A Christmas X-over story
Scott envied Johnny his ability to sleep on the bucking, swaying stagecoach. Even his father seemed oblivious to the rough trip. Only he and Teresa seemed to suffer in silence, occasionally catching each others’ eyes and rolling them in disgust.
Since coming out west, Scott had gotten used to 'roughing it'. He was inured to the stench of branding stock. He could sleep on the cold, hard ground without batting an eye and he was used to doing a full day's work alongside Johnny or any of the hands; but the discomfort of riding in a stagecoach still grated on him.
And on top of that, it was colder than a gold miner's grave. Scott chuckled to himself. Even his vocabulary had changed.
He pulled his coat closer around him, regretting that he didn’t have the fur-lined coat he wore in Boston. He lifted the collar to warm his neck. Johnny's leather jacket seemed to be keeping him warm enough and Teresa was wrapped in a coat with a fur muff protecting her hands.
The temperature had plummeted as they neared the end of December. The idea of surprising Murdoch with a trip to his old friend’s house for the holidays had seemed like the perfect present. Now, in hindsight, it was probably the wrong time of year to be traveling in this part of the country.
Maybe the stage depot in Colorado Springs would lend some well needed warmth for the night. And, if he was lucky, he would have time to purchase a warmer jacket.
The stage rounded a corner and, suddenly, they were at the end of a street. Houses came into view and then the center of town. Colorado Springs turned out to be no bigger than Spanish Wells, but that made it larger than most of the towns they'd passed through since leaving Greenhorn this morning.
The coach rumbled to a stop with a jolt. Scott clutched at the window beside him and smiled as Johnny came to life again, grabbing his hat as it dropped off his head when he fell forward.
"Damn, you'd think Dallas never drove a stage before," Johnny grumbled.
Scott grinned, as intrigued as ever by Johnny's easy way of getting to know people. He'd taken up with the crusty old driver on their way to Lachlan MacRae's ranch three weeks ago, and now, as they made their way back home, the two were fast friends.
"Okay folks, we spend the night here,” Dallas called down from the driver’s seat. He dropped to the boardwalk and opened the door for his passengers. “You'll find good food and warm beds at the hotel. We leave eight o'clock sharp in the morning. Late and you'll be left behind."
Murdoch climbed out first, arched his back and groaned and then helped Teresa down. Johnny scrambled out the door and dropped, catlike, to the ground with Scott right behind him.
Johnny looked around, pulling his jacket around him tighter. "I think I'll have a look around," he said, resettling his gun on his hip.
"Mind if I join you, Brother?" Scott asked.
"Think you can stay out of trouble?" Johnny asked him with a wry grin.
A wide grin spread across Scott's face. "Following you? Not a chance."
"Both of you stay out of trouble," Murdoch warned them seriously as the two stepped out into the street. "And don't be late for dinner. “
Johnny slapped Scott across the back, looking over his shoulder at Murdoch. "No need to worry about dinner, Ol’ Man,” he said with a wide grin. “I could eat a horse right about now. We're just gonna check the town out. Maybe find a card game or something for later."
"Don’t make it too late, Johnny," Murdoch told him firmly. "You heard the driver. Early start tomorrow; or you get to stay here for the duration."
He turned back to Teresa, offered her his arm and walked her towards the hotel, calling back over his shoulder. "I'll register for you but, remember, don't be late.”
Scott watched Johnny put his hat back on his head and settle it comfortably. Scott shivered again. "I don't know about you, but I'm going to find a store that sells nice warm coats first."
"You cold, Boston? I thought you loved this kind of weather. You getting soft on us?”
"I'm surprised you're not complaining about the cold," said Scott.
"I'll tell you something, Boston," Johnny answered, taking a breath and putting a serious expression on his face. "I've been in the desert on nights that were so cold it'd freeze the balls off a jackrabbit. Its snow I don't take to."
Scott laughed and clamped his arm around Johnny's shoulders, then headed him toward the store across the street. “Let's find a suitable jacket so I won’t freeze to death, then get a drink to warm our insides."
Dr. Michaela Quinn sat in the hotel lobby waiting for the call to board the stage. Christmas decorations already hung around the room, adding a festive air that Michaela found a little depressing. She wished she was at home with Sully and the children rather than traveling to Denver so close to the holiday.
One of only a handful of women doctors in the entire country and the only doctor for Colorado Springs and its adjacent towns, she had had her hands full convincing her patients that she was just as qualified as any other doctor with a degree and probably with more common sense than some.
She still had her hold-outs though, especially Hank the saloon keeper. She had more than a casual dislike for the man and how he treated his working girls.
But, this morning, her mind was not on the townspeople, or even on her husband Sully and her children. She was most concerned about the little girl who sat next to her, the child’s small shoulder resting against Michaela’s side for protection.
Mary Rogers sat silently. Her world had been thrown into chaos after her parents were killed in a buggy accident two weeks ago. She was eight years old and alone in the world, except for an aunt in Denver whom she had never met.
Through the tragic ordeal, Mary had bonded with Michaela and when the letter had arrived to say that Mary’s aunt would take her in, Michaela felt compelled to escort the child to her new home. It was hard to lose a loved one at any time, but now, just a week away from Christmas, it seemed all the more tragic. All the bright decorations faded.
Michaela looked up at the sound of people walking down the stairs toward the lobby. A huge bear of a man led the way. A young woman, possibly his daughter, held his arm. They were followed by a tall lean man wearing brown pants and a tan shirt, his blond hair neatly trimmed and another young man, his dark hair seemingly as unruly as his selection of clothes. He wore black leather pants with bright silver studs set into the outside seam and a faded salmon-colored shirt with fancy embroidery accenting the front.
He caught her staring and she was rewarded with an irreverent smile. Michaela wasn’t sure if the rush of color to her cheeks could be seen across the room but she quickly turned away and looked toward the door, hoping to see the stage driver appear.
Scott nodded briefly to the woman as he passed. She had an air of elegance, despite her barely fashionable traveling clothes, and she was certainly a beautiful woman. He noticed that Johnny took more than a passing glance at her as well.
He wondered if she would be traveling with them. Teresa would be sure to enjoy some feminine company.
While he wanted to get home to Lancer, he hated the thought of getting back on the stage in the frigid weather. Here in the hotel, with its warm fireplace blazing and Christmas decorations hanging from every place possible, he almost wished they could stay there rather than face the freezing weather outside.
He pulled on his new jacket, lined with wool and definitely more appropriate for the weather here; then he looked back over his shoulder to find that Johnny was also shrugging lazily into his leather coat. It was warm enough in the hotel, but the chill outside would be biting.
The bright, early morning light struck his eyes as he stepped outside the door. He blinked in the sunlight and let his eyes adjust, pulled the jacket a little tighter around him and rubbed his hands together. He considered putting on the gloves that he had tucked in his pocket, but there’d be time for that later.
Suddenly, Scott realized the stage was surrounded by a virtual crowd of townspeople.
He felt Johnny stiffen next to him. Johnny neither liked nor trusted crowds.
But they found themselves completely ignored as the people surrounded the woman behind them.
"You will be back for Christmas, won't you, Ma?" one small blond-headed boy asked her. Scott was surprised. "You promised, remember, Ma?" the boy continued, frowning heavily.
"Of course I will, Brian. You won't even miss me. You and Sully are going to find that special turkey, aren't you?"
"Sure! An' we're gonna find the biggest tree you ever did see, too!"
"That's the spirit. And Colleen will make all the pies."
"Don't worry about a thing, Ma," a tall blond teenager assured her. Scott was stunned. He would never have thought her old enough to have a son his age. “We’ll have everything ready for Christmas when you get home.”
Scott saw a man step forward, his hair draped loosely over his shoulder and wearing a fringed doeskin coat and pants. To Scott’s surprise, he wore a sheathed knife at his hip instead of a gun; and beads around his neck and soft moccasins gave him a look very much like the Indians Scott had seen, but he was undeniably white.
A huge dog stood by his side and Scott caught his breath. That was no dog; it was a wolf.
With no show of reserve, the man wrapped his arms around her and pulled her in close, kissing her gently. "Don't be gone long," he said quietly. "And don't worry about them. They'll be just fine."
“I know, Sully,” she answered him with a sigh. “But I’ll miss them… I’ll miss you.”
Scott felt Johnny push past him, pulling Teresa toward the coach. "It's cold out here, Boston. We'll wait for you inside."
Scott turned his attention to his brother and Teresa. Murdoch followed them into the coach, the springs sinking low as he pulled his huge frame up the step. When Scott turned back, the woman was accepting a basket from one of her friends, smiling and thanking her, while another told her seriously that she should be wary of strangers, eyeing Scott skeptically.
Scott smiled and turned away, then climbed into the coach. Johnny had already taken his customary seat next to the window and settled in, so Scott sat beside him.
Murdoch and Teresa sat opposite them and the driver called out from above, "Better get yourself on board, Dr. Mike. This stage ain't gonna wait."
Dr. Mike? Scott was taken back by the title. And ‘Mike’ certainly was a strange name for a woman.
The coach jostled as Sully lifted the little girl into it. She stood nervously watching and waiting for the woman to join her, then stepped back out of the way as she climbed inside.
Scott scuttled sideways, closer to Johnny, to allow the woman to sit beside him. The little girl crammed in on the other side of her and curled herself in close. It was a tight squeeze but Johnny got to his feet and edged past them to sit beside Teresa instead. Teresa looked at him indignantly at the loss of her window seat. Johnny just smirked in reply.
“I’m sorry,” ‘Dr. Mike’ said. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“De nada, Ma’am,” Johnny answered lazily and pulled his hat down over his eyes
They barely had time to get comfortable for no sooner had the door closed than the coach jolted and bounced and moved off, leaving behind the crowd of well-wishers.
Scott watched as the woman balanced the basket on her knee and put her arm around the child. She looked anything but comfortable.
“Perhaps I can take that,” Scott suggested and took the handle of the basket, noting how heavy it was. "We can put it right here in front of your daughter."
“Oh, thank you,” she answered, smiling, while the girl snuggled in still closer to her as though frightened.
He put the basket on the floor at their feet and breathed in the smell of roast chicken. A gingham cover lay over the top of the basket, but the aroma filled the coach as he then sat back. “I’m Scott Lancer,” he said.
“Michaela Quinn,” she replied. “And this is Mary, but she's not my daughter.” She turned a reassuring smile on the child. "She's my friend, aren't you, Mary?"
“How do you do, Mary,” Scott said kindly. The child eyed him warily and didn’t reply.
“She’s a little nervous,” Michaela told him.
“Well, stages can be frightening things,” he replied with a smile, more to the little girl than to the woman. With no response but her burrowing her head deeper into Michaela’s side again, he proceeded to introduce his family. “This is my father Murdoch Lancer and his ward Teresa O’Brien, and that bastion of good manners over there is my brother, Johnny.”
Johnny looked up at that and scowled, but acknowledged the introduction with a quiet “Ma’am,” and a tip of his hat.
“Are you going far?” Teresa asked.
“To Denver,” Michaela replied. “I’m taking Mary to her aunt there. And you?”
“We’re heading home. We’ve been visiting a friend of Murdoch’s at his ranch outside Greenhorn, but we’re hoping to make it home for Christmas.”
“We’ll make it in time,” Murdoch assured her.
“Do you have far to go?” Michaela asked.
“Morro Coyo, in California,” Scott answered and watched her surprise.
“California!” she exclaimed. “Well, you have cut it a bit fine.”
“Once we’re on the train, we’ll be there in no time,” Scott replied. The coach hit a rut in the road and bumped then swerved. “And considerably more comfortable.”
Johnny turned to the window and put it up. Scott was grateful but a little surprised. Sitting back, Johnny noticed his brother watching him.
“It’s getting a mite cold,” Johnny told him, folding his arms tightly across his chest.
Scott grinned. “I thought those desert nights had hardened you to the cold.”
“Just rememberin’ those jackrabbits, Brother,” Johnny said, with a mischievous gleam in his eyes.
Scott laughed, then he turned his attention back to the woman beside him. "So, Mike must be short for Michaela," he said. "But why did the driver call you 'Dr. Mike'?"
"Because I am a doctor,” she answered defensively. “Is that so hard to accept?"
"A real doctor?" Teresa exclaimed eagerly, before Scott got a chance to reply.
"Yes, a real doctor.” Michaela smiled patiently and added ironically. “My father was a physician and encouraged me to attend medical school. I received my medical degree at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, then I joined my father’s practice in Boston until he passed away.
"Boston?" Teresa asked. Her interest swayed suddenly from the doctor's credentials. "Scott is from Boston."
"You are? But I thought you said you were from California?”
"I was raised in Boston by my grandfather, Harlan Garrett," Scott told her, eyeing Murdoch. He was all too aware of the animosity between the two.
"Oh, then you must be Scott Garrett Lancer," she said with interest. "Now I recognize the name. I was best friends with Adelaide Winters and I'm sure her younger sister Barbara mentioned your name."
There was a knowing look on the woman's face that took Scott by surprise. He could feel heat rising in his face and hoped that it wasn't showing.
“Someone you didn’t tell us about, Scott?” Johnny asked wickedly.
"Barbara and I were friends,” he replied, watching her face warily. “I remember her sister, but I didn’t know her well. She was married before Barbara and I met.”
“Yes, Adelaide ‘married well’,” Michaela answered with a sigh. “She was always excited about my plans to study medicine when we were young, but she was a little shocked when I actually did it. I think she’d thought it was all a game until then.” Michaela suddenly smiled. “She told me that I’d end up a worn out old maid if I went ahead with it.”
“I’d say she was wrong,” Scott said with a grin.
“Yes, I have Sully and three wonderful children as well as my practice.”
“I’m afraid I don't remember seeing you around Boston, and I’m sure I would have remembered you."
"I was too busy with my medical practice, then I moved to Colorado Springs. I've been back once or twice, but Boston holds no allure for me now. My life is out here."
Scott smiled knowingly. "I understand how you feel. I find California much more to my liking than Boston."
"I think it's wonderful that you were able to study and become a doctor," Teresa bubbled excitedly. "I've thought about studying to be a nurse, but to be a doctor..."
Murdoch cleared his throat. "Teresa has assisted our local doctor for years. Both Scott and Johnny can thank her for her nursing skills.” He looked at Teresa and smiled. “Me too, in fact.”
"They keep me busy," Teresa agreed with a teasing grin at the boys. "You have no idea how much trouble those two have gotten into since they came home."
Johnny looked up from under the brim of his hat. He looked less than impressed. "It's not like we go looking for trouble," he remarked defensively.
Murdoch chuckled, ""Teresa didn't say that you do, Johnny. But you have to admit you both keep her and Sam busy."
A half smile lightened Johnny’s face as he confessed, “Yeah, maybe,” and made himself comfortable again.
Michaela glanced briefly at the young man sitting opposite her. It was hard to see his face properly with his hat tipped over his forehead and casting a shadow over his face. The two of them couldn’t have looked less like brothers – one fair and one dark; one charming and at ease with company while the other seemed so much like Sully.... quietly taking in everything around him.
They didn’t appear to have much in common.
She found herself reminiscing with Scott Lancer then, while Teresa and Murdoch Lancer listened with apparent interest. Johnny Lancer remained quiet and seemed to have dozed off and the time passed far more pleasantly than she had expected.
Morning tuned to noon as they continued their journey. They stopped at relay stations and changed horses every ten to twelve miles. Murdoch Lancer had explained that that was as far as the team could pull the weight of the coach plus its passengers at speed, but it also offered them a chance to stretch their legs every so often.
Grace's basket of food had already been shared around and Michaela found herself enjoying the company of the Lancers. Mary continued to snuggle close to her, but she had noticed the little girl eyeing the young man opposite her with curiosity.
She wasn’t sure if Johnny was aware of Mary’s attention. If he was, he’d ignored it and continued to laze back into his corner. He said very little and seemed completely relaxed, but Michaela had seen Sully deceptively at ease too and wasn’t convinced.
“Just stoppin’ long enough to change the horses, folks,” Dallas called down as they climbed out of the coach. “Only be ten minutes or so, so don’t go far. But you c’n stretch your legs a mite an’ maybe wash up.”
Michaela took advantage of the few minutes to wash the remaining traces of roast chicken from her fingers. She returned to find Johnny standing by the hitching rail outside the cabin, watching the team of horses being changed. His interest was plain to see but what surprised her was that Mary was standing near him, watching the horses with just as much enthusiasm.
As the final touches were made and the driver climbed up to his box, Johnny turned away. He seemed to finally notice the little girl and produced a smile for her that Michaela thought would melt her heart.
Nothing was said and Johnny walked away to join his brother at the cabin door. Michaela wondered if he even realized what a step the child had taken in merely standing beside him and sharing that moment.
She doubted it.
Their next stop would be a longer lay-over where they would get a hot lunch and time to walk off their cramped muscles.
Michaela knew the relay station ahead of them from earlier journeys. It was a comfortable little establishment run by a friendly couple with two children. She’d treated both of the children, twin girls, for whooping cough just a couple of months ago.
She knew, from experience, that the food would be good there and the house would be warm.
So, when the stagecoach pulled to a lurching halt, Michaela heaved a sigh of relief. She waited with Mary while the others climbed down, Murdoch Lancer standing by the door to hand his ward and then herself and Mary out of the coach.
The air was cold and a few wisps of clouds in the blue sky hinted at a change in the weather. She hoped it didn't mean snow. Denver suddenly seemed a long way off.
A blast of warm air greeted the weary travelers as they paraded into the way station.
“Welcome folks.” A middle aged woman, looking much older than her years, waved a wooden spoon in the air. “The food’s hot, and plenty of it. Ladies, you will find soap and water in that room behind you to the right. The same for the gents on the left. Hurry up now, you only got half an hour before the stage leaves.”
“Thank you, Molly,” Michaela called as she pulled off her coat. “How are you feeling?”
“Just fine, thanks to you, Dr. Mike. And so are my girls.”
Two young girls, mirror images of each other, quickly set the table, staring at Mary as Michaela helped her out of her coat.
"And what brings you out this way, Dr. Mike?" Molly asked.
"I'm taking Mary here to Denver," Michaela explained briefly. "She's going to her Aunt Sarah’s."
Molly nodded, understanding. There wasn't much that she didn't hear about from passing travelers, and the buggy accident that had killed Ruth and Tom Rogers had been news.
"Well, you'll be wanting somethin' hot with the weather bein’ so cold out there," Molly suggested. "Got some beef stew ready for you folks. Best get right to it, while you got time."
Johnny waited until everyone else had disappeared to wash up and sauntered over to Molly. "Smells good," he sniffed. "Biscuits look good too."
"You trying to butter me up for extra vittles, boy?" Molly asked, her spoon coming up again.
"Just know when I smell good food, Ma'am," Johnny answered in his most innocent voice.
She scowled at him, but dolloped an extra helping on his plate and passed on to the next. Johnny grinned his appreciation and looked up as Scott came back and took a seat beside him.
"Hungry, Brother?" Scott asked, glancing at the over-laden plate in front of Johnny.
"Cold weather always gives me an appetite."
"Johnny," Scott replied with a sigh. "Everything gives you an appetite."
Murdoch laughed. "Leave your brother alone. He's a growing boy."
Scott nodded. "One day he'll be growing in the wrong direction," he said under his breath. But everyone heard and the table erupted in laughter. Even Mary smiled.
Everyone looked up as the door swung open and frigid air filled the room. The driver walked in and stomped the dust from his boots noisily then he found himself a seat and went straight to eating.
“Ya better eat up fast," Dallas said as he dug into the stew. "Weather is about to take a turn for the worse. I want ta be at the last way station for the day before it hits."
"Snow?" Murdoch asked.
"'Fraid so, but we should make it," Dallas answered between bites.
Teresa frowned. "Will that slow us down?"
"Depends..." the driver answered. "Don't usually get much this time o' year an' a little snow ain't no worse 'n a little rain. Might make for a rougher ride is all."
"Then you best be getting ready," Molly said. She left the room and returned with several blankets. "These should help. Just tell Jake at the next stop to have Dallas bring them back.”
"Thank you, Molly," Michaela said as she finished up. "Let me help you with the dishes..."
"Hush, Dr. Mike," the woman scolded. "Ain't no time for that an' a blanket's the least I can do for you an' that poor little mite." She leaned in closer to Michaela's ear and whispered, "An' for them two good looking fellas you're travelin' with. Shame we're both married women, ain't it?"
Michaela laughed. "Oh I don't know. Now, you take care of yourselves here and I'll see you on my way back. I've promised Sully and the children that I'll be back for Christmas."
"That's good to hear Dr. Mike. We're just about ready to find us a tree for decoratin’."
Mary looked up at the mention of a tree and Michaela didn't miss the look of sympathy on Johnny’s face. She suspected that there was a lot to that young man. She hoped to find out more before their journey was ended.
Scott stood by the door to the coach and handed the ladies, and Mary, aboard. Johnny passed by him with a grin and a tip of his hat and climbed in ahead of him. Scott barely got a chance to sit before the coach lurched and pulled out. He pulled his coat tighter around him and considered the blankets stacked on the floor.
Well, there was no point in leaving them there. He picked them up, one by one and handed them around.
They had traveled only half an hour before the wind picked up. It buffeted the coach mercilessly, knocking the passengers against one another.
Mary pulled the blanket up closer to her chin and shivered, then pulled her hand free and lifted the canvas from the window enough to peek out. "It's snowing!" she exclaimed excitedly. "Dr. Mike, it's snowing!"
Teresa looked at Murdoch, a concerned look on her face, but she didn't say anything. No one wanted to worry Mary, but the idea of the coach on a slushy road didn’t appeal to any of them.
Johnny sighed heavily and audibly.
“My brother isn’t fond of snow,” Scott explained, smiling.
“Well, it does make things uncomfortable if one is out in it,” Michaela admitted. “But I can’t think of anything cozier than a good book in front of a warm fire on a snowy evening.”
“You can build a snowman,” Mary interjected suddenly. She looked towards Johnny a little shyly and asked “Don’t you like to build snowmen?”
“Never tried,” Johnny told her. “Not a lot of snow where I come from.”
“I thought everyone had snow,” she told him naively.
“Nope. Where I come from, it’s too hot for snow most of the time. Gets real cold at night though.”
“I can’t imagine winter without snow. I don’t think I’d like it.”
“Neither do the jackrabbits,” Scott said under his breath. Johnny caught it though and his eyes twinkled at his brother.
Abruptly, a gust of wind hit the coach and it slewed badly, throwing them all around. Mary screamed, loud and agonized, and clutched Michaela. As the coach settled back into its steady, if uncomfortable, gait; the little girl continued to whimper into the folds of Michaela’s coat.
Michaela held her tight and did her best to console her, but nothing seemed to work.
"You know, ol' Dallas, the driver, he told me he's been driving stages for ten years and never lost one yet," Johnny assured her. "I reckon he can handle a little snow."
Michaela could feel the child's body shivering against hers. She wrapped her arms around her and prayed that the wind would die down soon.
It seemed forever before they heard Dallas call from the driver’s box for the horses to stop and the coach door was swung open by a grizzled old timer, his white beard sticking out from beneath the pulled up collar of the fur-lined jacket he wore.
“You folks best get in before ya freeze ta death,” he shouted over the wind whipping. “This storm looks like one for the books.”
Johnny gave Scott and Murdoch a worried look.
“You get the ladies inside,” Johnny said. “I’ll help Dallas with the team.”
Scott nodded. “I’ll save a cup of hot coffee for you.”
“You do that, Brother.” Johnny grinned.
Teresa sighed almost audibly. Where Molly's way station was filled with the spirit of the holidays, this one was bereft of everything but the barest essentials.
She turned to see Michaela hugging Mary tightly against her as they made their way toward the station, the fiercely cold wind whipping at their skirts.
Then, unexpectedly, Scott took the little girl in his arms and carried her into the cabin. A fire roared in the fireplace on the back wall and the smell of hot food awaited them. But there was still a coldness about the place and Michaela shivered in spite of herself.
Scott put Mary down on her feet, next to Michaela. She looked shyly up at him and then scurried in close to Michaela's skirts.
"Thank you, Scott," Michaela told him, pulling off her gloves and looking around as she wrapped one arm comfortingly around Mary. "Well, at least it's warm."
Scott nodded. "And the food smells good."
Murdoch walked over to the stove and poured four cups of coffee. "The coffee is hot."
