspiciously.
Murdoch grinned. “I feel fine. “I just realized this evening how much we have to be thankful for, and I think we need to celebrate the fact that we’re together and everyone is healthy, for once.” He gave Johnny a pointed look before he continued. “I had been so busy with those contracts and everything else, I let time slip away from me. I didn’t realize how close to Christmas it was until this evening. We need to get busy if we’re going to have a proper Christmas.”
“I’ll go out and get the tree,” Johnny casually volunteered.
Scott stared at his brother in shock. “Are you sure?” Scott asked. His whole family had taken leave of their senses. Johnny never passed up a chance to go into town, especially if the alternative involved work.
Johnny shrugged, then smiled slowly. “Yeah, I‘m sure.” He looked pointedly at his brother. “Pickin’ out kid’s clothes is right up your alley. Besides, I’ve never picked out a Christmas tree before. Sounds sorta fun.”
“Never?” Scott asked in disbelief.
“All right,” Scott agreed slowly as he stared at his brother. “I’ll drive Teresa into town.” He shook his finger at Johnny. “But picking out a tree is a huge responsibility. You darn well better pick out a perfect one.”
“What’s a perfect tree?” Johnny asked, perplexed.
‘You’ll know it when you see it,” Scott said smugly. “Just make sure it’s big enough to hold plenty of ornaments.”
Murdoch chuckled. “I’ll go up in the attic and try to find the Christmas decorations. We didn’t put them up last year. Teresa’s father had just been killed, and we were too worried about Pardee to think about Christmas.” Murdoch shook his head thoughtfully. ‘”Actually, we haven’t celebrated Christmas here for quite a while. The year before that, Teresa and her father were visiting relatives, and before that we were all in Sacramento. I don’t remember when we had a proper Christmas here.”
“Well, we will this year,” Scott said emphatically. “Christmas happens to be my favorite holiday.” He looked at his brother. “And apparently, it’s Johnny’s, too, right brother?”
Johnny hesitated just as second before nodding in agreement. After all, he didn’t have any good memories of ANY holidays, so for all he knew, it was.
Scott nodded emphatically as he rubbed his hands together. “THIS year, Lancer will have a proper Christmas!”
Johnny rose early the next morning, figuring he’d go out and get the tree quickly, then return home and be able to relax for a couple of hours. He didn’t think finding a tree would be very difficult. Of course finding a ‘perfect’ tree might be, but as the saying went, beauty was in the eye of the beholder.
He walked into the kitchen and saw Ben sitting at the table, morosely eating his breakfast.
“What’s wrong?’ Johnny asked, worried that maybe the boy’s father had taken a turn for the worse during the night.
Ben shrugged and made a face. “Carrie is gonna go into town with Mr. Scott and Miss Teresa, and I have ta stay here and babysit the little kids.”
Johnny looked at him thoughtfully for a moment, and then turned and walked into the great room. His father was sitting at his desk and Johnny plopped on the corner and watched him for a moment.
A smile started forming on Murdoch’s face and he looked at his son. “Yes?”
“Since you’re so happy about havin’ kids in the house, how about watchin’ a couple of ‘em this morning?”
Murdoch looked at his son quizzically, and Johnny continued. “Carrie is goin’ with Scott and Teresa, and I though I’d ask Ben ta go with me ta help me pick out that perfect tree. Figured I might need some help.”
Murdoch thought for a moment and then nodded. “I think I can manage that.”
Johnny grinned and headed back to the kitchen. He clapped the boy on the back as he went by. “You’d better eat your breakfast if you plan on goin’ and helpin’ me pick out a Christmas tree.”
The boy’s eyes got big. “I can go with you?”
Johnny nodded. “If it’s ok with your ma. Murdoch said he’d keep an eye on the kids.”
Ben jumped up and ran out of the room, and Johnny watched him go, tempted to call him back and tell him to finish eating, then he chuckled and decided he’d better pack a big lunch.
By the time Johnny was done with his breakfast, Ben was back, a threadbare jacket thrown over his arm. Johnny frowned and grabbed an extra jacket from the hall tree on his way out. Ben followed the gunfighter out of the house, jabbering excitedly.
“Are we really goin’ ta get a Christmas tree?”
“Yep, but you’re gonna have ta help me. I ain’t never got one before, and Scott insisted that we pick out a perfect one.”
“You’ve NEVER picked out a tree?” Ben asked incredulously.
Johnny smiled, wondering just why that was such a big thing. “Nope.” He slanted a look at the boy. “I bet you’ve picked out a lot of ‘em haven’t you?”
Ben shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. We didn’t have one the last couple of years, though.”
“We had ta keep movin’, and we just didn’t have a place to put one,” he said quietly.
Johnny stopped and looked at the boy. “How long have you been moving around?”
Ben shrugged. “I’m not sure, but it seems like forever.” He looked up at Johnny. “I’m glad we’re here. Pa promised us last year that we’d celebrate our next Christmas in our own house, but this is almost as good.” He bit his lips nervously. “I hope we can stay until Christmas.”
