Word Count 3,730
I claim no rights to anything beyond the pleasure.
Thanks to Sandra and Margaret P. as betas. I did a lot of revising after receiving their input so the mistakes are all mine.
Santa’s comin’ in a stagecoach
‘Stead of his trusty sleigh
He’ll have horses instead of reindeer
To carry him on his way…
Santa’s Gonna Come in a Stagecoach
Buck Owens and the Buckaroos – 1965
The weak winter sun peeked through sullen gray clouds above two men riding along the fringe of the road. The past several days had been the most miserable, wet sort of cold; a steady drizzle mixed with occasional bouts of freezing rain that soaked everything and penetrated clear to the bone. The horses were muddy to their bellies, hooves squelching in the soft turf even on the grassy verge. The rain was finally being swept away by a sharp wind that stung faces and made icy blocks of gloved hands and booted feet.
“Why’d Murdoch agree to deliver those heifers now?” Johnny snarked.
Scott sighed deeply. “For the same reasons as the two previous times you asked.”
“All I’m sayin’ is he could have waited. We were soakin’ wet and freezin’ all the way there and now my ears are ready to fall off and my butt’s so numb I can’t feel the saddle.”
“It was a good opportunity to sell some of that cross-bred stock we’ve been working on. The man wanted them now. We need the cash. At least it’s stopped raining.”
“Yeah, I know, but I’m still not used to weather like this. Besides that, it’s Christmas Eve. Don’t tell Teresa, but I kinda enjoyed all that to-do last year.”
“You’ll enjoy it even more this year. If we keep pushing, we can be home before dark. Warm, dry, clean, well-fed, and sitting in front of the fire.”
Johnny brightened. “That does sound good. Bet there’s cookies and pie and cake. Hope Murdoch restocked the tequila while we were gone.”
Scott opened his mouth to reply, but the words were lost as they reined to a halt just clear of a copse of trees.
In the road was a stagecoach. A huge, bright red stagecoach; half again as large as an ordinary coach. The words Butterfield Overland Stage Line were painted across the side in elaborate, swirling letters of brilliant gold. Polished brasswork liberally adorned the coach and harness, gleaming in the early afternoon sun. Three of the huge yellow wheels were sunk in the mud; the fourth lay on its side, all but submerged.
The eight horses stood a good eighteen hands; matched bays, their white stockings nearly concealed by a coating of mud. Their black manes and tails were braided with red and white ribbons. The lead horse turned its head, sunlight flashing from its brass headband. Scott saw a brass star centered on a wide blaze. Bells mounted on the harness jingled softly as the horses shifted.
“Whooee!” Johnny exclaimed softly. “Would you look at that!”
“Ever seen horses like those?”
“Ever seen a rig like that?”
Before Johnny could say more, a man appeared around the lead horse. He wasn’t overly tall, but he was certainly stout. He was dressed in a heavy coat, unbuttoned to show a bright blue shirt and tan britches tucked into sturdy black boots. The hat covering his shoulder-length white hair was battered, but sported a wide red band with a green sprig on one side. Cold-reddened cheeks and nose stood out against an amazingly long, white beard from which a pipe protruded.
Appearing unsurprised, and not in the least apprehensive, about meeting two armed men on a lonely stretch of road, he grinned broadly and slipped his thumbs into red suspenders embroidered with green leaves.
“Well, gentlemen, I must say your arrival is timely!”
Johnny nudged Barranca forward. He stopped a judicious distance from the stranger and surveyed the coach. “Looks like you’ve got some trouble.”
The old man regarded the stagecoach critically for a moment. “Yes, I suppose I have.” He turned his beaming smile back to Johnny. “But now that you two strong, young men are here, I’m sure we’ll have it sorted out in no time.”
Johnny looked over the mess once more, then back at Scott before addressing the man again. “That’s gonna take a whole lot of sortin’, Mister, even with two of us.”
The man chuckled. “There are three of us and…” He waved toward the team. “We have plenty of muscle.”