"And we have the extra blankets, if we need them," Teresa added, looking around the room in dismay. "I guess that's all we need."
Mary yanked on Michaela's arm and the look in the little girl’s eyes was unmistakable. "And I noticed the outhouse is not too far."
Michaela and Mary were back inside the way station before Johnny and Dallas followed Russ Thompson in, lugging in bags with them. The sound of the wind outside increased until it sounded like a living monster.
"Name’s Thompson, folks… Russ Thompson. Make yourselves ta home,” the old man said gruffly.” I'll have some hot grub for yas in a jiffy. That'll warm ya up."
"Can we help you with anything?" Teresa asked him. "Perhaps I could set the table for you."
She glanced at the large, rough-hewn table and the ladder backed chairs. Comfort didn't seem to be a priority here.
"Be real obliged to ya, Miss, if ya did," Russ told her. "Sooner I get that grub into you folks, sooner you'll get the chill outa your bones."
"And," Dallas added, "That bottle of rot gut ya got stashed in the back would go a long ways to warmin’ our insides."
"I'll pass," Johnny said. "Tequila is my poison."
“Poison is right, Boy,” the driver said with a shudder.
"Mary and I will help you, Teresa," Michaela offered. "Won't we, Mary?"
The girl looked around nervously and then nodded her head and went with Michaela and Teresa to fetch the plates and flatware.
The food was plain stew, but it was tasty and hot and dinner passed quietly. Everyone was listening to the storm that seemed to be building by the minute.
"Sounds like a real howler comin’ up out there," Thompson remarked as he rose from the table. "Reckon ya got here just in time."
Murdoch nodded. "I just hope it clears by tomorrow. We are heading to Denver to catch the train."
“Yes, we want to be home for Christmas,” Teresa added.
"Takes a lota snow to stop the stage," Dallas assured them. "We'll wait an' see but I don't reckon there's much to worry on."
Teresa and Michaela stood to help clear the dishes.
“You’re Dr. Mike, ain’t ya?” Russ asked Michaela as they headed for the workbench. “From Colorado Springs?”
“That’s right,” she answered with a nod.
“Hear tell ya married Sully not so long back,” he added.
Michaela smiled. “Yes. Do you know Sully?”
“Oh, reckon everyone knows Sully. Didn’t figure him for marryin’ up though, ‘specially not to no female doctor.”
“Sully has no qualms about my profession, Mr. Thompson,” Michaela told him coolly.
He frowned and considered her. “Ain’t so sure as I’d feel right about a female doctorin’ me.”
Johnny leaned over and whispered to Scott. “I guess I’d let her set broken bones and stitch up cuts, but when it comes to real doctorin’, well…you know what Sam does when he examines a patient of his...” Johnny left the details to Scott’s imagination.
Michaela overheard him and smiled. "I hope your Dr. Sam is as through as I am."
"Shy, Brother?" Scott asked with a mischievous grin.
Johnny's cheeks reddened. "No, but there's times an' places..." he managed to say before his father spluttered his coffee across the table.
Michaela looked at Mary and saw the weary eyes drooping. "I think I should get Mary off to bed," she told them and helped the child to her feet, then left the room.
"Ladies' quarters are to the left," Thompson told them. "Holler if ya need more blankets. Likely it's gonna be a cold 'un tonight."
Teresa scowled at Johnny. "I bet Michaela's a very good doctor," she said defiantly.
"Well, I'm with ol' Russ over there," Johnny told her. "I wouldn't want her doctorin' me."
When Michaela returned a few minutes later, she found the table quiet and Teresa frowning heavily at Johnny. She didn't have to guess what the topic of conversation had been in her absence, but she didn't want to continue it. "She was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow," Michaela told them. "I left the door open so she won't be frightened. She's had a hard time of it lately.”
Johnny looked up, a knowing look in his eyes. "I figured as much," he said softly. "I could see it. She looks kind of lost... alone..."
Michaela looked at him and wondered what it was in him that had seen Mary so clearly. "Her parents were both killed in a buggy accident two weeks ago," Michaela said sadly. "Her father lived long enough to tell me about his sister in Denver. That's where I'm taking her."
Johnny's eyes hardened a little. "You couldn't save him, huh?"
Michaela sighed. "No, I couldn't save them, Johnny. I can't save everyone. Only God has that power, and I wouldn’t presume to play that role. I'm a doctor, not God."
"God kind of forgets some people. Especially the little ones..."
Michaela looked closely at him, her anger disintegrating. She glanced at his brother beside him and noticed that Scott's head had lowered a little, as had Murdoch's when she looked at him.
Murdoch's hand trembled as he reached over to clap Johnny's shoulder. "Some times it seems that way."
Michaela lifted her head and listened. "Do you hear that?" she asked.
"I don't hear anything," Murdoch said, looking up.
There was a knowing nod from Scott. "Snow, lots of snow."
Johnny groaned. "Oh, that's great!"
"You may see your first white Christmas, Brother.”
"No, we have to be back at Lancer for Christmas!" Teresa protested in disappointment.
"Don't worry, sweetheart," Murdoch patted her hand. "We'll get to Denver and the train will have no problem getting through the snow. We may just be delayed a few days."
Johnny glanced toward the end of the table to where Dallas had been sitting, quietly drinking his coffee. He wanted to believe that it wasn't doubt he could see on the old driver's face.
But he said nothing about it and stood up slowly. "I don't know about you, but I'm ready for bed. I'll see you all in the morning."
Michaela yawned. It was surprising how much traveling took out of one. "It has been a hard day. I believe I'm ready to retire also."
Johnny closed the door behind him and surveyed the room. Six bunk beds stood in two rows and he eyed the top bunk on the one closest to the window. He never liked the feeling of being trapped beneath the top bunk. He pulled his boots off, tossing them into the corner and dragged his pants off. He was glad he had decided to wear his heavy cotton long johns as he climbed up to the top bunk and pulled the blankets up to his chin and snuggled down into the warmth.
Johnny awoke early the next morning. He had slept better than he expected.
He jumped down from his bunk making as little noise as possible, quickly pulling on his pants. The room was cold...and quiet - too quiet. He crossed to the window and pulled the curtain aside. He couldn't stop the gasp that parted his lips. Before him everything was white. The ground, the trees, the stagecoach…
The stagecoach was marooned in a sea of white, all the way up to the doors.
This wasn't good. This wasn't good at all.
“¡Mierde!" he snapped. "Damned snow!”
"What...." Murdoch snorted and coughed as he came awake, turning over in his bed to look at Johnny.
"Snow!" Johnny growled. "Never seen so much of the damned stuff in my life! We'll never get outa here."
Murdoch pushed the covers off. "What's a little snow?" he asked Johnny. "It's that time of year,"
"You call that a little snow?" Johnny growled.
Murdoch climbed out of bed slapping Scott on the shoulder, not waiting for his oldest son to awaken properly. He grabbed his pants and pulled them on quickly. Clapping his hands against his arms to warm them, he walked across the room to the window. "Oh..." he gasped when he looked out.
Johnny nodded. "Just a little snow, huh? Well that is more than just a little snow."
"Yes, I see what you mean," Murdoch agreed with a heavy sigh. "I haven't seen snow that deep in years."
"Great! Just great!"
"What are you two grumbling about?" Scott protested from his bed. He ran his hand through his disheveled hair and squinted at them. "What's wrong?"
"Snow!" Johnny barked. "Lots and lots of snow."
Scott grinned at him. "Lots and lots, hey Brother?" he teased him. "A little snow never hurt anyone."
Johnny was not in the mood for humor. "I wouldn't be too sure about that."
"Ah, Scott... perhaps you should take a look," Murdoch suggested, lifting one eyebrow.
Scott lifted the blankets to get up and then dived back under them as the door slammed open and a small whirlwind blew into the room. Teresa didn't even look his way. "Have you seen it, Murdoch? How will we ever get out of here now?"
"Teresa!" Murdoch bellowed. "We aren't decent."
"Oh, how can you worry about that? We're snowed in."
"Don't worry about it, Murdoch,” Scott said off -handedly. “She's always barging in."
He wrapped his blanket around himself and shuffled over to the window, "Now, that," he said in a hushed voice, "is snow."
"Well, what are we going to do now?" she asked miserably.
Scott looked out the window and then back at his brother and Teresa. "Make the most of it."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Johnny shouted,
"John! Watch your language!" Murdoch admonished.
"Little brother, your education has been sadly lacking," Scott told him with a grin. "It's time you learned how to enjoy snow. And I," he continued, eyes gleaming, "am just the man to teach you.”
"I didn't spend all my time at Harvard studying books. I also headed the Snow Warriors. We trounced the Snow Devils every time.”
Johnny looked at his brother as if he had lost his mind.
“Johnny, my boy, I suspect there's not going to be much that we can do about the snow. We're certainly not going anywhere. So you have to relax and have some fun. Get yourself dressed and follow me. I'll show you what I mean."
"Follow you where?" Johnny asked suspiciously. "I ain't goin' out there."
"Do you plan on staying inside for the next few days?" Scott asked. "Even if not one more snowflake falls from the sky....we are still stuck here."
"I plan on stayin' warm an' dry, Boston."
Scott grinned. "Get dressed, Johnny," he persisted. "At the very least, we need to go and bring in the rest of the baggage. If we're going to be stranded here, we're going to need it."
Johnny harrumphed and headed back to his cot. "Ya don’t have to enjoy it so much."
“’The solitude, silence, and purity in a gentle snowfall should be enough to justify its existence’,” Scott quoted. “I can’t remember who said it, but he was right.” He drew in a deep lungful of cold air. “I can’t tell you how much I miss snow around the holidays.”
“Well, you can have all the snow you want, just don’t include me,” Johnny snapped as he plowed through the three foot deep snow drifts on his way to the stranded stage. “Come on, the faster we get this stuff inside, the faster I can warm up next to the fire.”
“What?” Johnny turned just in time to get hit with a snowball. “What the hell did you do that for?”
“I’ve just thrown down the gauntlet, Johnny Lancer. Pick your best snowball and fire away.”
Johnny looked at Scott as if his brother had lost his mind.
Scott scooped another handful of snow and packed it into a ball and threw it at Johnny, hitting his brother dead center in the chest.
Johnny brushed the snow from his jacket and scowled, then stopped and turned at the sound of giggling from the porch. To his surprise, Mary stood there with her small gloved hand over her mouth to hide the giggles, her eyes gleaming.
He cast a teasing glare her way. “Think it’s funny, do you?”
She nodded and dropped her hand back to her side.
“You think I should let him get away with it?”
Mary bit her bottom lip to stop from laughing and shyly shook her head.
Johnny bent over and scooped up a handful of snow. “Well, I’ve never run away from a fight yet,” he told her and swung around to face his brother. He tossed it, watching in disgust as it fluttered to the ground far short of his brother.
“Is that the best you can do?” Scott taunted him.
Murdoch stepped out of the house, chuckling. "There's a technique to making the perfect snowball," he offered.
"No fair coaching," Scott complained.
"What do you think, Mary?" Murdoch asked the girl beside him. "Think Johnny needs some help?"
She nodded, her smile growing wider. "Will you show him, Mr. Lancer?"
"How about we both do?" With that, he took the girl by the hand and led her into the snow. She seemed nervous until she reached Johnny's side.
"You sure don't know much about snowballs," she whispered to him.
"Never made one," he told her, shrugging.
"You see, Mary," Murdoch explained. "Johnny grew up in Mexico where there is no snow."
Leaning down to grab a handful of snow, he quickly molded it into a ball. "The secret," he told Johnny, "is to hold it in your hand for a minute until you feel the snow soften, then let the air to it. It turns it solid... see?” He handed the snowball to Johnny and his grin was as wide as Mary's. "The rest, my boy, is up to you and how good your aim is," Murdoch finished.
"Oh, my aim is just fine," he said and threw the snowball hitting Scott squarely in the chest.
"So what, I'm supposed to fight all of you?" Scott protested. He scooped another clump of snow, pressed it into shape and hurled it at his father. It hit Murdoch's shoulder and smashed into a wet spray of snow.
"Step back, Mary," Murdoch said and pushed her to one side. "I think my elder son needs a lesson too."
With that, he leaned forward and made himself the perfect snowball. He looked up to see a somewhat wary gleam of delight in Scott’s eyes as he pulled back and threw the snowball. It hit Scott in the chest and knocked him off his feet.
Scott lay there, stunned. He pulled himself up onto his elbows just in time to get hit by another shot from his brother.
"This is hardly fair," he called back at them. "No one said anything about two against one."
Before he could sit up properly, another, smaller ball of snow hit him high in the chest and splattered snow over his chin and into his mouth. A peal of childish laughter rang out and he looked up to see Mary running to hide behind Johnny's legs. Both Johnny and Murdoch roared with laughter.
Scott spat snow and got to his feet. "You've got an accomplice, have you?" Scott grabbed another hand full of snow and made a soft snow ball, running behind Johnny and catching Mary in the back.
She screamed with laughter and scooped up another round of ammunition. From behind Johnny's legs, she ducked out long enough to fire her shot and dart back into hiding.
The shouts of laughter brought Teresa and Michaela out onto the porch and they were soon picking sides, Teresa on Scott's side and Michaela defending Johnny’s back.
Murdoch seemed to have chosen to stand alone, firing snowballs at both of his sons and taking a beating in return.
Murdoch and the ladies walked off the battlefield to the porch, Mary scampering after them. Johnny turned to go after them, only to be hit in the back of the head with one last shot from his brother.
Johnny and Scott followed them up the stairs until Murdoch stopped them in the doorway. "Didn't you boys forget something?" he asked.
Both bothers shrugged.
"You were going to bring in the luggage from he coach."
"¡Dios!" Johnny cursed quietly. Even from the doorway, he could smell the enticing aroma of eggs and bacon.
"Let them eat first, Murdoch," Michaela called. "We are fine for now.
Johnny cast an appreciative smile at her and sidled past his father. "Better listen to the doc, Murdoch," he said and made his way to the table.
"Did you like the snow, Johnny?" Mary asked.
Johnny nodded. "And I couldn't have asked for a better partner. Thanks, Squirt." He turned to Dallas. "How long d'ya reckon we'll be stuck here."
"The last time I saw it snow this hard I didn't see another living soul for a week," Dallas said.
"Oh, no..." Teresa cried. She turned to Murdoch. "We'll never make it home in time for Christmas now."
“Well, we got plenty of food and firewood. Just have ta sit back and relax,” Thompson told them. “Can't say I don't mind the company.”
Johnny noticed that Mary's face had lost the glow she'd had outside. "What's up, Squirt?" he asked.
"Papa always went out and found the best Christmas tree and me and Mama decorated it." She suddenly bowed her head. "Doesn’t matter anyway. Without them, it's not Christmas."
"Hey," Johnny said, "You know your folks would want you to have the best Christmas. That's what mas and pas want for their kids."
"Johnny's right," Scott said. "So we're going to make this a special Christmas. Johnny and I will go out and cut down a tree..."
“We will?" Johnny asked, surprised.
"We will," Scott told him. "And there must be something we can use to make decorations." He looked hopefully towards Teresa.
"A nice big one?" Mary asked.
“Biggest we can find,” Scott assured her.
Thompson scratched his head in thought. “Seems to me the Missus had some o’ them decorations out in the barn. I ain’t bothered with ‘em with her gone, but they might still be there.”
“Then we’ll look for them while Johnny and Scott look for a tree,” Teresa suggested and smiled at the little girl, swallowing her own disappointment. “We could have a scavenger hunt out there, Mary.”
“And decorating the tree will give us something to do,” Scott added with a meaningful look at his brother. “Are there many pines nearby, Russ?”
“Yeah, whole stand of ‘em out back a half mile or so,” the old man told him.
“Then we’ll head out there after lunch, right Johnny?”
“Sure,” Johnny replied, shrugging his shoulders. “Not gonna be much else to do. Still seems like a lota trouble for a tree though.”
“Don’t you believe in Christmas, Johnny?” Mary asked him.
“Sure, but where I grew up, we didn’t worry about a tree. We had other ways to celebrate.”
“Yep. By now, Los Posadas have already started. That’ll go on right through ‘til Christmas.”
“Los Posadas, Johnny?” Michaela asked, intrigued.
“They’re parades that act out the story of Mary and Joseph lookin’ for a room at the inn,” he explained. “Happens during the 12 days before Christmas. There’s a choir of kids with ‘em an’ they knock on doors asking for lodging. People join along the way an’ it gets bigger an’ bigger until it reaches the church, where there’s a Mass. Then, on Christmas Day, the children are blindfolded and break a piñata to get the candy that’s inside.”
“I think,” Teresa said, “it would be fun to exchange Christmas customs tonight. Each of us has different memories.” She was oblivious to the veil of sadness that suddenly crossed Murdoch’s face. But Michaela saw it.
"Well," Michaela said quickly, "I think we should get breakfast over so Johnny and Scott can get the luggage in and then they can go for that perfect tree."
Breakfast was served and Mary prompted everyone to hurry and finish. Johnny and Scott had a Christmas tree to cut down and she was excited about exploring for the decorations.
"There's plenty of time," Murdoch told her with a smile. "The boys have some luggage to bring in first."
"And there's no time like the present," Scott agreed, getting to his feet. "You ready, Johnny?"
Johnny stuffed the last of his biscuit into his mouth and stood up. "Sure," he managed to say and followed Scott to the porch. The cold air hit him like a blast from an ice house and he shivered as he pulled on his leather gloves. They'd always been just work gloves in the past, but he was sure glad of them now.
Half an hour later, Scott heaved in the last suitcase and dumped it next to a pile of other cases. "You'd think there were three dozen people on this stage."
“Half of it’s yours, Brother,” Johnny teased him.
Scott only shook his head. “I guess we’d better go and get that tree for Mary now,” he suggested.
“Give me a minute,” Johnny told him.
Johnny disappeared into their room and returned a few minutes later.
Michaela stopped when she saw him. She couldn't help but stare at the gun tied low on his thigh. It changed him. He no longer appeared the boisterous, carefree young man she had watched outside in the snowball fight or lolling lazily in the coach. There was an air of danger about him now.
"Where do you keep your axe, Russ?" Johnny asked.
Murdoch frowned at his son. "Do you think you'll need that?" he asked, nodding towards the colt.
Johnny shrugged his shoulders carelessly. "Maybe," he answered. "You never know what you'll run into."
"Boy's right, Murdoch," Thompson told him. "There's wolves out there in them woods for a start.”
To Johnny, he added, "The axe is in the barn. I got a rifle if ya want it too. "
Thompson took the rifle from its place beside his door and turned back to hand it to Johnny. But Johnny shook his head. "Scott'll take that."
Johnny scowled as he looked out of the door. "Looks like I'm gonna get lots o' practice out there in that snow," he grumbled. "How does a man walk in it anyhow?"
"Ah!" Russ jumped to his feet. "You boys come with me. I got just the thing out in the barn.”
Johnny and Scott followed him into the snow and across the yard. Johnny clapped his arms around his body to keep warm and heaved a sigh of relief as they entered the barn. It wasn't as warm as the house, but it was a whole lot better than outside.
He watched the old man saunter off to the end of the barn and dig around through boxes and junk. Finally, Thompson stood up and grinned. "Got 'em!”
"Snow shoes! You are a prince among men, Russ."
He held up a pair of strange looking paddles, and Johnny stared at them confused.
"And just how do ya get your foot into one o' them?" Johnny asked, shaking his head.
Scott was delighted with his brother's confusion. "You strap them on the bottom of your boot and you walk on top of the snow instead of sinking into it. Trust me, they work.”
Johnny took one of them and looked it over dubiously. "If you say so, Boston," he answered.
"Come on, they take a little getting used to, but you'll get the hang of it."
Scott took one pair from Thompson and sat down on a bale of hay to strap them to his boots.
Johnny watched and then took a seat and did the same. He stood up warily and took one step to try it out. It was easy enough to balance and he took another step, without noticing that the end of one snowshoe had trapped the front of the other.
He fell in an ungainly heap.
Scott was laughing so hard that he found himself wind milling his arms to keep his balance. But gravity had its own idea and he fell flat on his face right beside his brother.
"You sure you two are gonna make it there on yer own?" Russ asked as he bellowed with laughter.
"I'm stayin' home," Johnny stated firmly.
"No you're not," Scott replied, busy righting himself. "Mary wants a Christmas tree and we are going to get her one. Now, don't worry, it will be a lot easier in the snow. Trust me, Brother."
"'Trust me, Brother'," Johnny repeated under his breath. "Seems like I've tried that before."
Scott stood over him and offered him a hand. "You were saying?"
"Nothin'," Johnny told him curtly. "But just you remember, this is for the kid. I don't like snow... an' I don't like these contraptions."
“Duly noted. Now let’s get going. I want to get back before it starts snowing again."
Johnny soon found the knack to walking in the snowshoes and he kept shoulder to shoulder with his snow-savvy brother. They spent more than an hour walking through a stand of trees before Scott pronounced he had spotted the perfect Christmas tree.
Johnny looked at it with a critical eye. "You reckon it'll fit in the cabin?" he asked.
Scott nodded, looking at the tree with a discriminating eye. "If we take some of the bottom off and take the very top off it will be perfect, especially since we don't have a star to put on the top."
"Sounds like a lota work to me, Scott," Johnny said, grinning and handing the axe over to his brother.
"You expect me to cut this tree down alone?"
"Only one axe."
"It could take all afternoon.," Scott protested.
"Nope, it's just one little bitty tree, Brother," Johnny insisted. "Better get started though. I don't wanta freeze to death waitin' for ya."
Scott raised the axe, ready to take the first bite out of the tree trunk when he heard the mournful howl of a wolf.
Johnny swung around in what he figured was the direction the howl had come from. There was nothing to be seen. The snow still hung, undisturbed, on the branches of the trees around them and the only tracks in the snow were their own. His breath hung visibly in the air for a moment, brought to life by the cold. "You wanta get started on that, Scott?" Johnny asked, no longer teasing.
Scott nodded, the sound of the axe hitting the bark echoing in the stillness.
With his back to his brother, Johnny scanned the trees for movement. There was silence except for the rhythmic strike of the axe on the tree.
A snow flake fluttered down, tipping the brim of Johnny’s hat and floating down to the ground. Every nerve was alive, every instinct he had honed over the years as Johnny Madrid came into play and he caught a quick glance from his brother and he saw confidence there.
Scott struck the tree a hefty blow... and then another. It leaned and groaned while Scott stood back and listened to the silence of the woods. Suddenly, another howl sounded from the trees not far off to their right.
One last strike of the axe and the tree crashed to the snow covered ground.
"Come on, let’s get this tree back to the station, I don't plan on being a Christmas present to those wolves out there"
Scott lifted the trunk of the tree and found his grip on it. Johnny still had his back to him, watching the woods. "Get started, Scott," Johnny told him. "I'm right behind you."
He held the rifle ready and took a quick glance to see that Scott was moving, then took a step backwards to follow him. But before he could turn, an ominous pair of eyes looked out of the shadows of the pines... right at him.
Johnny fired once and the howls stopped.
"Keep going," he shouted at Scott, "we've got to keep ahead of them. Don't let them box us into a circle."
Dragging the tree behind him, Scott picked up the pace and followed their own tracks back the way they had come. He looked back over his shoulder to make sure his brother was with him.
He was, walking backwards and keeping his eyes on the trees. Scott spotted one wolf boldly taking a step out of the darkened woods, its head down and its eyes firmly on Johnny.
"I see him," Johnny said. "Just keep moving. He's only doing what a wolf is supposed to do."
Johnny fired another round into the air and followed Scott, his eyes scanning for a glimpse of the wolves.
The bravest of the animals, the one Scott had seen by the tree, still stood staring at them but nervously poised to run. Johnny fired once more and the bullet struck the bark of the tree beside it. The wolf pulled back in fright and then turned and bolted back into the shadows and out of sight.
Teresa was the first to find the box nestled in the corner of the barn, a wisp of color peeking out from beneath the lid.
"Over here!" she called excitedly to Michaela and Mary. "This looks like something."
Mary scurried across the barn, her face flushed with excitement. "Do you think it's the decorations?" she cried.
"There is only one way to find out," Michaela said. "Open it!"
Teresa brushed away the dust and scraps of hay then lifted the lid. The rusted hinges creaked in protest but offered up their treasure. Satin bows, still bright and colorful, lay on the top.
"Oh, my!' Mary exclaimed.