Johnny reached over and ruffled the boy’s hair. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”
Ben grinned up at his friend and followed him into the barn. Johnny looked at the boy, realizing he had forgotten to ask him an important question. “You know how ta ride a horse?”
Ben nodded eagerly. “I’ve never ridden in a saddle before, but I used ta ride Polly and Meg all the time.” His face darkened and he dropped his head as he remembered the drowned horses.
Johnny sighed and led him over to one of the stalls. He didn’t think Teresa would mind if he borrowed Midnight for a few hours, and it was one of the few horses that Johnny would trust with a child. He had picked out and broken the horse himself, and knew the animal was as solid as they came. He picked up a brush and tossed it to the boy. “Here, brush him off, and let’s get going.”Ben eagerly went to work, and Johnny turned his attention to Barranca.
A half of an hour later, the two were heading away from the ranch and into the high country, looking for the perfect tree.
Scott helped Teresa into the wagon, but before he could help Carrie, she jumped up with Teresa. Scott grinned and walked around and climbed aboard, then clucked at the team, sending them down the road toward the arch.
Carrie chattered happily away, and occasionally Scott or Teresa would ask the child a question.
“Do you mean you’ve never had new clothes?” Teresa asked.
“Well, not REALLY new. But I’ve had a lot of clothes that were new to me. Ma gets them at the churches some times. Once I had a really pretty dress, but I never got to wear it.” She frowned. “It was too small when I got it, but it sure was pretty. It was yellow.” She looked up at Teresa. “Do you think we can find a yellow dress?”
Teresa shot a glance at Scott before answering. “We’ll try, honey.”
Carrie shrugged. “If we can’t, that’s ok.” Her voice became quiet. “Do you think maybe we can find a dress for ma? She had to use her good dress to make me and Becky some clothes. She only has one left.”
“We’ll find a dress for your ma,” Teresa reassured the girl. “Maybe you can give it to her for Christmas.”
Carrie’s eyes lit up. “Really? I’ve never been able to give her a present. Except last year. Last year, I found an apple. It was perfect, and she always talked about having apples when she was a kid. I gave it to her, and she cried.”
We’ll get your ma a dress,” Teresa promised.
Murdoch looked outside for the hundredth time. It would be dark in less than an hour, and he knew that Johnny would never keep Ben out past dark. Not unless something was wrong. It seemed unlikely that there would be a problem just looking for a tree, but with Johnny, stranger things than that had happened. That boy was a trouble magnet, and usually through no fault of his own.
He glanced over to where the Porter children were quietly sitting, simply enjoying the fire, and he chuckled. He didn’t think he’d EVER seen his younger son sitting quietly, even as an adult. He remembered the way Johnny had asked him to baby-sit and his smile grew wider. His younger son had been prepared for a battle on the subject, and when Murdoch had acquiesced so quickly, the confusion in Johnny’s eyes had been evident. Murdoch didn’t regret his decision. The children had certainly been no trouble and were quiet and well behaved, even the youngest.
Mrs. Porter was upstairs with her husband, and Teresa was in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on their dinner. Scott was sitting by the fire reading a book, but his frequent glances out the window told Murdoch that his little brother was very much on his mind. Murdoch looked out the window once more, and was startled when Scott slammed his book shut. The blond rose to his feet and casually stretched.
“I think I’ll go for a ride,” he said offhandedly.
Murdoch wondered if his son really thought he was fooling anyone. He smiled in acknowledgment, and Scott headed for the door. Scott grabbed his jacket and hat off the hall tree, and then reached for his gunbelt and strapped it on. With a quick backward glance, he opened the door and slipped through.
Once outside, Scott took a deep breath and looked down the road, hoping to see his wayward brother, but the road was empty. He pulled his jacket on and pulled his hat lower on his head. The weather here might not be as cold as Boston, but the wind could still chill a man to the bone in a relatively short time. He took out his gloves and drew them on, then looked once more down the road. He smiled in relief when he saw the familiar palomino coming toward him. Barranca’s ears were pinned, obviously not relishing his demotion to draught horse. Even from where Scott was standing, he could hear Ben’s excited chattering as he rode next to Johnny.
Scott walked out to intercept the two, and when they approached he grabbed Midnight’s bridle as the boy jumped down.
“Did you help Johnny pick out a perfect tree?” Scott asked.
Johnny shot a glare at his brother, and Ben didn’t answer. Scott walked over to the tree and began unwrapping the ropes. It was considerably smaller than he thought it would be, but if it had a perfect shape, it would still be acceptable. He shook off the last rope and stood the tree up, and his eyebrows went up. He stared at the tree for several moments, then turned to his brother. “I suppose I should have taken time to explain to you just what makes a tree perfect.”
“Scott, don’t start,” Johnny said tiredly. “We’re lucky ta have this one.” He looked at the boy. “Aren’t we, Ben?”
