(A schmaltzy Christmas sequel to the equally schmaltzy The Return)
Scott Lancer pushed back the feather-filled quilt, rolled out of bed and stepped over to the window. He pulled back the curtains and looked out. Stars still twinkled in a cloud free sky, though the first streaks of dawn had already appeared low on the distant horizon.
He’d had a night of fitful sleep, still felt as tired as when he’d gone to bed. Yet though Scott shivered slightly from the early morning chill in the air, he stayed at the window . . . thinking.
It was now Christmas Day; his first on Lancer. While growing up in Boston, Scott had always woken with eager anticipation of the impending festivities to come. This year, however, it was going to be difficult to summon up anything like the same degree of enthusiasm. How could he with Johnny long gone and no way of knowing where he was, or if he were even . . . ?
Scott winced. He refused to believe his brother could be dead.
How he missed Johnny. He’d thought after a rocky start, they’d got on well during their first months together – made a great team. Yet since his abrupt departure, Scott hadn’t been able to shake off a niggling notion that he’d provided his brother with the perfect excuse to leave Lancer. After all, hadn’t that been Johnny’s original intention with Wes before his friend got himself killed?
The more Scott considered this possibility, the more it made sense. He sighed heavily. Under his grandfather’s stern guardianship, his formal manner and unintentional air of aloofness was in complete contrast to Johnny’s easy going and relaxed style. Even his speech was that of an educated Bostonian dandy: well honed in delivery and precise in tone. Nothing like the soft, quietly spoken drawl of his brother. Brought up poles apart, they were as different as chalk and cheese in every sense of the word.
Scott silently cursed. It was no wonder Johnny couldn’t get away from his stuffed shirt of an elder brother quick enough. Why would he want to stay around with someone who clearly must have got on his nerves?
A wistful expression settled on Scott’s face. If Johnny ever returned, he’d make an effort to loosen up, be more approachable; the kind of brother Johnny would have wanted him to be. But that was just a dream; a flight of fancy, a Christmas wish that could never come true. His brother wasn’t coming back, Scott reminded himself. The note Johnny left by his bedside made that perfectly clear.
Refusing to spoil Murdoch and Teresa’s enjoyment of the day, Scott knew he’d need to hide his guilt driven melancholy from them both. Teresa especially had put so much effort into making his first Christmas on the ranch a pleasurable one. Allowing himself a faint smile, Scott reflected on her growing excitement as the big day drew nearer.
After choosing and decorating the tree, she’d spent hours in the kitchen, baking gingerbread men, sweet biscuits and Christmas cookies as special treats. She’d even knitted four colorful stockings to hang from the mantelpiece on Christmas Eve. Teresa then insisted they should write identical notes to pin on their stockings, asking for only one thing from Santa – to have Johnny returned home.
Not wishing to dampen the young woman’s festive mood, Scott and Murdoch willingly indulged her and agreed.
Teresa also suggested a pocket watch once given to Johnny by his father but left behind, should be placed in his stocking. The lid was now inscribed with a touching inscription, and it would be the perfect gift for Johnny to find when he returned on Christmas morning. Such was Teresa’s belief that their combined wishes to Santa would come true.
How would she take the inevitable disappointment when it came? Scott shook his head sadly. With one empty place at the dinner table to remind them all of who was missing this Christmas, he already imagined Teresa in floods of tears.
So much for a day filled with happiness and seasonal cheer. Scott dragged in a deep breath then let it out in a long shuddering sigh. The thought of a strong black coffee suddenly appealed. He turned from the window and began to dress.
Murdoch yawned and wiped a hand across his eyes. Through a chink in the curtains he could see the sky lighten as dawn approached. He briefly considered snuggling back down under the covers. Instead he continued to stare towards the window . . . thinking.
It was now Christmas. It should have been the first one shared as a family. But with no Johnny, it was hard to build up any sort of enthusiasm. Guilt tightened Murdoch’s throat. Was he the reason his youngest turned his back on Lancer?
Many times Murdoch had asked himself this same question. For much as he’d wanted to, from the day they arrived on the ranch, he hadn’t been able to express the affection and pride he felt towards both his sons. How could he when it just wasn’t his way? So he didn’t blame Johnny for leaving. Not when he’d discovered his father showed such an uncaring nature to his own kin, intentional or not.