Michaela reached a trembling hand forward, her fingers sifting through the ribbon to reveal a treasure of red and gold Christmas ornaments."
"They're lovely,' Teresa gasped.
"But what are they doing here?" Michaela asked in wonder. "They're so beautiful. Imagine Russ Thompson having these!"
"Look!" Teresa exclaimed, pulling out a second box. She pried the lid off and looked in awe at a nativity scene. The crèche with all its figures were carefully placed in a bed of soft straw.
"We really can have Christmas now, Dr. Mike!" Mary called excitedly.
"Yes," Michaela said, running her hands down Mary's hair. "We can have Christmas now."
"We have to get this box inside," Teresa told them. "But we'll have to be careful. It would be a tragedy to break any of those ornaments."
“Wait until Johnny sees them,” Mary said, beaming.
"Yes," Michaela said. "Mary, go in the house and make a place for these boxes. And tell Mr. Thompson that we found the ornaments.”
Mary scampered out of the barn and into the snow and stopped to listen. She could hear shots in the distance. "Dr. Mike!" she shouted.
Murdoch head Mary's shriek, not sure if it was delight or fright at first. He ran out to the porch and halted when he too heard a shot... then another.
He charged down the steps and ran to the side of the house in the direction the boys had taken. Then relief washed over him. He could see Scott laboring to drag a tree across the snow while Johnny walked beside him.
Wondering why Johnny would let his brother do all the work, he heard the mournful call of a wolf coming from the trees and Johnny spun and aimed the rifle. It appeared that getting that perfect tree had not been without its problems.
"It's all right," he called back over his shoulder as Michaela and Teresa ran to join him. "They look fine."
"And they have a tree!" Mary squealed.
"They sure do." Murdoch smiled. "They have a tree. A mighty fine one from the looks of it,"
He looked over her head and gave Teresa a meaningful look. She was a little pale and he wasn't surprised. The sound of gunfire around Scott and Johnny was more often bad than good.
"Hey, Squirt!" Johnny yelled. "You gonna help us get your tree in the house?"
Scott stopped in his tracks, the tree heavy in his hands, and glared at his brother. "Help US? I don't see you doing much."
“Hey, someone had to watch your back," he answered playfully. "Those lobos could've been enjoying a Boston dinner by now."
"Just grab a branch," Scott insisted, shaking his head. He waited while Johnny smiled, shrugged and hefted a branch to help.
Mary screamed with delight and trudged through the snow, sinking knee deep at times until she reached Johnny and Scott. She took the tip of the tree in her hands and put all she had into dragging it through the snow, never knowing that the two tree bearers in front were doing all the work.
The tree was cut to size and fitted with a wooden stand, then hauled into the cabin. Russ had prepared a spot in the corner away from the fireplace where Johnny and Scott stood it up. There was a mere five inches between the top of the tree and the ceiling.
“It’s a beautiful tree!” Teresa beamed.
“Yes, a perfect tree, I’d say,” Michaela agreed. “What do you think, Mary?”
Mary's eyes glowed. "Can we decorate it now?"
"Why don't we have lunch first? I'm sure Scott and Johnny are starving by now. That was a lot of work cutting down that tree and dragging it back here," Michaela suggested.
Scott glanced at his brother. "Yes, it was," he said meaningfully. "I know I'm hungry, but I'm not sure Johnny worked up much of an appetite."
Murdoch smiled and then stopped as a thought came to him. "By the way, what was the shooting we heard?"
"Some wolves had lunch on their minds too." Johnny grinned.
"Wolves?" Teresa exclaimed.
"Don't worry, Querida, they were just checking us out. You have to remember this is their land. We're kind of tresspassin'"
"Wouldn't worry none, Ladies," Russ told them, nodding his head in agreement. "They don't come much closer than that stand o' trees out there. Easier for 'em to hunt down a jackrabbit than a man."
"Speaking of rabbit," Murdoch sniffed the air. "Is that rabbit stew I smell?"
"Yessiree," Russ replied, grinning. "Be nice an' done for supper tonight. Got us some chicken sandwiches for lunch... if'n anyone's hungry."
"I could eat a horse and still have room for a cow for dessert," Johnny laughed.
Mary giggled and made her way over to the table, making sure she took a seat next to Johnny.
Johnny winked at her and turned to his lunch, but Mary remarked excitedly, "That tree will look so pretty when it's finished, Johnny. You gonna help trim it?"
"Put the decorations on it," Scott explained, pulling out a chair opposite them.
"Oh, Scott," Teresa bubbled. "We found the nicest ornaments out in the barn. Mary's right, the tree will be beautiful." Her eyes lit up. “And I think I have the perfect thing for it too! I’ll be right back,” she added and dashed into her room.
Suddenly the light seemed to go out of Mary's eyes. "Yes, but... we always had this special star at the top of the tree. Mama said it looked over us and kept us safe. That star didn't keep them safe."
Almost as one, the adults at the table lowered their heads sadly, even old Russ Thompson shaking his head mournfully.
"Hard to figure why some things happen, Missy," Thompson said quietly. "Nothin' much you can do but keep on goin' though. You mind... you got folks to care 'bout ya. That's more'n a lot can say."
"But I miss them," she said.
"Of course you miss them," Scott said. "But they'd want you to be happy, wouldn't they? Especially at Christmas?"
"That’s right,” Johnny agreed. “You remember what we talked about earlier...about your Mama and Papa wanting you to have a good Christmas? Right about now, I bet they’re lookin' down on all of us and saying that’s about the nicest tree they ever saw."
Teresa came back in with a bolt of fine red material. "Look, Mary! I was going to make Johnny a new shirt for Christmas, but I think it would do better as a skirt under our tree."
Johnny grimaced. "I like colorful shirts, but..."
Scott laughed at the expression on his brother's face. "I think it will do just fine at the bottom of the tree, Teresa," he said.
"I think so too," Teresa agreed. She leaned the bolt up against Mary's chair. "This IS going to be the best Christmas tree that anyone has ever seen."
Johnny looked at Scott and shrugged his shoulders. "Seems like everyone sure gets into a real lather over a tree," he remarked and smiled.
He finished the last bite of his sandwich and washed it down with the rest of his milk, then pushed his chair back and got to his feet. "I got some things to do outside for a while," he told them. "You go on an' start sprucin’ up the tree without me. I won't be long."
"Johnny? You don't want to help with the tree?" Mary asked.
"Don't worry," he answered with a grin. "I reckon you'll be at it for quite a while. I'll come back in an' help."
Scott quickly grabbed her hand and led her over to the tree. "Now," he said, "I'm no expert at trimming a tree so I think you should be in charge."
Teresa looked at Murdoch. "Murdoch?" she whispered. "We keep trying, but Johnny just doesn't..."
"Leave him, Teresa," Murdoch replied with a sigh. "He will eventually."
No one could have said who started humming Christmas carols first, but soon the room was filled with laughter and songs. Scott was surprised to hear Dallas singing with a deep baritone voice as he carefully anchored candles to branches of the tree. He didn't think he'd ever heard a more beautifully sung version of ‘Joy to the World’.
Soon the tree was alive with color, but Mary kept looking at the door, waiting for Johnny's return.
When she’d hung the last ornament, she turned around and frowned. "Where's Johnny?" she asked.
"I bet you'll find him in the barn," Scott smiled.
Teresa scowled. "Why don't we go see?"
Mary grabbed her coat, stopping for just a second to make sure Dr. Mike agreed. With a nod from Michaela, Mary took Teresa’s hand and went with her. A blast of cold air hit them in the face as they pulled the door closed behind them.
“It looks like Johnny’s made quite a conquest," Michaela said, “I don't believe I’ve ever seen Mary take to someone so quickly."
"Johnny has a way with kids and animals," Scott mused. "I think it's because in many ways he is still a kid himself."
Mary and Teresa found Johnny in the barn, just as Scott had suggested. He was sitting on a bale of hay, leaning forward and concentrating on what he was doing. He had a pocket-knife in one hand and a chunk of pine wood in the other, carving and shaping it idly.
"Oh, Johnny," Mary said sadly. "You missed all the fun. It's all done."
Teresa followed her out and stood glaring at Johnny, her hands on her hips. “Johnny Lancer, you said you’d help with the tree.”
He looked up at her and then glanced past her to Mary. His hands stopped working at the wood while he considered them.
“Guess you didn’t need my help anyway, if it’s all done,” he told them nonchalantly. “Don’t know what I could’ve done that would’ve made much difference.”
“Just being there would have made a difference,” Teresa growled at him and took Mary by the hand. “Come on, Mary. Let’s go in and fix that skirt around the tree. Johnny seems to have more important things to worry about.”
She scowled at the knife in his hand and stormed away pulling Mary with her. Johnny only smiled and went back to his whittling.
Dinner came and went. The rabbit stew warmed their insides, but Teresa remained cold to Johnny’s casual conversation at the table. As she picked up his plate after dinner, she whispered over his shoulder, “You could have tried, Johnny, if only for Mary.”
Johnny didn’t respond, but Scott heard the whispered remark from his place beside his brother.
“Feel up to a game of checkers, Brother?” Scott asked him. He didn’t think Johnny looked hurt by Teresa’s words, but Johnny seldom showed it anyway.
“Nope,” Johnny replied easily. “Thanks, but I’m just gonna kick back an’ relax awhile before I turn in.”
He got up then and went to sit by the fireplace. Scott watched as he pulled out a chunk of wood from under his chair and then the pocket-knife from under his belt. Johnny opened the knife and set about whittling the wood.
It crossed Scott’s mind that something might be bothering Johnny, but he wasn’t sure. He’d let him be, for now anyway.
Johnny wandered off to bed about an hour later and left Scott to his book and the others to their conversation.
Scott read on for another half hour and then closed the book. “I think I’ll turn in, Murdoch… Michaela,” Scott said as he rose from his chair. It wasn’t late but Mary and Teresa had gone to bed soon after Johnny and Dallas and Russ were outside on the porch, keeping warm with a jug of Russ’s fine home-stilled brew.
Murdoch leaned back in his chair, sighing deeply. "This was supposed to be our first Christmas together at Lancer. We had plans - a tree… the house decorated. Then my 'children',” he said the word with such affection that it took Michaela's breath away, "... decided to surprise me with a trip to visit an old friend. Now, once again, Johnny has been robbed of a Christmas at home."
"Your first Christmas? I remember he mentioned that he had spent most of his time in Mexico, I assumed you all had."
Murdoch shook his head. "Neither of my boys grew up at Lancer."
Michaela was shocked. "Why not?"
“Scott grew up in Boston. There was a range war so I'd sent his mother back east to safety. Scott was born on the way and his mother, Catherine, died in labor. He stayed in Boston with his grandfather until just a few months ago.”
“And what about Johnny,” she asked.
He stopped and stared into his coffee. “Johnny's mother... I married Maria a couple of years later. She left without a word when Johnny was two years old and took him with her. She died when he was ten and he’s been on his own since then. When he came to me… well, it hasn't been easy for him. I think that’s why he and Mary have struck up such a friendship. They both understand what it feels like to lose a parent at such a young age."
"That explains why the boys are so different," she said quietly. "Actually, my children were orphaned young. Brian, my youngest, was very small though Matthew was in his teens. It was hard to learn how to be a parent so suddenly."
Murdoch looked up at her. "From what I saw when you were leaving Colorado Springs, you seem to have found a way," he told her. "I'm afraid I'm still learning."
"I’d say you’re doing just fine. I saw how much your sons love you. Just because they are men and find it hard to show their emotions, doesn't mean that they don't love you."
He nodded quietly, suddenly feeling very awkward. "They're grown men. They both lived all their lives without me. We don't even know each other yet."
"Give it time. Now, I’d best get to bed myself. Have a good night, Murdoch. And don't worry. You’re doing just fine."
Johnny was up early in the morning. It was a fine, crisp day. The sun had risen in a cloudless blue sky over a world that was still blanketed in white.
He set about building up the fire in the fireplace to heat the freezing room and then sat down in the chair he’d used last night. The chunk of pine was right where he had left it and he pulled out his knife to add the finishing touches to it. He was pleased with the result.
Thompson was soon up and preparing breakfast and then, one by one, everyone emerged from their rooms.
Mary stopped as she passed the tree and looked up at it, a smile of satisfaction on her face. Teresa and Michaela stopped beside her and basked in the happiness on the little girl’s face.
“Isn’t it just beautiful, Johnny?” Mary asked as she turned around to him.
Johnny looked the tree up and down and frowned. "Well, I don't know. It looks like it's missin' something."
Everyone looked at the tree critically. It was certainly a most beautiful tree. Scott turned and scowled at his brother. "And just what would you say is wrong with it?" he grumbled.
"Well, it just doesn't look 'finished' is all," Johnny told him.
"And how would you fix it?" Scott asked.
Johnny's eyes twinkled. He pulled his hand out from behind his back. "Maybe this would help."
In his hand was a hand-carved star, still smelling of the fresh pine from which it had been whittled. Each point was carefully honed and perfectly balanced with the rest.
Mary fairly shrieked with delight and ran to take it from him. "Oh Johnny, it's just right."
Johnny handed her the star. "Guess you should be the one to put it on top of the tree," he said with a smile and lifted her up onto his shoulder. "Can you reach?"
Everyone held their breath as Mary positioned the star against the tallest branch. Then Johnny lowered her to the floor. She looked up at the tree with gleaming eyes. "It's just what it needed, Johnny. Thank you."
"That's lovely, Johnny," Michaela said. "Now it truly is the finest tree."
Teresa's eyes gleamed as well, but with the hint of tears. "Johnny, I'm sorry. I had no idea..."
"De nada," he said self-consciously and turned to the breakfast table. "I'm starving. Whittling that star was hard work,"
Scott laughed and took a seat beside him. "I'll bet it was. I know how tough that pinewood is."
Johnny only grinned at him.
Scott slapped Johnny on the shoulder. "That was a nice thing to do, Brother. Mary won't forget this Christmas for a long time. Neither will anyone else."
Johnny only shrugged. "Still don't see what's so all fired important about a tree, but if that's what it takes to make the kid happy..." He set about pulling a biscuit apart and stuffing a piece in his mouth. But Johnny couldn't hide the twinkle in his eyes. Christmas was beginning to grow on him.
The conversation was animated as they sat around the breakfast table that morning.
Teresa dazzled Mary with ideas for brightening up Christmas just in case they were forced to stay that long at the relay station, while Scott and Johnny bantered over the more difficult work, whittling or downing the tree in the first place.
Then Johnny looked up to see Dallas pulling on his jacket. "Be right back folks. Got to tend to the horses."
He pushed back his chair and got to his feet, pulling his own jacket on. "I'll help you."
"No need ta get yerself cold, Boy," Dallas said.
Scott laughed. "Anything to do with horses is no chore for my brother," he told the old driver.
"Then let’s go. I'd appreciate the help."
"Can I go too?" Mary asked.
Michaela smiled at her and then looked towards Johnny and Dallas. "Will she be in the way?"
"Not if she pulls her weight. What do you say, Squirt? Wanna earn your keep?"
The little girl gleefully nodded her head.
“Then go get your coat and gloves," Johnny told her. "An' don't be long. Can't keep the horses waitin'."
"Thank you, Johnny." Michaela nodded toward the whirlwind as Mary stuffed her arms into her coat and slipped her mittens on. "This means a great deal to her."
“No thanks necessary. I'm doing it because I like her."
Dallas opened the door and let in a rush of frigid air. Even the flames in the fireplace leapt back from it. Johnny followed Dallas' lead by turning up the collar of his coat and pulling on his own gloves; then he turned his head to Mary. "Come on, Squirt. No dawdlin',” he urged her and walked out into the cold.
Johnny let Dallas get ahead of them, giving Mary time to trudge through the deep snow at his side. It was a breathtaking morning and Johnny was beginning to understand why Scott talked about the snow so much.
If only it didn't have to be so damn cold!
They reached the barn and Johnny sent Mary off to the feed bin to fill a bucket of oats for one of the horses. She was so proud of herself, helping Johnny, and she struggled valiantly with the weight of the bucket with both hands.
“You need a hand with that?” Johnny asked her.
“No,” she answered seriously. "I want to earn my keep."
Johnny laughed and then looked around at the well maintained barn. He always felt at home in a barn - the smell of the hay and the oats; the horses with their heads hanging over the stalls, waiting for food and nickering a welcome.
His thoughts turned to Barranca and he sighed. It’d be good to see that palomino again when he got home.
"Come on, Dallas. We’d better pick it up or Mary’s gonna beat us both,” Johnny said and headed for the far end of the barn. “You take the right an' I'll take the left."
Johnny approached the last stall, recognizing the roan as the lead horse on their coach. Something seemed to be upsetting the gelding. “Easy Boy,” he crooned, carefully reaching over the gate. “What’s got you spooked?”
Although the horse’s ears were not pinned back all the way to his head, he could tell that the animal was nervous over something.
"Is something wrong with him, Johnny? Mary asked.
“Something’s got his nervous. See how he’s holding his head up, his neck muscles stiff, and that tail, see how he’s swishing it? Means something’s got him upset.”
“I don’t know exactly. He might have heard something or smelled something in the air. Maybe something’s hurting him.”
He continued talking softly, in both English and Spanish.
"What are you saying to him, Johnny? Mary asked.
"I'm telling him how important he is and to behave himself," Johnny told her with a grin. “Horses like to hear things like that. Wait right there, Mary. And be very quiet. We don’t want to scare him anymore.”
Mary nodded, her eyes solemnly swearing that she wound not make a sound.
Johnny cautiously opened the stall door and stepped inside. He looked the animal over and frowned. "Dallas, I think he's favoring his left hind leg," he said and edged past the horse to get a better view. The injured leg was on the opposite side and he'd have to take care getting close enough to look at it.
Mule was about the stubbornest horse Dallas had ever worked with... and he had a real bad habit. Dallas took hold of the lead rope and moved the horse forward. "Watch him, Johnny. Ol' Mule's just as like ta..." But, before he'd gotten the animal to take more than a couple of steps, it lashed out. The hoof took the boy right in the stomach and knocked him back against the wall.
His head hit hard and the boy doubled over... too close to Mule's hoof for Dallas' liking. Dallas yanked hard on the lead rope and the horse moved forward with an angry toss of his head, but Johnny was well out of reach now.
"Johnny!" Mary screamed, dropping the bucket of oats at her feet.
"Hush, Girl!" Dallas snapped at her. "Don't frighten the horse any more'n he is." He half led, half pulled Johnny from the stall and sat him on a bale of hay. "You all right, Johnny?" he asked urgently.
Johnny sat holding his stomach with one hand and rubbing the back of his head with the other. He moved his head around and Dallas thought he looked a little dazed. "Johnny?" he asked again.
"Yeah, I'm okay," Johnny said at last. "Just winded is all."
"You took a fair knock on the head, Son," Dallas pointed out.
"Yeah," Johnny agreed with an embarrassed smile. "I know." He rubbed his head some more.
"Ya seeing stars?"
"Don't know 'bout stars, but I'm seein' two of you," he said, shaking his head a little. He squeezed his eyes closed and then opened them again. "That's better. One o' you is enough."
Mary's voice quivered from behind them. "Johnny are you all right?"
He turned to her. "Sure I am, Squirt," he told her, rubbing circles around the tender spot on his stomach. He got to his feet, wavering for a moment and then straightening. " Just hit my head is all. Lucky it's hard, ain't it?"
"Reckon Dr. Mike should take a look at ya, Son," Dallas told him seriously.
“No need to bother her, I’m all right.”
"I dunno, Johnny. Seems like it couldn't hurt for her to look you over," Dallas told him, scratching his chin doubtfully.
“Well…” Dallas said thoughtfully.
"I hate bein' fussed over and I'm fine. No need to tell anyone. Besides, it's kind of embarrassing."
"But Dr. Mike will make it better, Johnny," the girl protested.
“Nothing to make better. I'm not hurt. This can be our secret. All right?"
Mary scowled thoughtfully. "But, I can't fib to Dr. Mike, Johnny."
"Well, we're not fibbin'," Johnny reassured her. "We're just not telling. No one'll know if we don't talk about it."
"Johnny, ya ain't gonna fool 'em, ya know," Dallas persisted. "One look at ya an' they'll know somethin's up. Your face is 'bout as white as ol' man Cameron's ghost."
"Just do as I ask. Now, let’s get these horses fed so we can get back inside where it’s warm."
"You sure got a stubborn streak, Boy. All right, just sit there and rest," Dallas ordered. "Me an' the girl will take care of the rest of the horses."
Johnny nodded, sitting down on the bale again and easing his back up against the stall. He knew nothing was busted. He was just winded, but damn it hurt!
It was his head that was causing him the most grief. Every time he moved it, it felt like someone was in there with a hammer.
It seemed like just minutes before Johnny felt a soft tap on his cheek.
"Mr. Dallas and I are done, Johnny. He says we should go inside. Are you sure you're ok? That had to hurt. I know I'd be crying if it happened to me."
"Not you, you're a big girl."
He wrapped one arm across his stomach and rubbed the back of his head, then eased himself to his feet, swaying slightly. He straightened his shoulders and his back, then dropped his arm to his side. Damn that horse!
"Let's go inside," he told them. "An' not a word. You got no idea how Teresa can fuss over every little thing."
Snorting in disgust, Dallas opened the barn door and waited for Johnny and Mary to pass through.
Mary ploughed on ahead of them and was already at the door and watching Johnny with a motherly eye when he started across the snow. Dallas walked beside him and Johnny could feel the man's eyes watching him, but he ignored it.
With any luck he could rest it off before tomorrow.
Mary and Dallas stood aside to let him through first, much to his frustration. It wouldn't be himself who gave the game away, but he was worried that they would.
Scott looked up from a chair near the fireplace where he was reading a book. "What took you so long? I was about to send out the cavalry.”
“I hope you didn't get in the way, Mary," Michaela said lightly.
Mary glanced towards Johnny before answering. "No, Dr. Mike."
Michaela looked at her surreptitiously, while Johnny answered, "Nope. She was real helpful."
"Well, we had better get you cleaned up,” Michaela said. ‘We plan on building snowmen today, remember?"
"Oh yes!" she agreed excitedly. "Are you coming, too, Scott?"
"Of course! I’m the expert, after all. I have to teach my brother the basics of building a snowman."
"Oh, I think Johnny should rest," she replied, then cast a nervous glance towards Johnny.
Scott raised a suspicious eyebrow toward his brother. "And why is that, Mary?"
"He's tired," she replied quickly, but Johnny knew the damage had been done. He knew it by the look on his brother's face and he saw it on Michaela’s as well.
"What happened out there, Mary?" Michaela demanded, her voice soft, but requiring an honest answer.
Scott was on his feet and walking towards him and Johnny sighed. "Nothing to get into a fuss over," he told them both with a determined glare.
"How about you let us be the judge of that, Brother," Scott answered, just as firmly. "What little 'nothing' happened?"
"He got kicked by a horse," Mary blurted out. “And he couldn't breathe at first. I was really scared, then he said he was fine and made me and Mr. Dallas promise not to say anything." She looked toward Johnny and lowered her head. "I'm sorry, Johnny. I tried to keep my promise. Are you mad at me?"
"No, Squirt," he told her with a sigh.
“Kicked?" Scott exclaimed immediately.
"Knocked him clear off his feet an' into the wall," Dallas told him, nervously eyeing Johnny when he finished.
"Come and sit down over here," Michaela insisted, pulling a chair out from the table. "Let me take a look."
Johnny threw his hands in the air. "Now there, you see why I didn't want you to know. Everyone's gotta fuss. I've been kicked before an' I'll probably be kicked again. I'm fine."
The door opened and slammed closed. Johnny glanced over his shoulder to see his father coming in, his arms laden with firewood.
Murdoch stopped in his tracks and looked at the scene around him. Johnny had his most obstinate expression on his face. "All right," Murdoch asked. "What's going on?"
"It seems," Scott said, "that your pigheaded son… my stubborn little brother… was kicked by a horse in the barn a little while ago and he wasn't going to say a word about it. In fact, he made Mary and Dallas promise not to say anything."
"Johnny was kicked by a horse?" Teresa exclaimed, coming in from the bedroom.
"Oh great!" Johnny grouched. "Now everyone knows. It's nothing. He barely touched me."
"Even so," Murdoch said, "I would like Michaela to look you over."
"Oh no, no woman is gonna 'look' me over."