Ben nodded in agreement. “Yes, Sir.” He turned his eyes toward Scott. “It was the best one we could get, honest.”
Scott grinned. “Then I guess it’ll be fine, won’t it?
Johnny handed Barranca and Midnight off to one of the hands, then bent and grabbed the bottom of the tree. Ben took hold of the top, and Scott guided them into the house. They maneuvered the tree into the corner that had been prepared for it, and Johnny stood it upright. There was dead silence until Murdoch spoke up.
“That’s an…interesting… tree.”
Johnny turned and glared at his father. “It was the best we could do,” he explained through clenched teeth.
Teresa came into the room and stopped in shock. The tree had a decidedly moth eaten look and was lopsided. “THAT’S the tree you picked out?”
Johnny took a deep breath and looked around at his family. “In case you didn’t know it, there aren’t that many pines around here, not unless you want ta take a couple day’s ride into the mountains. The pines we DID have got pretty well wiped out in that fire last summer, a fact that we had all apparently forgotten. The trees that survived THAT were busily being eaten by caterpillars! You could hear the dang things chewin’ on them trees a mile away. He went over and grabbed the tree. “THIS is the best tree for miles around, and believe me, I know, ‘cause me and Ben traipsed all over this ranch lookin’ at every single tree. By the way, supper had better be ready, ‘cause we’re both starvin’!”
Teresa stared at her brother with wide eyes. “Supper’s ready,” she said quietly.
Johnny nodded and turned and winked at Ben. “Good! Come on, partner, let’s go eat.”
Ben grinned and followed Johnny into the dining room, with the rest of them trailing along behind. After everyone was seated, Teresa tried to make amends. “I’m sure the tree will look beautiful once we get the decorations on it, won’t it, Murdoch?’
Murdoch glowered down at his plate. “Well, yes, about the decorations…I can’t find them.”
“What do you mean you can’t find them? They’re up in the attic where they’ve always been!” Teresa protested.
Murdoch shook his head. “No, they’re not. I spent all day looking everywhere they might be, and there’s not a trace of them anywhere.”
Teresa looked at the expectant faces of the kids, and hurriedly spoke. “That’s ok. We can make some good ornaments, can’t we?”
The children nodded dutifully, and Johnny and Scott exchanged glances. Eager to change the subject, Johnny looked over at Carrie. “So did you have fun shopping today?”
The girl shrugged. “Sure, I had lots of fun looking at things.”
Johnny looked back at his brother in confusion, and Scott shrugged. “There weren’t any clothes left in the stores. In fact there wasn’t much of ANYTHING left in the stores. It’s too close to Christmas and everything’s already been sold.”
“Well, I guess we’ll just have to make do, won’t we?” Teresa said in an attempt to lighten the mood.
Ben looked at her and smiled. “That’s ok. We don’t need decorations or presents. Ma and Pa said that’s not what Christmas is all about, anyway. And besides, this is still the best Christmas I can ever remember. We have food, a warm place to sleep, and we even have a tree.”
Johnny quietly shut the door to his room, then walked over to the window and looked out. He had had fun today, and he thought that Ben had, too. The boy seemed so grateful for the chance to do something fun. He liked to ride, that was sure, and the boy was good with horses. Barranca had even allowed himself to be petted, something that rarely happened. Johnny knew how badly Ben felt about losing the two horses that had been pulling the wagon, and more importantly, he knew the loss would be hard for the Porters to replace.
He reached down and pulled out the bridle he had been making as a Christmas present for Scott, and examined it closely. He was making similar ones for the rest of his family, and he had tooled most of the leather, but he still needed to braid it and put it together. He had hoped they would be done by now, but the appearance of the Porters had put him way behind schedule. He figured that if he worked during all of his spare time, he barely had enough time to finish them.
Johnny looked thoughtfully out the window at the nearby pasture, where the new herd of horses grazed. He had captured them last week, and planned on breaking them and selling them for some spending money. If he remembered correctly, there was a nice pair of flashy black geldings in the bunch. Strong enough to pull a wagon, with easy enough gaits for riding and good conformation.
He looked back down at the bridles, wondering just how disappointed his family would be if they didn’t receive any Christmas presents from him, and then he shrugged. They’d still get the bridles; they’d just be a little late. Right now he was more worried about the kids having a good Christmas than he was about his family getting miffed. With a sigh, he stuffed the leather back under the bed. If he was going to break those horses in time, he’d have to get up early.
Teresa shut the door behind her and wondered if maybe they would have to take a ride into Stockton to get some clothes, but in all likelihood there were no decent clothes left there, either. She hadn’t even thought about the possibility that the local stores would be out of everything this close to Christmas. She had never purchased gifts for anyone, she had always made them, and this year was no exception. She had purchased the material months ago, and now was ready to put the finishing touches on the shirts she had made for her family.
