The early morning light hadn't reached the kitchen area of the great white hacienda yet when Scott Lancer walked into the kitchen. There on the table at the place where he usually sat were two presents.
"Happy 30th Birthday, Scott!"
The tall blond turned to see his father standing in the doorway. "Thank you, Murdoch. I'd almost forgotten it was today."
The tall grey-haired man reached out to place a hand on Scott's shoulder. "I remember well my 30th birthday. Johnny had been born just five days before. I was looking forward to having a family again."
Scott could see the sadness in his father's eyes as he remarked, "I wish he could be here today. I. . .haven't heard from him in quite awhile."
"Nor me. I realize he's been married only a short time and that he wants to get to know his wife's family, but he could send a letter or a wire," Murdoch declared
"Johnny write a letter?" Scott's blue eyes lit up in amusement.
"I suppose you're right," Murdoch conceded, "but I would like to hear from him. Anyway, why don't we sit down and have breakfast? Maria said she would make sure to leave something for the two of us."
"That was very nice of her. I'll thank her later."
"Be sure to do that. Now that Teresa is married to Steven Henderson, we don't want to offend Maria." Murdoch winked at his older son. Neither of them would ever claim to be cooks. In fact, Murdoch and Scott still laughed about the time that Scott had buried a pan which he had scorched in an effort to prepare a meal in Teresa's absence. Teresa had not been pleased when she returned to find one of her best pans buried in the garden.
"Speaking of Teresa, she sent a package for you, asking that I give it to you today." Murdoch handed over the small, flat box from the table.
Carefully, Scott undid the wrapping and looked at the enclosed card. Inside was a pocket watch with SPL engraved on it. On the inside Roman numerals marked off the hours. "It's beautiful. It will be nice to have a working watch again. I'm afraid that the watch my grandfather gave me on my 21st birthday doesn't work too well anymore."
Murdoch nodded. "Dirt and dust can be hard on things like watches. I wonder if Johnny still has that one I gave him?"
"I'm sure he does. It meant a lot to him," Scott pointed out.
The patriarch smiled gratefully. The early years of his reunion with his two sons had not always been easy, particularly since Johnny and Murdoch had butted heads more than once. "Now why don't you open my present?"
Awkwardly wrapped, the package yielded a book by Charles Dickens as well as a hand tooled leather bound journal, again with Scott's initials on it.
The blond ran one sensitive fingertip over the fine leather. "This is beautiful. My old one is almost filled so I'll use my new one to start 1875."
"I'm glad you like it. I know you have already read A Christmas Carol, but I had them put the 1868 version in a special leather binding. I thought we might read it out loud on Christmas Eve."
"I'd be delighted. It's a wonderful story and the binding is magnificent. Thanks. Maybe one of these days I'll be able to read from it to Johnny or Teresa's children.
Murdoch's eyebrow went up in a questioning gesture. "Why not your own?"
Scott smiled. "I'm not saying it's impossible, but I wouldn't count on it."
Murdoch sat there quietly for a moment. "It's your decision of course. Not every man needs children. For a long time I thought I could get along without you two boys. I suppose that's one of the reasons I wish John had waited awhile longer before marrying."
Silence filled the kitchen. Scott knew that it was a sore point that his brother had met and married a young woman after only two months of walking out together. Then the tall rancher took to his feet. "I'm starving so let me see what Maria left for us to eat. After that I'll tell you about the plans I've made for us today."
"Plans? I assumed we'd be working as usual."
"Scott Lancer! How many times does a man have a 30th birthday? I thought maybe we'd ride up into the hills and see if we could find a fir tree to use for Christmas. It is less than a week away you know!"
"I. . .I wasn't sure that you wanted to celebrate this year since Johnny and Teresa won't be here."
"Nonsense. Maria will make some special food and drink then we can read A Christmas Carol. After all it may be our last quiet Christmas. By this time next year there might be grandchildren running around this old place."
"Ahem!" Scott scoffed gently. "Murdoch, I don't think babies run too much and even if they were born today, I don't think they'd. . . ."
"Johnny walked at ten months! Maria said she couldn't keep up with him. I have a feeling his children would be much the same!" The determined patriarch protested.
The blond smiled at his father. "Perhaps you're right although they might be more like Lucinda."
"She is a lovely young woman, isn't she? With her blonde hair and Johnny's black, I wonder who their children will resemble." In some ways Lucinda reminded Murdoch of his first wife, Catherine, Scott's mother.
"I don't know, but I have a feeling they'll be good eaters."
"Amen to that. Speaking of eating, let me see what Maria left in the oven."
An hour later the two Lancers rode off into Lancer's hills to find the perfect Christmas tree. In the four previous holidays Johnny had always joined his father and brother in the search. On one occasion Jelly Hoskins had also joined them, hinting that their taste in trees was too small. Unfortunately, the one he had selected had been too big to go through the doors so it had necessitated some judicious chopping. This year Jelly had chosen to visit with the family who had adopted one of the children he had taken care of before arriving at Lancer. It promised to be a happy reunion and gave him an excuse to exercise his itchy feet. Jelly enjoyed living at Lancer, but there were times that a man became restless.