Michaela stood by the chair and glared at him, her anger barely contained. "You just asked Mary to lie for you, Johnny, and that was unconscionable. And now that she's worried sick that she betrayed you, you want her to worry that you might be hurt as well? Just for the sake of your pride?”
"I don't like being fussed over," he replied defensively.
"I have no intention of 'fussing over you'," she told him coldly.
"Do as she says, Johnny," Murdoch ordered.
Johnny turned towards his father, about to snap back an angry retort, but he caught sight of the Mary out of the corner of his eye. 'Madre de Dios!' he thought silently and shook his head in defeat.
He walked over to the chair and lowered himself down, knowing he didn't completely hide the grimace of pain. "Make it quick then. Mary is gonna show me how to make a snowman." And he winked at his little friend.
“Mary, would you go into our room and bring my bag, please?" she asked and moved closer to the chair. “Johnny, tell me what happened, and I want the truth.”
"I got kicked and fell back against the wall. Hit my head is all."
"Were you knocked out?"
"Nope, wasn't as bad as all that."
She ran her hands gently over his head, searching for any signs of injury, and finally stopped as she found a lump. Johnny winced as her fingers touched it. “Lean forward a little, Johnny,” she told him and moved his hair aside so she could see it.
“Well, the skin’s not broken, but you’ve got quite a bump there,” she said calmly. “Lean your head back now.” She pulled back his eyelids and checked his pupils. “Have you been dizzy?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe a little. I’m fine.”
She frowned at him. “What about your back? Does it hurt?”
“Turn around and let me take a look,” she said and pulled the back of his shirt from his pants when he did. Pushing the shirt up, she looked over his back and prodded around his spine until she was satisfied.
"Now, where did that kick land?" she asked as she lowered his shirt.
Johnny pointed to his abdomen.
"All right. You'd better lie down on the sofa so I can take a look," she ordered. "And take that gunbelt off. You're not going to need it."
Johnny balked at the order, but one look from Murdoch told him he had better comply.
Johnny scowled at her and glanced towards his brother in one last silent, half-hearted appeal for help. When none was forthcoming, he stood up and unbuckled the belt, slipped the loop free of the concho that held the holster in place against his thigh and pulled it off. He laid it on the table.
Mary returned with Michaela’s medical bag and handed it to her, her eyes riveted on Johnny.
“Dallas, would you and Russ mind taking Mary outside while I examine Johnny,” Michaela asked. “I’m sure she’d like to get a head start on her snowman.”
Russ quickly grabbed his jacket. “Shore thing,” he grinned. “Mr. ‘I’m from Boston an’ I know how to make snowballs’ ain’t got nothin’ on ol Russ when it comes ta snowmen. You ready Little Lady? We’ll shown ‘em how ta make a real snowman.”
Scott harrumphed loudly. “We’ll just see about that.”
Johnny waited as Dallas and Russ ushered an excited Mary out of the house then walked hesitantly toward the sofa, eyeing Michaela uneasily as he laid down. She followed him and sat down on the edge of the sofa, then reached across and began to unbuckle his belt.
He grabbed at her hands. "Oh no...!"
Michaela took a deep, controlled breath and stated impatiently. "I can't examine you properly without undoing that buckle," she told him coldly.
"Johnny, you either behave yourself or I'll have Murdoch hold you down and undo that belt myself," Scott warned him.
Gracelessly, Johnny unbuckled the belt, swearing under his breath when Michaela ordered him to unbutton the top buttons on his pants. He watched her warily as she pulled the shirt tail free and undid all the buttons of his shirt until it fell open.
He watched her eyes swiftly take in the scars that marred his chest… some old, some new. He didn't miss her brief look of surprise though she quickly regained her composure and concentrated on her examination, prodding and poking around his abdomen.
"Does this hurt?" she asked him clinically as she pressed her fingers into the right side of his stomach.
"No," he snapped back at her, more coldly than he had intended.
It didn't seem to faze her though. She prodded some more and finally found the exact spot where the hoof had hit him. He caught his breath and his stomach clenched before he could stop himself.
She leaned over and opened her bag, pulling out her stethoscope and resting it on his stomach while she put the earpiece in her ear. "Johnny, take a deep breath for me."
Her cool business-like demeanor began to reassure him and he relaxed just a little.
"Again," she told him, moving the stethoscope around his stomach.
Finally, she pulled it away. "All right, now sit up for me." He did as she asked, wincing only slightly at the effort. "Now lift your arms to the sides."
Again, he did as she bid.
"Hurt?" she asked him gently.
"Nope," he answered honestly.
"All right, I want you to carefully twist your body to the right. If it hurts, stop."
It didn't hurt enough to stop him and she seemed satisfied with that. "Now to the left," she continued.
When he managed without obvious pain, she stood up from the sofa. "That will do," she told him. "You can dress now."
"He's all right?" Scott asked quickly.
"There's a nasty lump on the back of his head and his stomach is tender, but that’s not surprising," she answered, frowning. "It looks like he was lucky. I don't even see any bruising. I’m more concerned about a concussion. His eyes are a little glazed and unfocused but, seriously, he seems to be all right."
"You finally believe me?" Johnny asked, irritated.
"You appear to be all right,” she corrected him coolly. “But I want you to take it easy. I can’t rule out a concussion completely."
He got to his feet and buttoned his shirt, then tucked it back into his pants. He turned away to button his pants and buckle his belt then back to face his family. "I told you I'm all right," he grumbled. "But no... you all have to fuss."
"Get used to it, Brother." Scott smiled. "It’s all part of being a family."
Johnny walked to the table and reached for his gunbelt. As he strapped it back on he grouched, "Well, if you're all done poking an’ prodding, I'm going out there with Mary to see what all this fuss is about building a snowman."
"Just be careful," Michaela warned. "You may experience some dizziness. If you do I want you to come back in the house and rest."
“And, unless you're planning to shoot innocent snowmen," Scott said with a wicked grin. "You can leave that here. I don't think you need it around Mary."
Johnny looked at his gunbelt, already wrapped comfortably around his hips. It was a lot to ask, but Squirt was worth it. He put it back on the table.
Murdoch smiled. Only he and Scott understood the significance of the act.
Johnny pulled on his jacket and headed outside as quickly as he could. He was getting out before any of them changed their minds and he didn't miss that Michaela watched him closely.
The air had turned frigid and he pulled up the collar and snuggled into it as he dragged on his gloves.
Mary was standing back watching Russ and Dallas finish the first huge snowball for the snowman. She laughed as they slipped and struggled in the snow.
The three of them looked an incongruous team - a real mismatch. Two craggy old men and a little girl; all with one purpose in mind - to beat Scott in the snowman-building contest.
Johnny stood watching them for a minute. A smile creased his whole face and lit his eyes as he enjoyed the scene.
Then he plunged forward. "What ya got there? Looks like a big snowball."
"That's the bottom of the snowman, Johnny," Mary explained eagerly. "Boy, you really never have done this before, have you?"
Johnny shook his head. "Nope, but I'm counting on you to beat my brother over there."
"Hey, this isn't fair," Scott yelled as he stepped off the porch behind Johnny and plowed through the snow. "You guys have a head start!"
Murdoch and Michaela joined Scott. "Let us help you, Scott. We'll show Johnny how this is done."
Soon two snowmen stood side by side. Teresa emerged from the cabin to watch the fun. Seeing her, Mary called out excitedly, "We need some carrots, Teresa... for the noses."
Teresa laughed. "I'll get some coal too," she told Mary. "For their eyes and mouths."
She disappeared into the cabin and emerged a few minutes later with their supplies. Mary pounced on them while Michaela did the same with only a little more decorum. Then Teresa stood back and looked the finished snowmen over.
"Something is missing," she said and giggled. She reached up and swiped Johnny's hat from his head, then grabbed Scott's. She placed them each on top of the snowmen and stood back, laughing gaily.
Scott stepped back, huffing and puffing as he studied the two snowmen. "Well," he conceded reluctantly. "I have to say Mary's is just a bit better... but not much."
“I told you, Johnny,” Mary laughed, filled with pride. “We made the best snowman.”
“They’re both wonderful… and that was hard work." Michaela laughed, pulling Mary in beside her. "And I'm hungry. How about Teresa and I start lunch? I think Russ deserves a break."
Johnny swiped his sleeve across his forehead to wipe away the sweat. “Yeah, kinda thirsty work too.”
Michaela and Teresa ushered everyone inside. Scott and Johnny lingered a moment.
"Well, is snow so bad, Brother?" Scott asked him, plucking his hat from the top of the snowman.
"Guess not," Johnny conceded. He did likewise and dusted the crown of his hat before settling it on his head. "It's still kinda wet and cold though." His eyes twinkled.
Scott grinned as he patted down his hat, then he turned back towards the cabin. He started towards the porch and looked back. "You coming?"
"Yeah, right behind you," Johnny answered.
Scott had already disappeared through the door when Johnny got to the porch. He started to take a step up when, abruptly, the world tilted. He grabbed the post beside him and hung on for a moment, shaking off the vertigo.
By the time he walked inside, he felt fine again and disregarded it completely.
It wasn't long before everyone was taking turns warming themselves in front of the fireplace. The smell of stew soon filled the cabin again and Mary was put in charge of setting the table.
Mary quickly took a seat when the stew pot was put in the center of the table and patted the chair next to her. "You sit here, Johnny," she directed, giggling when Johnny bowed in acceptance and took his seat beside her.
The smell of the stew was enticing, but Johnny only pushed the food around his plate aimlessly. "Aren't you hungry, Johnny?" Mary asked, to his dismay. He could feel all eyes turning in his direction and ducked his head a little to avoid their scrutiny.
"Sure, Squirt," he answered and took a bite, if only to dispel their stares.
After a couple more bites, he pushed it away. "I think I ate enough for two men at breakfast," he said.
He glanced up and met Michaela's eyes as she frowned at him, but she said nothing. Murdoch, on the other hand, did. "Is your head bothering you, Son?" he asked. "You look a little pale. Why don't you go sit by the fire for a while?"
Johnny shook his head. "Not too bad, Murdoch. I’ve got a hard head.” He smiled and reassured them. “Guess I’m just not real hungry. I think I'll get some fresh air and go check on the horses."
He stood up, arching his back lazily to stretch out the soreness that was creeping into it. He hoped they hadn’t noticed. It hardly bothered him and the last thing he wanted was more poking and prodding.
"Give me a minute an' I'll come with ya, Johnny," Dallas said, forking another mouthful into an already full mouth. He chewed heartily and swallowed. "Likely that nag needs more liniment on that leg by now."
"No... no, you stay here and finish your lunch. It won't take me long."
"Watch out for that danged nag, Boy," Dallas warned him. "Don't go lettin' him take another shot at ya."
Johnny grinned at him. "Count on it, Dallas," he assured him and disappeared out the door.
Russ Thompson finished clearing the table and looked out the window to see a light snow falling. He shook his head. It looked like he was going to have company for longer than he had expected. Despite running a relay station, he wasn’t prepared for long visits. People came and went, never stopping more than overnight.
He kind of liked it that way. He'd learned to enjoy his own company since his wife had passed on. It had been 'the Missus' who had always been the amiable one, not him.
“Hey, Russ, you still got that checker board?” Dallas called across the room.
Of course! He and Dallas had shared a game on stopovers before. “Sure do,” he told the driver and he searched through the pantry to find it.
"Anyone want ta play a game of checkers?" Russ held up a board that had seen better days and a leather pouch that rattled with checkers when he shook it.
"Oh, yes!" Mary exclaimed. "I'm good at checkers." She cast an eye towards Scott and smiled. "I bet I could beat you at checkers, Scott."
"You think so?" Scott asked in mock surprise. "I don't know. I was considered the king of checkers at Harvard."
"Crown got a little tarnished when you came out west." Murdoch chuckled from behind his book.
"Johnny cheats," Scott retorted.
"He does not!" Teresa defended Johnny. "He just anticipates your moves."
"He anticipates them while I'm not looking," Scott told her and laughed. "Come on, Mary. Let's see just how good you are."
Michaela brought a pillow out from her bedroom to prop Mary higher on her seat and they all watched as she eagerly set up the red checkers on her side. "You can make the first move, Scott,” she said, supremely confident of her abilities.
"Why, thank you, Miss," he replied with a dip of his head to her. She preened herself happily at the attention and watched carefully while he made his move.
She giggled as she made her first move, and Scott quickly moved his piece. Soon it was evident that Mary really did know how to play. The 'king of checkers' soon found himself having to concentrate on the game. Mary matched him, move for move, and soon everyone was watching in anticipation.
Scott's surprise was evident. It was bad enough to lose to his brother, but how would he live down being conquered by an eight year old child? He concentrated on the board and took his time over every move, while Mary watched happily.
Scott moved his piece to Mary’s side of the board and grinned. "King me."
Mary sighed and put a second piece on top of Scott's, then she looked the board over carefully and tilted her head to the side. She picked up one of her own and moved it, over one, then two... then three of Scott's pieces.
Removing them from the board, she laughed. "Looks like you've only got one king left," she said disarmingly.
"I think she has you in a corner, Son." Murdoch laughed. "I think she might even beat Johnny."
Scott threw his hands up in exasperation and Mary laughed harder. She glanced around the room, then behind her. "Where is Johnny? Isn't he back yet? I want him to see this.”
Scott looked up, just now realizing that Johnny had been gone for so long. "Mary's right. I wonder what's keeping him."
"You know how he loses track of time when he's around horses," Murdoch said, but his furtive glance out the window belied his words.
Scott was suddenly concerned, He stood up and walked over to the window and looked out, but he couldn't see past a thick curtain of snow. It was falling more heavily than before.
He glanced back over at his father. "The snow's really coming down."
Only Mary missed the look of concern on Murdoch's face. Her attention was on setting up the board again. "I hope he gets back soon. I want to play him next."
"Yes, he should have a turn at trying to beat you too," Scott said to her, eyeing his father meaningfully. “I'll go get him."
"Can I go too?" Mary asked.
"Not this time, Mary," Scott told her, glancing towards Murdoch. "It's snowing too hard.”
Murdoch grabbed for his jacket. "I think I'll go with you.”
Scott opened the door and his heart sank. An inch of new snow had fallen while they were playing checkers in front of the warm fire.
He pulled his collar up and braced himself against the cold, Even prepared, the chill in the air took his breath away as he stepped out, Murdoch right behind him..
They stood on the porch looking out into the new-fallen snow - each with a feeling of misgiving.
"He must still be in the barn," Murdoch said and Scott nodded.
Scott took a step into the new snow and sank into it, then trudged across the yard to the barn, his father following in his tracks. It took both of them to pull one of the barn doors open against the accumulated snow on the ground.
Though it was still cold inside, the hay acted as an insulator and it was at least ten degrees warmer than out in the yard.
But nothing could dull the cold shiver that went down Scott’s back. Johnny was nowhere to be seen.
"Johnny?" Scott called nervously.
Murdoch shouldered past him and quickly checked the horses and found no new food or water... no evidence that anyone had tended to the animals.
"He's not here," Scott said anxiously.
"And it doesn't look like he's been here," Murdoch told him, just as worried. "The horses haven't been fed..."
"Then where the hell is he?" Scott demanded.
Scott saw the worry in his father's eyes; the worry that was now gnawing a hole in his own belly.
"We'd better look around outside," Murdoch told him and turned back towards the door. "We'll backtrack between here and the house. He has to be out there somewhere."
“Why didn't we see him?" Scott’s anxious voice asked the question for them both. "If he didn't make it here, where the hell is he?"
Scott turned around and looked back out the door at the falling snow. It was falling even harder now. They wouldn't find any tracks to follow.
"Murdoch, if he's out in that snow..." he began. He couldn't bear to put the rest of the thought into words.
"No, it's heavy, but we would have seen him. Maybe he saw or heard something and wandered off. We'll find him," Murdoch answered with grim determination.
Scott nodded and they made their way out the door. He pushed his legs through the heavy drifts. "I'll check around back."
He squinted through the whiteness that surrounded him. “Johnny!” he called.
There was no answer but he heard his father’s anguished cry from the other side of the barn.
"Scott! Round here!" Murdoch called and Scott turned quickly, cursing the deep drifts of snow that stopped him running to his father's side.
Johnny was lying on his side, half-covered by a blanket of snow. Murdoch stopped in his tracks, fear freezing him where he stood for a moment before urgency moved him. "Dear God!" he prayed. "Let him be alive."
In an agony of fear, he waded through the drifts of snow to Johnny's side. He dropped to his knees beside his son and bent over him, then pulled off one glove and desperately searched for a pulse at Johnny's throat.
Johnny's face was devoid of color and as cold as ice, but Murdoch found what he was looking for… a heartbeat. It was weak and fast, but Murdoch hung his head in relief.
He heard Scott before he saw him and turned his head to see him coming towards him.
"Murdoch?" Scott asked anxiously.
"He's alive, but we have to get him inside, quickly."
They lifted Johnny between them and carried him toward the cabin.
Everyone in the cabin looked up and froze as the door burst open. Murdoch and Scott carried Johnny into the room and Scott kicked the door shut behind him. Johnny hung limply in their arms, obviously unconscious, and snow still clung to his clothes and his hair.
"Oh my God!" Teresa exclaimed. "What happened?"
"We don't know. He didn't make it to the barn," Scott answered quickly.
"Get him over by the fire, quickly!" Michaela ordered. "Mary, run into our room and bring my medical bag, please."
Dallas spread a blanket on the floor in front of the hearth. “Put him on this while we get those wet clothes off him."
Michaela was at Johnny's side in an instant. She knelt on the floor beside him, quickly searching for a pulse and checking his breathing. His skin was cold and moist... and he wasn't shivering. It wasn't a good sign.
Mary raced back to Michaela’s side, her eyes wide with fright. She held out the bag and Michaela took it from her quickly, setting it down next to the sofa. Looking over at Teresa she motioned her to take Mary out of the room.
"These clothes are wet through. We have to get him out of them and warmed up, quickly," she ordered. "Teresa, would you please take Mary into our quarters until we have Johnny settled?"
Teresa had to tug at the little girl to get her to move. Her eyes were glued on Johnny. "It's all right. Dr, Mike will take good care of him. Now let’s go so she can do what she has to do to help him."
Michaela waited until the door closed then gave her full attention to Johnny. His face was pale and his lips had a tinge of blue to them. "All right, now strip those wet clothes off," she told Murdoch and Scott. "Dallas, I need more blankets."
"I knew I should'a gone with him," Dallas said.
"This is no time for recriminations, Dallas," she told him curtly. "Bring me those blankets."
She knelt beside Johnny and set about unbuttoning his shirt, while Scott pulled off his boots and socks then unbuckled Johnny's belt and the buttons on his pants. The damp pants were heavy and difficult to maneuver, but Scott dragged them down and pulled them off, leaving Johnny in his long johns.
"If they're wet, they have to go," she said, seeing his reticence.
Murdoch looked at Scott, uncertain, knowing how Johnny would feel about being stripped in front of Michaela.
“For heaven's sake!” she groaned. "I am a doctor. It doesn't matter whether I am a man or a woman. He will die of exposure if we don't get those wet things off him." She looked at Murdoch angrily. "While you decide if he will be embarrassed, your son could die!"
Her words galvanized them into action and Murdoch knelt beside Johnny. He lifted his son’s shoulders up while Michaela slipped off his shirt. Scott struggled to pull the nearly frozen long johns off.
Dallas charged into the room with a pair of blankets and a towel. "Reckoned ya'd need this too, he said as he handed the towel over to Scott and Scott began to buff his brother’s body dry.
"Gently," Michaela warned.
Michaela stood and unfolded one of the blankets, then threw it over Johnny and tucked it around him carefully while Murdoch opened out the second. She reached for it and tucked it around Johnny as well. “Let’s get him on the sofa now.”
Together, Murdoch and Scott lifted Johnny. He was as limp as a rag doll as they placed him on the sofa and secured the blankets around him carefully.
“Dallas, bank that fire,” Michaela ordered. “We have to get him warm.”
Murdoch walked around to the other side of the sofa. He could be out of her way there, but still watch his son. And he felt the need to watch over Johnny… as if leaving him would be a betrayal of some kind.
"I don't understand," Scott said suddenly. "Why didn’t he make it to the barn?"
Michaela looked up. “Where was he?”
"He was lying in the snow near the corral,” Murdoch explained. “I can't figure what could have happened. He seemed fine when he left."
“If he has a concussion, he could have become disorientated. It might have been worse than I first thought,” she admitted and looked back down at her patient. “Thank God you found him."
Scott sighed heavily. "I’m not surprised. He's a master at hiding things."
"Is he?” she asked crossly, and sat down on the edge of the sofa beside Johnny.
“It wouldn’t have been just for your benefit,” Murdoch assured her. “He thinks he’ll appear vulnerable if he admits to being hurt.”
“Well, he's not the first. Bring that light over here so I can examine him." She nodded toward the lantern on the table in front of the sofa.
Scott picked up the lantern and lit it quickly, holding it over Johnny's head.
Murdoch looked on as she began by lifting each of Johnny's eyelids and looking for pupil reaction, then ran her hands through his thick hair to see if the swelling had gone down.
Then she lifted the edge of the blankets and pulled his hand free, laying her fingers lightly on his wrist to check his pulse. Murdoch watched and his heart stopped as she moved her fingers and frowned, then put them to his throat instead.
“Michaela…?” he asked anxiously.
He wondered at the lack of expression on her face. It was so like Sam's face when he examined a patient that he thought it must be part of their training. It was frustrating.
"His pulse is too weak and slow. I can’t even find it in his wrist. The blue around his lips has gone but I still don't like his skin color," she announced, tucking Johnny's hand back under the blankets.
"What do you think...?" Murdoch began.
“We need more blankets," she said, cutting him off unceremoniously. He bristled, but another look at his son and he acquiesced.
Murdoch hurried from the room and returned a minute later with more blankets. He unfolded the first and went to hand it to her.
"Warm them by the fire and we'll rotate them as they cool off. We have to get him warm as quickly as possible." She turned to Russ. "And I'm going to need some warm towels. Put them in that water you've got on the stove and then bring them over here."
“Right, Dr. Mike,” Russ replied, hurrying to the stove. He was back in minutes with the steaming pot, now filled with towels.
Michaela grabbed a small log from the wood pile and handed it to Scott. "Fish those towels out and let them cool down just enough so they won't scald his skin, then give them to me."
She knelt down beside Johnny and checked his pulse again. Murdoch stood, holding the blanket in front of the fire and looking back over his shoulder, watching his son. He was glad to be doing something, but it didn’t feel like it was enough. Johnny was shivering violently now.
“He’s shivering,” Murdoch said, with a feeling of helplessness.
“That’s good,” Michaela explained to him with a look of relief on her face. “It means that his body is beginning to fight this battle too.”
When the towels had cooled down enough, Scott handed them to her and she placed one behind Johnny's neck and another on his chest.
"Make sure you have more ready when these cool," she ordered brusquely. "Murdoch, is that blanket warm yet?"
He strode over to her side and held it while she removed the blankets folded around his son and then covered him with the warm one.
They repeated the process as the towels and blankets cooled and it seemed forever before Johnny moaned softly. A frown creased his brow as his eyelids fluttered and opened, just a crack. The effort must have been too much though. They closed over again.
“Come on, Johnny,” Michaela urged him gently. She lightly tapped his cheek. “Wake up for us.”
Johnny’s breathing suddenly got heavy and rapid. He moved his head to one side and moaned again.
“Johnny? Wake up, Brother,” Scott added.
Slowly, Johnny’s eyelids lifted. But Johnny’s eyes, usually so lively and filled with a surprising sense of humor, were glazed and unfocused.
Scott leaned over him. "Hey," he said gently. "You're supposed to play in the snow, not sleep in it."
Johnny looked up at him, confusion in his eyes. He shivered and frowned. "W... what h... happened?" he croaked. He pulled his hand free of the blankets and tried to push them off.
“Johnny, leave the blankets,” Michaela told him, firmly grasping his hand and pushing it back into the warmth. “You have to get warm.”
“G… go… way…” he replied, turning his head aside.
“Johnny, listen to me,” she persisted patiently. “You’ve been in the cold too long. You have to stay under the blankets to get warm.”
A moment of panic crossed Johnny’s face, but Michaela rested her hand tenderly on his brow. "It's all right, Johnny," she reassured him in a soft, almost loving tone and tried again to get through to him. "You collapsed outside in the snow. We’re just trying to get you warm."