She walked over to the closet and took the shirts out to study them. There was a beige one for Murdoch and a pale blue one for Scott. She pulled out the third shirt and smiled. She hadn’t been sure about the color, but she figured any man who would flaunt a pink shirt wouldn’t balk at yellow. As she studied it, her eyes narrowed. Yellow. The color of the dress that Carrie was hoping to get. Teresa shook her head. There hadn’t been much material left, and certainly not enough to make a dress with.
Teresa shook her head. Carrie had been so disappointed. The girl had tried not to show it, but the quiver in her lip had been hard to miss. Teresa had been amazed that the girl hadn’t seemed too upset about not finding a dress for herself, but had been close to tears when they couldn’t find one for her mother.
Teresa studied the shirts again. There wasn’t enough of any of them to make a woman’s dress, but there WAS enough to make two smaller dresses and two boy’s shirts. She shook her head. All that work, and she only had a few days left. She knew her family would be disappointed not to have any presents from her, but she could promise them some new shirts as soon as she could make them. Hopefully, they would understand. With a sigh, she grabbed her scissors from the bureau and began ripping apart the carefully made shirts.
Scott closed the door to his room and sat down on the bed. He stared at the large box he had brought back from town, unwilling to even open it. He knew it was from his grandfather, and the man’s extravagance seemed out of place somehow. Especially tonight. Scott had never thought about Christmas very much, but for him and every one else he’d known in Boston, it had always been the time of the year for excess. Gala parties, with each host trying to outdo the others by serving exotic and expensive food and hundred year old liquors; friends and mere acquaintances exchanging elaborate and expensive gifts; swarms of servants carefully decorating the houses. It was all a well orchestrated act to flaunt one’s money and power. The actual holiday meant nothing.
Scott shook his head. The Porters seemed to know the true meaning of Christmas. The only regret he had was that he hadn’t bought anything for his little brother. He had especially wanted Johnny’s gift to be something special, and had held out for just the right item. Now it didn’t look like he’d get anything. Scott had planned to take a ride to Stockton, but with the arrival of the Porters, there just hadn’t been time. Now it was too late and he didn’t have presents for ANY of them. Even though he had wanted this Christmas to be special for his little brother, the kids bothered him more. They deserved a wonderful Christmas, but he didn’t even have anything for them.
He looked down at the box thoughtfully. Maybe, with any luck, there would be SOMETHING in the package he could use as a gift.
He cut the string holding the package and undid the carefully wrapped paper. Scott smiled as he realized that his grandfather had had nothing to do with the wrapping any more than he had with the actual purchase. He had given orders, and the help had carried them out to the letter.
Scott opened the box and removed the gaily wrapped presents. With impatience, he tore them open one at a time, shaking his head at each one. Leave it to Grandfather, he thought wryly.
Murdoch sat in the kitchen, drumming his fingers on the table. It was well past time for his family to be up and about, and there was still no sign of any of them. A flash of anger crossed his face. This was a working ranch, and lying around in bed all day was definitely NOT on the agenda. He had some important business to take care of, and today someone else would have to take care of things around the house while he got a few chores done. Since the Porters’ arrival last week, he had only managed to leave the house once. The ranch was probably falling down around his ears, and he didn’t even know it.
He looked up as Teresa sleepily made her way to the breakfast table. “Sorry, I’m late,” she mumbled as she poured a cup of coffee and then plopped down in the chair.
“Why are you so tired?” Murdoch asked curiously.
Teresa shrugged. “Just couldn’t sleep, I guess.”
The rancher looked at her skeptically, and then finished his own coffee and stood up. “When Scott and Johnny finally decide to grace us with their presence, tell them I went out to take a look at the herd and that bridge we’ve been having trouble with. I should be back by suppertime, but if I’m not, don’t worry. I have a lot of things to check out. You might ALSO remind them that they have a list of chores a mile long and they’re way behind!”
Teresa nodded sleepily. “All right.”She watched as he grabbed his hat and coat and headed out of the house, then stood up and started to make breakfast. She wanted to hurry and get done so she could spend the rest of the day working on her gifts. As soon as Scott and Johnny came downstairs, she would talk one of them into staying with the Porters so she could disappear upstairs. She was running out of time.
The Porters finally appeared and sat down to eat. Teresa heaped up their plates and smiled at the grateful looks she received.
“How is Mr. Porter?” Teresa asked.
Mrs. Porter smiled. “Doctor Jenkins said that he’s doing fine and should be able to come downstairs tonight.”
“I’m glad. If he’s anything like Johnny and Scott, he can’t stand to be confined to bed.” She shot a dark look at the stairs. “Except for this morning. I don’t know why they’re sleeping so late.”
Ben shook his head. “They’re not sleeping,” he said through a mouthful of eggs.”
“Ben, don’t talk with your mouth full,” his mother admonished.
Teresa stared at the boy. “What do you mean they aren’t sleeping?”
Ben gulped down the food that was in his mouth. “Johnny left before it was even light out. I heard a horse whinny, and looked out my window. He rode Barranca out of the barn and left.”
“What about Scott?” Teresa asked flatly.