The air that morning was crisp and cold. Blue skies were clear as the two men headed up into the darkness of the thick forest. With Murdoch in the lead their horses picked their way through the fallen branches, rocks and frosty earth until Murdoch pulled up on the reins. As puffs of cooled breath emerged from his mouth, the grey-haired man pointed out a tree in the distance. "How about that one?"
Scott squinted in the dim light. "Could be. Hard to tell at this distance. Let's go take a look." With an easy motion, Scott moved out in the direction of the tree. Waterloo had covered half the distance when Scott heard a shout behind him. Turning, he discovered the disconcerting sight of Murdoch Lancer lying on the ground, his quivering horse standing next to him.
With a flick of the reins, Scott quickly arrived at his father's side. "What happened?"
"My own fool mistake. My horse slipped on some ice or something, wasn't paying attention and down I went. Thing is I've hurt my back."
Grimly, Scott asked, "Can you move your legs?"
With a grimace and gasp of pain, Murdoch moved one leg and then the other. "Yes, thank God. Think I landed on a rock hitting the spot where I was wounded that time. Likely to be bruised."
Scott nodded. "Let me get a blanket while we figure out what to do. Don't want you to freeze!" The blond smiled encouragingly.
"Why don't you just help me get back on my horse? I'm sure I can ride."
"Uh uh, I don't think we should take a chance. Let me get the blanket then I'll see if we can get you onto your side so I can check out your back." A line of worry formed between the cerulean eyes, but he said nothing as he stripped off his gloves.
"All right if you think that's best. It is cold, isn't it?"
Scott immediately got to his feet. Grabbing the blankets from his horse and Murdoch's, he wrapped them around the older man after looking at the rapidly growing bruise on his father's back. "I think you're right, it is just a bruise," the younger man remarked as he prodded gently at the already discolored spot, "but I'm not a doctor. Why don't I ride back to the house, get a wagon and a couple of the hands to help?"
"Do you really think that's necessary? I'm sure I can ride if you help me up." Murdoch hated giving in to his infirmities.
A determined look settled on Scott's handsome face. "Perhaps you can, but is it worth the risk? I'll ride as fast as I can and bring back help. By the time you're settled in your own bed, the doctor will be there. What do you say?" Scott knew that Murdoch's pride was formidable. He would have to make his own decision.
In the end his father's effort to shift his body a fraction of an inch decided it for him. Slumping back into his previous position, Murdoch gave in. "Just don't be too long. I have no desire to be the biggest icicle in California." A flicker of a smile crossed the lined face.
"Don't worry. Now let me get you bundled up as best as I can. I'd make a fire but I don't think there's enough dry tinder."
"Shouldn't need it if you hurry. Once you're out of the forest you should make good time."
"Will do." Without another word Scott mounted his horse and took off.
Waterloo's long legs covered the miles with speed and agility. At any other time the former cavalryman would have enjoyed the heart-pumping joy of galloping over the open spaces, but at that moment his whole focus was on helping his father. Fortunately, the brisk air was cold, not freezing so that it was unlikely that the older man would be in too much difficulty from the elements, but there was always the underlying question of how much damage his already weakened back had incurred.
The first time Scott had ever seen his father, the man was still using a cane as a result of the bullet wound that had nearly killed him. It had healed, but from time to time it still gave pain, a reminder of Murdoch's age and vulnerability.
As soon as he rode up to the white hacienda, Scott lithely jumped down calling for Cipriano and the other hands. It took only moments for the Segundo to understand what was needed as a wagon was procured with blankets to secure and warm the injured man.
Grabbing another horse since Waterloo needed his stall and a good rub down, Scott made sure that a ranch hand had started for town. Hopefully, the doctor would be available immediately.
The small party of men made their way across the crunchy grass of the range with Scott leading the way as guide. He said little to Cipriano. There was no need. Cipriano's loyalty to Murdoch Lancer was without question.
Unfortunately, the denseness of the forest necessitated their stopping some distance from where Scott had been forced to leave his father; but with the aid of three strong ranch hands and the board they had brought with them, they were able to minimize the injured man's movement as they carried him to the wagon.
The grey-faced man made an effort to smile at his son, but the pain became too much as he passed out upon being lifted onto the wagon bed. Scott took his place beside his father to help make sure that there wasn't too much undue motion. Grimly, Scott looked over to Cipriano who rode alongside. "Let's move, but try to keep it smooth as possible."
"Si senor, perhaps we will have him home before he awakes."
Scott just nodded. Since his own spine could feel every bump, he was also grateful that his father did not. The miles were crossed at a slow, even pace, but eventually they did arrive at Lancer. Picking up the board with its burden, they cautiously made their way to Murdoch's bedroom.
