Sam's Best Christmas Present
Nathan Pruitt ran a hand through his light brown hair in frustration. He was tired – sick and tired of attending all the fundraisers that his hospital ran. He was disgusted with the boorish behavior of some of his colleagues. Since he’d returned from the war he’d been at loose ends. He hated being eyed by all the society mamas who thought Nathan, with his light brown hair and green eyes and tall, slim build was quite a catch. Most importantly to many of them – his prestige as a “war hero”, reputation as a physician and surgeon and his family’s money (not to mention the fact that he was related to the Drexels and Biddles of Philadelphia society) added to his worth. Yes, Nathan was tired and he was more than ready to kick against the traces and leave Philadelphia, and all it represented, behind. If only there were some way….
Across the country, in Spanish Wells, California, Dr. Sam Jenkins was exhausted. There had been a rash of minor, and not so minor disasters of late. Another cave in at the Lady Eleanor mine, a few of the normal childhood diseases that had run the course in several families but, worst of all, there was the Prankster Posse. Johnny Lancer, Kevin Millar, Willie Mays and Rico Portillo were all blessed (or cursed if you asked their families) with very vivid imaginations and a wild sense of humor. As a general rule what Johnny didn’t think up to do Kevin did and what Kevin didn’t dream up Johnny did. Willie and Rico were usually content just to follow along though it was quite willingly. Their seemingly endless pranks wore thin on some people’s nerves and made them seem worse than the illnesses Sam treated.
It was autumn and the winter rains were starting. The boys had their fun but were always ready to lend a helping hand. This time it was at Sam’s office. Sam had recently hired Rico’s father, among others, to add a couple of rooms onto the back of his house. His practice was so busy that he needed the extra room for overnight visitors.
The doctor was in the process of moving furniture in and arranging it. Johnny and his pals, along with neighbor Maura Talbot, were helping him. It was while they were moving a chest of drawers that Sam collapsed.
“Doc?” Kevin was the first one to reach him. “What’s the matter?”
The older man was pale; his skin was clammy and he was wheezing as if he’d run a long race.
“What’s the matter?” Johnny asked as he ran into the room upon hearing Kevin’s shout.
“Doc just keeled over,” Kevin told him.
“Sí,” Rico agreed. “He does not look very good.”
Willie left the room on the run. He knew of only one person who might be able to diagnose what was wrong with their beloved family doctor and she had gone to the Widow Hargis’ store to buy some material for drapes for the new rooms. He returned less than five minutes later with Maura.
“What happened?” she asked the young men.
“We were moving furniture in and Doc just keeled over,” Kevin told her.
“Sam? Can you hear me?” Maura didn’t like the way Sam looked.
“Yes,” the doctor whispered. “I can hear you.”
“What’s wrong, Sam? Is it your heart?”
“No. Don’t think so. Just so tired.” The older man’s voice was not very strong.
Moving aside Maura said, “Willie, Johnny, I want you to help Sam to his room. Kevin, please get me Sam’s bag – it’s in the front office. Rico, run ahead and turn down Sam’s bed please. I want to stay with him while the boys move him.”
The young men jumped to do her bidding. They were concerned about the doctor. He was more than a doctor to them he was a friend – to them and their families.
It took little more than five minutes to have the older man in bed. Johnny and Kevin helped him change into a nightshirt, while Maura waited discreetly outside, despite his protests. One look at Maura’s determined face, though, told Sam Jenkins that if he didn’t allow the boys to help him she would be the one to do it. He couldn’t bear the thought of the embarrassment of her treating him like a child if he didn’t so he cooperated.
Maura spent fifteen minutes giving him a thorough going over while the younger men waited anxiously in Sam’s living room.
“You don’t think he’s dying do you?” Kevin asked no one in particular.
“Nope,” Johnny replied. “Mrs. Talbot would have looked a lot more anxious and sent us for someone – Reverend Hawk probably – if he were that sick.”
“What do you suppose is wrong with him?” Willie wanted to know.
“He was very pale,” Rico said. “And he was sweating some but not – I don’t think – from the exertion.” Closing his eyes he thought hard. “I know I have seen that look before,” he added. “Oh! I know! At least I think I know.”
“Spill it!” Johnny commanded his pal.
“I think he is just – how you say…over tired?”
“Exhausted?” Kevin asked.
“Sí. Doctor Sam has been very, very busy the last couple of months,” Rico told them. “He’s been out late, come home to eat and had to go right out again. Mama was keeping house for him for a while before he found another housekeeper,” Rico explained. “She said he did not get more than two hours of sleep some nights. He almost fell asleep at dinner at least twice.”
“You could be right,” Johnny said. “Let’s hear what Mrs. Talbot has to say though.”
A moment later Maura came out of Sam’s room. A concerned frown wrinkled her normally smooth forehead.
“How is he, Mrs. T.?” Kevin asked for all of them.
“He’ll be fine if he gets some rest,” Maura told them. “He’s just absolutely exhausted and that exhaustion has got him on the verge of a complete physical break down. This collapse was a warning.”
“Is there anything we can do?” Johnny asked.
“Yes, Johnny, there is,” Maura told him. “I want you boys to ride home and tell your fathers about what happened. When you’ve done that I want messengers to go to all the farms and ranches. Willie you tell all your neighbors in Spanish Wells. Also ask your mother to come over and help me with Sam. Rico, I’d like you to take a horse from the livery stable and ride over to Green River and tell Val Crawford. Ask him to send his deputy around to all the stores. I’m calling a meeting at the library for seven o’clock tonight. We’ve got an emergency on our hands!”
Once he’d reached home and told his father about the meeting, Johnny recruited Scott to help him get around to the Bar T, Aggie Conway’s place and several others that were closer to Lancer than to any of the towns. When the meeting convened at seven o’clock that evening the room set aside for it was filled to overflowing and there was standing room only. When Maura Talbot declared that they had an emergency on their hands everyone believed it for she wasn’t one to make rash judgments.
The room fairly vibrated with the rumble of voices. It was, after all, a weeknight and those attending the meeting had to be up at the crack of dawn to tend to chores. What could be so important that Maura Talbot would summon them into the new library for a meeting in the middle of the week?
“Quiet! Quiet down everybody!” Jim Talbot called for the room to come to order.