Scott rode forward, halting to Johnny’s left. “The man has a point, Johnny. I’m sure we can figure out something.”
The driver moved closer, extending a hand to Scott. “I’m Kris.” He glanced at Johnny, but did not move toward him. “When you rode up, I was just considering trying to raise the coach with a rope over that tree limb.”
Scott shook the proffered hand. “I’m Scott Lancer and this is my brother, Johnny.”
Johnny barely acknowledged the introduction. He appeared relaxed, but his hand rested near his gun and his eyes roved warily.
Scott shifted in the saddle, taking stock and weighing possibilities. “There is no way one rope is going to stand that much strain, but I have an idea.”
“Where are your passengers?” Johnny interrupted.
Kris threw up his gloved hands and shrugged. “No passengers. This is strictly a freight run.” He moved quickly to the vehicle and opened the door. “Boot’s full too, besides the stuff on top.”
Scott stared in wordless amazement, aware that Johnny’s attention had also been captured. The coach was stuffed completely full―right up to the roof―with packages of all shapes and sizes protected by sturdy brown paper.
Scott cleared his throat. “Uh… we’re going to have to unload all that, Kris. I’m not sure we can lift the coach if we don’t.”
Kris shook his head. “In this mud? Everything will be ruined. We’ll just have to make do. You said you had an idea.”
Scott looked at Johnny who shrugged and repeated flatly, “Man says we’ll just have to make do.”
Scott looked back at Kris and set his shoulders. “All right. Here’s what we’re going to do.”
It took the better part of two hours to gather brush, draped with blankets and bedrolls, to keep the packages off the ground, carefully offload a significant number of them, and rig things up. Three ropes stretched from various points on the coach over tree limbs, secured to the harnesses of three coach horses. Tools and supplies Kris carried for emergencies were laid out on a blanket beside the wheel, which leaned against the coach.
Coatless, shirts wet with sweat despite the wind, and caked with mud from their boots to their hair, Scott and Johnny positioned themselves on either side of the wheel, ready to lift it onto the axle. Scott called “Ready, Kris?”
“Ready and eager!” The horses whinnied as if say “what are you waiting for?”
“There’s something downright unnatural about anybody bein’ that damned cheerful when they’re covered with mud and starvin’.” Johnny’s tone was equal portions of puzzlement and aggravation.
“How do you know he’s starving?”
Johnny bestowed a thoroughly disgusted look on his brother. “How can he not be? It’s a long way to any town, he was stuck when we came along, and my belly button’s stuck to my backbone.”
Scott shrugged and grasped the wheel. “Let’s get this done so we can get him on his way and us home. And pray that branch doesn’t break.”
“Amen, brother.” Johnny raised his voice. “Let ‘er buck, Kris!”
The old man promptly tugged on bridles. “Come on, my beauties! Ho! Ho!”
The massive horses thrust their weight against the collars, ropes groaned, and the coach creaked its way upright.
“Now!” Scott shouted. Muscles straining, the brothers wrestled the bulky wheel into position and heaved it onto the axle. Johnny quickly dropped to his knees, grabbed a hammer, and pounded the hub into place.
“Let it down, Kris!” Scott called. Both men held their breath as Kris slowly backed the horses off and the coach settled onto four wheels again. A cheer went up, seconded by snorts, whinnies, and jingling bells.
Kris appeared around the back of the coach, beaming as usual. “Well done, lads! Well done!” He slapped each Lancer on the shoulder. “I can’t thank you enough.” He rubbed his hands together. “Well, then, let’s get all these packages loaded again and I’ll be off. Can’t be late with my deliveries you know.” He immediately headed off toward the nearest pile.
Scott and Johnny exchanged glances. Johnny followed, calling over his shoulder, “Let’s go, Boston, the man can’t be late.”
The coach was reloaded, the horses hitched, and Scott mounted. Johnny was admiring the team, petting noses and talking softly to the great animals. Kris climbed to the driver’s seat.