Johnny relaxed a little and turned his eyes towards her. There seemed to be less confusion in them.
He scowled at her. “Snow…?” Then he corrected himself and seemed to sigh heavily. “Oh yeah, snow… stage…”
“That’s right,” Michaela told him quietly. “And you went out to the barn. You must have collapsed for a reason. Do you remember anything?"
Johnny eyed her warily and shook his head. “No… not much…”
“All right,” she relented, changing tack. “How do you feel now?”
"I'm all right,” he assured her, but his voice still sounded too weak and shaky.
Scott leaned forward, his face close to Johnny's. "She is a doctor, Johnny. Remember? She wants to help you, but she can't unless you tell her how you feel."
Johnny closed his eyes. The shivering hadn't stopped, and the fingers of one hand gripped the edge of the blanket as he clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering. He was pale and breathing far too fast. She touched his face again and noted how cool it still felt.
“Don’t remember much,” he told her hesitantly. He tried to shift on the sofa and winced.
Michaela didn’t miss it. “Johnny, what is it?” she asked quickly. “Tell me where you hurt.”
He looked at her cautiously, then admitted, “Back.. my back hurts a little, way down. Head hurts too.”
She looked up and realized that everyone was hovering around her. "I don't think we need an audience," she told them firmly. "Scott, you stay, I need the light. The rest of you go and sit down somewhere."
"I won't leave my son," Murdoch insisted.
"Murdoch, go and sit down," she told him doggedly. "You're not going to do him any good by getting in my way."
Johnny chuckled weakly as he began to take in more of what was happening. "It's okay, Ol’ Man. Don't want the lady doc mad at you.”
He shivered and pulled the blanket up around him, appearing to relish the warmth. Michaela took away the warm compresses from his neck and chest and cast them to one side, satisfied that the worst of the hypothermia had passed.
Lifting the blanket, she said with infinite calm, "I need to take a look at your back, Johnny.”
Johnny looked at Scott, his eyes tacitly imploring him for help.
"She has to look, Johnny."
Johnny's eyes dropped to look into Michaela's. She wasn't sure what he was looking for, but he nodded slowly. "Okay."
“Good. Now, I’m going to roll you onto your side, but I don’t want you to help me. Do you understand?”
He nodded and closed his eyes as she addressed his brother. “Scott, put the light down for a minute and help me move him.”
Scott put down the lantern and knelt by her side, easing his hands beneath Johnny and gently rolling him. “Thank you, Scott. Now, shine that light over his back for me?”
When the light was in place, Michaela looked his back over. "I'm going to put some pressure on your back. Tell me when it hurts, Johnny."
Johnny nodded and waited.
She pushed against his spine, gently but firmly. She continued to carefully push and prod around but he did little more than wince when she got close to his tailbone.
"Johnny," she said impatiently. "You have to tell me if it hurts."
"I know, but it doesn’t hurt when you touch me. It's... it's just there.”
“Move your toes for me,” she told him and he did, without hesitation or difficulty.
"All right," she said, rolling him onto his back and pulling the blankets over him. "We'll let you rest for awhile. But if you experience any pain, I want you to tell me about it."
He nodded and snuggled into the warmth of the blankets. She stood up and beckoned Scott to follow her, then walked over to where Murdoch stood impatiently waiting for her.
"We'll be right back, Brother," Scott reassured Johnny.
Johnny only closed his eyes and sighed weakly. "Take your time. I'm not going anywhere."
“Well?” Murdoch asked quickly when Scott and Michaela reached him.
“He’s experiencing back pain,” she told him quietly. “But there’s no swelling and no effect on his ability to move.”
“He hit his back when he was kicked,” Scott pointed out. “Dallas mentioned that.”
She nodded. “Yes, I know. There’s no sign of bruising there though. I’m inclined to think that it was the concussion that made him collapse. I’m concerned about that and the effects of the exposure. I suggest that we leave him on the sofa for now. He'll be warmer with the fire close and we can watch him.”
Michaela stopped for a moment, glancing back at her patient. But he hadn’t moved at all so she continued. “He’ll be drowsy, but we need to wake him every two hours if he does go to sleep. We’ll also have to watch for any signs of fever. Pneumonia is a distinct possibility from that level of exposure.”
Murdoch and Scott exchanged worried looks. “You have no idea how hard that is going to be.”
"¡Mierde! Scott, leave me alone," Johnny grouched sullenly. He pulled the blankets up to his chin and turned away.
"Johnny!" Murdoch called over at him reproachfully.
"Best behavior, Brother," Scott advised him with a smile. "Ladies present." But Johnny harrumphed angrily.
Mary wandered over to the sofa and stood beside Scott, looking down on Johnny. "Did Johnny say something bad? What did he say?"
Scott looked flustered and Johnny glanced back in time to see it. He grinned at his brother’s discomfort. "Oh, nothing, Mary," Scott finally managed to say. "He's just grouchy."
The little girl frowned and then her face lit with enlightenment. "Johnny," she said in a surprised tone. "Did you cuss?"
It was Scott's turn to grin at Johnny's discomfort. For a moment, he would have sworn a blush rose on his pale cheeks. "Would I do that, Squirt?" Johnny finally asked, all innocence.
Mary smiled at Johnny and looked back at Scott. "He didn't eat his lunch," she told him solemnly. "That's why he's so grouchy."
"Or maybe I'm just tired of being woken up every time I finally start to get some sleep," Johnny grumped.
Michaela joined them at the sofa, a bowl of broth and a spoon in her hand. "She's right though, Johnny. You should have something to eat. You hardly ate anything at lunch."
Johnny looked away. "I'm not hungry. Maybe later."
“Stomach not quite right yet, Brother?” Scott asked him. “How’s the head?”
Johnny glared at him. "I feel fine. I'm just tired an' want some sleep. Reckon you can let me get some?"
Mary tugged lightly at the shoulder of Johnny’s nightshirt. "Mama always made me eat soup when I was sick. It might make you feel better, Johnny."
Johnny looked into her eyes and heaved a heavy sigh. "All right, if you're all gonna pester me... Give it here, Squirt," he said, still cross. "But I can still feed myself."
He eased himself up as Mary took the bowl and spoon from Michaela and then handed it to him, a smile of satisfaction on her face.
Johnny looked at the soup and looked up at Michaela. "It's just gonna come right back up," he said.
Michaela smiled. “Let’s hope not.”
Scott stood up and walked over to where Murdoch sat at the table with, a deck of cards, courtesy of Russ, in his hands. "We should take her home with us," he whispered with a conspiratorial smile. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone talk that brother of mine into something he didn't want to do as easily as that."
Murdoch nodded his agreement and Scott watched with satisfaction as Mary continued to urge Johnny to take ‘one more spoonful’.
But Johnny managed only a few before he gave up. "Sorry, just not hungry..." he heard Johnny say.
Michaela took the bowl from him and handed it over to Mary, then sat down on the edge of the sofa and put the back of her hand to his forehead. "You’re still pale,” Scott heard her tell him. “Are you feeling nauseous?"
"Yeah, a little," he answered with a reluctant sigh. "Mostly, I’m just tired."
She took his wrist and checked his pulse, then asked, "And your back? Is it still sore?"
"Yeah, sometimes," he admitted wearily.
Michaela put her hand on Mary's arm. "Let's let him get some rest. He may be hungry later."
"But Mama always said feed a fever, starve a cold." Mary said.
"Well since he has neither a cold nor a fever, I think it will be all right if we just let him rest.,"
Scott saw the little girl frown. “Is Johnny going to be better in the morning, Dr. Mike?” she asked, seriously. "I'm sure he will be. But I want him to rest on the sofa most of the day. And I am going to put you in charge of keeping him company. Think you can do that, Mary?'
"Can I keep him some company now?"
"Mary, it’s getting late," Michaela reminded her. "You and Johnny both need your sleep. You can talk for another fifteen minutes, then it’s bedtime.”
"Okay," Mary agreed and sat down on the floor beside the sofa. She looked up at Johnny and beamed. "I beat Scott at checkers today," she said proudly.
“You did? He’s a pretty good checker player. But I guess he met his match, huh?”
"Heard that!" Scott called from his chair at the table and Johnny laughed quietly.
"When you get better we can play a game too, right Johnny?"
Johnny nodded. "But don't think it’s gonna be that easy to beat me. I'm the king of checkers."
“But Scott told me he was king of checkers. You can't both be kings."
"Don't believe either of them, Mary," Murdoch told her with a chuckle. "It so happens that the real king is a man named Jelly Hoskins. He beats them both every time."
"Who is Jelly Hoskins?" she asked.
Johnny grinned. "Oh, he is just about the most important man on Lancer. Or at least he tells us that all the time. "Funny lookin' fella with whiskers."
"Whiskers? Like St Nick?"
Murdoch choked on his coffee and Scott laughed outright.
"Well I don’t know about that, Squirt," Johnny answered, trying to keep a straight face.
Mary looked around the cabin, suddenly concerned. "Do you think St Nick will find us here, Johnny?"
"Well, I hear he gets around," Johnny answered. "Guess he can find us."
“Of course he can," Teresa said. "He can find every little girl and boy, wherever they are."
"How come you don't know very much about St Nick?" she asked, shocked. (sp) ”Didn’t he find you in Mexico, Johnny?”
"Sure, Squirt, just like he'll find you here And I moved around a lot. Guess it don't matter to him," he reassured her. "Why don't you tell me 'bout St Nick?" he asked. "I've never met him."
Mary laughed with delight. "Silly, you don't meet him. He comes when you're asleep."
"Oh, that must be why I never saw him," Johnny replied naively. "An' he's got whiskers?"
"Yes, a big white beard, and big eyebrows... and a big ol’ belly.” She tilted her head to one side and added, “you really don't know St. Nick, do you?"
"Nope, guess not. But he don't sound much like Jelly. He's got kinda short gray whiskers an' he scratches 'em all the time, like this..." Johnny showed her and grinned. "Guess you'll have to meet him yourself, one day."
"You mean I can come to your ranch?"
"Someday, we're friends, right?"
"I'd like that," she said happily. "Do you have a horse of your own?"
"Me?" Johnny asked. "I've got just about the best horse that ever was. His name is Barranca - a golden palomino. Smartest horse you ever did see."
Her eyes lit up. "My papa's going to..." She stopped, her eyes welling with tears. "He was going to get me a pony of my own for Christmas," she whispered sadly.
Johnny pulled his hand from beneath the blanket and took her hand. "He was? I'm sorry, Mary. I know how hard this is."
"I miss them, Johnny," and the tears came in earnest.
He pulled her toward him letting her lay her head on his chest. "Let it out, chica. Don’t keep it inside.”
Scott walked over to the sofa, lost as to what to do for her.
"Let her cry it out, Brother," Johnny said softly. "It’s the only way she’s gonna heal."
The room grew silent as Mary's quiet sobs lessened and she was asleep.
"I’ll take her to bed," Teresa whispered, “and stay with her the night."
"Thank you, Teresa," Michaela whispered back. "We’ll take turns out here tonight. Johnny must be woken every two hours."
Johnny didn't answer, too absorbed in watching Scott lift Mary from her place beside him and carry her toward the women's bedroom.
He waited until she was gone. "Hey Dallas?" Johnny then called to the driver, sitting at the table with Russ and Murdoch. "You reckon we're gonna get outa here before Christmas?"
"Don't know about that, Johnny. We got more snow today. We may be here awhile."
"You think we oughta do something about Christmas presents for that kid?" he asked.
"We can worry about that tomorrow," Michaela said, drawing the blankets up over Johnny. "Right now, you need to rest. I know... we will only be waking you again in two hours, but that's two hours of sleep that you need."
"You always this bossy?" Johnny asked.
"I am a doctor. It gives me the right to be bossy."
"Yeah, Sam says the same thing," Johnny quipped. "You're easier on the eye eyes though."
"Why, thank you, Johnny," she blushed in spite of herself, and tucked the blankets around him securely. "Now, I know you'd be more comfortable in a bunk, but I want you close to that fire for tonight. Try to get some sleep."
Russ quietly stoked the fire and Scott turned down the wicks in the lanterns near the sofa. The stillness of the snow outside seemed to fill the room as Scott joined his father at the table, followed by Russ and, a few minutes later, by Michaela.
"He's asleep," she whispered and sat down with them.
Murdoch put the deck of cards down, sighing thoughtfully. "He gave us quite a scare," he said. "I'm glad you were here, Michaela."
Michaela nodded. “I shudder to think what would have happened if he were out there any longer.” She looked back toward the sofa, Johnny’s tussled black hair the only thing she could see above the blankets.
"Mary's very taken with Johnny," she said with a smile. "Christmas will be hard on her this year. I'm glad she has him to help her through it." She stopped and studied the two Lancer men sitting beside her... their heads lowered, but not hiding the sadness in their eyes. They were so quiet that she sensed there was more to Johnny's story. "He doesn't seem to know much about Christmas," she began carefully. "I know it's different in Mexico, but..."
"I very much doubt that my son has many good memories of Christmas," Murdoch told her, a hint of bitterness in his voice. "When his mother died, he was left alone."
"He grew up in an orphanage?" she asked.
"Not for long," Scott replied cynically. "He ran off when they tried to put him in one."
"We really don't know much about those years, Michaela," Murdoch said sadly. "He doesn't talk about them. But he pretty much raised himself."
"That’s so sad. My children...I think of them as my own… their real mother died a few years ago. I thought at first that they were the lucky ones, to have a home and someone to love and care for them. But I soon learned that I was the lucky one...to have them in my life. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for you."
Murdoch shook his head. "Not me," he said angrily. "For Johnny. You have no idea what those border towns are like."
"This was going to be Johnny's first Christmas together with family," Scott said. "We had so many plans..."
"We wanted it to be perfect," Murdoch added.
"And now..." Scott began.
Michaela nodded. "Yes, I think I see. You know? I believe everything happens for a reason.” She looked toward the tree, at the star Johnny had whittled so carefully. “I think that Johnny needs Mary as much as she needs him.”
Scott followed Michaela’s gaze. With the simple gesture of carving that crude star, his brother had found a way to say everything he felt without having to say a word. He sighed. “Well, we'll just have to do our best to make it perfect right here, for both of them."
Scott stirred the fire one more time and sat down on the edge of the sofa. He nudged his brother awake... again.
"Come on, Johnny. Wake up."
"I'm awake... now go away."
"How are you feeling?"
"Fine... go away!"
Scott held up two fingers in front of his brother's face. "How many fingers?"
"Sixteen. Now can I go back to sleep?"
"What day is it?"
"You mean night? Friday night. And my name is Johnny Lancer and I live in California. Any more questions?"
Scott ruffled Johnny's hair playfully and stopped, with the palm of his hand on Johnny's forehead. There was a hint of heat that hadn't been there before... that shouldn't be there.
"Are you feeling all right, Johnny?"
"I have a headache because I hit my head and my back hurts because of this damned sofa... but mostly I'm tired an’ you keep wakin’ me to ask fool questions! Now, go away an' let me sleep."
Scott pulled the blanket up around Johnny's shoulders. "Okay, I'll let you sleep, Brother. See you in the morning."
He went back to his chair by the fire, only to hear footsteps quietly padding into the room. Looking up, he found Michaela coming in.
"How is he?" she asked.
"He feels a little warm," Scott replied. "But he is lucid... and mad as hell at getting woken up so often."
"Warm?" she asked quickly. "Has he been coughing?"
She knelt beside the sofa and pulled Johnny's hand from under the blankets. He sighed heavily but didn't seem to waken. She checked his pulse and then put her hand to his brow, frowning.
"It might be just a cold," Scott suggested hopefully. "Right?"
"Yes, I'm sure that’s all it is. I'll keep any eye on him… make sure that he doesn't take a chill."
Scott looked worried. "Michaela..." he began hesitantly. "Johnny was shot in the back a few months ago and he developed pneumonia. Sam said he might be prone to it."
Michaela nodded. "That’s good to know. I’ll keep a careful watch. He may not like it, but I think we should keep him inside until we are ready to leave. There's no sense in tempting fate."
"You look exhausted. Why don't you try to get some sleep? I'll watch him for awhile. I'll wake Murdoch or Teresa when I get tired."
"I think I'd rather stay with him," Scott told her, looking at his brother with a worried frown.
"Scott, don't make more of it than you need to," she warned him. "And if it does develop a fever, don't you think it would be better if I'm with him?"
"Yes, I guess you're right," Scott conceded.
"Go to bed," she told him firmly.
"All right. Unlike Johnny, I obey doctor's orders. Good night, Michaela."
"Good night," she whispered and pulled the armchair close to the sofa. When Scott had gone, she pulled her stethoscope from her bag and pulled the blankets back off Johnny's chest. He didn't stir and she opened two of the buttons on his nightshirt so she could listen to his breathing and his heart beat.
Satisfied, she pulled the blankets back up and tucked them around him. Then she sat back in the chair and made herself comfortable.
Scott was up far earlier than Michaela expected. He walked into the room just after sun up and asked "How is he?"
"Asleep," she answered. "I woke him one more time and you were right. He was lucid. I don't think the concussion is a worry any more. So I let him sleep."
"And his temperature?"
She sighed. "It's up a little more but not enough to worry about. We should keep him warm and get some fluids into him and see what happens."
There was a soft moan from the sofa and both of them turned towards Johnny. His eyelids fluttered open and he turned his head a little.
Michaela took a seat on the edge of the sofa, gently putting her hand to his forehead. "How do you feel?"
"Fine," he answered.
"I think I should take another look at you, before Mary comes out," she explained. "Does your head still hurt?"
"A little. But nothing like yesterday."
She checked his pulse, her face expressionless while she counted off the beats. Then she took the stethoscope from the table and pulled the blankets aside. As she unbuttoned the nightshirt, she caught sight of his fingers worrying the edge of the sofa, but said nothing and went on with her examination.
“Take a deep breath for me,” she instructed him and listened to his chest. “Another…” she continued as she checked both lungs.
"Are you feeling any discomfort?" she asked casually. "Anything besides your headache?"
He didn't answer for a moment but, before she could ask again, he seemed to change his mind. "Back still hurts... "
"All right, then let's have a look. Scott, would you help me turn him..."
"I can do it myself," Johnny snapped. "You're fussin'. I hate fussin'."
He did manage to turn himself, but the grimace on his face wasn't hidden from them as well as he seemed to think. He sighed in stifled embarrassment as she lifted the back of the nightshirt to his shoulders.
With gentle but firm fingers, Michaela probed Johnny's back, feeling him stiffen when she found a tender spot. "It hurts here?" she asked.
"Yeah, that’s it."
"Can you describe the pain, Johnny?"
"It's just there. All the time."
"All right, you can turn over. I want to have a look at your abdomen."
She helped him to roll over onto his back and checked his stomach, likely pressing her fingers here and there until she saw him wince. "That's where the horse kicked you?"
She probed the spot, pressing harder and watching his reaction. "Do you still feel nauseous?"
Michaela put the stethoscope to his abdomen and listened then sat up again.
"Do you think you could eat something light? Broth perhaps? You must be hungry."
"Not really. I was hoping you'd say I can get up this morning. I have something important to do."
She eased the nightshirt down to cover him and pulled the blankets back up. "No, I don't think so, Johnny," she told him firmly. "You have a slight fever and I don't want you taking a chill. I think you should stay right where you are for the day."
"The day! The whole day?"
"Michaela, Johnny here is the worst patient in history, according to our doctor in Morro Coyo," Scott imparted. "One hour in bed is asking a lot."
"Well, I'm afraid I'm not asking him," she told Scott, eyeing Johnny determinedly. "I'm telling him."
"Telling him what?" Murdoch asked as he walked out of his room.
"To stay where he is for the day," Scott informed him. "He's got a temperature."
Murdoch walked over to the sofa, concerned. "How high?"
"Not high," Michaela assured him. "But until he feels well enough to eat something... and keep it down, or that temperature goes away, I want him right where we can watch him."
"I'm not a baby," Johnny snapped. "I know when I'm sick. And I’m not sick. This is why I told Mary not to say anything. Hovering and fussing... I don't like it. I hate it."
"You'll do as you're told, Young Man," Murdoch told him in a tone that would obviously brook no argument. "If the doctor says you stay put... you stay put."
Johnny glared at his father. "Well, I got to make a trip out back first," he told him plainly. "You plan on stopping me?"
Scott laughed and looked towards Michaela. "Any objections?"
"No," she said, smiling. "But bring him right back."
"Bring him?" Johnny growled. "I can take care of it by myself!"
"I don't want you wandering around by yourself outside, Johnny. If you get dizzy again..."
“I’m not dizzy…”
“Nevertheless, you’re not going alone,” Michaela insisted, cutting off his protests. “And when you get back, you’ll rest on this sofa until I say otherwise and you will try to get some broth into your stomach… and keep it there.”
He looked her in the eye and tried his best to out-stare her, then dropped his head and answered, in disgust, “Yes, Ma’am.”
Johnny reluctantly returned to the sofa, quietly appreciating the warm blankets after the frigid air outside.
Mary and Teresa were up and humming Christmas carols as they set the table for breakfast.
He pulled the blankets up around his chin and smiled at the cheerful sounds coming from the other side of the room. It was good to hear the little niña enjoying herself.
"Johnny, are you hungry this morning?" Mary asked. He looked up to see her leaning her arms on the back of the sofa and smiling down at him.
"Not yet, maybe later."
She scowled at him. "You have to eat something," she insisted.
"I will... I will. I promise, just later. Now, you go get some breakfast yourself."
Suddenly, Teresa was at his side. "Are you still not hungry?" she asked him. She reached over and put her hand to his forehead. "You're warm, too. I wish I had some willow bark with me."
"Well, I'm glad you don't. And I'm warm because I'm under these blankets next to a roaring fire. You'd be warm too."
"Still grumpy, too," Mary said with a twinkle in her eye. "Is he always grumpy, Teresa?"
"No, not always," Teresa answered her. "Just when he can't get his own way. Come on, let's finish with the table."
By the time everyone sat down to breakfast, the room was noisy with conversation. Johnny could hear snatches of it - talk about home, talk about Colorado Springs. He felt strangely left out, laying there by himself.
Johnny sat up, folding his arms across the back of the sofa and watching his family at the table. Murdoch sat next to Mary. Johnny had had no idea that the old man was so good with kids. He should have had those years with his own.
Mary giggled and Scott said something that made her giggle even harder. Johnny was of half a mind to get up and go sit with them, but he wasn't about to face the wrath of both Teresa and Michaela.
He glanced over towards the tree and his gaze went to the star on the top. It was plain and had no monetary value, but Mary had been delighted with it. It was funny how little things could mean a lot to kids.
It was getting closer to Christmas Eve and, if Dallas was right, they may be stuck here. Mary needed a present to open.
He didn't really know what things little girls would want for Christmas. If they were at home, or even in Denver, it would be easy to get the pony her father had promised her. Or a doll... or the sort of pretty things that little girls probably liked. But here...?
And then a thought came to him. He knew just what he was going to make for her. He would just need a little help with getting the things he’d need, since he was tied to this sofa.
He laid back, his eyes sliding closed. He heard the scrape of a chair and Dallas’ voice. “Reckon I oughta go feed them horses." Johnny was surprised to realize that he had dozed off.
“Can I come with you?” Mary asked eagerly.
“Reckon so,” he told her. “If you don’t get too near ‘em. Don’t want you gettin’ hurt as well.”
“Oh, I’ll be very careful,” she promised solemnly.
“Grab your coat an’ gloves then,” he said gruffly. Johnny smiled. The old man’s gruff exterior wasn’t fooling anyone.
“I’ll help you with the dishes, Russ,” Teresa told him. “And Scott, Murdoch, we could do with some more firewood. We’re going through so much of it.”
He felt a cold breath of air swirl around him as the door opened and he coughed lightly. Then he heard the door close and, when he opened his eyes, Michaela was leaning over him. Her smile didn’t completely hide her concern.
"Still not hungry?" she asked him and he shook his head. He had no intention of telling her that the smell of eggs cooking earlier had revolted his stomach as well.
She walked around the end of the sofa and sat down beside him, reached over and laid her hand on his forehead. He had to admit that she had a nice touch.
“I heard you coughing,” she remarked as she took away her hand.
“Just a little cold air…”
"Is that right?" she answered, unconvinced. “You’re a little warm, too.”