“What’s so important, Maura,” Murdoch Lancer asked, “that you would call for a meeting of the citizens of the towns as well as the farmers and ranchers on a weeknight with very little warning?”
“I’ll tell you what’s so important,” the petite redhead said with brown eyes blazing. “It’s about Sam Jenkins.”
“What about Sam?” Mark Malcom, a neighboring rancher asked.
“He’s overworked, that’s what!” Maura exclaimed. “He’s home, in bed, as we meet because he collapsed this afternoon.”
“That’s right,” Johnny confirmed. “My friends and I were with Mrs. Talbot, and Doc Jenkins, when it happened. We thought he’d had a heart attack at first.”
“Thank you, Johnny,” Maura smiled at the dark haired young man who was so much like a son to her, “for confirming that.” She turned to the people assembled in the room. “What Johnny just said is true. I thought Sam had had a heart attack at first but what he’s suffering from is exhaustion.”
“What brought that on?” a new resident sitting in the back of the room asked.
“He hasn’t had a vacation in I don’t know how many years,” Murdoch realized.
“That’s part of it,” Maura told them. “Then there’s the fact that he’s been out on house calls to deliver no fewer than twenty babies – at all hours of the day and night. He barely got home from delivering the Carlson twins when Kelly Millar fell and broke her arm. While Sam was at the Rocking M finishing with Kelly a ranch hand from Aggie Conway’s place fetched him to tend to a cowboy that got his leg ripped open by a steer’s horns.”
“I remember that,” Aggie said.
“I was there,” Jim Talbot said. “Right about the time he finished tending to that cowboy one of the men from the Lady Eleanor came riding in to tell Sam that there’d been a dynamiting accident and several men were injured by a rockslide.”
“If I recall correctly,” Scott Lancer spoke up, “no sooner did he take care of the men at the Lady Eleanor than there was an epidemic of measles among the children starting with the Pittmans’ and Kelly Millar and working it’s way from ranch to ranch and town to town.”
“I guess what it boils down to,” Murdoch realized, “is that there are too many people and places for Sam to divide his time among and still have time for himself – if only to have a good night’s sleep.”
“That’s it exactly!” Maura exclaimed. “Sam Jenkins has been unselfishly taking care of the people of this valley since shortly after Jim and I settled here. He delivered all three of my sons and only took time away from his practice here to go east and learn about new medicines and techniques. He’s never had a vacation! He’s never asked for a couple of days off and yet everybody in this room has benefited from his knowledge and skills at one time or another. It’s time we did something for him!”
“What do you suggest, Maura?” Murdoch asked. “Nobody else here has a license to practice medicine.”
“Exactly my point,” Maura said. “We need to find someone to pitch in and help Sam out. Someone younger who can take on the responsibilities of traveling from the mines to the ranches and farms and let Sam manage those patients who live in, or are able to make it into, town.”
“Where do you propose we look?” Andrew Millar asked.
“Peter Dalton runs a newspaper does he not? He could run an announcement that we write.”
“Dalton’s newspaper doesn’t have a very wide circulation,” Millar pointed out. “How’s that going to help?”
“I can send the advertisement to fellow newspapermen,” the man in question said. “I can send it to contacts in Kansas City, San Antonio and St. Louis - Boston, New York and Philadelphia as well. Somebody’s bound to see it and apply for the position.”
“What’s Sam going to say about all this?” John Mays wanted to know.
“He’ll be in favor of it if my wife has anything to say about it,” Jim Talbot chuckled. “She won’t let him out of that bed until he does. Your wife and Felicia Portillo will have something to say about it as well.”
“So will I!” Aggie Conway Addison declared. “We need to make it clear to Sam that we’re doing this because we’re concerned about his health – not because we don’t think he can handle the job. It’s time he had some help.”
“Who’s going to write the ad?” someone else wanted to know.
“Scott Lancer will,” Maura stated before anybody else could say anything. “Won’t you, Scott?”
“For you, Mrs. Talbot, anything,” Scott smiled.
A day later Scott rode into Green River to see Peter Dalton about placing the ad. He stopped in the doorway to brush off some of the trail dust.
“Scott,” Peter greeted him, “it’s good to see you my boy. What brings you into Green River at this time of day?”
“I’ve got that notice we talked about last night – the one advertising for an assistant for Sam.”
“Good, let me have it and I’ll get it ready to print right away,” the newspaperman said reaching for the paper Scott held out to him. “I’ll send it off to my colleagues at the paper in Sacramento, the New York Times, the Boston Pilot, the Boston Evening Transcript, the Boston Journal and a few others including one in Philadelphia.”
“I hope we hear from somebody soon,” Scott said with a concerned expression. “It’s already September and the mountains will be snowed in in another month or so. Not to mention that a trip around the horn would be out of the question. We need somebody before the end of October if at all possible.”
“All we can do, son, is send it in and hope for the best,” Peter Dalton said with a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “I will send copies of the paper to San Francisco and St. Louis to friends who own newspapers there. Somebody’s bound to see the notice and write to us.”
Scott shook hands with Peter and headed for the door hoping, and praying that they would, indeed, have an answer before long.
A week later…..
Nathan Pruitt sat down at the desk in his bedroom. The Pruitt mansion rang with the sound of laughter and music but Nathan didn’t hear a thing. He was reading a week’s worth of newspapers. His parents were hosting a large dinner party downstairs but he’d begged off pleading exhaustion and a headache. His mother had frowned disapprovingly but his father, more apt to be on Nathan’s side, had told him to go ahead and rest in his room. He’d arranged for one of the maids to bring him a tray with his supper. Nathan had made arrangements for a nice leisurely bath in a tub full of hot water first. He’d spent the day pandering to foolish young women who insisted on tight corsets who were accompanied by their even more foolish mothers. Mothers who kept them bound to the custom of lacing themselves to the point of breaking ribs in order to achieve that perfect figure they all wanted.