After deciding to leave the board in place, Scott and the other men placed the injured man on top of his bed and then made sure he was warm with blankets. Fortunately, they were able to remove his boots before the big man awoke.
Less than a half-hour later, the ranch hand who had been sent into town, rode up with the news that the doctor was less than ten minutes behind him. He also assured Scott that he had carried out the other assignment given him.
Dr. Mark Donnelly rode up on the chestnut he had recently purchased. When he had started his practice in Morro Coyo just the year before, his presence had caused consternation among the local folk. For one thing he was much younger than the doctors they were used to, but there was no question about his abilities. Several young ladies had made it clear that they wouldn't mind seeing the young man socially, but mindful of his professional reputation, he was always careful to have Maisie Wilson, who acted as his nurse, in the room anytime it was necessary to examine a female patient. Soon the rash of sore throats, sore feet or other minor complaints faded to a manageable degree.
Tall with intense grey eyes, long brown hair and a solemn manner, Mark Donnelly had already paid two visits to Lancer when Jelly had suffered a bout of gout and also when a vaquero had been injured by a runaway steer. The young physician had adeptly repaired the damaged torso of the ranch hand and soberly mentioned that Jelly might wish to change his diet to moderate the gout symptoms.
After inviting the young man to stay to dinner, the two Lancers were delighted to discover that Dr. Donnelly had an interest in other things beside medicine, including chess. In the past months he had enjoyed many games against Scott and Murdoch as well as interesting discussions on politics, literature and history.
Scott was particularly happy to discover that Donnelly had served briefly at the end of the War and was not afraid to discuss his opinions about the appalling costs of the conflict. In short, Dr. Mark Donnelly was a man to trust—to tell them the truth and to do his best for his patient.
Before the doctor even entered the sickroom, Maria had a bowl of hot water at the ready for the physician to wash his hands. That was one of the many things that impressed the elder Lancer son. The medical man was always careful about his appearance and cleanliness.
Wiping his hands dry, the doctor remarked, "I'm going to turn you on your side, Mr. Lancer. Let us do the work. Try to relax."
Probing with gentle hands, Mark made his examination before allowing the pain-filled body to return to a flat position. Then he asked about the ability of the patient to move his legs and about any other symptoms that might indicate severe damage. The exam went on for some time until the doctor straightened up to speak with both father and son. "I think you were right in your diagnosis, Mr. Lancer. It does appear to be mostly severe bruising, however, I am slightly concerned about the fact that some of the bruising is over your kidneys. I would like for you to give me a sample of urine so I can tell if there is any blood."
Murdoch's face tinged red. "Is that really necessary?"
Mark smiled at the older man and assured him, "I wouldn't ask it of you if it weren't. While I don't think the kidney has been damaged, it is always possible since you fell on a rock."
Scott readily understood Murdoch's embarrassment so he offered to find a clean bottle which could be used. The tall rancher nodded his thanks. It wasn't that he hadn't found it necessary to use such devices when he had been severely wounded by Pardee, but he was a private man—in all things.
Fortunately, it did not take long to find a suitable bottle and obtain the specimen which proved to be only slightly colored with blood. Relieved, Donnelly recommended that rest would most likely clear up that problem as well as take care of the bruise itself. "I'm going to leave some oil here with you. Perhaps Scott can rub it into the bruise to speed the healing, but gently so as not to cause more pain. Nature can do its own best healing."
"What about laudanum for the pain?" Scott inquired.
"Only if it becomes severe. I'm not one of those doctors who likes to dope up a patient, however, if the pain prevents Mr. Lancer from sleeping then a small dose might be indicated."
Firm of voice, the Scotsman announced, "I'm sure that I can manage without it. How soon can I be up and around?"
Mark glanced over at Scott who winked back at him. "Mr. Lancer, I understand that you are a very busy man, but I think you should recognize that your injury could have been much more serious. Rest is essential although I think if you rely on Scott or one of the men you can occasionally be out of bed. I know you're going to be sore from the fall so I don't want you to stiffen up too much."
"But I've got a ranch to run and it's almost Christmas!!" The man from Inverness protested.
"You also have a most capable Segundo and a son who can handle things. Face it, Mr. Lancer, you are no longer thirty years old. How many times have you awoken with twinges in your back since your wounding nearly five years ago? I understand that you want to be back in the saddle, but isn't it more important not to be hunched over and in pain for the rest of your life? One of these days you'll have grandchildren running around here and you want to be able to play with them. Being sensible now will help insure that."
Murdoch sighed deeply and then muttered, "Damn," but gave in. "All right, I agree. I suppose it won't hurt for me to take a few days off. I have to admit there have been mornings when it has been difficult to climb out of bed."