Ben shrugged. “He left as little while later.”
“They weren’t together?” she asked in confusion.
“No, Ma’am. They went in different directions.”
Teresa took a deep breath. So much for working on the clothing. She supposed she could try to work on the house instead. She really needed to make some decorations. The tree was still bare and pathetic looking, and there wasn’t a Christmas decoration anywhere in the house. Of course, today was Christmas Eve. This was the last chance to finish the presents. She thought for a moment, and then looked at Mrs. Porter hopefully.
“I have a problem. I really need to finish a project I’m working on up in my room. Murdoch had some work to do, and I was hoping Scott or Johnny could keep you company, but it appears they’re both gone.” She hesitated, unsure of how to continue.
Mrs. Porter saved her the trouble. “Please, do what you have to do. We’ve imposed enough on all of you. No one has to entertain us. I’m sure we can find things to keep us busy.”
Teresa looked at her gratefully. “Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. If you need anything, or if Scott or Johnny come home and want lunch, just knock on my door. I’ll be sure to be down in time to make supper. I plan on making something special for tonight.”
“Please don’t worry about it. Go on, I’ll clean up the dishes.”
“Oh, I couldn’t,” Teresa protested.
“Go on. Ben and Carrie will help me. It’s the least we can do.” She met Teresa’s eyes. “Please, let us do SOMETHING to help.”
Hesitantly, Teresa nodded. “All right, but if you need anything…”
“Go on, shoo,” Mrs. Porter smiled.
Teresa smiled and took off for the stairs. Maybe she would make it after all.
Teresa put the last stitch in Becky’s dress, and then tiredly rubbed her eyes. She was almost done, and could easily finish what was left before she went to bed. It was getting harder to see for some reason, and she leaned back and stretched. As she did, her eyes were drawn to the window, and she gasped. It was almost dark outside and she hadn’t even noticed. She hurriedly put the clothes back in her drawer and then ran down the stairs.
She came to an abrupt halt at the base of the stairs. She looked at the great room in shock.It had been decorated and festooned with garlands and wreaths. Even the tree had been decorated with strings of popcorn, cranberries, bows, and paper cut outs. Candles had been carefully attached to the branches, sending their warm glow throughout the room. She took another step closer and saw that the whole room was aglow with candles and the distinct scent of pine and spice filed the air.
She stood looking at the scene in wonder until Mrs. Porter stepped into the room from the kitchen, wearing an apron. Her cheeks were flushed and her hands were coated with flour. She spotted Teresa and smiled.
“Supper will be ready in a few minutes.”
“How did you do all this?” Teresa asked.
The older woman shrugged. “Everyone helped. Curtis and Becky strung the popcorn and cranberries with my husband’s help, and Carrie and Ben scrounged around for the greenery and helped me decorate.”She smiled at the two youngsters that had appeared from the kitchen. “They helped me with supper, too.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Teresa said.
“Don’t say anything. It was fun.” The tears formed in her eyes. “This is the best Christmas I can ever remember because of you and your family. Thank you.”
Johnny tiredly walked into his room and closed the door. He went over to the window and looked out at the peaceful scene for a moment, and then he plopped down on his bed and lay down. He put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. He didn’t know when he’d ever been as tired…or as sore. Those horses he had picked out might be easy on the eyes, but they had been hard as heck on his bones. But at least they were finally broken enough for the Porters to work and for Ben to ride safely. He shook his head in disgust. Of course, Mr. Porter couldn’t drive them unless he had a wagon, a small fact Johnny hadn’t even thought of until it was too late to do anything about. Well, maybe after Christmas he could find them a decent wagon.
He was still concerned that he didn’t have any presents for his family, though. He had spent all his time breaking those horses. He hadn’t even had time to ride into town and try to find SOMETHING to give them, even though both Scott and Teresa had pretty much convinced him that it would have been a futile task, anyway. He just hoped that his family would understand. With a sigh, he allowed his tired muscles to relax as he listened to the soothing sounds of the peaceful night.
He smiled as he allowed his eyes to close. Tomorrow was Christmas, and it was already the best Christmas he’d ever had. He had walked into the great room this evening, tired and sore after working the horses all day, and he had stopped in wonder. His eyes had gone to Scott and Murdoch, and he had looked at them questioningly.
“The Porters did this all today while we were gone,” Scott explained happily.
Johnny had looked over at the tree, and it had actually looked pretty, covered completely in decorations. The colorful bows and ornaments were lit by the flickering candles and reflected in the various mirrors in the room. There was a fire in the fireplace and Mr. Porter was sitting beside it, smiling. Johnny smiled back, and then his eyes were drawn around the room and finally lit on the tree again. He hadn’t had much time to admire it, however. Mrs. Porter had announced that supper was served, and he and Scott had helped Mr. Porter into the dining room. When everyone was seated, Mrs. Porter had looked around nervously. “I hope you don’t mind, but I prepared a traditional Scottish Christmas supper.
