Word count: 2,250
“Johnny Madrid Lancer! Come down from that attic!” Teresa O’Brien bellowed.
The dark hair and smudged face appeared from behind the door that led to the upper reaches of the great hacienda. “Uh, Scott asked me to look for something up here!”
“He did not! You’re just hunting for your presents. Now you get down here before I throw that cake I made out to the chickens!”
A scrambling, slipping noise announced the arrival of the former gunfighter. Pouting lip stuck out, he pleaded, “Don’t do that, I’ll behave.”
The young woman chuckled and then brutally cut off the merriment, “See that you do! You only have to wait one more day to open your presents. You’d think a man your age would have a little patience!”
“I saw Murdoch up there the other day! And you can bet that he wasn’t up there to do the dusting!” Johnny retaliated.
Teresa’s only answer was a disgusted sigh. Didn’t she have enough to do with the baking, cooking, decorating, and wrapping presents? Now she had to nursemaid an oversized little boy! Turning for the kitchen, she whirled around to face the young man again, “Scott went out to find a tree to decorate, why don’t you go help him?”
“It’s cold out there!”
“No wonder he calls you ‘cactus’! Put on that warm jacket Murdoch got you last Christmas. It should do the job.”
“Say where is Murdoch? Surprised he didn’t go with Scott to get the tree.”
“He had to go into town. There was a problem at the bank.”
“Oh. Well, guess I could ride out aways and see if Boston might’ve found a tree. Man probably took the first one he found. If I’m lucky, he’s already got it loaded on the wagon.”
Teresa just shook her head at the incorrigible figure in front of her.
Whistling a little tune, the dark-haired man hunted up his warm coat and then went out to saddle Barranca. Ten minutes after Teresa had made the suggestion, he was on his way.
Truthfully, the air really wasn’t that frigid, only Johnny’s nose and ears had a tell-tale redness to show their chilled condition, but in the distance the mountains were all covered in pristine white—a truly beautiful sight.
Continuing his regular pace, Johnny mulled over the problem of his presents. He had managed to sneak a peek at a couple of the boxes that Teresa had stashed in the attic, but only one had had his name on it, but at least it was the biggest one. The box was big enough to hold a saddle although Johnny knew he didn’t really need a new saddle so he couldn’t imagine what it could contain. It was just unfortunate that Teresa had chosen that moment to discover that he was up in the attic or the present would have been opened and his curiosity satisfied. Oh well, she was right that he was a man, not a child. He had patience, plenty of patience.
Of course there were those at Lancer who didn’t quite see it that way. A certain individual from Boston had been known to use the words ‘impetuous’ and ‘stubborn’ about Johnny Madrid Lancer. That just proved that book learning wasn’t everything. Still, the fact was that the big present had been labeled: “To Johnny, From Scott” so the easterner did have some good points and since it was the season of “peace on earth” Johnny could afford to be more charitable in his assessment of his older brother—at least until December 26.
Not long after these ruminations about Scott had fled his mind in the wake of a brief stop to munch some of the cookies he carried with him, Johnny’s sharp hearing picked up the sound of a wagon moving in his direction. Emerging from the tree line just ahead, the wagon carrying a large fir tree and Scott Lancer made its way towards Johnny.
Grinning with delight that he had to ride no farther, the younger man gave Scott a call of greeting, “Best tree you could find, brother? Kinda scrawny, isn’t it?”
Since the tree in question was over six feet tall and quite full, Scott decided to ignore the remark and kept driving.
Surprised when the wagon moved past him, Johnny rode to catch up. “Hey, stop ‘n I’ll get on the wagon with you.”
“No need. I can handle the team.”
For one instant Johnny didn’t know what to make of his brother’s cool attitude, but he was determined to be charitable on the day before Christmas. “Not sayin’ you can’t. Just thought we could talk a bit. Haven’t seen you all day.”
Scott gave the other man strange look, but did stop the wagon so Barranca could be tied to the back and Johnny could take his place on the driver’s seat.
“Hey, now that I look at it closer, you did a fine job pickin’ out a tree, Boston . Better than that one Murdoch ‘n Jelly got last year. Remember how it tilted to one side? You called it somethin’ funny.”
“The Leaning Tree of Lancer.”
“Yeah, that’s it! Remember how it started to sway while we were openin’ the presents? Coulda started a fire.”
Scott said nothing.
“Good thing you got a big one. Need lots of room for all the gifts, especially if any of them are. . . big.” Johnny glanced over at Scott to see if he had picked up the hint. It was then that he realized that the blond-haired man was quite pale for one who had been out in the chilled air.
“You okay, Boston ? You want me to handle the reins?”
“I’m. . .I’m fine. So you never did tell me what you got for Murdoch and Teresa.”
“Just wait ’til you see. Maybe you’ll finally realize just how brilliant your brother is!”
“Got that right. Had Carmen pick out a hat for Teresa and I paid for it. ‘Course then I had to buy her one too, but I woulda needed to buy somethin’ for her anyway so it saved me thinkin’ of somethin’ else.
“That’s nice. Teresa can wear it to church.”
“Uh, I s’pose but she might want to take off the feather first.”
“Red with sparkly stuff all over it.”
“Oh. What about Murdoch?”
Johnny took out his last cookie and began to munch. “Gotta admit he was hard. Asked Jelly, but he’d already bought all his suggestions.”