Nathan sighed heavily as he read the papers. Bad news all around and way too much society news as far as he was concerned. Then, all of a sudden, an advertisement caught his eye. It was for the position of doctor to a trio of small towns in the San Joaquin Valley. Anxious for more information he crept down to his father’s study to find a book on California. Not finding one he determined that, the very next morning, he was going to the bookstore on Market Street to find one. He was intrigued by the notice, which requested a reply – by mail or telegram – within a week. The applicant who got the job would need to leave for the west coast before the snows came and blocked some of the passes making train travel slow, if not impossible. It was now September 27 – that didn’t leave him much time to investigate the region or make inquires about the people he would be serving should he apply and be accepted.
After a week of rest, Maura allowed Sam out of bed but there was always somebody staying with him to drive him on his emergency calls out in the country. That way he could sleep on the way out and on the way back and not have to worry about his buggy tipping or his horse straying. Many of the homes he visited were very small and had no place but a spot in front of the fireplace for a visitor to stay. Sam was too old for sleeping on the floor and wouldn’t put a patient – or their family member – out of their bed just so he could sleep.
Kevin got permission from his father to take the first couple of days which, fortunately, were pretty quiet. Only one baby’s birth to be attended to and that was a in a family that only lived about a mile out of town. The wet, windy weather had young man and older man glad to get back to Sam’s place. The buggy horse appreciated the hot bran mash that Kevin mixed for her and the thick blanket he placed over her back once he’d groomed her. Sam had a pot of hot coffee ready by the time Kevin got back into the house.
Willie took the next couple of days and drove Sam to the Pittmans’ to tend to young Holly who had broken out in a rash. It turned out that the little tomboy had eaten something her brother dared her to and she was highly, though not dangerously, allergic to it.
“You’ll be certain not to take dares to eat things you don’t recognize from now on, won’t you dear?” Sam asked the little girl.
Holly just nodded. The child was miserable but there wasn’t anything Sam could do but let nature take its course. The allergen would work its way through her system and then Holly would be fine.
There was also a trip to Aggie’s to tend to a ranch hand that had been thrown from a horse he was working with. The animal had stepped in a chuckhole and fallen. The unfortunate cowhand had been unable to free both feet from the stirrups and suffered a broken left leg as a consequence. It was a good thing for Sam that he had Willie with him for the young man, though broad through the shoulders like his blacksmith father – and just as strong – was also very gentle. He was able to hold the man’s shoulders without hurting him while Sam worked the bones back into alignment. He also helped by distracting the man with a story about his younger brother, sister and their young Collie named Lancelot.
Fortunately for both men, the night passed without a single emergency call to deliver a baby or set any more broken bones let alone tend to injured drunks with knife, or gunshot, wounds.
Rico’s shift was wild. Val Crawford had three drunks that needed tending to. One had a nasty scalp wound where his drinking companion had hit him over the head with a chair. One had a gash where the third one had slashed him with a knife while another had a wrenched ankle. Val, himself, had gotten a few bruises out of it but there was nothing seriously wrong with it. Johnny would have told him he was too much like an old bear – grouchy, growly and hard to kill. Rico, however, was somewhat afraid of the gruff sheriff and always tread lightly around the older man.
When it came the Lancer brothers’ turn they spent half the nights driving Sam to deliver babies and the other half of the nights trying to catch up on their sleep. There weren’t that many babies delivered –many of the calls had been panic stricken husbands believing their wives were in labor when it was nothing but a false alarm. Sam was, despite himself, grateful to have Scott or Johnny along. They were very adept at distracting the husbands and other children – if there were any – while he tended to the pregnant woman.
This went on for the next month until finally the committee that had formed to find the new doctor had several letters of application. All of them, when investigated thoroughly through various sources, proved to be a disappointment. For two months the group received letters and for two months they rejected them. Too old, too young, too inexperienced, too greedy – the reasons why they were rejected for the position were varied.
Then came the day that the letter from Nathan Pruitt, MD of Philadelphia arrived.
“I think he’s our man,” Murdoch said after they’d reviewed the man’s letter and those that accompanied it recommending him.”
“Then let’s send for him,” Scott said. “The sooner he gets on his way the better. The mountain passes along the way will be blocked with snow if he doesn’t hurry.
A telegram was hastily sent to Philadelphia and a letter as well. Dr. Nathan Pruitt would be met at the Cross Creek train depot upon his arrival. An estimated date of arrival from Dr. Pruitt would be appreciated so they would know when to have someone waiting for him.
Nathan’s mother took the news of his eminent departure just as he expected she would – badly.
“You’re what?” she shrieked.
“I’m moving to California,” he told her. “I’ve been offered a partnership in a medical practice out there. The doctor, Sam Jenkins, is getting older and his practice has become a bit much for him since he covers three small towns plus all the ranches and farms in the area. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me.”
“But what about your career at St. George’s?” Florence Pruitt wanted to know. “I had such hopes for you there. No decent girl of any good family is going to want to marry you if you move out to that…that wilderness!”
“Mother, I’m sure there are plenty of girls of ‘good family’ in California as well – and it’s not a wilderness. California is growing as a state. I understand that I’m only a few days journey from San Francisco or Sacramento if I wish to attend the opera. Which I don’t,” he muttered the last one under his breath.
Florence opened her mouth to protest again but her husband, Matthew, broke in.
“The boy has made up his mind, Florence,” he said. “He’s not a child to be ordered around – he’s a grown man.” Turning to his son he said, “I’ve seen this coming, Nathan. You haven’t been happy for a long time. If moving to California and practicing medicine in several small communities and the surrounding area is what you want to do with you life you have my blessing.”
Nathan smiled at his father. At fifty-one Matthew was tall, slender and had just a touch of gray in his light brown hair. His hazel eyes were much like his son’s.
“Thank you, Father,” he said. “I must get a letter off to this Mr. Lancer to let him know when I expect to arrive. I need to start packing and tender my resignation at the hospital and a lot of other things.”
Nathan turned and started up the marble staircase toward his second floor bedroom. He had several letters and a telegram to write and send as quickly as possible and he had to start packing books and clothes. He didn’t suppose he’d need heavy wool clothes once he got out to California but…
Florence Pruitt turned to her husband as soon as she was sure her son was out of earshot.
“Matthew! How can you agree to this? How can you encourage him?”
“Agree to what?” Matthew asked. “Nathan didn’t ask for my permission – nor should he have to. He’s a grown man with a mind of his own.”
“But the holidays are coming,” Florence protested. “I had such plans!”