“Yes, I know. You have an answer for everything, don’t you?” she told him with a smile. “How about some honest answers, since we’re alone at the moment?”
He closed his eyes to think. All this being worried and fussed over was still new to him… hard to accept. While he appreciated it and could even concede that he sometimes liked it, it was hard to believe that it wouldn’t all just ‘go away’ one day. There had been nothing permanent in his life – ever.
Finally, he opened his eyes and looked into hers. There was something in those eyes; something besides the clinical expression she'd worn when she had examined him earlier. It wasn’t pity, he was sure of that. Compassion? It didn’t anger him. He found reassurance in it.
“All right, but you have to be honest with me, too,” he told her. “Talk to me instead of just Scott and Murdoch.”
“That sounds fair,” she agreed.
His fingers idly twisted the corner of the blanket. “Guess I’m comin’ down with a cold or something. After being out in that snow…”
“There’s a good chance of that,” she conceded. “Do you feel ill?”
“Yeah, sometimes. I’m not hungry, but I don’t think I could keep anything down anyway.”
“Well, you should at least be drinking fluids,” Michaela advised him. “I’ll make up some tea for you. A friend of mine, Cloud Dancing, swears by it.”
“Yes, Cheyenne,” she answered and he was sure she was waiting for him to object.
But he only nodded. “All right, I’ll try it.” He was well aware that Indian remedies often worked better than so called ‘modern medicine’. He was only surprised that she knew anything about them.
“Good. Now, your brother has told me that you had pneumonia not long ago. Had you ever had it before that?”
“Once, years ago,” he admitted. “You thinking I might be in for it again?”
“I think I need to know that you might have a tendency towards it,” she told him. “It’s nothing more than that. For now, you just need to continue to rest and stay warm.”
“And drink your tea?”
“Yes,” she replied with a smile.
“Doc, about the kid… Mary,” he began awkwardly. “I’ve been thinking…”
He stopped and she prompted him. “Yes?”
"We'll, this whole Christmas thing is important to her, 'specially with losing her parents. And it looks like we're gonna be stuck here for longer than we thought. It just seems like there should be a present under that tree for her to open on Christmas morning."
“I agree,” she said sadly. “I was thinking of looking for something to give her.”
“Me too,” he told her. “Got an idea for something to make for her.”
“As long as you can do it here on the sofa, go right ahead,” she agreed. “Now, you try to get some rest. Mary will be back soon and I know she’ll talk your ear off if you let her.”
Johnny settled back and closed his eyes. He felt so tired.
He was beginning to doze off again when he heard heavy feet stomping on the porch and the door swung open. Dallas held the door open to let Mary in and then followed her. They were both covered in a light dusting of snowflakes.
"That nag's leg is looking pretty good, Johnny," Dallas reported. “Looks like the liniment did the trick."
He shook his head and patted down his coat to clear away the snow, then walked over to stand by the sofa. "How 'bout you, Boy? You doin' better this mornin'?"
Johnny nodded. "Doing fine, Dallas. But the doc's got me riding this sofa. Snowing again?"
"Yeah, just a little. Sky looks like it's clearing up some though."
"Do you think we'll be in Denver by Christmas Day?"
The driver scratched his stubbled chin thoughtfully. "Well, it's only three days away now, an' there's a whole lotta snow out there. I reckon not."
Johnny nodded. "Then do you think you could do me a favor?"
Johnny looked around the room, satisfied that Mary was busy helping Teresa and Michaela with the tree. "Here's what I need," he said and told him quietly.
When he'd finished, Dallas' brow creased into a frown. "Now, why would ya want somethin' like that, Johnny?" he asked.
"I'm makin' something for the kid for Christmas," he explained then looked down for a moment. “A surprise.”
Dallas nodded. "Okay then, sure. Sounds like a fine idea. I won’t tell her."
Murdoch, his arms laden with wood, almost bumped into Dallas as the driver opened the door. He was surprised to see the old driver heading out into the cold weather again. "Forget something, Dallas?"
Scott hurriedly edged past them both. "It's getting colder every minute out there."
"Just a couple more chores to finish," Dallas said, winking back at Johnny. "I didn't want the little one to get too cold out there, so I brung her in."
Scott stacked the wood and took off his gloves, rubbing his hands and warming them in front of the fire. He spotted Mary and smiled. "How about a rematch at checkers, Mary? You have to give me a chance to win back my pride."
"I promised Johnny that I'd play him," she answered and ran over to the sofa. "You ready to get beaten, Johnny?"
"I dunno, Squirt. I'm kinda tired. Why don't you bring the board over here and I'll watch you beat Scott again?"
Scott groaned and shook his head, but grinned.
Mary ran around the sofa and dropped unceremoniously to the floor, setting up the board eagerly. "You watch, Johnny," she said, smiling happily. "I'll beat him for you."
Murdoch added his pile of wood to the stack and turned around, dusting the snow from his coat. He looked over towards Russ and asked, "You wouldn't happen to have a deck of cards would you?”
Thompson grinned wryly. "Happens I do," he answered and went to a drawer to pull them out.
Mary and Scott started their game, with Johnny looking on and mischievously helping Mary when he thought Scott was getting the better of her.
Then the door opened again, the freezing air threatening to suck the warmth out of the room. Everyone looked up. "Dallas, close that door!" Murdoch yelled.
"Sorry, cold enough to freeze hell over out there," the driver told them, dusting himself down.
"Hate to think what it's doing to the jackrabbits then," Scott quipped quietly and Johnny laughed.
Dallas walked over to the sofa and surreptitiously dropped a thick shank of horsehair into Johnny’s lap. There were at least four different colors in the bundle and Johnny nodded appreciatively and whispered, “Thanks.”
While he thought Mary was too busy to notice, Johnny set to work sorting the colors and putting his fingers to work. Mary looked up from her game and watched him. "What are you doing, Johnny?"
"Just passing the time, Squirt. Nothin' special. You just concentrate on beating Scott there," he told her. "That'll make my day."
Dallas joined Russ and Murdoch at the table to play cards and Michaela and Teresa busied themselves in the kitchen.
Everyone seemed to settle down. A warmth that didn't come only from the fire roaring in the hearth filled the room. Friendship and camaraderie filled the way station that snowy afternoon.
Johnny nudged Mary's arm and she stopped a move she had planned, then smiled wickedly at Scott when she saw the opening she had almost missed. "Crown me!" she laughed as her red checker made it to Scott’s side of the board.
Scott looked up at Johnny and scowled. "Thank you, Brother. You just made me lose again, to an eight year old."
"Face it, Scott, Mary is just too good for you."
"Then let's see how she goes against you," Scott suggested, but Johnny shook his head.
"Nope, can't think straight lyin' down."
Mary jumped to her feet. "That's all right. Johnny needs to rest. Dr. Mike said so. But tomorrow… I bet I can beat you too, Johnny."
"We'll have to see about that, Squirt," Johnny replied good-naturedly. "I'm not the pushover that Scott is."
"Pushover?" Scott got to his feet too. "We'll have to see about that when you're back on your feet, Brother. Pushover...? You think that's a nice thing for a brother to say, Mary? I think we need to teach that boy a lesson in manners."
"You always get mad at each other like this?" Mary asked.
"Who’s mad," Johnny smiled, and his eyes met Scott's. "We're just being brothers."
"Hey, Mary," Dallas called from the table. "I ain't havin' any luck with cards here. Want ta play me a game?"
"By all means." Scott grinned. "My ego couldn't take much more. I might try my hand with cards instead."
Johnny chuckled and Scott frowned at him. "And what is that supposed to mean?" Scott asked.
"Just that you're better at checkers than poker, Boston."
The expression on his brother's face was priceless. Johnny threw his head back and laughed with delight.
He was still laughing when he began coughing. Just a little at first, but it didn't stop and the laughter died away. He found himself fighting to draw a breath.
Scott moved over and sat behind him on the sofa, leaning Johnny forward a little and rubbing his hand gently around Johnny’s back.
By the time the coughing fit was over, Johnny found his eyes were watering and he was breathing heavily to suck in air.
"You okay?" Scott asked as Johnny panted breathlessly.
And then Michaela was there, grabbing her stethoscope and issuing orders. She knelt in front of the sofa. "Open his shirt," she directed Scott brusquely.
"I'm all right," Johnny told her, swallowing hard to catch his breath.
"We can see that," Scott retorted. "I'd like to hear what Michaela thinks though."
“He’s right, Son,” Murdoch told him firmly. He was behind the sofa, looking down at Johnny with worry etched on his face. Teresa was beside him, her hand resting on Murdoch’s arm.
Scott undid the buttons down the front of his chest and Johnny knew that no amount of protesting would stop him.
"Johnny, I want you to take a deep breath when I tell you to," she instructed him.
Still breathless, Johnny nodded.
The stethoscope was cold when it touched his skin. He closed his eyes and took a breath when she told him, then another as she moved the instrument around.
"Scott, I need to listen to his back. Ease him forward," she said and put the stethoscope down the back of the nightshirt when he was in position. "Another breath, Johnny."
He took another deep breath and coughed again, though not the breathtaking spasm of a minute ago.
"All right, ease him back." She waited for Scott to stand up and lay him back against the arm of the sofa, then felt Johnny’s forehead for fever and frowned.
"So?" Johnny asked.
Her expression was non-committal. "Your lungs are not as clear as I’d like them to be." She sat down beside him, re-buttoning his night shirt. "And your temperature is rising. I know you don't feel like it, but you are going to have to drink as much fluids as you can. You need it to fight the congestion in your lungs."
"Okay," he answered with a sigh.
"Is he all right?" Teresa asked.
"There's a little congestion in his lungs," Michaela told them. "And he’s running a slight fever. But, if we can get fluids into him and break that congestion up, we can still stop it from turning into anything worse. There's a tea I know of that might help."
Mary yanked at Murdoch's sleeve, Johnny's father’s eyes on his son. "Is Johnny all right?" she asked.
Murdoch looked down at her. "It looks like he caught a bit of a cold out in the snow, but I'm sure he's going to be fine,” he reassured her. “But we have to make sure he follows Dr. Mike's instructions. He can be stubborn when he wants to be."
She nodded and whispered, “Okay.”
Teresa saw the look of worry on Mary's face and her heart went out to her. Deciding she had to take the little girl’s mind off things she grabbed her coat and gloves. "Mary, would you like to go outside and show me how to make snow angels. I read about them in a book, but I’ve never seen one."
"You’ve never made snow angels?" Mary asked incredulously.
"No. It doesn't snow very often where I live.”
"It sounds like a lovely idea," Michaela agreed. "But make sure you dress warn. I don't want any more colds around here."
"Go get your coat and gloves, Mary," Teresa said quickly and then turned to Johnny before doing the same herself. "And you have to promise me that you will get some rest. We don't want you sick for Christmas.”
Johnny nodded sheepishly. "I will."
"I'll get that broth for you, Johnny," Michaela told him and went to the kitchen, leaving him with his father and brother.
Scott took a seat on the edge of the sofa, while Murdoch stayed behind it, towering over his son and reminding Johnny of a protective mama bear.
"Are you going to behave and do as the doctor says?" Scott asked lightly. "For a change?"
Before he had a chance to reply, Murdoch scowled and answered for him. "Oh, he's going to do just as he's told. Aren't you, Son?"
"Don't have much of a choice," Johnny grumbled.
"Here, I brought you some broth," Michaela said as she came back. Scott stood up and she took his place on the edge of the sofa. She held the mug of broth out for him. "Think you can manage the mug?"
He eased himself up a little and took the mug. He smelled it and looked back at her. "Smells good."
"Russ sacrificed one of his chickens," she told him, smiling. "So you have an obligation to drink it all."
"That’s blackmail, lady." He grinned.
She laughed lightly. "Not if you're a doctor."
Johnny took a couple of sips then handed it back to her. "Tell Russ I appreciate the sacrifice, and it’s good."
"He would appreciate it more if you drank it all,” she told him, pressing the mug back towards him. You need the fluids."
"I know," he sighed. "But that’s all I can manage for now."
"Try a little harder," she said determinedly and watched him take a few more mouthfuls. When he leaned his head back, she knew she wouldn't get him to drink more. Not this time, anyway.
The door suddenly burst open and a flushed and excited Mary ran into the room. "Dr. Mike! Everyone... look outside!"
"There's a deer and it's come right up to Teresa!"
Michaela pushed the door closed and looked out the window. "She's right," Michaela said. "The deer is close enough to eat out of her hand."
Murdoch and Scott stepped over to the door to see for themselves.
"Look!" Mary screamed with delight as a fawn nervously made its way through the snow to stand next to its mother.
"Can we go touch it too?" she asked.
Johnny could not stand it any longer. He wrapped the blanket around himself and pushed his way in between his father and brother.
"No, Squirt," Johnny said softly. "You’ll scare them both away. Let's just watch 'em."
"Johnny, what are you doing up?" Murdoch demanded.
"Now, how often do you get to see something like that?" Johnny asked. "You think I wanted to miss it? And, anyway, I feel..."
Suddenly, he hissed with pain.
"Johnny!" Murdoch grabbed for his son.
"Let's get him back to the sofa," Michaela ordered, wrapping her arm around Johnny's waist to help support him.
"It's all right. No need to fuss," Johnny said quietly, shrugging off his father’s hands. "It's gone now."
But he caught his breath again and she scowled at him. "I said ‘back to the sofa’," Michaela insisted. Murdoch's hands were on Johnny's shoulders, turning him around and steering him purposefully back across the room.
Johnny sat down, still clutching the blanket around him.
"Now, Johnny, where is the pain?" Michaela demanded.
"I told you, it’s gone already. It was nothing."
"I'm the doctor here, remember? I’ll decide if its nothing."
She studied his face, taking note of the sweat on his brow. She put the back of her hand to his cheek. His skin was moist and clammy, not dry from the fever as it should be.
"Dr. Mike? Is Johnny sick again?" Mary asked from the doorway.
"I need to examine him, Mary. Would you go to the bedroom for me and wait there until I call you?"
Michaela saw the little girl's face pale and she watched her begin a slow walk toward the woman's quarters. Suddenly, Michaela remembered she had said the same thing to Mary on the day she was tending to her father. He had died while she waited in her room. "Mary! I think Teresa would like some company with the deer outside.”
Michaela could see the child’s relief as she headed for the front door, but the worried frown had not disappeared.
She turned back to her patient, finding Murdoch and Scott leaning over the sofa. She saw the anxiety on their faces, but she ignored them and gave her full attention to Johnny.
Murdoch eased Johnny down until he was lying prone again.
"I don't need any help," Johnny said, slapping away his hands. But he winced and Michaela knew he was in pain again.
“You do need help,” she told him firmly. “I can see you're in pain.”
Johnny turned his face away. “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
"Is that right?” she asked impatiently. She peeled back the blankets and began to pull Johnny's nightshirt up.
Johnny grabbed at her hands. "What are you doing?"
"Johnny, I can't very well examine you through blankets and that night shirt."
"Oh no..." He shook his head vehemently.
Michaela sighed deeply; angered that she had to prove herself again to a patient. “All right, Johnny, let’s get this done with now. You are not the first male patient I’ve had who baulked at the thought of having a woman doctor. But I happen to be a very good doctor. And, if that's not enough for you, I am the only one around for miles.”
Johnny kept his face averted.
“You owe it to your family and to Mary to find out what's wrong so that I can treat you?”
"There's nothing to treat."
"You're in pain. I don't even have to be a doctor to see that!" she insisted. "There might very well be nothing seriously wrong, but I can't tell that if you won't let me examine you."
Johnny turned back, sighing heavily. "All right, you win."
"At last," Scott commented ironically. "Some common sense."
She drew the blanket down to his hips and then lifted his nightshirt, Johnny’s face a picture of grim stoicism. “Where does it hurt?” she asked.
“My stomach,” he admitted. “I've had worse. Just took my breath away for a minute," he ground out in obvious irritation.
Michaela noticed an area of bruising that she had not seen before. Easing her fingers over his stomach, she pressed lightly and felt his muscles tighten when she found the sensitive spot.
"Is it here?"
She probed the bruise and the surrounding area and frowned. There was no longer any give in this part of his abdomen. It was taut and hard.
“Murdoch, get me my stethoscope,” she said without looking up. “Johnny, have you had any pain here before now?”
"Johnny, just how hard did that horse kick you? I want the truth."
“Knocked the wind out of me,” he admitted. “It was kind of embarrassing.”
"It was hard enough to knock you back against the wall and give you a concussion,” Scott pointed out, a hint of anger in his voice. "How long have you been hiding this?"
"I haven't been hiding anything," Johnny said defensively. "It’s my back that’s been hurting, not my gut an’ I told her about that."
“All right, that’s enough,” she told both of them. She put the stethoscope to his abdomen and listened while everyone in the room fell silent and waited.
Finally, she sat up and folded the stethoscope thoughtfully. "There's some tenderness there," she told them. "And his stomach is very rigid."
"And?" Johnny asked.
"There could be some internal bleeding. I can't find any symptoms of organ damage, but until I know more, Johnny, I don't want you moving around. That means lying on this sofa as quietly as you can."
Michaela watched Johnny look from Scott to Murdoch as if trying to read their reaction. "Internal bleeding?"
"It's difficult to be absolutely certain with this kind of injury," she told him. "For now we just wait and watch for any further indications. With luck, it will be nothing.”
"And what if it isn’t?" Johnny persisted.
"We'll talk about that if, or when, we come to it."
"No," Johnny said. "I don't work like that. I want to know now. What will happen?"
"I'll have to operate to find the source of the bleeding," she explained bluntly.
“What?” Murdoch exclaimed.
"At this stage, I'm not convinced that's necessary," she finished, scowling at Murdoch as she pulled the nightshirt back down and tucked the blankets around Johnny.
"Yeah." Johnny sighed heavily. "Be sure to tell me when you are."
"I'll make a point of it," she answered with a smile. She looked back over the sofa and saw the anger on Murdoch’s face. She frowned meaningfully at the man and said to Johnny, "Now, I need to talk to your family for a minute..."
“We had a deal.”
“I know. I won't tell them any more than I'm telling you," she assured him. "I just need to answer any questions they have. Okay?"
"Good, now stay put and out of trouble until I come back."
She looked up at Scott and he nodded.
"Murdoch, maybe you'd better call Teresa in now," Scott suggested
Murdoch watched Johnny close his eyes and then strode over to the door and called Teresa. She stepped inside, Mary at her heels. The little girl looked toward Johnny worriedly. Teresa had barely finished dusting snow off her coat when Murdoch took her arm and led her into the men's quarters, in the wake of Scott and Michaela.
"What's going on?" she asked, confused. "Is it Johnny?" A moment of panic flashed across her face. Murdoch looked like he was ready to explode and Scott's face was lined with worry.
"That's what I want to know!" Murdoch demanded. "What's going on? First he was only concussed and now you want to operate?"
Michaela stood her ground. "I believe I said that it appeared that he was only concussed. Sometimes, in these kinds of injuries, it takes time for the symptoms to appear.”
"Sam would have..."
Michaela turned on Murdoch. "Your Dr. Sam would not have been able to diagnose this any sooner than I have. It is medicine not magic!"
"What are you talking about?" Teresa demanded, looking from Murdoch to Michaela. "Would someone care to tell me what's happened?"
"This... woman... wants to operate on Johnny!" Murdoch bellowed.
"Operate?” she gasped. “Why?"
Michaela straightened her back and glared at Murdoch. "I think you should all calm down and let me talk," Michaela said firmly.
"Murdoch, let's hear what she has to say," Scott told him bluntly.
“Yes!” Murdoch yelled at her. “I want an explanation…”
“Murdoch!” Scott snapped at his father. “Shut up!”
Teresa’s eyes widened at his outburst but she said nothing, just put her hand on his wrist and added, “Please, Murdoch. I want to hear what Michaela has to say.”
Michaela continued to exchange icy glares with Murdoch. “I believe Johnny is bleeding internally,” she told them concisely. “It’s possible that he has been slowly bleeding since he was kicked but nothing so far has indicated that. It may be that the coughing spasm triggered something that had been only slightly damaged by the blow.”
“But you don’t know!” Murdoch growled at her.
“No, I don’t know,” she told him grimly. “Not for certain.”
“Then how bad is it?” Murdoch asked furiously. “Can you at least tell us that?”
“As I told Johnny, I haven’t found any indications of organ damage. The tenderness is not around the kidney or liver area. There’s no suggestion of his appendix being affected…”
“There’s something else, isn’t there?” Scott asked suspiciously.
She sighed. “Yes, there is. I couldn’t find any bowel sounds when I examined him,” she explained. “It can indicate a number of prognoses.”
“You’re saying that you don’t know,” Scott said steadily, trying to bring some composure to the room.
“I’m saying that the only way to find out for sure and correct it will be surgery.”
“NO!” Murdoch bellowed at her. “You’re not just cutting my son open without even knowing what’s wrong with him.”
“Mr. Lancer,” she answered, calmly and coldly. “I’m almost certain that your son is bleeding internally. I’m prepared to monitor that bleeding for a short time and watch for something to indicate just what’s causing it, but it’s unlikely to stop of its own accord.”
Murdoch shook his head emphatically. “No.”
“Would you rather watch him bleed to death?” she asked bluntly.
“We don’t know that he will,” Murdoch told her. “If you’ve been wrong about everything else…”
“I haven’t been wrong about anything and you know it,” she told him furiously. “But medicine is not an exact science. Until the symptoms present themselves, there’s no way to diagnose the problem. Now, if you’ve finished, I have a patient to care for.”
"Fighting is not going to help Johnny," Teresa said, squeezing Murdoch's arm. “Michaela is doing the best she can. I'm sure Sam would be doing the same thing. We have to trust her."
"Thank you, Teresa," Michaela said and, with a swish of her skirts and her head held high, she turned and left them to return to Johnny. Teresa watched her go and waited for the coming explosion.
Then the inevitable came. Murdoch glared ominously at Scott. "I thought YOU might back me in this."
Scott turned on Murdoch. "Back you? This is not a contest! It's Johnny's health we’re talking about. Just because she is a woman does not mean she in incompetent."
"No, but first it was only a mild concussion and now he's bleeding internally. Sam wouldn't have missed something like that."
"How do you know?" Scott demanded angrily. "Sam's not here. She is... and she's the one person who can help."
"Then we have to trust her... let her do whatever she has to," Teresa cut in.
"There's no one else, Murdoch," Scott told him. "And she's been doctoring out here for years. You can't say she doesn't know what she's doing."
Murdoch turned away, looking out the window. "We'll wait for the snow to clear and get Johnny to Denver. If another doctor agrees, then he we can do the surgery."
"That could be days," Scott growled.
"Then we wait and see what happens," Murdoch told him determinedly. "I'm not letting anyone operate on Johnny just to poke around."
Scott raised his arms in frustration. "Well, if it becomes necessary, I am not going to let my brother die just because you’re too damned stubborn to admit you may be wrong. Now, I am going out there, and I am not going to tell Johnny about this conversation. I am going to make it perfectly clear to him that I trust Michaela completely. He shouldn’t have to worry about the only doctor who can help him."
"I think both of you are forgetting something," Teresa said with a firm note in her voice. "Johnny has a say in this too. If he tells her to go ahead, you're both going to have to accept that and give him your support." She looked from one to the other and asked, defiantly, "Is that clear?"
"I'm not the one objecting," Scott snapped and walked out of the room.
"Murdoch?" she asked, but he kept his back to her, staring out the window at the snow-covered ground.
She walked over to him, reaching up to his shoulder. "There may not be anything to worry about. Michaela doesn't know if it is that bad yet. We may be worrying for nothing."
"Yes, she might be wrong," he said, his voice catching.
"And if she's not, you are going to have to trust her," she told him determinedly. “Murdoch, she studied for years and she’s qualified. I don’t see how you can doubt her.”
"He's my son," Murdoch said softly.
"Yes, and that's all the more reason to take her advice," Teresa told him gently. She knew he needed time to think. "I'll leave you alone for awhile," she added, and squeezed his arm before turning away.
She only reached up to his shoulder. He was a pillar of strength, a mountain of a man who could run a ranch without a hint of hesitation. But this same man was lost when it came to his sons.
Johnny watched Michaela walk out of the men's quarters, her face still red with anger. "You and the old man not seeing eye to eye?" he asked, not able to suppress a chuckle.
Johnny nodded. "Yes,” he said softly. "I guess he's a little scared."