“So what did you decide on?”
“New hat. His took quite a beatin’ when it blew off his head in that windstorm.”
“Good idea. It looked like somebody stepped on it.”
Johnny hung his head slightly. “Wasn’t my fault Barranca stepped on it ‘fore I saw it in the mud. ‘Sides he’d had it for years. Also got him a new vest and had Mrs. Benton sew the Lancer brand on it. He’ll look real fancy when he goes to a dance or somethin’.”
“Can’t imagine any woman turning him down with a vest like that.”
“Me too, not that I want him to get married or anythin’. I like it the way it is now.”
Scott hesitated for a minute and then quietly asked, “You’re not ready to share him yet, are you?”
The sapphire eyes narrowed, “Took me twenty years to find him. Not ready to take orders from some stepmother too.”
The clenched jaw on the dark-haired man’s face said it all so Scott decided to let the subject drop. “What kind of present did you get for me?”
Johnny chortled with glee. “Wondered how long it would take you to ask that.”
“I can wait if you don’t want to tell me.”
The younger man nudged Scott in the arm, “Sure you can.”
Scott’s gasp of pain was the only reply.
“Hey, what’s the matter? You okay?”
“S’nothing. Just a little careless with the axe.”
“Want me to look at it? You bleedin’?” Johnny asked with concern.
“It’s fine. Hardly bled at all. Just a little tender.”
“Still. . . .”
“Johnny, I’m fine. Look, there’s Murdoch. He must be on his way home from town. Let’s go show him the tree.”
Scott flicked the reins so that the horses went at a faster gait. As a result, they soon caught up to their father who was definitely pleased with the quality of the tree.
The rest of the day was spent in setting up the tree and decorating it. To Johnny’s chagrin Teresa would not allow him up in the attic to look for the ornaments. She had already brought them down to be safe.
Everyone rose early on Christmas Day so that the presents could be opened and then the Lancer household would celebrate the occasion with Reverend Baker and the children at the orphanage. Reverend Baker had not asked Johnny to repeat his performance as Saint Nicholas this year, but they all still enjoyed themselves with the wonderful food and the gifts that the town had collected for the children. By the end of the day, all of them were glad to go home for a quiet evening.
Before retiring, Murdoch spent some time perusing the book with photos of the Scottish countryside that Scott had ordered from England . He also had ordered Teresa’s Irish sweater and Johnny’s present from abroad. A few months after the two Lancer sons had met, Scott had received a present of a fine straight razor and brush set from his grandfather. Johnny had said little about the gift, but at that moment Scott had promised himself that one day he would give his brother one as well. The razor was a thing of beauty and had Johnny’s initials engraved on it. Stunned, Johnny had insisted on using his present before leaving for the orphanage. The dark-haired man had been so taken with the gift that he had even forgiven Scott for putting the small items in the huge box.
On December 26 life at the ranch returned to routine and as the old year faded into the new, the glow of the holidays was lost in the realities of work at Lancer although Johnny still used his razor everyday while Murdoch kept his book of photographs by his bedside and Teresa unfailingly wore the warm Irish sweater whenever it was needed.
Two months later on February 24, Scott finally opened the last of his Christmas presents—the one from his grandfather. He had saved it for a very special celebration and now it was time. Standing in front of the mirror inside his armoire, he gently probed at the healed-over bite mark on his arm before he slipped the fine linen shirt on over his shoulders. As he slowly buttoned it, the memory of that terrifying day flooded his mind.
The tree had just toppled over when the wild dog had emerged from the trees, launching itself on Scott. Only the fact that he still had the axe in his hand had saved the young man from a brutal mauling. It wasn’t until the dog was dead at his feet that Scott took in the already rigid facial features and the frothy blood that had spattered the snow.
Shaking from the attack, Scott sank to his knees. That was short-lived as the implications of the attack ran riot in his frightened mind. Stripping off his jacket, he saw only a small but potentially lethal wound. Taking deep breaths to fight off his panic, he tried to recall Nick Barkley’s words to him about his own encounter with a rabid animal.
Cauterization was the key. Doing as Heath had done to save his brother’s life, Scott used the minute amount of gunpowder in a bullet to sterilize the wound. The pain of the burning powder was agonizing, but better than a horrifying death by rabies.
After wrapping up the wound, Scott sat silently in the snow for a time. His heart still thumped loudly like a drum, but at last he struggled to his feet. He had come for a Christmas tree and he wouldn’t let the wound stop him, even though it was painful lifting the tree onto the wagon.
Setting the horses into motion, Scott knew there were decisions to be made. Nick had chosen to leave his family, going off to find something to make his life worthwhile. Scott didn’t feel he had that option at that point in time. For one thing the dog might not have been rabid or even if he had been, not everyone contracted the disease if the wound was promptly cleansed. So the only choice was to remain, to be with his family. If. . .and only if symptoms appeared would he take the ultimate step.
Now, after two months it appeared that it was safe to think of the future. It had been difficult in the early days. There were times he had wanted to scream out at the injustice of what might be his demise, but as the days had passed, he had begun to believe that he would survive.
Acknowledging his future, Scott had chosen this day to open the present which had been hidden in his armoire since December. The beautiful shirt was not the thing to wear while working at the ranch, but it would do very well for his coming trip to San Francisco to visit Godwin’s. Christmas might be over, but not the joy of living.
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