“That’s just it, dear, you had plans. Nathan has other ideas. I’m sure he’ll be sorry to miss Christmas with us but he’s got a right to his own life. He’s not interested in attending all these dinners you insist on having. If you invited the parents of these girls as much as you invite the daughters of your friends he might not feel so trapped.”
“What do you mean by that?” she asked indignantly.
“I mean that you’ve been trying to make a match for our son – one that he would be completely miserable in.” Matthew frowned at his wife. “He needs a girl with spirit and spunk – not one of the empty headed society girls you’re constantly pushing at him. Like it or not our son is leaving the nest and headed for a new life.”
What with one thing or another causing a delay, Nathan didn’t get away until the beginning of October. It was a chilly October day with bright blue skies; puffy white clouds and a brisk breeze blowing dead leaves around when the young physician took leave of his parents and the household staff. The older women, housekeeper and cook, shed a few tears as the young man they’d watched grown up in the large Georgian mansion with white columns and many windows, climb into the cab that would take him to the train station.
His mother had cried all her tears in the preceding weeks and months as she’d attempted to change her son’s mind. Her pleading had been in vain for Nathan had made up his mind and he was leaving Philadelphia for a new life in the so-called untamed west.
Nathan bent to give his mother one last kiss on the cheek before he turned to his father. He held his hand out to the tall, distinguished businessman only to find himself engulfed in a bear hug as his father bade his only son – and child – a fond farewell.
“Write as often as you can, son,” Matthew told him. “If I were but a few years younger I’d sell this house, pack up and move out there with you. I’m afraid I’m too old for that now.”
“Now father, you know that’s not true.” Nathan grinned at his father. “You’re only as old as you feel and you’ve never felt old enough to have a son that’s thirty-two. You could probably outwork ten of those westerners if you put your mind to it.”
“Go on with you now,” Matthew chuckled. “You’ve been talking to Mr. Shaughnessy again with that line of blarney. Have a safe trip. Let us know when you arrive.”
“I will, father, and thank you for everything.”
Nathan climbed into the cab and closed the door. As the vehicle pulled away from the curb he leaned out of the window to wave at his parents and friends and take one last look at his childhood home. He was sure he’d never come back again.
It took nearly two months for Nathan to make the trip. In Kansas the train was delayed by a dust storm and a buffalo herd. In Nebraska a brief snowstorm held the train up for two days. At each stop Nathan wired Murdoch to let him know his new estimated date of arrival.
In Green River, Spanish Wells and Morro Coyo the people were preparing for Christmas. Greenery was gathered and formed into wreaths and centerpieces as well as being woven through wagon wheel chandeliers. Fat red candles with bright red bows were place in widow sills. At the Bar T, in accordance with Irish tradition, Maura had the house whitewashed and the doors coated with a fresh coat of red paint. It was the same every year. Wreaths that she made were distributed to friends and acquaintances. The jail in Green River sported one regardless of any protests Val Crawford might have made. It was Maura herself who did the honors this year and she didn’t pay any attention to his complaints. She merely hung the wreath and told him what time to come to dinner on Christmas Eve. Lancer, the Bar T and the Conway ranch had been taking turns hosting each other for dinner for years. Now they included Val, Gabe – the sheriff of Spanish Wells, and Sam Jayson from Morro Coyo.
Finally, a month and a half before Christmas a telegram was received saying that Dr. Nathan Pruitt would be on the next train arriving at Cross Creek. Scott was elected to take the team of Clydesdales and the large wagon and meet him at the train station. They were sure that Dr. Pruitt would have household goods with him as well as medical supplies.
It was a warm day so Scott left his jacket behind opting only for the leather work gloves to protect his hands as he drove. He arrived at the depot about twenty minutes before the train was due to arrive and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was running on time.
“Mornin’ Scott,” the stationmaster greeted him.
“Good morning, Jake,” the blond Lancer replied. “Nice to see the train is running on time today.”
“Yep. Nice change. Been late more than it’s been on time lately.” The stationmaster was a man in his late sixties who’d been tending the Cross Creek station since it was built about fifteen years earlier. He was of average height with white hair, a moustache and blue eyes. What he didn’t know about the trains wasn’t worth knowing from how they ran to the speed they could make and whether or not they’d be on time – depending on who the engineer was.
The train was soon heard in the distance and then the brakes squealed and sparks flew as the brakeman slowed her down to stop precisely at the platform so that all passengers could disembark onto a hard surface rather than in the puddles left by the rain of the day before.
Scott looked the passengers over carefully as they stepped off the train. He only had a vague description of Dr. Pruitt and wasn’t quite sure what he was looking for. Several men who might have fit the description debarked but were greeted by people who waited for them or went into the depot to have a drink and something to eat before continuing on their journey. The station at Cross Creek was unusual in that it served food much as a stage stop would.
Finally a young man, appearing to be only slightly older than Scott himself, stepped off the train carrying a leather valise and a carpetbag. He also carried the one thing that would mark him as a doctor – a black medical bag with the name Nathan Pruitt on it in gold lettering.
“Dr. Pruitt?” Scott approached the man.
“Yes. I’m Nathan Pruitt. You are?”
“Scott Lancer,” Scott replied reaching out to relieve the man of two of his bags. “My father sent me to meet you.”
“Your Murdoch Lancer’s son then?”
“Yes – well one of them. I have a younger brother – Johnny. You’ll meet him later.”
The baggage handlers were unloading an assortment of crates, barrels and bags. They stacked the crates and leaned the bags against them or the barrels. There were nails, molasses, crates of china and canned goods. There were several boxes marked medical supplies, which Scott rightly assumed belonged to Nathan.
“How many boxes do you have on the train, Dr. Pruitt?” Scott asked.
“It’s Nathan and I believe I counted twelve,” the young doctor replied.
“Let’s get you and these bags on the wagon,” the Lancer scion said. “Then I’ll get some of the men to load your crates. You must be tired.”
“I am a little tired,” Nathan admitted. “Mostly, though, I’d like a nice hot bath to wash the coal dust and smoke and dust off and some clean clothes.”
“I think that can be arranged,” Scott smiled. “You’re going to stay with Jim and Maura Talbot at the Bar T for a couple of days to rest up. She insists on it and one does not argue with Mrs. Talbot once she’s got her mind made up!”