Murdoch looked up in surprise. “You’re Scottish?”
Mrs. Porter smiled. “Yes. Both of my parents were from the old country, but I was born here.”
Scott grinned. “I don’t think anyone will mind your choice of food, least of all Murdoch.”
Mrs. Porter smiled, then bowed her head and said grace, ending her prayer with thanks for bringing them to Lancer.
Johnny had been a little leery of what food might be served, but he had been pleasantly surprised. The main dish had been a rich venison stew with dumplings, and it had been accompanied by buttered mashed potatoes and various other dishes. It was hot and filling after a long day, and even though the taste was different than what he was used to, Johnny had to admit it was good. Everyone else apparently thought so, too, because they all had seconds. All except Murdoch. He refilled his plate three times, smiling the whole time.
By the time Mrs. Porter brought in the dessert, Johnny was almost too full to eat any more. He had looked cautiously at the cake, something called black bun cake. He had been slightly disappointed that it wasn’t chocolate, but he had to admit, it hadn’t been bad. It was full of nuts and fruit, and Johnny could have sworn he could taste some of Murdoch’s good liquor in the cake. Nope, it hadn’t been bad at all.
After supper, the women and kids had all pitched in to do the dishes, and the men had retired to the great room for a drink. At their urging, Mr. Porter had hesitantly told them a little about how they had come to be down on their luck. He had lost his job almost a year ago, and had been told by a reliable source that he could get a good job several hundred miles away. When they had arrived there, he found out the job was no longer available, and their money was all but used up. Since then, he had taken whatever odd jobs he could find, but had never managed to save up enough to buy a house. First the younger son had been sick, and they had needed to pay for an expensive treatment and medicine. Then their original horses had been stolen, and they had been forced to buy new ones. Mr. Porter had continued on with his story, and Johnny had listened to the litany of endless hard luck. Afterwards they had all expressed sympathy, but Porter had shrugged it off, saying others had it worse. He said that at least they had their health and they were all together. He had also looked at each of the Lancers in turn, and thanked them for taking them in.
Johnny had felt a warmth inside him that they had been able to help this family, and possibly make their life a little bit better, at least for now. He still worried about their future, but he would do his best to help them out. At least the kids had food and would be warm for Christmas, and he knew they would be thankful for that. He would have been happy for those small favors when he was a child. As Johnny had relaxed in the great room, the warm glow of the candles, the festive decorations and Murdoch’s good brandy all contributed to Johnny’s feeling of contentment. Most of all, though, was his happiness at finally being with his family and having a home. He no longer worried if he belonged, and he was no longer unsure of his place. He was content and happy, for the first time in his life.
Johnny’s eyes popped open, and he lay there for a moment, wondering what was different. Then he sat up. It was CHRISTMAS! He sat up and threw the covers back, then jumped out of bed and hurriedly dressed. He opened the door to his room and crept down the hall, reluctant to wake anyone, but Scott’s door opened as he walked by and his brother came out.
“Merry Christmas, brother.”
Johnny smiled in return. “Merry Christmas!”
The two brothers went downstairs to find everyone else already up and about. Mrs. Porter and Teresa had made an extravagant breakfast, and everyone ate heartily. When they were finished, Murdoch leaned back in his chair and addressed Mrs. Porter. “We’re going into town and attend church services. I was hoping you would join us.”
The woman bit her lip nervously, then glanced at her children. “We’d love to, but…” she trailed off. “I’m not sure if we should.”
Murdoch’s eyebrows went up, but Teresa had a pretty good idea what the problem was, and she spoke up.
“Why don’t we open the presents first, and then you can decide.”
Murdoch looked at her quizzically. “Presents?”
Scott nodded happily. “Yes, I happen to know there are at least a few under the tree.” He turned to the kids. “Why don’t you go see.”
The children’s eyes got big, and they bolted up from the table and ran into the other room, followed at a more leisurely pace by the adults.
There were exactly seven presents under the tree, and each one of the Lancers winced. Apparently, their failure to get presents for the other members of their family was about to be painfully discovered.
The children were seated next to the tree, and Ben went over and looked at the names on the packages. He picked two up and brought them to his parents. They both looked in shock at the presents.
“I don’t know what to say,” Mr. Porter said as his wife nodded. “You shouldn’t have.”
“Open them,” Teresa urged excitedly.
Mrs. Porter carefully opened her package, revealing a soft blue dress. She looked at it disbelief. “It’s beautiful.”
Teresa smiled, and then snuck a look at Scott. She was afraid he would be angry. He had given her that dress for her birthday several weeks previously, but she had never worn it. She loved the dress, but she had plenty, and the woman sitting in front of her had only one, and that one was nothing but a rag. As she met his eyes, he nodded slightly and smiled, and she breathed a sigh of relief. Now she hoped Johnny and Murdoch would be as understanding.
Mr. Porter opened his gift, and carefully drew out a white dress shirt. He held it up and looked at it carefully. “Thank you,” he said with feeling.