“You have a way with them, Johnny,” he remarked as the one Johnny was currently stroking gently butted him in the chest.
“They are beautiful. I’ve never seen horses like them; horses that big. What are they?”
Kris laughed and chewed on the stem of his pipe. “Clydesdales, my boy. Finest horses in the world to my mind. Gentle as lambs, willing to their last breath, and there’s nothing they can’t pull.”
Johnny laughed softly. “I believe it,” he said. “Don’t guess they’d be much good for chasing cows, but they sure are pretty. Giving the velvety nose a final pat, he crossed to where Barranca stood patiently beside Wellington.
“I want to thank you again, gentlemen,” Kris said taking up the reins. “You have no idea what a great service you have done today.”
“You’re welcome,” Scott replied. I hope you get where you’re going without further mishaps.”
Kris chuckled. “That makes two of us, Scott.” You two had better get moving if you intend to get home tonight.”
Johnny had just swung into the saddle. He went completely still. “We never said where we were going or how far it was.” Scott caught his breath, hearing Madrid in the toneless statement.
Kris laughed merrily. “Where else would fine young men like you be going on Christmas Eve, Johnny? Christmas is a time for family… Even in poor border towns like Montaña Roja families celebrate Las Posadas and take joy in their love for each other.”
Johnny didn’t twitch a muscle, but Scott could feel the coiled tension. Kris was still smiling. The old man might have wrinkled his nose. An overpowering urge to intervene gripped Scott. “Uh, Kris, you’re right. We are headed home and we should be on our way. We have a ranch near Morro Coyo so we still have a long ride ahead of us.”
“Ah. And will you hang up your stockings for St. Nicholas to fill with your wishes?” With a nod of his head, Kris winked. Scott blinked. As quickly as he had come, Madrid was gone and Johnny Lancer sat easily in the saddle, hands resting on the horn.
“Most likely be hangin’ stockings,” Johnny said with an impish grin. “Teresa, our father’s ward, she knitted fancy stockings for us and she’d be sorta upset if we didn’t go along.” He looked down at his hands. “As for wishes, I already have everything I could ever wish for.”
Kris nodded, a knowing look in his gleaming eyes. “And you, Scott?”
Scott stared at Johnny, stunned by the abrupt change, but inexplicably compelled to dismiss the matter as unimportant. “I believe my brother speaks for both of us, Kris. I have everything I could ever wish for.”
“Where are you going?” Johnny pulled his hat up and settled it on his head.
“My first stop is Green River. After that… I have a lot of stops to make, Johnny, and a great many people are counting on me. Goodbye and Merry Christmas to you both.”
The Lancers backed their horses away from the coach. Kris gave them an odd little salute, then whistled and shouted “Ho, my beauties! Let’s be off!”
Immediately, the eight horses launched into a graceful, powerful gait. Mud notwithstanding, they pulled the heavy coach without apparent effort, necks arched, proud as though on parade. Watching them, Johnny shook his head and whistled. “I swear, Scott, I never seen anything like that in my life! Ain’t they something?”
“That, they are, brother. We, on the other hand are muddier, colder, and hungrier than we were three hours ago and home is still several hours away.” He nudged Wellington forward.
“Home,” Scott, smile was reflected in his voice as they topped the ridge above Lancer. Despite the late hour, lights glowed in the hacienda’s windows; welcoming beacons in the winter night.
Beside him, huddled in his sheepskin coat, hat pulled low against the cold wind, Johnny barely paused, but Scott felt the answering smile he could not see in the darkness. “Home.” The single word was almost too soft for Scott to hear. Weary as their riders, the horses picked up their pace a bit, knowing a warm stable and a good feed waited below.
The greatroom was filled with the scent of evergreen and delicious smells wafting from the kitchen. The family was gathered around the tree, wrappings strewn on the floor. Johnny couldn’t stop looking at the tree. He and Scott had brought it from the high country just before leaving on their trip, but he was amazed at what had been done to it in their absence. Strings of popcorn and cranberries, polished apples, small candies, and bright bows now decorated it. Before coming to Lancer the previous year, he had never seen a Christmas tree and Scott took great pleasure in watching him.