Nathan was intrigued. It would seem that this Mrs. Talbot was a formidable person. His vivid imagination pictured something quite different from the reality when he met her face to face. The image of the large, heavyset, florid-faced woman he had pictured was dismissed upon meeting the tiny redhead who had wrapped herself around the hearts of so many and adopted so many of the young people as her own after losing her three sons.
“Mr. and Mrs. Jim Talbot I’d like you to meet Dr. Nathan Pruitt,” Scott made the introductions.
“Dr. Pruitt,” Jim acknowledged while shaking the man’s hand.
“Nathan, please,” the younger man said.
“All right, Nathan it is.”
“You must be worn out from all that traveling,” Maura clucked. “Come along with me to the kitchen and I’ll rustle you up something to tide you over until supper while Alex and Scott unload your luggage.” Turning to Scott she added, “Scott will see that your crates of medical supplies are delivered to Sam’s office won’t you dear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Scott replied.
“And make sure that that rapscallion of a brother of yours – and his friends – are careful with them when they unload them! You know how they are when they get together. They’re just like children! Always pushing and shoving and making fun of each other.”
Nathan wondered just who these people were. He would find out soon. For now, though, Maura shepherded him into her warm, cozy kitchen and poured him a cup of coffee and gave him a piece of cake. When he was through she showed him to the room he would stay in – the one that had been Kendall’s. A tub was already in place – all that needed to be done was to haul hot water up from the stove which Jim did as soon as he brought Nathan’s bags up.
Ten minutes later the new doctor had had a hot bath and was dressed in clean clothes. Utterly exhausted he sank onto the bed and promptly fell asleep – not rousing until Jim fetched him for supper.
“Nathan, I’d like you to meet my father, Murdoch Lancer,” Scott started the introductions as Nathan joined them at dinner a few nights later.
“Mr. Lancer,” Nathan couldn’t get over how tall – and big – Murdoch was. Scott wasn’t short but his father…
“This is Teresa O’Brien – my father’s ward,” Scott said.
Nathan bent at the waist to kiss the back of Teresa’s hand as if he were greeting one of the society women back in Philadelphia. The tiny brunette blushed at the gesture.
“This is my brother, Johnny,” Scott ended.
“Johnny,” Nathan commented. “I’ve heard a lot about you from Mrs. Talbot. She sings your praises but says you’re awfully hard on her cookie jar.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Scott said jibing at his brother. “He and his buddies would eat her out of house and home if they could get away with it.”
Johnny chose to ignore that comment. “Mrs. Talbot’s a real good cook. It’s always nice to have lunch or supper there.”
“Shall we go into dinner?” Murdoch suggested. “Maria’s been working hard all day to make a special meal to welcome the new doctor.”
Indeed Maria had worked hard. She had a succulent beef roast, mountains of mashed potatoes, green beans, fresh rolls and butter and a dish of greens. There was coffee for those who wanted it and milk for those who preferred it. Johnny tended to be a milk drinker at home but a coffee drinker when on the range or the trail.
“Dinner was delicious,” Nathan complimented Maria when they were through eating the peach cobbler she’d made for dessert. “You must give me the recipe for this cobbler. Our cook back home never made one half as good as this.”
“Gracias, señor,” Maria beamed.
“You’re most welcome.”
The group retired to the Great Room to relax and talk. Nathan would be spending the night at Lancer in order to begin to get acquainted with those Maura had told him would be his “best customers”. She had regaled him with a few stories of what it was like to be a doctor in this part of the valley – especially when the Lancer boys and their friends were around. Nathan had already decided that Maura was a good person to have around when there was a disaster. In the two days that he’d spent at the Bar T he’d treated several injuries – including a ranch hand that had fallen from a roof and broken his leg in several places. He found her to be calm but caring and very efficient at assisting a doctor with his patients.
“Tell us a little about yourself, Nathan,” Murdoch requested.
“You already know I’m from Philadelphia. On my mother’s side of the family I’m related to the Drexels and the Biddles – big society folks. My great-great-great grandfather or something like that was a soldier in the Revolution, another relative was a hero during the War of 1812 but was killed in a duel with a Congressman. The Drexels are bankers now and have been for some time.”
“I’m an only child – my mother lost several children before, and after, I was born. I’m thirty-two and single and heartily sick and tired of society matrons pushing their daughters at me!”
Murdoch chuckled. “That’s not a problem I ever had. Thirty years ago I was a virtually penniless immigrant who walked off a ship from Inverness. Scott’s mother was one of those high society girls. Her mother was dead and her father didn’t like me. Her family thought she was daft when she agreed to marry me but we were very happy until she died when Scott was born.”
“That’s one of the very reasons I decided to study medicine,” Nathan explained. “My older brother died of pneumonia, my older sister died of the measles. There was no doctor of any worth available to help them. I wanted to be available to anybody who needed help but my mother – well she wants me to be Chief of Staff at a major hospital and marry a girl of what she terms ‘good family’. I answered your ad because I saw an opportunity to practice medicine where I could help people who need me instead of silly females – pardon me Miss Teresa – who swoon at nothing!”
Teresa nodded her forgiveness with a smile. She knew exactly what he was talking about for some of her friends from town and the outlying ranches were just that way. Teresa had never been a swooner. She never would have survived those first dark days after her father’s murder if she had been for she’d had to take charge of the ranch and nursing Murdoch back to health.
“Do you have any special interests or hobbies?” Scott asked.
“I enjoy chess, checkers, a good book, music,” Nathan replied. “I always enjoyed being outdoors when I could escape from the house or the hospital but I’m afraid your weather, here, is not conducive to ice skating or sledding. My friends and I used to have some pretty good snowball fights when we were kids – as long as our mothers didn’t know about it. There are certain ‘codes of behavior’ for the well to do you know.”
Scott nodded in empathy. His grandfather had never been happy to hear that “Scotty” had been involved in any kind of an altercation - not even a harmless snowball fight. It just wasn’t seemly.
“Ever do any hunting?” Johnny asked.
“Some,” the older man replied – keeping secret the fact that he was the best hunter among his peers. “I didn’t have much time for it once I started working at St. George’s.”