Teresa smiled at the man, and then snuck a look at Johnny. He was smirking slightly, then he looked at her and grinned happily. She grinned back, then cautiously looked at her guardian. He looked slightly perplexed, but certainly not mad, and she relaxed. Murdoch had given the shirt to Johnny almost a year ago, but Johnny hadn’t really liked it and it had never been worn. It had been a little plain for his taste, and Teresa had taken it and planned on adding some embroidery to it when she had the time, but she had been pretty sure he wouldn’t mind sacrificing it for a good cause, and she had been right. Murdoch apparently hadn’t recognized it yet, but she was pretty sure he wouldn’t mind when he finally did.
Ben handed presents to his brother and sister, and seemed surprised when he found one addressed to him. Unlike their parents, the children tore into their packages, and drew out the clothes Teresa had carefully made. Their huge smiles erased any doubts as to how they felt about getting clothes for Christmas, and Carrie clutched her yellow dress to her as if she’d never let it go.
“I don’t know what to say,” Mrs. Porter said, her voice catching. “Thank you so much for everything.”
“There’s another present under the tree,” Scott urged. “It’s too big for Ben to handle, so I’ll get it.” He stood up and went over to the huge box, then dragged it over in the center of the room. He looked at the Porters. “This is for all of you.”
“You shouldn’t have,” Mr. Porter protested. “You’ve already done so much, and…we couldn’t get you anything.”
Scott looked around the great room. “The decorations are more than enough thanks. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a room that puts you in the holiday spirit more than this one.” He grinned at the kids. “Why don’t you see what’s in the box?”
The children attacked the box, tearing it apart. In his haste to see what was inside, Curtis overbalanced and fell headfirst into the box, leaving only his feet sticking out. Ben laughed and pulled him out, and the young boy came out clutching a book in his hand. Ben reached in and drew out another book, and then each of the children began quickly lifting books out. Carrie took one of the books over to her parents, who admired the leather bound volumes.
“It’s the complete classics,” Scott explained.
“They’re beautiful,” Mrs. Porter exclaimed in awe. “I can’t wait to start reading them.”
The rest of his family looked at Scott knowingly, and he just shrugged and smiled. Murdoch already had a complete set, so although this set his grandfather had sent was more elegantly bound, he certainly didn’t need them. He had heard both of the Porters reading to their children, so he knew they could read, and he had the feeling that the Porters would appreciate the books more than he would.
Murdoch glanced up at the clock. “If we’re going to make the service, we’re going to have to leave soon.” He looked enquiringly at Mrs. Porter. “Will you join us?”
Mrs. Porter smiled at Teresa. “We’d love to, thank you. Just give us a few minutes, and we’ll be ready. We need to go give thanks.”
When the Porters went upstairs to change, Johnny slipped out the back door to harness his Christmas present to the Porters. He groomed each of the horses, although he had cleaned and brushed them until they had shone just the night before. He put the finishing touches on them, and then led them out into the yard. He tied them at the hitching rail, and then went inside to get the harness. He had scrounged an old one from the scrap heap, and had mended and worked and cleaned it until it looked new. He quickly harnessed the now tractable team, and then stood back and admired the effect.
“Pretty nice, brother,” Scott said.
Johnny spun around and looked at his brother sheepishly. “Well, I didn’t have any books,” he shrugged.
“You’re giving them to the Porters?” Scott asked, surprised.
“Where did you get them?” Scott asked as he walked around the matched pair. “I don’t remember seeing them before.”
“They were in that last bunch I rounded up.”
Scott’s eyebrows went up. “You work fast. They seem pretty well behaved.”
“Just keep your fingers crossed,” Johnny grinned.
“The Porters will love them,” Scott observed.
Johnny nodded. “I hope so.” He dropped his head. “Look, Scott, I was gonna make you and Murdoch and Teresa some presents, but I just didn’t have time. I’m sorry.”
Scott shook his head. “No apology necessary. I didn’t get you anything, either. Once the Porters arrived, I sort of ran out of time. And after looking at the presents Teresa gave them, I think she’s in the same boat that we are.”
“How do you know that?”
Scott grinned impishly. “Did you notice that dress that Teresa made Carrie?”
Johnny nodded slowly. “The yellow one.”
“Uh huh. How did you like the color?”
Johnny shrugged. “Ok, I guess. I’m not the one who has ta wear it.”
“Oh, brother,” Scott chortled. “You don’t know how close you came to eating those words. THAT was supposed to be a shirt for you.”
Johnny’s eyes widened. “For me?” he squeaked.
Johnny shivered dramatically. “I’m sure glad the Porters came along.”
Scott clapped his brother on the back. “I was trying to figure out which one received the shirt I was supposed to get.”
Johnny grinned, and then got serious. “Scott, I don’t care about presents for me, but what about Murdoch? He didn’t even get Teresa one, and he sure didn’t get the Porters anything.”
Scott shrugged. “I don’t know brother. Maybe he just got busy.”