"Perhaps, but that was not the impression I got," she said impatiently, taking a seat on the edge of the sofa beside him.
“When he’s scared, he yells,” Johnny told her, grinning. “’Course, he yells for a lot of other reasons too.”
She laughed. "I’ll bet he does. Now, tell me. How is the pain?"
"I'm okay,” he answered, then sighed. “Look, you have to understand something. We haven't been together for very long. He looked for me for a long time… never thought I would be a part of his life again. It scares him to think that I might leave… in any way."
"Then I would think he'd want to have someone doing their best by you," she said crossly.
"He does. He just likes to call the tune.”
“But in this case, I write the lyrics,” she answered firmly. “Johnny, I need to know that you trust me in this.”
Johnny looked away. "I don't trust easy," he said quietly.
"All right,” she replied. “But you know; this could be a lot of worry over nothing. I really don't know anything for sure yet. I think your father over reacted."
Johnny grinned. “Yeah, he does that sometimes.”
Michaela nodded, looking toward Mary who was studying the tree. She suspected the child had been listening in on the conversation and she was sure Mary had heard the argument inside. "I think I had better talk to Mary.”
"She okay?" Johnny asked. "She hasn't heard all that has she?"
“Yes, I think she's heard everything.”
"Oh great! Just what the kid needs." Johnny sighed.
Michaela put her hand lightly on his shoulder. "Don't worry. I'll see that she understands what's going on."
She left him then and, looking around and seeing that he was alone at last, he pushed himself up against he armrest.
He pulled out the shank of horsehair that he'd slipped behind the sofa cushion and, knowing Mary was out of the way for a while, he set about braiding it.
The smell of pine and the warmth of the fire, the tree and its decorations over in the corner... it was all new and it felt good. He worked his fingers almost absently, and a twinge of regret forced its way into his thoughts. He wanted this Christmas to be something special for that kid. He just hoped that it wasn't going to be him who spoiled it for her.
But there was something special about having Mary here. Seeing Christmas through her eyes had been a wonder to him. Even with her parents’ death, she still found moments of happiness, just in looking at a tree or a silly star at the top of it.
He didn't have many good memories of Christmas, but he'd never worried about it much. Johnny Madrid had had no need for it anyway. But family seemed to give it meaning somehow.
He wished he had presents for everyone else. He had bought gifts for Teresa and Murdoch, had them hidden in Jelly's room. Scott? He was harder to buy for and Johnny still hadn't found the special gift he wanted for him. He guessed he wouldn't now.
"A penny for your thoughts?"
Scott's voice surprised Johnny and he wondered how he had ever gotten so comfortable around these people that he could let his guard down like this.
"Nothin' much," Johnny answered. "You an' Murdoch talking yet?"
Scott smiled. "We had a discussion..."
"Yeah, heard some of it," Johnny answered, grinning. He kept his fingers busy with the braiding.
"What's that you're doing?" Scott asked, watching his brother work.
"It’s a little present for Mary. A bracelet made out of horse hair. Kind of a little hackamore.”
"I didn't know you could do that," Scott answered. ""It’s beautiful work, Johnny. Is it hard to do?"
"Just takes a little practice. I'll show you how to make one when we get home."
Scott watched as Johnny's fingers began to slow down, and his eyes began to close of their own accord. "Maybe you should get some rest," he suggested, starting to take the braid from Johnny's hand.
But Johnny whipped it back and stuffed it between himself and the sofa cushion and looked back at his brother. "So I can work on it when I'm not so tired," he said.
Johnny slept on and off for most of the afternoon. Mary kept as quiet as she could, busy making a special present for Johnny. Dr. Mike said he was sick and might get sicker, but Mary knew that she would take care of him.
Mary had none of the things she had at home to make her present - no paints or charcoal, no paper. She had decided to make a picture of his horse, Barranca.
But Teresa had material that she had bought for shirts and dresses, and she carefully cut out shapes to paste together. Mary hoped it looked like Barranca. Scott had helped her.
It would be fun to watch Johnny's face when he opened the present on Christmas morning. He sure didn't seem to know much about Christmas, so she wanted to make this special.
She had sneaked a peak at him once, while he was sleeping, and he sure looked pale. But Mary had confidence in Dr. Mike to get him better in time for Christmas.
It didn't seem fair that anyone should get sick when Christmas was so close. She thought sadly of her parents and how much she missed them. She wanted to be brave, like she thought the grown ups wanted, but it was hard sometimes. Right about now, Ma would have been cooking lots of pies and cookies; and Pa would have been out looking for the biggest turkey he could find.
She wiped her sleeve across her eyes and went back to her work. If Ma and Pa couldn't be here, at least she did have Dr. Mike and all of her new friends. Johnny was something of a riddle to her. He didn't say much or fuss over her, yet he had shown her that he cared. The star on top of that tree meant more to her than she could tell him.
Teresa leaned over the table. "That’s looking wonderful, Mary,” she whispered. “I know Johnny is going to love his present."
Mary looked back and saw Dr. Mike sitting next to Johnny on the sofa again. "Dr. Mike is worried. I can tell."
Teresa's smile dropped away. She put her hand on Mary's shoulder and said, "Johnny will be fine. I'm sure Dr. Mike knows what to do to make him well."
Mary nodded and went back to cutting out her horse.
Teresa walked over to the sofa, catching Michaela’s eye. "How is he, Michaela?" Teresa asked.
"Awake and complaining," Michaela replied, smiling. "His fever's up a little, but not too bad."
Michaela turned back to Johnny. "While you're awake, I need to examine you again. I have to see if there's anything to indicate that you are bleeding. I won't take long." She looked up at Teresa. “Do you think you could take Mary into the other room for a few minutes?”
Teresa nodded. “Sure,” she said and walked over to the child.
When Michaela was finished and the covers were back over him, she looked him in the eye. "The pain is getting worse, isn't it?"
He nodded. "A little."
"I thought so," she said, sighing slightly. "You're going to have to tell me if it gets bad, Johnny. I can only tell so much by examining you."
He nodded. "Long as you stick to your end of our deal," he said. "You talk to me too."
"I will. But now you have to tell me something. If you do require surgery, will you agree to let me operate? I want to know that you trust me."
"You afraid o' Murdoch?" he asked with a smile.
She smiled back. "I've handled worried parents before."
Johnny dipped his head. "Haven't had a parent to worry about me in a long time. It complicates things."
"Johnny, parents are complications even if you've known them all your life," she assured him. "That won't get any easier. But you are my concern, not your father."
"Yeah, well, like I said, I don't trust easy," he said quietly. "But I trust you. You've been honest with me, so far. Sam's like that."
"I take that as a very nice compliment. Thank you."
"De nada, Doc," he answered casually, then added with unexpected candor, “It’s worse, isn’t it?”
This time it was Michaela who nodded. “Yes, there’s some distension of the abdomen. It means that the bleeding hasn’t stopped.”
“Thanks for telling me,” he said and, incongruously, went back to braiding the horsehair.
She stood up then and walked across the room to where Murdoch was pretending to read a book. Michaela had the impression that he'd been watching her the whole time.
"I think I need to have a word with you and Scott," she told him quietly, aware that Mary wasn't far away.
Murdoch nodded. "He'll be right in. He's helping Dallas with the horses."
He shut his book firmly and got to his feet, walking across to the window and looking out. "He's coming now," he told her curtly and walked past her without another word to head for the men's quarters.
Murdoch paced the floor, knowing that he wasn't going to like what Michaela had to say. He could see for himself that Johnny was getting worse. His fever was rising and he was even paler now than he had been a few hours ago, though he wouldn't have thought that possible. And he'd caught Johnny wincing at the pain when he thought no one was looking.
Damn it, when would Johnny catch a break? Hadn't he been through enough in his life? Were some people just destined to live under an unlucky star?
But he had so many doubts. Johnny's condition had been steadily declining and she still couldn't tell them why. Surely Sam would have been able to do more.
He stopped and ran his hand through his hair. He wished that there was another doctor who could give him a second opinion. If only there were some answers to his questions. How could he trust her, when she couldn't tell him anything?
The door opened and Scott came into the room suddenly, breaking Murdoch’s thoughts. Michaela and Teresa were right behind him and he didn't like the look on Michaela's face.
"Well?" Murdoch snapped. He hadn't meant to be abrupt, but the fear gnawing at him seemed to force the word out.
"I told you I would keep you apprised of Johnny's condition. He’s shown no improvement. In fact, his fever is rising and he’s growing weaker. His pulse is rapid and so is his breathing. I’ve just examined him again and there’s some abdominal distension. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s bleeding internally."
"How long before you have to operate?" Scott asked.
"Now, wait just a minute!" Murdoch interrupted. Scott was making assumptions that he wasn't prepared to go along with. They needed to be sure before they let her go that far. And he was Johnny's father... This decision was for him to make. "I want to know more before I let you operate," he told her angrily.
Michaela nodded. "And that is what I am here for. I'll answer any questions you have."
"Then tell us what's wrong with him," Murdoch demanded. It didn't seem unreasonable.
"I don’t know what’s causing the bleeding, Murdoch," she answered bluntly. "The point is that Johnny will bleed to death if I don't operate and stop it."
"You still don't know, but you're prepared to risk his life by operating?" Murdoch asked furiously.
"Murdoch, I can only go by the symptoms I’m presented with. The ‘evidence’ if you like… ‘clues’. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that he’s bleeding, and I will only be able to find the source and stop it by operating.”
"Evidence! Clues... what kind of a doctor are you?" he raged at her.
Michaela straightened her back and glared at him. "What kind of a father are you?" she demanded icily. "Are you prepared to sit and watch your son die rather than admit I might know what I'm doing? It's not me who's risking his life, Murdoch... it's you. The longer this is delayed, the more likely that Johnny will be too weak to withstand the surgery. His fever is climbing and his pulse is weakening. His lungs are already slightly congested and waiting will only give that time to worsen."
"Dr. Mike!" Mary's terrified scream came from the other room.
The door swung open and Russ stood in the door way. "Dr. Mike, come quick... it's Johnny!"
Michaela turned sharply. She picked up her skirts and ran to Johnny's side. He was curled up on his side on the sofa, his arms wrapped around his stomach. He was gasping for breath.
"Johnny!" She put her hands over his wrists and tried to get him to uncurl. "Tell me... what is it?"
"Hurts..." he whispered breathlessly. "Damn, it hurts so bad... coughed and it just..."
"It's all right, Johnny," she told him gently. She put her hand on his cheek and tried to reassure him. "It’s going to be all right. It's time to do something about it."
Murdoch and Scott stood at the back of the sofa, looking over. When Michaela looked up, their faces were almost as white as Johnny's. "We can't wait any longer," she told them. Then her face hardened a little. "And, just so you know, Johnny gave me permission a while ago."
"What do you need?" Murdoch asked quietly. The sight of his son in so much pain had obviously stunned him.
"Russ and Dallas can clear the table and scrub it down. Then I’m going to need all of you to help."
Murdoch nodded. "You'll have what you need." He looked down at Johnny, his son writhing in agony. "Can you give him something for the pain?"
"I'm going to give him some morphine. Just enough to ease the pain," she told him.
Michaela drew a small box from her bag and opened it to reveal a syringe with a small bottle of clear liquid. "Johnny, I'm going to give you a small amount of morphine, just enough to keep you comfortable until the surgery."
She looked up briefly. "Scott, come and hold his arm."
Scott walked around the sofa to kneel on the floor beside her. His eyes locked with his brother's for one wordless moment before he gently but firmly pulled Johnny’s right arm out straight for Michaela to inject the pain killer.
"This should work right away," she reassured Johnny.
Almost from the instant that the needle entered Johnny's vein, the pain seemed to ease. He straightened out, though still panting and trying to get his breathing under control.
"Johnny, look at me," she said, putting her fingers under his chin and turning his face towards hers. His eyes were slightly glazed but she could see that he was focusing them. "I need to talk to them, Johnny," she said gently. "Then I'll have some things to do. I want you to lie as quietly as you can. Do you understand?"
"Yeah," he murmured between panting breaths.
"Good, this will be over before you know it and you'll be fine." She turned to Murdoch. "Now, I need to speak to all of you for a moment, over by the table."
She looked around for Mary and found her by the tree. "Mary, can you do something for me?"
Mary nodded and walked nervously over to the sofa. Her eyes never left Johnny.
"Mary, I have some things to take care of and I can't leave Johnny all alone. Do you think you can sit with him for a few minutes and keep him company?"
Mary nodded again, but her eyes were wary. Michaela stood up and guided her to over to take her own place beside Johnny. "He just needs to know someone is with him, Mary. You don't have to do anything for him."
Instinctively, the little girl reached out and took Johnny's hand and squeezed it. He looked at her with a weak smile and Michaela left them.
With a glance towards the Lancers, she headed for the men's quarters once again. She knew they were following her. She could almost feel their presence behind her.
When they’d all come into the room, she closed the door and turned to face them. This was never easy, but for some reason, here, at this time of year and with this family, it seemed particularly hard.
"You should know that this is going to be difficult for all of you," she began. "I want you to know now that it won't be like extracting a bullet or cleaning and suturing a wound. This is going to be hard for you to see and I can't afford to have any one of you let me down. If you don't think you can handle it, you should back out now."
Murdoch looked at her, his face creased with grim determination. "That’s my son out there, I won't let him down."
She nodded and looked at Scott and then Teresa who each answered with a quiet, “Yes.”
"All right. Teresa you will be my nurse. I’m going to need some help. Scott, I want you to handle the chloroform."
She looked outside at the failing light. "Murdoch, I'll need plenty of lamps and one will have to be held right over us."
Each of them nodded and she continued. "Teresa, I've got only a few bandages with me. I'll need you to get a sheet from Russ and tear it into strips for more bandages. Scott, I'll need you to help Russ and Dallas to clean that table as much as you possibly can and Murdoch, you gather some lamps."
She put her hand on Murdoch's arm. "Murdoch, you have to understand. Johnny has already lost a lot of blood, and he will lose a lot more during surgery. Even if I find the cause of the bleeding...."
Murdoch looked hard at her, then ran his hand thoughtfully through his hair. "I'm putting my son's life in your hands. I know I've said some harsh things, but I'm trusting you now. Just do what you can for him, please."
"I will. Now, let's get started."
"You scared, Johnny?" Mary asked in a nervous whisper. There’d been an uncomfortable silence between the two when Michaela left. "You don't have to be, you know. Dr. Mike will help you."
Johnny smiled, squeezing her hand. He hated the distorted feeling the pain killer gave him, but he was grateful that the pain had eased. "Yeah, Squirt, I know. I trust her. And I’m trusting you, too."
“Yes. I trust you to keep up those Christmas plans and make sure the others do too. I don't want my being sick to spoil it for everyone. I'll get better a whole lot quicker if I know you're all having a good time."
"I have a present for you for Christmas, Johnny," she whispered. "You have to open it Christmas morning."
He smiled. "All the more reason for me to come to your party," he told her quietly.
"Dr. Mike will make you better," she said confidently.
“Hey, Squirt, one more promise?"
Mary nodded. “Yes?”
"Promise to tell me more about the Christmases you remember. I think I'd like to hear more."
"I'll think up lots of stories for you, Johnny," she said eagerly. "When you wake up, I can tell you all about them."
"That’s my girl. And I'll try to think of some myself.”
Johnny heard the swish of skirts and Michaela was suddenly standing over him. "Mary, it's time we got started. I want you to go in the back room and stay with Russ and Dallas until I call you. Okay?"
Mary reluctantly stood and Johnny hesitated to let go of her hand. In a very short time, the little girl had come to mean so much to him.
"It's all right, Johnny. You’ll see her in the morning," Michaela promised.
"I'll hold you to that, Doc."
"I'll be right back," she replied, taking Mary by the hand. "I'll get Mary settled and then I'll tell you what's happening."
Johnny nodded. He didn't know if he really wanted to know all the details.
But she was back in only a few minutes and sat down beside him. "I want to examine you quickly and then we'll start the surgery. Is there anything you want to know?" she asked.
"What are my chances?"
"Until I find the problem, that's hard to say," she answered honestly. "I'd say you've lost a lot of blood, but you've managed to hold off that congestion in your lungs. There's no reason to think the worst."
She smiled then and took out her stethoscope to begin her examination. "After seeing some of the scars you carry, I'd say you've been through some tough situations before. I think you're a fighter. Am I right?"
"Yeah, guess so."
"Then that's all I ask of you, Johnny. Fight this time too."
She finished her examination quickly and then stood up. "All right, then. I'm going to have Murdoch and Scott carry you over to the table."
Russ Thompson hadn't spent a lot of time around kids. He and his Lucy hadn't ever been blessed that way. Sure, a lot of children had come and gone through the way station over the years, but they never stopped long enough for him to get to know them. He’d never quite learned to feel comfortable around them.
But he'd gotten to know this tyke, and he liked her. He watched her sitting sadly at the window, staring out into the snow, and he tried to think of a way to make things better for her. He'd seen how she'd taken to Johnny and she must be feeling pretty worried right about now.
Hell, he was worried himself.
Guess he’d kind of taken to Johnny too.
"You know," Russ began hesitantly, "I remember a Christmas a lot like this one when I was a boy."
Mary sat silently.
"Reckon I was just about your age, in fact," he continued. "An’ I guess I was just about as sad as you look. Weren’t over a person though. That was over a pig."
She glanced over at him and frowned. "A pig?"
"Yep. Her name was Stinky. O’ course she didn't smell… not like the rest of the pigs. She was a special one."
"I don't like pigs," she answered disinterestedly and turned back to the window.
"Reckon ya woulda liked Stinky, though. She was the runt o’ the litter. Her Mama didn't have enough milk for her, so she just pushed her away."
"Did she die, too?"
Russ frowned. “Johnny ain’t dead, Mary,” he told her firmly. “Don’t you go thinkin’ that way.” He shook his head. "An’ no… no Stinky weren’t dead. Fact is, she lived to a ripe old age. Had lots o’ little ‘uns. But you still don't know what made her so special."
She looked back again. "What made her special?"
"Well, she didn’t snort or squeal... she barked."
"Like a dog?"
"Sure did. Barked when she was hungry, barked when she wanted me to rub her behind her ear. Stinky was mighty special."
"But pigs don't bark... dogs do."
"Funny thing... no one ever told Stinky that."
"Then, why were you sad?"
"One Christmas, when I got up - she was gone."
"Yep. Couldn't find her nowheres."
"Well, me bein' just a little tyke, when I saw the ham on the table, I was sure my ol'.... my pa... had done for her. I was real upset. Felt like my best friend was gone." He stopped and scratched his chin, then smiled. "But she turned up at the front gate next mornin', barkin' and hollerin' like she hadn't eaten in a week."
"Johnny ain't gonna leave you neither," he told her. "Not if he can help it. I seen how much he likes ya an' I reckon he'll stick around."
She crawled off the bed and climbed up onto Russ's lap. "Promise?"
"Can't promise for someone else," he told her seriously. "But I reckon that's how it is."
She smiled just a hint of a smile and he grinned at her. "You know, I ain't played much an' I wasn't much good when I did, but I reckon you oughta practice playin' checkers for when you get a chance to take on Johnny. I hear tell from Teresa that he's pretty good."
"Not as good as me."
Scott sat by the side of his brother's bed, watching the slow rise and fall of his chest. Well, it was Russ’ bed actually. Russ had given up his bed so that Johnny could be made more comfortable and could have some privacy while he recovered.
It was dark now and the lamp on the nightstand was trimmed low, but Scott could still see how pale Johnny looked.
God, it had been an awful afternoon. Scott had seen a lot of horrible things during the war and he hadn't thought that anything could shock him; but seeing Johnny’s insides opened up like that…
His hands still shook at the memory of holding that mask over Johnny’s face to administer the chloroform, knowing that if he gave Johnny too much he could kill him; or not enough and Johnny would regain consciousness in the middle of the surgery.
Michaela had warned them how hard it would be to watch, but he hadn't imagined just how awful it would be. There had been so much blood... and he'd seen things that he hoped he would never see again.
He leaned forward and took Johnny's limp hand. It still felt too warm. "It's almost Christmas you know, Brother, and I happen to know that Mary has been working on a special gift for you. So, whenever you want to open your eyes..."
But there was no response. Michaela had said that it would be hours before he came to, but Scott kept hoping just the same. The surgery had taken a long time - far longer than any of them had expected, and now all they could do was wait.
He wondered if Murdoch and Teresa were sleeping. He doubted it. Scott knew that Murdoch had been just as shocked as he had been during the surgery. He’d seen him trying to look the other way through most of it - his face pale, his hand shaking as he held the lantern overhead.
Teresa had stood up to it well; better than anyone should expect from a girl who was still in her teens. But even after all the times she had assisted Sam, she had not been prepared for this. On the one occasion when their eyes had met, Scott had seen Teresa’s sparkling with unshed tears.
He leaned back and closed his eyes. This was supposed to have been their first Christmas together as a family. Now...? Damn that horse! Damn Johnny's propensity for getting hurt and damn the snow that had them trapped here in the first place!
He sighed heavily and opened his eyes, shaking off the regrets. He picked up the cloth from the basin of water on the nightstand and wrung it out, then wiped Johnny's face. His face was as white as the pillowcase, but his temperature was still rising.
Lost in thought, Scott almost missed the door opening behind him. “How is he?” Michaela asked, crossing the floor quietly.
"He's still sleeping,” Scott told her, rinsing the cloth in the basin. It seemed that the fever was drawing the coolness from the cloth faster and faster now. “But his temperature still seems to be going up."
Scott moved his chair aside to let her move closer to Johnny. She sat down on the edge of the bed and checked his forehead for fever, then took his pulse. She'd begun taking his pulse at his throat now. Apparently, it was too weak to locate at his wrist.
The quiet in the room was unnerving and her silence only served to exaggerate the feeling. Scott couldn’t stand it any longer. "The truth, Doctor, will he make it?"
"It's too soon to tell," she told him bluntly. "I was able to repair the tear I found in the pancreas but there was considerable infection there. The blood he'd lost from the ruptured vein was extensive. It isn’t good, but he’s holding his own so far."
“You said this kind of injury is rare. How rare?”
“Personally, I’ve never seen it before, but I’ve read reports,” she quietly explained to him. “I have to be honest with you. A tear to the pancreas is so uncommon that little is known about diagnosing it. The symptoms are so vague that there is almost always a delay in finding it. That’s the main reason that it’s so often fatal.” She sat down on the edge of the bed. “If only I’d found it earlier.”
“You did find it though,” Scott pointed out. “That’s what’s important. At least he has a chance now.”
He watched Johnny’s face, hoping for some sign that he was aware of them, but there was nothing. “You know, I sat with him just a few months ago, when he’d been shot in the back and we didn't know if he would make it. We were practically strangers then.” He stopped then and swallowed hard. “But this time...."
"This time he’s your brother and you love him,” she finished for him. “I’ve seen the way you and he are together. You have a bond already. Scott, if anything will bring him through this, it’s the love and support that his family can provide. I’ve seen it happen.”
Scott nodded uncertainly.
“And, in the meantime,” she continued, turning her attention back to Johnny. “I think tincture of coneflower might help. Once he wakes, we’ll start him on that. It can help purge the infection from his system."
Scott ran his hands through his hair. He was tired beyond tired. There were so many things… so many people affected.
"How is Mary? I know how she's taken to Johnny."
"I got her to sleep," Michaela told him. "She's been very good about it all so far, but I worry about her. This isn't good so close to losing her family."
"I don't know much about children, but she seems to be keeping a lot inside."
"Yes, I think she is."
Silence fell on them. Michaela checked the wound and seemed satisfied, while Scott watched and worried.
Scott wiped Johnny's forehead again. "His fever is getting higher."
"Actually, I'm hoping that's from the infection," she said quietly. "I'm still concerned about that congestion in his lungs."
Michaela leaned her hand on Scott's shoulder. "You look exhausted. Why don't you take a break? I'll watch him for awhile."
"No, I'm sure you're just as tired," he said. "Why don't you get some sleep and relieve me later?"
"Can an old man help out?" Both of them turned and were surprised to see Dallas standing in the doorway. "I'd like to help the boy, too."
"I think we'll arrange shifts in the morning. It looks like Johnny has no lack of helpers," Michaela said to the old man. "But Scott seems to be determined to stay here for a while, Dallas, and I'd like to take over for him later. I want to keep a close eye on Johnny."