Johnny’s eyes lit up. If Scott had been looking directly at him he would have seen the look that crossed his brother’s face and been ready to head off what he would have been sure was certain trouble. He didn’t, however, so whatever it was Johnny was cooking up wouldn’t be thwarted by his older brother’s interference.
The Lancers and their guest chatted a while longer and then retired to their rooms to get a good night’s sleep. Nathan would be driven into town to meet Sam and start the search for a place to live. He would share Sam’s house in Green River until he did.
“I enjoyed my stay with your family,” Nathan said as he and Scott drove into Green River the next morning.
“We enjoyed having you,” Scott said.
“Your brother doesn’t talk much, does he?” Johnny intrigued Nathan for reasons he couldn’t explain.
“No, not much – unless somebody gets him started,” Scott chuckled. “Then you have to watch out. Even more so when his sense of humor gets going.”
“He and his three buddies, Rico Portillo, Willie Mays and Kevin Millar have a reputation for practical jokes,” the blond Lancer explained to the newcomer. “They’ve earned it too.”
Scott explained about the Halloween pranks they’d pulled a few years earlier – the jack o’lanterns in abandoned buildings, outhouses tipped, bedrooms recreated in the courtroom. Also about the desk that had all its contents switched around, clothes substituted so that he and Murdoch had clothes in wrong sizes – the only person that had truly been “safe” was Maria but they’d pulled something on her as well.
Nathan laughed uproariously when he heard about the giant “chicken” and Maria’s giving Johnny a plate of hay for breakfast the morning after. He and his friends had never done anything like that – in fact they wouldn’t have even thought of it.
“You’re right, Scott,” he laughed. “They have earned their reputation.”
“That’s why I call them the Prankster Posse,” Scott told him. “Johnny tends to be the ringleader but what he doesn’t dream up Kevin does and the other two go along quite willingly with whatever they decide.”
“I can see I’ll have to be on my guard,” the young doctor said. “When do I meet the rest of the pranksters?”
“I imagine one, or more, of them will be at Sam’s,” Scott told him as they turned onto the main street in Green River. “They’ve been helping Sam out by driving him to his emergency calls so that he doesn’t push himself to the point of exhaustion again.”
Nathan looked around as they proceeded to Sam’s house. Christmas decorations were in all the store windows. Wreaths hung from nearly every door of every house and store in Green River. White picket fences had greenery and red ribbons draped on them. Scott snickered to himself when he saw that the wreath Maura had put on the door to Val’s jail was still in place. The man was completely buffaloed by the tiny redhead no matter what he might tell other people. The Lancers, Sam and Jim Talbot in particular, all knew this.
Once they pulled up to Sam’s house the two young men – Johnny had been left behind to cover his brother’s chores – jumped down and walked up to the front door. Rico and Kevin who were about to switch shifts so that Rico could get to work at the livery stable in Spanish Wells met them, at the door.
“Hola, Scott!” Rico greeted his pal’s brother.
“Hi Scott,” Willie also greeted the older Lancer brother.
“Rico, Willie,” Scott nodded. “This is Dr. Nathan Pruitt. He’s going to be working with Dr. Jenkins from now on so you won’t have to give up your regular work any more – unless they both request your help.” Turning to the slightly older man next to him Scott finished the introductions. “Nathan Pruitt I’d like you to meet Willie Mays and Rico Portillo. I told you about them – they’re two of Johnny’s buddies.”
“Gentlemen,” Nathan shook hands with both younger men. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“You might not be so sure of that,” Scott joked, “once you meet the third member of this little group. Where is Kevin?”
“He’s working at home today,” Willie told him.
“Ah, that explains why it’s so quiet around here,” Scott laughed.
“Hey! I resent that!” Willie was indignant.
“Why? I didn’t say you were noisy.” Scott’s grey-blue eyes twinkled.
“Never mind,” Sam came out of the back examination room at that point. “You two boys run along. You have jobs waiting for you.”
The two youngest men took their leave of the three older ones and closed the door behind them. Sam turned to Scott and the young man next to him.
“Nathan Pruitt, I’d like you to meet your new boss. Sam, this is Nathan Pruitt – he’s the young doctor we told you about.”
“Welcome to California, young man,” Sam said shaking Nathan’s hand warmly. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance at last. The committee members have told me all about you.” Dismissing Scott with a nod of his head, Sam gestured for the young doctor to have a seat. “Now I want to hear from you about your work in Philadelphia.”
“Merry Christmas, Sam,” Scott grinned as he left. “We hope you enjoy your ‘present’.”
A week before Christmas Nathan was alone in Sam’s office when Kevin showed up with his little sister, Kelly, in tow.
“Kevin, you don’t need to shout,” Sam scolded.
“Sorry,” Kevin grinned. “Kelly has your eggs for you. I got elected to bring her in to deliver them.” Scowling at the nine-year-old he added, “She wouldn’t trust me to bring them in myself. She said they’d all be broken and Dr. Sam wouldn’t have any eggs for breakfast.”
“Well, it’s true!” Kelly insisted. “You never ride Coco slower than a gallop if you can help it. He’d stumble in a chuck hole and all the eggs would fall and get broken!”
“That’s enough, you two,” Sam said sternly. “He was used to their arguments. Kevin was eleven years older than Kelly and intensely disliked being made responsible for her. “Nathan, I’d like you to meet Kevin Millar and his sister, Kelly. Kids, this is Dr. Nathan Pruitt. He’s come all the way from Philadelphia to live here and help me take care of the people in the towns and out in our part of the San Joaquin.” Turning back to Nathan he added, “Their father owns the Rocking M. Kevin is good friends with Johnny Lancer, Rico Portillo and Willie Mays.”
The young rancher with the sun-streaked light brown hair shook hands with the slightly older doctor.
“It’s a pleasure, Doc.”
“Please, call me Nathan,” the other man insisted, “or we’re going to get confused as to which ‘doc’ you’re talking to.”
Kevin grinned. He liked this man already. He’d heard a little about him from Johnny and he and his friends had been making plans.
“Ok. Nathan it is.” Kevin’s eyes were sparkling with delight and mischief. He and the other members of the Prankster Posse had plans for the greenhorn.