Teresa stood. “Why don’t we move closer to the fire? I have some cider mulling in the kitchen and I want to check on some things. We can clean this up later.”
“Good idea, sweetheart.” Murdoch’s eyes twinkled as he added, “You children haven’t looked in your stockings yet. After that, Johnny and Scott promised an interesting story about why they were so late getting home.”
A short time later, they were settled comfortably, sipping cider. Scott related the story of Kris and his remarkable stagecoach, Johnny adding details here and there. Murdoch, Teresa, and Jelly listened intently, amazement plainly mingling with incredulity on their faces.
When they were finished, Jelly snorted, “Did you two spend the entire ride home thinkin’ up that mess of foolishness?”
“It ain’t foolishness,” Johnny protested. “How could I make up something like those horses when I never saw anything like them?”
Murdoch laughed softly. “Clydesdales are native to Scotland, Johnny. The story is that they were originally bred to carry knights in war. They needed to be that big to carry an armored knight, saddle, and horse armor. When there were no more knights, they became draft horses.”
“Actually,” Teresa giggled, “the entire thing sounds just a bit like the Christmas poem. A man with white hair and a beard delivering packages on Christmas Eve. Of course, he was driving a stagecoach with very big horses instead of a sleigh with eight tiny reindeer.”
Scott and Johnny stared at her. Johnny broke the silence. “Guess it does at that.” He began to laugh. “Kris must have read that poem too.”
“Why is that, son?”
“Cause he named his horses for those reindeer.”
“What?” Scott questioned.
“When I was pettin’ them, I noticed each one had a little brass plate on its headstall. The names on those plates were the same as in that story you read to us. You know, Prancer and Dancer and Donder and like that.”
“Nope. I still haven’t figured out where that love god or whatever came in. The other names all make sense… even Vixen once you explained what it means.”
Scott shook his head. “Cupid was not a love god, he was… never mind. You’re right; I don’t know how that name fits into a Christmas story.”
The shared laughter was as warm as the crackling fire.
“Johnny,” Murdoch said after a few moments, “why don’t you hand around the stockings and let’s see what St. Nicholas left.”
After only a moment of hesitation, Johnny rose. One-by-one, the stockings were removed from their hooks and delivered. Scott drank in the smiles and happy exclamations over small gifts and candies, storing up memories. Jelly did his best to maintain his gruffness, but was plainly moved when Johnny handed him a stocking embroidered with his initials. Johnny was all mischievous child, passing out the stockings and teasing Jelly. Voice muffled by a peppermint drop, he assured Teresa that one little piece of candy would not spoil his appetite.
When the excitement subsided Murdoch said, “Scott, Johnny, would you go make sure everything is ready to distribute gifts to the estancia families this afternoon? After that, we’ll eat.”
Johnny was on his feet in a trice. “Let’s go, Scott.”
Later that evening, the family was once again gathered before the fire. Scott mentally compared the day with the lavish, formal Christmases he had known in Boston and sighed with contentment. Home. He had never known how many meanings the word could have.
“Come on, Scott, it’s your move.”
Attention recalled to the game, Scott double-jumped, removing his brother’s last two checkers from the board. “I win.”
Johnny groaned and collapsed against the ottoman. “You cheat. I give up.”
“I do not cheat. Your stomach is so full, there’s no blood left for your brain.”
“Boys, boys, its Christmas. Please,” Murdoch interceded. “Johnny, would you put another log on the fire?”
After adding a log to the fire, Johnny lingered a moment, obviously savoring the heat. As he rose, his shoulder brushed one of the colorful knitted stockings that had been replaced on the mantle. It jingled. Scott watched with everyone else as Johnny slowly reached into the stocking, which had aJ embroidered on it. The hand came out holding a shiny brass harness bell trailing a length of gold-embroidered green ribbon. He raised the ribbon to read what was stitched into it.