The brown-haired man smiled at his patient. "Now, you're speaking with the wisdom I've always heard Murdoch Lancer possessed. The injury is painful, but not too severe at this point, but if you overdo, muscles can retaliate. Unfortunately, our knowledge of the human body is still rather primitive, but I do know the mind can affect the body so just relax, keep warm and put this son of yours to work so that you can enjoy the holidays."
The blond Lancer opened his mouth to protest, but Murdoch just held up one hand to quiet him. "Thank you, Doctor. I think I'll do that. Scott, why don't you see Mark to his horse? Don't forget to ask him what we talked about!" Scott just nodded at his father's rather imperious tone.
Scott led the way out of the room, but instead headed for the kitchen. "Let's have a cup of coffee before you go."
Taking a seat opposite the older Lancer scion, Mark carefully poured some milk into the black coffee. "Why so pensive, Scott? Your father is going to be fine."
"I know. I guess I'm worried that I made a mistake in leaving him out in the cold for so long."
"For what it's worth, I think you did the right thing. Back injuries can be tricky. I listened to his lungs and there doesn't seem to be a problem there so hopefully the exposure to the cold will cause no complications. He's really a healthy man for the most part and I'd like to keep him that way."
"Me too," Scott grinned. "The two of us have our differences, but I can't imagine what it would be like around here without him."
"I'm sure he feels the same about you now that Teresa and your brother have left. I know you're concerned, but as I said some back massage should help and a hot water bottle might be good. If he develops any other symptoms feel free to send someone for me." Donnelly took to his feet. "I'd better be going now. It's somewhat of a ride back to Morro Coyo and it's getting late."
Scott started to walk out with him, but then stopped to inquire, "Are you going to be busy on Christmas? Murdoch and I would like you to have you join us for Christmas dinner."
"Are you. . .are you cooking the dinner?" Mark tried to stifle his chuckle behind one hand.
Scott frowned. "Just because I nearly caused a fire that time I was heating up some soup doesn't give the right to disparage my cooking, however, you don't have to worry. Maria is going to cook before she spends the day with her family!" Scott schooled his face not laugh after his solemn pronouncement.
"Excellent. Then I'll be delighted to join you, providing Mrs. Babcock's baby doesn't decide to arrive that day or one of my many patients doesn't climb up on a roof and fall off or. . . ."
Scott held up a hand. "All right, I get your point. Come early that day so I'll have the chance to trounce you at chess. We usually eat about noon."
"Seeing that it's your birthday, I won't make a comment about the chess match, but I'll certainly be here early if I can. Am I to assume you won't have any other guests?"
"That's right. Johnny and Teresa will be with. . .their families." Scott's blue eyes flickered for a moment.
"I see. So that means we can split the brandy punch three ways?"
"Mark, you are incorrigible for a doctor!" Scott accused his friend
"That I am and speaking of being incorrigible, I have a present for you."
"What? I thought I told you I didn't expect anything," Scott protested.
With an innocent expression on his thin face, Mark brushed aside the remark with, "I ordered this before you told me that. In fact, I ordered it right after you gave me that fine leather medical bag for my 35th birthday."
"That was out of self-defense. I couldn't afford to be seen with a doctor whose medical bag was practically falling apart. After all I am a Lancer!"
That comment brought about a guffaw of laughter from both men who clearly remembered their first meeting when Donnelly had been called upon to attend to Jelly's gout. He had ridden up to the white hacienda where he had found a dirty, disheveled Scott working with one of the hands unloading supplies. Casually, the doctor had asked, "Can you tell me where Jelly Hoskins is? I don't suppose the Lancers would allow one of their men into the main house."
Scott had straightened up, wiped his hands somewhat clean, and then without speaking a word had shown the doctor to the small house where Jelly and Dewdrop resided. It wasn't until after Scott had departed to fetch Murdoch that Donnelly discovered who the filthy blond truly was. After apologizing, Mark had joined the two Lancers for coffee and cookies, the first of his many visits to the Lancer hacienda, not only as a physician but also as a friend.
Standing next to his horse, Issus, Donnelly removed a wrapped package from his saddle bags, handing it to his friend. "Happy Birthday, Scott, and many more."
Removing the wrapping from what was obviously a book, Scott's eyes opened wide in astonishment. "Histoire de la vie militaire, politique et administrative du maréchal Davout!" Scott breathed. "I don't believe it! I've been trying to find this forever, well at least since it came out in 1866!"
"So you said, but it helps to have an old friend who lives in Paris. I wrote to ask if he could find a copy and he sent this."
Scott drew one finger across the imprinted name on the binding. "I. . .I never imagined I'd ever own it. Thank you, Mark. It's magnificent."
"You're welcome. After all you've given me much more and I don't mean the bag. I wasn't sure the townspeople would accept a new man, but having the backing of you and your father has helped a great deal." The sincerity of his comment was more than obvious in his voice.
"They just needed to find out what an excellent doctor you are and after all, you've given me something too—your friendship."