Sam took Kelly out to his kitchen so the little girl could put away the eggs she’d brought for him. While they were there he took the money out of his sugar bowl to pay the child.
“Hey Nathan,” Kevin said. “Me and the fellas – Johnny, Rico and Willie – are going hunting this Saturday. We thought you might like to join us.”
“Is Scott invited, too?” Nathan asked.
“Nah. He doesn’t like hunting with us,” Kevin said with blue eyes dancing. “He thinks we make too much noise and scare his game away. We think he thinks too much.”
Nathan’s eyebrows rose at that remark. He was on high alert now.
“If Scott thinks too much why would you invite me – a doctor – to go with you?”
“’Cause you’re new and this is our way of welcoming you to the community.”
Nathan was even more suspicious but decided to play along. After the chat he’d had with Scott he was very curious to find out what they might have in store for him whom they obviously suspected knew nothing about hunting.
“All right. I’ll go with you.” The young doctor kept a very straight face as he answered positively to Kevin’s invitation.
“Great! We’ll pick you up here around noon on Saturday.” Grinning at the thought of making the other man look foolish he added, “We’ll bring the provisions. You just get yourself a sack and a rifle – or a shotgun if you prefer. We’re going after snipe.”
“I look forward to it,” Nathan assured the young man.
Nathan watched the young man, and his little sister, leave. He and Sam chatted for a while about Nathan’s work in Philadelphia and about what would be expected of him when he worked with Sam. The older man briefed the younger one on the patients he was seeing – specifically the expectant mothers and the elderly who were suffering from various ailments now that the cold, damp weather of winter had set in.
“Sheriff Crawford said you wanted to see me.”
Scott had come into Green River with Teresa who wanted to pick up some things from Mayor Higgs’ store that she wouldn’t trust the men with. While they were there Val had stopped in and told Scott that Nathan was looking for him.
“Yes, I am. I want to enlist your help with something.”
Quickly Nathan explained about the snipe hunt that was planned for him for Saturday night.
“Why those little…” Scott was indignant but not surprised. “That explains why Johnny has been so mysterious this week. I thought it had to do with Christmas but I should have known better.”
“Here’s what I want you to do.”
Nathan explained his plan to make the snipe hunt backfire on the pranksters. The two men made plans to meet the next night – Friday – to finalize the preparations. Scott would get the required items and plant them in the woods where would-be victim of the Prankster Posse would be able to find them when he was ready. Better yet Scott would be hiding in the woods to help with the plan. If all went as planned the Prankster Posse wouldn’t be so quick to pick on a newcomer for a while.
Saturday noon, as promised, the Prankster Posse – all four of them – showed up in Green River to meet Nathan. They had a packhorse with camping gear and bedrolls were tied behind their saddles. All wore warm jackets and had slickers with them in case the weather turned wet while they were gone.
When Nathan joined them he, too, wore work pants and an old shirt. Scott was about the same size so while Nathan was busy getting settled in at Sam’s the older Lancer son had gone to Mayor Higgs’ store and purchased some things for the new doctor. The wealthy Philadelphian didn’t have much in the line of old clothes – the hospital he’d been working at had rather a strict dress code and, in point of fact, so had his mother when it came to her dinner parties. Not having a vacation of any sort since the last leave he’d had while in the army Nathan was decidedly short on clothes that were appropriate to wear on a hunting expedition.
“You ready to go, Doc?” Johnny asked.
“Yes, I’m ready,” was the reply.
Once Nathan was mounted the five young men headed northward toward a large wooded area that the Prankster Posse was well acquainted with. Little did the Prankster Posse know what was in store for them.
“Here’s where we’ll camp for the night,” Johnny announced as they approached a clearing near Wolf Creek.
The clearing was large enough for the five men to camp, close to water for them and the horses and there was enough grass for the horses to graze on for a couple of days. Quickly, they set about clearing a spot for a fire and hobbling the horses. Nathan made a pretext of being completely helpless and inept around the campsite. He was setting the snickering pranksters up perfectly.
“So when do we start looking for this snipe?” he asked with a perfectly straight face.
“As soon as it gets dark,” Kevin told him. “A snipe is a very elusive and shy creature. He only comes out at night and you have to really coax him.”
The other three younger men tried valiantly to keep from grinning but Nathan saw it. He chose to ignore them however as any sign that he knew what they were up to would spoil his fun.
“Ok. What do we do in the meantime?”
“We fish for our supper,” Johnny said handing Nathan a fishing pole.
“Ah, fishing! An excellent hobby,” Nathan said with a grin.
“You haven’t been lived until you’ve gone fishing with Johnny,” Willie grinned.
“Yeah, when he can’t catch ‘em he shoots ‘em,” Kevin laughed.
Johnny scowled at his buddies not that it did him any good. Nathan thought it was funny and made a mental note to ask Scott about this later.
The five men made their way to the stream and picked out what they thought were good positions to fish from. It wasn’t long before they had all caught several good-sized trout – enough to feed all of them.
Rico took charge of cooking the fish after they conned Nathan into cleaning them all and saving the fish entrails as “bait” for the snipe. It was a well-sated group that started out to begin the hunt.
“Doc – why don’t you try over that way?” Johnny handed him a burlap sack. “If you catch one put it in this sack.”
Nathan took the sack and started eastward in the direction Johnny had indicated. The pranksters had played right into his hands as that was the direction he needed to go to meet up with Scott.
“Scott? Are you here?” the doctor whispered as he approached the rendezvous point.
“Yes, I’m here,” came the equally quiet reply from behind a towering pine tree.
“Have you got it?”
“Yes. It wasn’t easy but I got what you asked for and found somebody to put it together for me.” Scott grinned ruefully. “Even after three years in the army I still can’t sew worth a lick.”
“Good thing you were an officer then,” Nathan joked. “You would have made a lousy foot soldier or doctor.”
Scott just shrugged and grinned as he handed over a sack similar to the one the older man was carrying. Nathan looked inside and was satisfied.
“That’ll do fine,” he said to the younger man. “Hang onto it for me. I don’t want them to see it until they’re good and spooked and the time is right. I’ll signal you with a screech owl’s cry when I want you to throw it at them. With any luck they’ll run screaming back to the campsite, build up the fire and not move from there the rest of the night. Then we’ll leave in the morning with them thinking I was successful in scaring it into the open but I’ll go back with my sack empty. When the time is right I’ll spring the trap.”