Nor was it any real surprise that Johnny failed to take the pocket watch with him when disappearing in the dead of night. It was the perfect way to show he wanted nothing which reminded him of the man who seemed to convey only coldness towards those around him.
Murdoch sighed. What he wouldn’t give to have another chance to bond with Johnny. He’d show him compassion, warmth, support; be the kind of father he deserved to have him be. But no amount of wishful thinking or notes to Santa could make such a dream come true. Johnny had made the choice of where his future lay – and it wasn’t on Lancer.
At least Scott had stayed. He seemed more tolerant of his father’s gruff manner, and accepted it without question. Murdoch fought hard against an unexpected sting of tears; his thoughts now nostalgic. Scott was so like his mother; his beloved Catherine. She too had understood and loved him, regardless of her husband’s inability to openly show his true feelings towards those he cherished.
Murdoch made a silent pledge. With New Year but a week away, he’d make a resolution to tell and show his eldest son how much he really cared for him from that day on. It was a promise he intended to keep.
A floorboard on the landing suddenly squeaked. Murdoch knew it to be a tell-tale sign that Scott was on his way downstairs to the kitchen. Since Johnny went away, he was always the earliest to rise, eager to enjoy his first coffee of the day in thoughtful solitude. It would seem Christmas Day was no exception.
Suddenly feeling a rush of emotion within his chest, Murdoch decided for once to join him. Why wait seven days to start his New Year’s resolution? It wasn’t worth the risk of losing another son because of words left unsaid. He pushed up from the bed and began to hastily dress.
Scott soon had the stove well lit and the coffee pot placed on top. While waiting for the water to boil, he made his way to the large sitting room. Having hidden a charm bracelet for Teresa and a new pipe for his father behind a pile of books, it would give him the perfect opportunity to slip them into their Christmas stockings without being seen.
As soon as he opened the door, Scott knew something wasn’t quite right. A black Stetson had been placed on the dining table, and next to it was an empty glass. One of a set of six, the remaining five still stood on a silver tray. Scott rubbed a hand around the back of his neck, bemused. He was more than sure when he’d retired to bed they were all together, alongside an unopened bottle of brandy. However it was clear from the amount now showing in the bottle, someone had poured out a generous measure during the night.
In the quiet of the room, a gentle rhythmic snoring then grabbed Scott’s attention. He turned around. Hardly able to believe what he was seeing, an inner pain of worry he’d carried deep inside for months immediately eased.
Lying sprawled out on the settee and fast asleep, was Johnny.
Still dazed with disbelief that his Christmas wish had come true, Scott stepped over to the mantelpiece. He leaned against the end and studied his brother with a fixed gaze.
Johnny had one arm extended above his head and the other resting on his chest. He seemed thinner than what Scott remembered. Missed meals and hard riding probably the cause. Yet a faint smile hovered on his mouth as he slept. His tousled hair had grown long and flopped down over his forehead. Scott fought back the urge to brush it tidily into place. Fingers were clasped tight around something held in the palm of his hand. Scott knew intuitively what it was. As Teresa had hoped, Johnny had found his gift; the pocket watch.
A heavy tread of footsteps echoed on the stairs. Moments later Murdoch appeared and stared at the hat on the table. When he noticed Scott stood by the hearth, he raised a questioning eyebrow and opened his mouth, about to speak.
Scott quickly placed a finger to his lips to shush him. He gestured for his father to come closer, unable to stop himself grinning inanely.
Slightly confused by the sight of Scott’s rare beam of pure joy, Murdoch complied with his request. As he neared the settee and recognized who lay sleeping, Murdoch let out a gasp. A lump formed in his throat. His heart skipped a beat.
Johnny then stirred, stretched, and slowly opened his eyes. As though he weren’t sure of the welcome he’d receive, an expression of uncertainty and apprehension showed clearly on his face.
Murdoch smiled tenderly, though suddenly through blurred vision. His voice trembled and carried the unmistakable tone of a thankful father towards a much loved child returned to the fold. “Merry Christmas, son. I’ve . . . I’ve missed you. Welcome home.”