"I appreciate that, but I'd better get back to town. Mrs. Gordon usually stops by every evening with a new complaint. She's had spots, drips, cramps, rumbles, and whistles so I can hardly wait to see what she comes up with next."
"She said her chest whistled when she breathed. Unfortunately, I can't convince her that she's quite healthy. Maybe she's just lonely and wants attention."
Scott blinked. "Are you talking about Jed Gordon's wife, Adela?"
"That's right. She turned up at my office two minutes after I put up my shingle."
"I'm not surprised. She has three unmarried daughters and probably is hoping that you'll take one of them off her hands," he informed his friend.
"Why that devious. . . ."
"Easy, Mark, if you'd ever seen these three ladies, you wouldn't blame her!"
"In these parts they are known as the Poison Ivy Sisters! They tried to latch on to Johnny and me when we first moved here. The middle one actually stuck to Johnny like a leech."
"How did you finally discourage them?"
Scott leaned over to whisper something in Mark's ear. "You did what?" the grey-eyed man asked.
Scott's lips curved slightly upward. "We were desperate. It was that or Johnny was going to put a bullet in them and then we were going to run for the Mexican border."
Gasps of laughter filled the air as Mark Donnelly mounted his horse, waved to his friend and then rode off to Morro Coyo.
Scott waved and then walked inside, stopping by his room to place his treasured book in a special place. From there he went to see his father.
"Is he coming?" The older man demanded.
"Mark's going to try. You know how it is with a doctor. Now, how would you like a back rub and then some sleep?"
"I'm hungry!" Murdoch announced in a resolute tone.
Scott smiled. At that moment his father sounded a great deal like Johnny. "Of course, I'm sure I can find something for you to eat, then a back rub and a nap. Later we can play chess or something."
"Not quite the birthday I had planned for you. I'll make it up to you when I'm back on my feet," Murdoch tried to reassure him.
"I'm not worried. Now, let me go see what I can find in the kitchen." Scott had just started out of the room when Murdoch called him back. "Yes, sir?"
"If you can't find anything but soup, I think I'll forego eating until later." The rancher winked at his son. He, too, remembered the near inferno in the kitchen.
The blond Lancer made a strategic withdrawal..
The next few days were spent in much the same way. Back rubs, chess games, and discussions about the ranch filled the time for the two men. When Scott was needed on the ranch, Murdoch would either read, write letters to Teresa and Johnny or sleep. From time to time, Scott would help him up and they would go out into the great room for a short time. Just taking his seat at his desk, made the patriarch feel more like himself.
On Christmas Eve the two Lancers had their dinner and then started to read A Christmas Carol. When it became obvious that Murdoch could no longer sit up comfortably, Scott helped him into the bedroom so that they could finish the book. As Scott read Tiny Tim's immortal line, he glanced over at his father who was sound asleep with just the hint of a snore breaking into the silence of the room.
Closing the book quietly, Scott pulled the blanket over the big man's sleeping form before going to his own room. He planned to read a few pages of his birthday present from Mark. There hadn't been much time for reading about the life of the Iron Marshal.
Christmas Day was alive with food, drink, music and friendship. Normally, the Lancers would put in an appearance at Reverend Baker's church, but the long drive into town was deemed too risky for the still tender back of Murdoch Lancer. Instead, Scott had arranged for friends and neighbors to pay a visit on the 26th. Reverend Baker had also promised to stop by.
Precisely at noon Mark Donnelly rode up to the great hacienda to partake in the sumptuous dinner that Maria had prepared. Rushing in, long hair flying, Donnelly found Murdoch and Scott waiting for him. "Sorry I'm late. Mrs. Babcock needed me early this morning. The Babcocks now have a fine daughter."
"I'm sure Winifrid's pleased, considering they have three sons," Murdoch observed.
"That may be so but when I left, Hiram Babcock was preening like a peacock. I have a feeling that will be one spoiled little girl."
The sight of Maria standing in the doorway with platefuls of food reminded Scott why they were there. "Would you like to clean up before we eat, Mark?" Scott inquired of his friend in an effort to move things along.
"Thanks, Scott. I would. It's been a busy day already."
The food and wine were excellent as expected as was the conversation. Scott talked about some of the Christmases he had experienced in Boston while Mark hesitantly mentioned the hospital in Washington D.C. to which he had been assigned in 1864. The holiday cheer had been minimal, but the nurses and doctors had made an effort to turn the former post office building into more than a place of pain and death.
When it became apparent that Murdoch was no longer comfortable sitting up in the chair, the three men adjourned to the great room proper for coffee and dessert with the light from the Christmas tree making a comforting presence on the rather cloudy day.
"Cipriano certainly picked a perfect tree for us," Scott observed.
"It is beautiful and wonderfully decorated," Mark agreed.