“When do we start the backfire?” Scott wanted to know.
“Give me a couple of minutes to start ‘calling’ my prey,” was the answer. “Then start with the noises I taught you.”
Nathan stealthily made his way back to a place that would be within hearing range of the Prankster Posse. He took some of the smelly fish guts and threw them around calling “here snipe”. “Come here little snipe. Nathan’s not going to hurt you.”
Johnny and his pals were only a few yards away, hidden in some brush, and could clearly hear Nathan. They decided that they’d better make their presence known if they were going to make this joke work.
“Hey doc,” Kevin called softly. “Any luck yet?”
“No,” was Nathan’s reply, “but I think I heard something a minute ago. It might have been the snipe trying to run away.”
“Could be,” Johnny agreed with a twinkle in his eyes that he hid underneath the brim of his hat. “Better try calling it again.”
Just then a bloodcurdling noise could be heard about a quarter mile from where they were. Nobody seemed to know what it was at first.
“Could that be the snipe?” Nathan wondered aloud.
Johnny and the other young men stared wide-eyed at each other. They’d never heard anything like it and were a bit spooked by it.
“Maybe.” Willie’s eyes showed up round and white in his dark face.
“Here snipe,” Nathan coaxed the unseen animal.
The noise they’d heard a moment ago was closer this time causing Kevin to just about jump out of his skin. Rico and Willie looked ready to panic as well. They’d never heard anything like it and they fervently hoped they wouldn’t meet up with whatever it was while it was dark.
For the next hour the pranksters and the new doctor prowled around in the woods looking for the elusive snipe. Several more times the spooky animal cry was heard – getting ever closer with each time.
Around midnight it sounded again – so close the boys were sure that the woods were haunted.
“That snipe certainly has an unusual cry, doesn’t it fellows?” Nathan asked his hunting companions.
“Yeah, it sure does,” said an uneasy Johnny.
A second later the cry sounded about twenty feet behind them – close enough that the jokesters finally gave in to their fright. Kevin took one look at Johnny’s face and Rico one look at Willie’s face and all four young men had suddenly had enough of hunting in these particular woods. The sight of a medium sized figure with glowing yellow eyes staring at them from the trees was too much for them. Very carefully, so as not to spook the “snipe” they backtracked and headed for the campsite. A soft thud behind them had them convinced that the animal had jumped out toward them. A moment later they heard the triumphant yell of Nathan Pruitt as he bagged his first snipe.
“Hey fellows! I got him!” Nathan looked around and saw no one. “Johnny? Kevin? Boys? Where are you? I got my ‘snipe’! Don’t you want to see it?”
The young men were out of hearing range at that point. As soon as they were sure they were out of range of an attack they had turned tail and run as fast as they could. Even now they were saddling their horses and getting ready to leave. Nathan and Scott’s plan had worked even better than they had anticipated it would. It would be a long time before the Prankster Posse tried anything on Nathan again once they found out they’d been had.
Christmas Day dawned bright, sunny and cool. The Lancers had exchanged gifts, eaten dinner and were relaxing in the Great Room with pie and coffee when there was a knock on the front door. Teresa answered it and admitted the Talbots followed by Johnny’s buddies. Fifteen minutes later Sam and Nathan arrived.
It was traditional for the Lancers and the Talbots to have dinner together at some point in time during the Christmas season and to exchange gifts. This year they had done it on the 23rd and on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day was spent visiting different friends and enjoying coffee, dessert and pleasant conversation.
For Johnny and the pranksters it was their time to exchange gifts – usually something for the horses or perhaps some gloves or something. This year was no different. There were new blankets for the four horses, a bridle for Rico’s Eagle and a new pair of spurs for Kevin who’d broken one and was wearing spurs borrowed from his father.
“I have to tell you, Murdoch,” Sam said, “that Nathan, here, is the best Christmas present I could ever have gotten. He’s a godsend.”
Nathan blushed at this high praise from the older man. Maura smiled and nodded. She felt the same way for now Sam would have some help in managing his practice and she knew that Nathan would enjoy working in small towns.
“Speaking of gifts,” Nathan said with a conspiratorial wink at Scott, “I have something for Johnny and his friends. “It’s out in the buggy. Excuse me a moment while I go get it.”
“Do you need some help with it, Nathan?” Scott inquired.
“No, you sit and enjoy your other guests. I’ll be right back.” was the reply.
True to his word Nathan returned momentarily with a burlap sack that contained his “snipe”. Scott could barely contain his laughter knowing what was coming.
“Here you go boys,” the young doctor said as he handed the bag to Johnny.
“For us?” Johnny was taken aback as they didn’t know each other that well yet.
“Yes. It’s my way of thanking you for a wonderful snipe hunt the other week.”
“Snipe hunt? You boys took Nathan snipe hunting?”
“It’s not like you think Mr. Lancer,” Kevin tried to explain.
“I know perfectly well what a snipe hunt is Kevin Millar!” Murdoch roared. “I was the victim of one shortly after I came to this country.”
“Mr. Lancer,” Nathan soothed the angry older man. “It’s all right. I had a successful hunt after the boys left that night.” Turning to Johnny he said, “Go ahead and open it.”
Johnny did so and was as stunned as his buddies when he saw the contents. The two conspirators, Nathan and Scott, had taken a rabbit’s tail, a skunk’s body and a raccoon’s head and had them sewn together and stuffed with wool.
“What is that?” Johnny asked in amazement.
“That’s a snipe, Johnny,” Nathan explained patiently. “I caught it after you boys ran back to the campsite – in a state of panic I might add.”
“But…but there’s no such thing as a snipe,” Willie protested as Rico added his two cents worth in rapid Spanish.
“I know that,” Nathan told them. “I knew it all along. Scott helped me set you fellows up. It was he who made those noises. I taught him how to imitate a loon’s wail, tremolo and yodel. We planned the whole thing as soon as you invited me to go on the snipe hunt.”
“But…” Johnny was at a loss for words.
“Little brother, in spite of your best efforts to put one over on Nathan it looks like you’re the one left holding the bag – and it’s not Santa’s bag of toys.”