“Well, what does it say?” Jelly asked impatiently.
“Lancer,” Johnny said quietly. He stared down at the ribbon, fingering it as though it was made of delicate crystal. He raised bright eyes to his father. “Thanks, Murdoch.”
Murdoch shook his head. “It wasn’t me, son.”
Teresa shook her head too. “I put candy in there, but we emptied the stockings earlier. You couldn’t have missed that!”
Jelly was already shaking his head in denial. “What would ever make you think I’d have anything to do with such nonsense?”
Scott moved to Johnny’s side. “That looks just like the ones on Kris’s team.”
Johnny tilted his head, a peculiar smile lighting his face. “Look in yours, Boston.”
“Look in your stocking.”
Puzzled and curious, Scott reached into his stocking and pulled out an identical bell attached to a blue ribbon stitched in white. In reply to Johnny’s expectant look, he held the ribbon out. “I don’t understand… As Teresa said, these were empty earlier.”
The bell twinkled brightly in the firelight, catching Scott’s attention and kindling memory. “Johnny, what does Montaña Roja mean to you?”
Johnny stared at him for a long moment, amazement edged with anger sparking in his eyes before they were hidden. “What about it? I never told you about that. Never told anyone.” His head came back up, surprise followed quickly by a touch of apprehension. “Kris… How could I have forgotten? He knew. He knew. How could he…?”
“What, son?” Murdoch’s voice was gentle.
Johnny again lowered his eyes, toying with the bell. “It was just a place we stayed for awhile; one more border town. Mama was taking in laundry, cleaning and serving drinks in the cantina, anything to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. It was Christmas and there was this big jar of marbles in the store. I wanted some of those so bad.” Johnny fell silent, refusing to meet the eyes of his family. Scott held his breath, willing his brother to reveal the rest of the story.
Finally, “Christmas morning, there was a little sack with a J stitched into it and it was full of marbles.” A wistful smile played across his lips. “Candy too.”
Murdoch sat back with an odd smile “At the risk of sounding credulous, I’d say you boys met a very special… person on the road yesterday.”
Scott knew he looked as bemused as Johnny. He stared at his bell. “Kris said we had no idea the service we had done.”
“You don’t really mean you believe he was… was…” Jelly sputtered.
Murdoch was nodding, gazing into his glass as though into a crystal ball. “I just had the oddest thought. The poem calls him a ‘right jolly old elf’. In the old country, elves are the Sidhe; the fair folk. They have great power and they can take many forms. Yesterday was Christmas Eve, but we are also close to solstice and the ancient traditions that go with it. And you are Lancers.”
“You mean like the Cat Sidhe you told us about on All Hallows?” Scott couldn’t restrain a chuckle at Johnny’s enthusiasm and memory of his child-like glee in Murdoch’s story.
“The Cat Sidhe is one form they take, Johnny.” Murdoch’s tone was warm as his eyes met Scott’s in shared amusement. “But, as I said, they possess powerful magic. A Sidhe gift carries great power.” His eyes fixed on the bells, twinkling in the firelight.
“But why harness bells?” Teresa asked. “And if it really was St. Nicholas or a Sidhe, why would he need help from Scott and Johnny?”
Murdoch was once again watching the shifting prisms of firelight in his glass. “Maybe they were being tested. As for the bells, I don’t know all that much about saints, but the Sidhe often have strange ways of doing things.”
Johnny’s soft tones drew everyone’s attention. “Kris asked if we were going to hang up our stockings so St. Nicholas could fill them with our wishes. We told him we had everything we could ever wish for already.” He paused, looking around at his family. “Whoever he was, I think he gave us these to help us remember what we have.”
Rising from his chair, Murdoch put an arm around each son. “And remember we will and be grateful. Departing just a bit from Mr. Dickens, God has blessed us every one.”
He moved to offer Teresa his hand and pulled her into a hug. “And now, to quote another Christmas story that seems particularly appropriate, Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!”
Merry Christmas to all the Lancer Lovers!
~ end ~
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