"Some of the decorations were made by Teresa when she was young. Since then I've always asked the children who live at Lancer to add something for the tree. Scott supervised them this year. It's a good thing he did it earlier this month, Mark, because he had red and green paint on him for days!" Scott blushed but couldn't deny the truth of his father's statement.
After the food was gone, Scott poured out a cup of punch to complete the celebration.
Murdoch took a drink and smacked his lips with pleasure. "Perfect! Last year there wasn't enough brandy in it."
Scott winked at Mark. Out of his father's sight, he mimed that a whole bottle of the liquor had been used.
"It is delicious," Donnelly agreed, "and in keeping with the excellence of the punch, I'd like you to have this present, Mr. Lancer. From behind a cushion, the doctor removed a distinctively shaped bottle.
"Napoleon brandy!" Murdoch's mouth dropped open. "I've always wanted to try it, but. . . ."
"My friend from Paris sent it to me along with Scott's birthday present. I hope you enjoy it in good health."
"It's a splendid gift and don't worry I'll savor every mouthful."
Pitifully, Scott's lip jutted out. "Don't you mean; we'll savor every mouthful?"
The granite eyes of Murdoch Lancer glanced at his son. "It depends on what you purchased for my birthday!"
Scott spluttered with amusement. "Oh oh, I guess a pair of socks isn't going to be enough."
Mark snickered while the cold eyes began to twinkle with merriment. "Well, maybe you can have a thimbleful."
"Thank you, Father," replied the younger man with suitable humility.
"Scott, perhaps you'd like to open your present now?" Mark asked.
"Present? But you gave me the Davout book! What more could I ask for?"
"Well, I saw this when I was in San Francisco and thought you might like to have it."
Again the package looked like a book—a very fat book. Opening the paper, Scott found two books, volumes written by General Cavalié Mercer, Journal of the Waterloo Campaign.
"Mercer! He commanded some of Wellington's artillery. This is a wonderful gift and perfect for a winter evening read!" Scott burst out excitedly.
"Glad you like it, Scott. I know you're as interested in Wellington and Napoleon as I am about Alexander the Great."
Scott thumbed through the book, catching phrases here and there then he became aware that his father was saying something to him. "Hmm, did you say something, Murdoch?"
"I said if you can take your head out of that book that you should give Mark our present."
Swiftly, Scott walked over to the desk to remove an envelope from a drawer. "Mark, my father and I appreciate how much you've done for this family and many of the families in the Valley. We hope you'll accept this to use any way you choose. I know you mentioned that there was some equipment you needed for your office."
Donnelly's grey eyes opened wide at the generous check. "This is wonderful. Now I just have to find a catalogue and start ordering. I'll be the best equipped doctor east of San Francisco!"
"And this is from me." Scott handed over an awkwardly shaped package which turned out to be the carved figure of a horse. "One of the hands made it. Look at the name."
Mark turned the magnificent animal over to see the word, "Bucephalus" carved into it. A huge smile filled the face of the physician, but the words wouldn't come except for a raspy, "Thank you."
Silence filled the room for only a moment when suddenly music was heard from outside. Some of the vaqueros began to play and sing Spanish songs in celebration of the day. The three men listened happily until it was time for Donnelly to leave and Murdoch to gratefully lie down on his bed.
The 26th turned into a hectic day with many of their ranch neighbors and friends stopping by to talk with Murdoch and Scott, including Reverend Baker who tendered his thanks for the sizable check given by the Lancers for the benefit of the Orphanage. Maria conveniently supplied food, cookies and drink for those who stopped to visit, however, both men were not unhappy to see the last of their guests go on their way since Murdoch was definitely feeling the effects of a very busy day, even if he didn't want to admit it.
Scott, seeing the pallor of his father's face, urged him to go to bed; but before the older man could get to his feet, there was the sound of a horse riding up. Murdoch groaned. "I didn't think anyone would come by this late. Maybe they'll only stay for a few minutes."
Suddenly, the door burst open. Standing in the doorway was Johnny Lancer.
"Johnny, we didn't expect you! Where's Lucinda? Come in and get warm." Murdoch's pleasure was quite obvious. He hadn't seen his younger son for some months, not since the newlyweds had left to take up their new home.
"Any chance a man can get something to eat? Been in the saddle for ages."
"I'll see what Maria left in the kitchen. Sit down and get warm," Scott suggested.
A couple of minutes later the blond returned with a huge sandwich, a slab of chocolate cake and coffee. "Here you are, brother. Seems like Maria must have known you were coming."
Johnny rapidly tucked into the food, not saying a word until his hunger was appeased. "Sorry I couldn't make it 'fore today, but it was important to Cindy and her folks that I be there for my birthday and Christmas. By the way, Cindy said to say thanks for the silver brush, mirror, and comb set. Real nice of you to put her new initials on it. Lucinda Anderson Lancer. It's got a nice sound, doesn't it?" Johnny's blue eyes went from his brother's face to his father's, searching for agreement.