Johnny thought for a minute, and then nodded. “I guess, but I’m a little disappointed in him.”
“Maybe he has a good reason.” Scott looked over at the team. “You didn’t get them a wagon, too, did you?” he asked suspiciously.
Johnny grimaced. “NO! I forgot all about it.”
“Good!” Scott grinned.
Scott nodded. “Follow me, brother.” He led the way behind the barn and walked over to a large tarp covered object.
“Voila” he said as he ripped the cover off, revealing a beautifully made wagon.
Johnny walked around it, examining it critically. Finally, he looked at his brother in confusion. “That’s old man Soames’ wagon.”
Scott nodded in agreement.
“How didja get it? He’s prouder of that wagon than he is of his wife and kids. Less likely ta sell it, too.”
Scott grinned. “A bottle of one hundred and fifty year old brandy convinced him.”
Johnny’s eyes got big. “You got rid of somethin’ that good for a WAGON?”
“Don’t worry, brother, I have one bottle left,” Scott grinned conspiratorially.
Johnny nodded, placated. “All right, but just don’t let Murdoch know, or we won’t get none.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. It’ll be our secret.” He glanced at the wagon. “Shall we?”
The horses and wagon were pulled up in front of the door when the Porters, Murdoch and Teresa walked out. Ben immediately went up to the near horse and talked to him. Johnny came up beside him. “Do you like him?”
Ben nodded. “Oh, yes. He’s beautiful!”
Johnny glanced around at the rest of Ben’s family. “Well, he’s all yours. Yours and your family’s.” He grinned. “I couldn’t fit them under the tree, and I don’t think Murdoch woulda approved of me bringin’ ‘em inside.”
“They’re ours? Really?” Ben squealed.
Johnny nodded, and Mr. Porter shook his head. “Thank you, but we can’t accept such an expensive gift.”
Johnny shook his head. “No expense involved. I caught ‘em and broke ‘em, and I fixed an old harness.” He grinned. “Besides, you’ll need SOMETHING ta pull that old wagon that Scott got ya.”
Mr. Porter’s eyes widened. “No, that’s way too much!”
Scott shook his head. “Like Johnny pointed out, no money changed hands. Please accept the gifts.”
Mr. Porter surreptitiously wiped his eyes with his arm, but his wife didn’t even try to hide the tears. “Thank you so much.” She looked at Murdoch. “You’re lucky to have such wonderful children.”
Murdoch smiled at the three young people that were his whole world. “I know.”
Murdoch guided the surrey ahead of the wagon. Mr. and Mrs. Porter were riding with him, as was Teresa. Scott drove the wagon with the children piled in the back, and as usual, Johnny was riding Barranca. The church service had seemed as if it were longer than he could ever remember it being, simply because he couldn’t wait for it to end. He was too excited.
Of course, he felt badly that he hadn’t had time to get his children anything, and he hoped fervently that they would understand. He just hadn’t had time. After this morning, though, he wasn’t as worried about it as he had been. Apparently his children knew the true meaning of Christmas, and he was proud of them. He knew that this was by far the best Christmas he had ever had, presents or no.
He pulled the surrey off onto a side road, and Teresa glanced at him curiously. He smiled back at her and nodded, then looked back to make sure the wagon was following. He guided the surrey toward a house set on a small hill. He pulled to a stop in front of it and jumped down. Scott pulled the wagon to a halt next to him, and looked at him quizzically.
Murdoch smiled. “If you’d please get down, all of you, I have something to show you.” He walked over and helped Mr. and Mrs. Porter down, then turned and walked into the house. He had spent every second he could fixing and cleaning it, and stocking it with food and supplies. It was now snug and comfortable and ready to be lived in. He quickly bent over and lit the fire in the fireplace, and then turned around to face the people in the room.
He turned toward Mr. Porter. “You told me the second day we met that you had been a newspaper editor. We badly need one here. This house and the attached shop belonged to Bill Clayborne. He printed the newspaper here for the last fifteen years, until he died last May. This house has been sitting empty ever since, and no one wanted the printing equipment. The whole valley would be grateful if you would stay and resume printing the newspaper, but either way, this house is yours if you want it.”
Mr. Porter shook his head. “I don’t know what to say. I would love to take over the newspaper, but the house is too much.”
“The house comes with the job,” Murdoch explained matter of factly. “It’s part of the deal.”
Johnny watched as the Porters both cried openly at Murdoch’s generosity, and he smiled softly. It looked like they would spend the rest of Christmas in their own home, after all. This Christmas hadn’t been anything at all like he’d hoped it would be. He hadn’t been able to give his family any presents, and he hadn’t received any. The tree had been a joke, and he had worked his tail off right up until last night. But for some reason, seeing the Porters’ reaction to their presents had been worth everything. Besides, he had a home, a family, and new friends, and if he was lucky he’d get a taste of that expensive brandy. It was the best Christmas he had ever had, and that he could ever hope to have.
~ end ~
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