"What did you think of your own present?" Murdoch demanded.
"Never even knew that Barranca had a colt. He's a beauty and the start of the Lancer horse line. Really appreciate you giving him to me."
"So you're still planning to breed horses, not cows?" The oldest Lancer questioned.
"Think so. Don't want to compete with you or Mr. Anderson. 'Sides our place isn't all that big."
"Have you thought of a name for your ranch yet?" Scott asked.
"Thought of half-a-dozen, but still haven't settled on one. Mr. Anderson called it "The Little A" before he gave it to us as a wedding present, but it's Lancer land now and I want it to have a special name."
"How is Lucinda? We were hoping to see her," Murdoch ventured, not wanting to ask why his daughter-in-law hadn't come too.
"She wanted to come with me, but her mother wasn't feeling good so I said I come over for a few days. Now what's this about you hurtin' your back, Murdoch?"
Murdoch's eyes opened wide. "How did you know about that?" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Scott shaking his head at the younger man.
"Scott Preston Lancer! Did you send your brother a wire about my fall?"
"Guilty," the easterner conceded. "I thought he would want to know."
"And it's a good thing he did! I may not live here anymore, but you're still my family Murdoch." Johnny's nose could still be easily displaced when merited.
A flush of pleasure crossed the lined face, but the big man merely answered, "I'm doing fine. Scott has been a big help and Dr. Donnelly is pleased with my progress."
"Donnelly? Is he that new man? Glad to hear someone has taken you in hand."
"Taken me in hand, young man?!" Murdoch demanded indignantly. "You may have just celebrated your 27th birthday, but I'll have you know that I can still outride you anytime."
Johnny held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay, I'll admit you can outdo me in one thing—you have to be the stubbornest man in California!"
Murdoch started to take to his feet but winced when he attempted to do so. That ended the conversation as both sons hurried over to him, helping him into his room as he kept repeating, "I'm fine. I'm fine."
A half-hour later, Scott joined his brother in the great room. "He's asleep. I rubbed his back with some oil. That always relaxes him. He's been trying to do too much the last couple of days."
"Sounds like the injury was more serious than you let on," the ex-gunfighter accused.
"Not really, but you know your father. He still thinks he's the only one who can run Lancer."
"Always did, didn't he? From the first moment we met him, we knew he was running the place."
"Guess we did, but enough about Murdoch. Tell me about you and Lucinda. How does it feel to be an old married man?" Scott grinned at his dark-haired brother.
Before he could answer, Johnny yawned then yawned again. "Tell you what, Boston, how about you and me havin' a talk tomorrow? I'm out on my feet. Long ride from the Anderson Ranch."
"Sure. We can ride out tomorrow. That way you can say hello to the vaqueros."
"Where's Jelly?" Johnny covered his mouth to yawn again.
"He went to spend a week or so with some of the children he helped. I'm sure he'll be sorry to have missed you unless you can stay for awhile?"
"Need to leave early on the 29th so I can be back to celebrate the New Year with Lucinda and her folks. We'll try to come visitin' in the spring."
On that note both young men got up. Johnny headed for his old room, knowing that Maria would have left bed linen in place. Five minutes later he was asleep while Scott chose to read a few pages of his book before settling down for the night.
After a huge breakfast and constant attendance by Maria, who fawned over the returned Johnny, the two young Lancers left Murdoch at his desk, happily doing the books. Both of them were well aware that their presence wouldn't be needed for some time, but Johnny promised to spend the rest of the day with his father upon his return.
The vaqueros and Cipriano also were very happy to welcome the returned brunet, chattering to him in rapid Spanish, but finally the two Lancer scions were left alone so they could ride to the outlook, one of their favorite spots on the huge ranch.
Dismounting, they put down a blanket in a sheltered spot before Johnny replied to Scott's question of the night before about being a married man. "Not quite what I thought it was gonna be. I mean I love Cindy, but I never figured I was marryin' her family too. She's real close to her parents and expects me to treat them like they're mine too."
"I suspect that's because she's an only child," Scott suggested.
"Guess so. Trouble is her father has a chip on his shoulder that his Big A isn't nearly the size of Lancer. Keeps giving me advice about ranching. That's one of the reasons I figured I'd concentrate on horse breeding instead of cattle."
"Sounds like a good plan and you know a lot about horses already."
"Right. Just not used to bitin' my tongue," Johnny replied in a tight voice.
"You don't have to tell me that!" Scott teased.
"Hey there, Mr. Cavalryman, I HAVE mellowed some since my early days at Lancer."
"Marriage is good for that. So are you and Lucinda planning a family? Murdoch was on me about that just the other day."
Johnny's face clouded over as he shifted around so that he had his back to Scott.
"What's the matter? Did I say something wrong? I didn't mean to be too personal." Scott assured him.
"It's not that. You're the only one I could talk to 'bout this." Johnny's hesitation lasted for some time. "I did mention to Cindy that she shouldn't be surprised if Murdoch started hintin' about grandchildren when we visit. She got all funny like. Seems her mother has been fillin' her ears with stories about what can go wrong in childbirth. Mrs. Anderson was real sick after Cindy was born and she's never let Cindy forget it. Hell, she's got my wife terrified about me touchin' her."
When Scott said nothing, Johnny turned around to look at his brother. "Guess you can understand her feelings after what happened to your mother?"
The blond nodded. "It's only natural for a woman to be afraid, but most of the time there's no problem. She needs to find a doctor or a friend she trusts to talk with instead of just listening to her mother."
"Yeah, but who? She makes me feel guilty when I kiss her. I think she believes it will lead to more like I'm some animal who can't control himself."
"Johnny, I realize there's no easy answer, but perhaps you and Lucinda could pay a visit to Teresa and Steven. Let her see what a loving, caring marriage is like. I assume she's only had her parents' relationship as a model?"
"Yeah, and I don't think they've touched each other since Cindy was born. I can't live my life like that, but I don't want to force her either."
"I know that, brother, but you're used to more experienced women, women who knew what they wanted. Lucinda needs your help and understanding. If you love each other, you'll have to compromise. Perhaps once her fears are laid to rest, things will improve."
"Real expert, aren't you?" Johnny grinned. "Been practicin'?"
"We're talking about you, not me," Scott replied easily. "I know you want your marriage to succeed and it's going to take some work. Are you willing to be patient and make the effort?"
Johnny sat there, apparently thinking it over. "I'm not quite the same impetuous, selfish man I was when I arrived at Lancer. I see things differently now. I need Cindy. I just want her to need me too."
"Then talk to her. Be honest. Tell her what you need. The woman I met on your wedding day struck me as being very much in love with you. I think she just needs to realize that her mother's fears are just that—her mother's. Hopefully, she'll respond and begin to make her own decisions."
"I hope so too. Thought she'd be scared of my reputation. Never thought she'd be afraid of my love."
"Johnny, I can't tell you what to do, but I think you're going to have to take that first step. Maybe if you can visit Teresa, she'll also talk with her. Some women just feel more comfortable speaking about intimate things with another woman."
"But I'm her husband!"
"That doesn't change a lifetime of fear, but if anyone can do it, it's Johnny Madrid Lancer, my little brother!" Scott smirked with satisfaction.
"Little?" And just when are you going to be answering those wedding bells, BIG brother or do I detect a touch of yellow down your spine?"
"Yellow? I'll have you know I'm the man who told Murdoch Lancer he couldn't get up to do the books one day after he fell off his horse!"
A huge grin curved Johnny's lips, "Whoa! I take back what I said. That does take courage and speakin' of courage, I'd better gather my own and go back to the house. He'll be waiting to interrogate me about what I've been doing since I left home."
"That's for sure. He misses you and Teresa a great deal."
"Well, I miss the two of you. One of these days you'll have to come visitin'. We have only one extra bedroom so Murdoch can use that, but you can bed down in the hayloft!"
Chuckling with glee, Johnny vaulted into the saddle, leaving Scott to pick up the blanket before chasing after him on Waterloo.
The morning of Murdoch's birthday dawned bright and clear. For the patriarch it was especially happy since his two sons were both with him and in addition a letter arrived from Teresa and Steven saying that they planned a visit soon after the New Year.
Maria outdid herself with another splendid meal and an angel food cake to celebrate the day. After which Murdoch opened his presents—a new chess set from Johnny and Lucinda and a fine painting of Lancer as seen from the overlook from Scott. That evening Murdoch used one of his new presents to defeat both of his sons at his favorite game before all three Lancers enjoyed a glass of brandy together, recalling memories and looking forward to the future.
The next morning Johnny left Lancer with a promise to return in the spring while a hopeful Murdoch and Scott picked up their lives again which had been put on hold after the older man's injury.
On December 31, 1874, Scott sat down to finish the last page in his old journal:
"Just a few minutes until midnight. It's been a year of change. Teresa and Johnny married, a new friend in Mark, and a better understanding of Murdoch. I don't know what the future will bring, but I hope Johnny and Lucinda find happiness. As for me, I think I'll try to visit Boston this coming year. I need to see Grandfather so that we can make peace before it's too late. I know his coming here three years ago put a strain on our relationship, but we've both suffered and it's time for that to end."
As he finished the last word, the chiming clock in the great room began to toll twelve o'clock. Putting down the journal, he stepped to the window to stare out at the cold night sky. In the distance he could hear some of the hands firing their rifles to announce the New Year. Lancer - 1875. A decade since the end of the catastrophic war that had changed him forever and five years since a dandy had stepped down from a stagecoach into a whole new world. Whatever happened in the foreseeable future, Scott Lancer knew he was more than ready to meet it.