Dallas nodded. He looked disappointed. "Okay, but you be sure to include me an’ Russ in them shifts. We’ve got kinda close to Johnny."
"We will," she assured him and the old man quietly left. "Your brother has a way of making friends, doesn't he?"
Scott looked at Johnny's face, young and vulnerable. "He does. It's too bad that he doesn't realize it.”
"Why don't you try to get some rest while you can," Scott said. "You've been on your feet all day."
Michaela stood slowly. "I think I will. Call me in two hours, or if there is any change. He will probably sleep through till morning. But keep an eye on his temperature and if he starts coughing, come get me right away."
Scott heard the door open and close behind him then leaned forward. "You rest, Johnny, and get better. I don't plan on having any more Christmases without you at my side."
Michaela heard a subtle change in Johnny's breathing and sat forward. He sighed, then moaned lightly and moved his head to one side... then to the other.
It was daylight now, though only just and with the dawn had come a spike in Johnny's fever. It had been steadily rising each time Michaela had checked him.
"Johnny?" she whispered, leaning in close. "Wake up, Johnny... come on..."
His eyelids flickered slightly. Knowing that he needed to hear a familiar voice, she hurried to the door and called for Scott and Murdoch.
"What is it?" Murdoch asked anxiously.
"He’s showing signs of waking up.”
Murdoch didn't need to hear it twice. He shouted for his elder son and raced into Johnny's room. He looked at his son and Michaela saw his shoulders slump as he took in Johnny’s condition.
"He's worse," he said, almost to himself.
“The fever is up. I need to bring him ‘round so that I can get some medication into him. It might help if he hears your voice."
Murdoch stood beside the bed, startled to see Johnny's cheeks burning red with fever and his breathing labored. Johnny sighed and moved his head uncomfortably and Michaela saw the effect it had on his father. He seemed to suddenly come to a decision.
He lowered himself stiffly onto the edge of the bed, leaning forward to draw his huge hand through Johnny's hair. "Hey, Son," he said softly. "It's time to wake up."
"Louder," Michaela encouraged. "Make him know you’re here."
Murdoch looked back at her for a moment but then turned back and did as she urged. "Come on, Son," he said. "You've slept long enough."
"Where’s Scott?" she asked.
"He’s only just fallen asleep," Murdoch answered. “He tossed and turned after he came in. I heard him a few times.”
"He stayed with Johnny most of the night," she told him. "He must be exhausted."
Murdoch returned his attention to Johnny. "Come on, Son, I want you to wake up for me. Can you hear me, Johnny?”
He was answered with a groan and Johnny twisting his head away. But Johnny's eyelids lifted for a moment.
"It's working," Michaela told Murdoch eagerly. "Keep talking to him." She walked around the end of the bed and over to the other side so she could be with Johnny as he woke to check his condition.
"Hi there, Son. We've been waiting for you,"
Johnny’s eyes searched for the voice; his eyelids were at half mast.
"Right here, Johnny,” Murdoch told him. “Right beside you.”
Johnny's brow creased into a heavy frown. He turned his head towards his father's voice. "M... Murdoch?" The word was slurred and barely audible, but Michaela saw Murdoch's face light up.
"Yes. I'm right here. You've been asleep a long time, Son."
"Nothing to be sorry about, John. It’s just good to see you awake."
Michaela put her fingers to his throat and took his pulse. Pulling the open nightshirt aside, she placed the stethoscope to his chest and listened for a moment.
"How do you feel, Johnny?" Michaela leaned over the bed.
"I'm going to give you something for the pain in a minute. But I want you to try to drink a little water first."
"Johnny, it's important that you drink plenty of fluids," Michaela told him firmly.
But he shook his head, his face paling despite the fever. "Can't... don't feel so g... good."
Murdoch motioned for Michaela to hand him a glass of water. Gently he lifted his son's head just enough to tip the glass against his lips. "You have to drink if you want to get better. Just a little bit for now."
Michaela marveled at the tenderness in the big man's hands. Johnny tried to twist his head away, but he was just too weak and Murdoch let the water dribble into Johnny's mouth, then waited for him to swallow before trying it again. With each swallow, Johnny accepted the water a little more easily until, suddenly, his cheeks turned a ghastly shade of green.
"Michaela! Basin, quick!" Murdoch yelled, pulling the glass away.
"Turn him on his side before he chokes!" Michaela ordered, picking up the basin from the nightstand and placing it strategically in front of Johnny.
Murdoch quickly but gently rolled Johnny toward the edge of the bed and held his head as Johnny vomited what little he had in his stomach, then continued with dry heaves. Murdoch looked up at her, panic on his face.
When it was over, Johnny lay limply against Murdoch's arm, panting heavily. He gasped for air and then started coughing. Murdoch's face was nearly as pale as Johnny's as he sat on the side of the bed, rubbing Johnny's back with one hand while the other held and supported him.
"Murdoch," Michaela said gently. "Lay him back so I can examine him."
She pulled the blankets down and lifted the nightshirt to check the incision. The stitches had held. There was no noticeable bleeding, but she quickly put the stethoscope to his abdomen to check anyway.
Pulling the nightshirt back into place and re-adjusting the blankets, she caught sight of Murdoch's face. Fear was all but written across it.
"It's all right, Murdoch," she told him, putting her hand lightly over his. "There doesn't seem to be any harm done."
She glanced at Johnny, lying back exhausted and looking to her for reassurance. "It's all right, Johnny. Nausea is to be expected after the chloroform. It will wear off, but you have to try to drink some water again. I’m going to add some medication that will help, so it’s important that you try."
Johnny closed his eyes wearily.
"Murdoch, lift his head again," she ordered him and picked up the glass. She added the coneflower tincture and held it to Johnny’s lips. "Just a little, Johnny. If you can keep it down, you'll feel much better."
He swallowed a few drops, then she risked a little more and finally got him to take half the glass. By taking it very slowly, Johnny had managed to keep it down.
She smiled. "That will do for now, Johnny. I’m going to give you something for the pain. You just try to relax. Sleep is the best thing for you."
Michaela watched Johnny relax into the softness of the mattress as the morphine dulled the pain and he drifted back to sleep.
“We’ll wake him every couple of hours and try to get as much water and medication into him as we can.”
Unexpectedly, Murdoch’s giant hand rested on her smaller one. “Thank you, Michaela.”
Mary sat on the floor next to the tree, alone and frightened. Johnny was very sick and she knew it. Russ and Dallas rushed back and forth, carrying buckets outside and then coming back in with them full of snow, only to disappear into Johnny’s room like everyone else.
She had heard Johnny yelling earlier - words in English and what she thought must be Spanish. She’d tried to make out what he was saying, but the words were only sounds without meaning to her.
She scooted closer to the tree, trying to lose herself in the smell of the pine needles and hoping to remember what it had been like at Christmas last year. She had been seven then, and Mama had let her help with all the baking. The house had smelled gloriously of cakes and Christmas cookies. She could almost taste the cinnamon and nutmeg.
She had been so happy then. There had been so much food and so much joy in their house. Friends would stop by and there had always been a sip of sweet eggnog for her.
It wasn’t fair that they left her behind. She would have gone with them if she could. But Dr. Mike had told her that heaven wasn’t ready for her yet; that a place had to be prepared for each new angel and that hers just wasn’t ready.
Mary wondered if God was preparing a place for Johnny…
She squeezed her eyes closed at the sound of the yelling coming from Johnny’s room. But it wasn’t him yelling anymore. Dr. Mike’s voice sounded angry and even scared. Scott and Murdoch were calling to Johnny to stay with them.
She slid deeper beneath the trees, the boughs holding her safely, protecting her from the fear and sadness that filled the house.
Mary said a prayer to God and to Mama and Papa to keep Johnny safe.
Russ poured another bucket full of snow over Johnny and still the fever raged. They had brought in a mattress from one of the bunks and laid it on the floor with him on it. Then they had packed him in the snow. The only part of Johnny that Russ could see was his face and a fringe of wet hair covering his forehead.
“How much more can he take?” Murdoch asked anxiously, kneeling on the floor next to his son.
“I don’t know,” Michaela answered quietly, desperation in her voice. Then she turned back to Russ and Dallas. “More snow.”
Dallas grabbed a bucket and ran from the room, but Russ couldn’t move. He had seen a fever just like this one take his wife. He felt as if he were reliving the nightmare.
But Aggie had gotten sick when there had been no one but himself to try to help her. He’d done the best he could and prayed that it was enough. It hadn’t been, but Johnny had Michaela to help him. Perhaps that would make a difference.
Scott rushed over to him and pushed the bucket into his hand, shaking him out of his reverie and back into the present. “You heard Michaela. Johnny needs more snow!”
Russ saw the anger in the young man’s eyes but knew that it wasn’t directed at him. That anger was based in fear… a fear that Russ remembered all too well. He gripped the bucket and nodded, then hurried from the room.
It had been an hour and still Johnny hadn’t moved a muscle beneath the freezing snow they had packed around him. Scott didn’t miss the irony in the fact that they had worked so hard to get Johnny warm after finding him in the snow and now they were working even harder to keep the snow packed around him.
Michaela leaned forward once again to wipe Johnny’s face with a cloth filled with snow.
Scott’s hands were red and stinging from the cold, but still he kept packing it against Johnny’s body, willing the snow to cool the raging fever.
Johnny began to shiver, a little at first and then his teeth began to chatter. Michaela put her hand to his forehead. “It’s coming down a little, but the fever hasn’t broken yet.”
They kept the snow coming. As it melted against the heat of Johnny’s body, they mopped it up with towels and added more snow in its place. Johnny’s shivering continued and grew stronger until, finally, beads of sweat began to form on his brow.
“It’s working!” Scott yelled, looking from Murdoch to Michaela. “He’s sweating!”
Michaela nodded, her hair falling in strands across her face. She pushed them aside impatiently and put her hand to Johnny’s brow. “Yes, the fever’s breaking!”
Scott looked at Murdoch and saw unshed tears glistening in his eyes. They had come so close to losing Johnny. They still might. His brother was gravely ill, but at least now there was hope where there had been precious little just a few minutes ago.
Scott reached over and grabbed Murdoch’s nearly frozen hand. “There’s always hope when it’s Johnny.”
He was cold. God, he was so cold. The last thing he remembered was his body baking in the heat. And he hurt. Oh, how he hurt. Johnny tried to shift away from the pain but he couldn’t move. He was trapped. Panic set in and he tried even harder to get away.
“Johnny, no, you’re safe,” That was Scott’s voice. “Lay still.”
He couldn’t. The cold was seeping deep down into his bones. He shivered so hard that his teeth ached. Where was he?
“Lay still, Son.” That was Murdoch. The authority that voice carried made him stop. “That’s right, John, don’t fight us. We’re trying to help you.”
He struggled to open his eyes. First, he saw only shapes that were meaningless to him. Then the shapes began to take on human form and, finally, he recognized them.
They were there, all of them, leaning over him with silly grins on their faces.
Scott had never seen a more wonderful sight. Johnny was still cocooned in snow with only his face free, but it was those eyes that nearly brought Scott to tears. He had begun to worry that he would never see those striking blue eyes looking at him again.
“Hey, Brother. It’s about time you decided to wake up,” he said, determinedly keeping his voice calm. “We thought we might run out of snow before you joined us.”
“C…cold,” Johnny mouthed.
“I know. But your fever was too high. We needed to cool you down.”
Murdoch moved over, catching Johnny’s limited line of sight. “You gave us all quite a scare, Son. Don’t you ever do that again.”
“C…cold,” Johnny mouthed again.
Scott looked across at Michaela who shook her head. “A little longer. We have to make sure the fever is down enough to avoid the risk of convulsions.”
“Just a little longer, Johnny,” he told his brother gently. He tried smiling. “At least you know how those jackrabbits feel now.”
Johnny stared at him for a long moment, then a strange sound welled up from his chest and mixed with his chattering teeth until there was no mistaking what it was. Johnny was laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Teresa asked, and sent Scott into helpless laugher.
Johnny smiled and closed his eyes.
Mary heard footsteps racing across the room and then Dr. Mike’s frantic call for her. She hadn’t meant to fall asleep beneath the tree, but now she crawled hesitantly from its protection and stood in the middle of the room. She just knew what Dr. Mike and Scott were going to tell her. The angels had made room for Johnny.
“Mary!” Dr. Mike rushed toward her, arms held open. “Where have you been? We’ve all been worried sick.”
“Under the tree,” she answered softly, head bowed. “I’m sorry. I fell asleep.”
Dr. Mike pulled her into a tight embrace. “Oh, Mary, I’m so sorry. We didn’t mean to neglect you. But Johnny was very sick and he needed all of us to help him.”
Mary nodded, hiding her face in the folds of Michaela’s skirt. “Do you think my Mama and Papa will like Johnny when he gets to heaven? He can tell them all about me.”
“What?” Michaela drew her chin up with the tip of her finger and Mary looked into her eyes. There were tears welling in them. “Oh Mary, Johnny is very much alive. He was very sick, and he still is, but he’s going to be fine. It will just take time. Murdoch and Scott are making him comfortable right now, and when they are done you can go in and see him.”
Mary turned her head up to look into Michaela's face. "Really... he's okay?
"He will be," Michaela told her reassuringly. "He needs lots of rest and looking after though."
"He'll be able to have Christmas with us?" she asked eagerly.
Michaela smiled. "Yes."
Mary smiled brightly, pulling away from Michaela and heading for the table. “Then I have to finish his Christmas present.”
“I think that is a lovely idea. I know Johnny will love it.”
“Scott says that Barranca is Johnny’s best friend - next to him, of course.”
Mary was soon lost in her task. She had seen a painted window in one of her mama’s catalogue books and she remembered how all the colors had come together to make a picture. That was what she wanted Barranca’s picture to look like. So she worked laboriously at cutting and pasting the slips of material into place.
“She’s a remarkable little girl,” Scott said as he stood in the doorway watching her. “It’s easy to see why she stole Johnny’s heart.”
Michaela looked over at Scott. He looked tired and worn. His shirt and pants were still damp from the snow and his blonde hair was nearly as unruly as his younger brother’s. They had all been pushed to their limit, and beyond, today. She wondered if his family realized just how close they had come to losing Johnny to the fever. If not for the snow, she would never have gotten his temperature down in time.
“Is Johnny settled?”
Scott nodded, walking over to the stove to pour them both coffee. “Yes. I think his fever is up a little again, but not like it was.”
“That’s to be expected but, hopefully, the worst is over.” She saw Scott sway a little. “You’d best sit down before you fall down. Doctor’s orders.”
“Pulling rank?” Scott grinned.
“One of the privileges that come with taking the Hippocratic Oath.”
Scott picked up the two cups of coffee and handed one to her as he passed. He sat on the sofa and laid his head back. “I don’t know when I’ve been more scared,” he admitted. “I felt so helpless.”
“It was lucky we had so many hands to help. Russ and Dallas were wonderful, keeping those buckets of snow coming.” She sat down in an armchair facing him. “Your brother’s lucky to have such good friends as well as his family.”
“Yes, he does now, but that hasn't always been the case, Michaela. Johnny's been a loner for most of his life."
"Why?" she asked. "I know he was orphaned but..."
"My brother has a certain... reputation, back in California," Scott told her evasively. "It didn't allow much room for friendships."
Scott considered whether to say anything more, but decided to go ahead. There was something about this woman that inspired trust. "He didn't always go by the name ‘Johnny Lancer’. For most of his life, he was known as ‘Johnny Madrid’. He was a hired gun."
Michaela stared at Scott. He could see the shock on her face. "He was what?"
He looked around to make sure Mary wasn’t close enough to hear before continuing. "Johnny was what they call a pistolero. He was good with a gun and he used it." Scott looked sadly into the fire. "I've never been sure how much of the reason was his own choice and how much it was forced on him by circumstance. He won't tell you either; not even if you ask him right out. But, now, he's just Johnny Lancer - cattleman."
"It's hard to believe," she whispered. "Are you saying he killed people? For money?"
"Yes." Scott frowned heavily. "But since he came back to Lancer, he's been trying to leave all that behind him. It isn't easy for him either. Johnny is faster on the draw than anyone I've ever seen, so men come looking to get themselves a reputation by taking him on.”
“You’re saying he’s a gunfighter.”
“No, I’m saying he used to be one,” Scott told her firmly. “Now, he owns one third of Lancer, just like I do… and Murdoch of course. For the first time in his life, he has something to live for…”
He stopped, noticing something protruding from the gap between the cushion and the back of the sofa beside him. Frowning he reached down and pulled at it.
“What’s that?” Michaela asked.
Scott recognized it. He looked over his shoulder to check on Mary. “Something Johnny was working on for Mary,” he said quietly.
Scott looked at her in surprise. “You knew about it?”
“Yes,” she answered, sighing. “I thought it was a wonderful idea. Mary would have loved it, but I doubt he’s going to be in any condition to finish it in time for tomorrow morning.”
Scott looked at it sadly. “Yes, it’s a shame. I know he wanted her to have something special.”
Murdoch stood up, trying to stretch the kinks out of his back. He had insisted on taking the first watch over Johnny and had not regretted being there each time he gently shook his son awake to give him the medicated water he needed to keep the fever at bay.
Each time Johnny’s eyes, still a little glazed from fever, looked at him he saw the gratitude in them. How often had Johnny lain alone or with only strangers to tend to him while he healed from a wound or illness? Even once was too many, and Murdoch knew there had been far too many.
“Hey,” he said, lifting Johnny’s head off the pillow. “Time for a little more water.”
“Any more an’ you’ll drown me,” Johnny whispered, sighing but taking a sip of the water before turning his head away.
“Not so fast there. You have to drink at least half this glass of water.”
“How long was I out of it?”
“You’ve been asleep most of the day.” Murdoch heard the door open behind him and turned to see Michaela gently guiding Mary into the room.
"Ah, Mary, good timing.” Murdoch smiled. “Johnny’s awake."
He gently lowered Johnny’s head back to the pillow and placed the glass back on the nightstand. Then he held his hand out to Mary. "Come over. Johnny's been asking for you."
Mary took a step closer and then stopped, looking at Johnny and then questioningly back at Michaela.
"It's all right," Michaela told her. "Go on over and say 'hello'."
But Mary's eyes were filling with tears. "You said," she whispered, almost too low to be heard. "You said he was all right."
"He will be. Right now he's tired and he's still very sick," Michaela explained. "But he’s feeling much better and I'm sure he'd like to say hello to you."
Murdoch saw Johnny look toward the door, his eyes resting on Mary.
"Johnny?" Mary's eyes lit up. "Are you better?"
“Sure,” he answered weakly.
Michaela took her hand. "Would you like me to go with you?"
But Mary shook her head and walked hesitantly toward the bed. Murdoch reached over and lifted her into his lap. "He's very sleepy, but I know he wants to talk to you for a little while."
Murdoch’s heart went out to the little girl. He could feel her trembling as she reached out to touch Johnny’s hand.
"Hey, Squirt," Johnny said in little more than a whisper.
Mary looked at him uncertainly. "Dr. Mike says you're getting better," she told him quietly. "But you don't look so good."
A hint of a smile touched Johnny's lips. "Dr. Mike knows what she's talkin' about," he said, sighing.
"I was scared," she whispered.
Johnny closed his eyes for a moment. "Yeah, me too," he told her. "But not now."
"I've been making you a surprise for Christmas. Wanna see it?"
Murdoch laughed. "If you show it to him now, it won't be a surprise," he told her.
"I just want to make him feel better."
"... better just seeing you..." Johnny murmured, sighing.
Mary looked up at Murdoch, her head just touching his chin. "He is tired, isn’t he?” When Murdoch nodded, she continued. “I think we need to let him sleep," she whispered. "Or else Dr. Mike won't let him come out to see the tree when we light the candles."
"I'm afraid Johnny won't be well enough to leave his bed for quite some time, Mary,” Michaela said sadly.
"But he'll miss Christmas!"
"We'll bring Christmas to him," Murdoch told her determinedly and cast a cautious glance back at Michaela. "I don't think Dr. Mike would object to that, would she?"
Michaela made a face as if thinking hard on the question. "Well…"
"Oh please, Dr, Mike. It’s Christmas Eve. Can’t we have Christmas with him in here? We can’t leave him all alone!"
"No, we can't," Scott said from the door, a smile plastered across his face.
Mary jumped down from Murdoch's lap. "Please, Dr. Mike?" she pleaded. "Please...?"
All eyes turned to Michaela. Murdoch chuckled as she threw up her hands in submission. "All right. I don't think it will hurt him," she finally said. "But not right now. Johnny needs some sleep. We can bring the tree in later."
"I'll watch him for a while," Scott told them all firmly. "Murdoch, you look like you could use some sleep."
“Thanks, Son,” Murdoch agreed, standing up. “You up for a biscuit, Mary?” he asked.
She nodded and took his hand. “Yes, and I have to finish Johnny’s present too.”
Michaela stood by the door and watched as Murdoch and Mary walked past. She would have given anything to spare Mary the pain she was going through. But she felt bound and determined to give her a good Christmas, in spite of everything.
Scott waited until everyone had left the room and he was sure Johnny was resting comfortably before he reached into his pocket and drew out the bracelet that Johnny had been working on.
The door opened and Dallas tipped toed in. "Doc Mike wanted me to give you some fresh water," he whispered as he replaced the old pan of water with a fresh one. "Hey, what you got there?"
"A bracelet that Johnny was braiding for Mary," he explained. "I was hoping I could finish it for him, but I've never tried doing it before."
"It ain't hard," Dallas told him negligently.
"You know how to do it?"
"Sure, b'n braidin' tack for years. Learned it from a Texan I met down on the Brazos years ago. There's a knack to it I reckon." He took the bracelet from Scott and whistled softly. "This is some real fine work, Scott."
Dallas drew up a second chair next to Johnny's bed and began to show Scott how to weave the fine horsehair.
"You gotta make sure you keep the colors apart," he explained. "That's the tricky bit."
Scott carefully followed Dallas' instructions and when he thought Dallas was sure that he had the pattern down, the old driver left him alone with Johnny. Scott wasn't sure if he had ever felt this close to his brother. The bracelet in his hands felt like a tangible link to Johnny himself.
His concentration on the work was such that time passed without his noticing. Soon it was time for Teresa to take over. Scott stuffed the bracelet in his pocket to finish it when he was alone later.
"He’s been resting quietly," he told Teresa as she took his place next to the bed.
"Russ heated up some stew and made fresh biscuits if you’re hungry. No one ate all day today."
For the rest of the afternoon someone was always at Johnny’s side, bathing his face and chest to keep the fever down. Michaela had been able to get medications into him and he was resting comfortably.
She could see no reason to keep Mary waiting any longer to bring the Christmas tree into his room. She knew this was more for Mary than anyone else, but she had no doubt that it would go a long way towards making Johnny happy. Anything that pleased Mary seemed to please him.
But the conversation she had had earlier with Scott would not leave her in peace. There was nothing she saw in Johnny that would make her believe the story his brother had told about him, but Scott certainly had no reason to lie. And then there were the scars on Johnny's body and the way he wore his gunbelt tied low.
But those thoughts were soon overridden by the exuberance of an eight year old who was determined to make this the best of Christmases for her friend. Her excitement seemed to rub off on everyone and even Dallas was humming a Christmas carol as they quickly took all the ornaments off the tree and readied it to be moved into Johnny's room.
Michaela and Teresa stood back and laughed at the sight of four grown men being supervised by an eight year old as they carried the tree into the room.
Johnny head the commotion from afar and opened his eyes just enough to see something big and green being shoved through the door. At first, he couldn't make sense of it, but then he heard Mary's muffled giggle and knew the Christmas tree was making an entrance.
He watched in silence as the tree was set in the corner and carefully redecorated. So far, none of them had realized that he was awake. They worked quietly and quickly, hushing each other whenever anyone got excited and he smiled a secret smile as he covertly continued to watch them.
When it came time for the star to go on the top, Scott lifted Mary up on his shoulders. Memories of Mary's excitement, her delight at seeing that star in his hand, all came back in a rush. He watched Mary replace the star on the topmost tip of the tree and found the emotions it evoked difficult to deal with.
And yet, they weren't painful emotions. For the first time that he could remember, Johnny knew that he was seeing Christmas as it should be. Family... friends... happiness and peace... all the things that had long been missing from his life.
And he'd lived to be a part of it.
He felt Michaela at his side and knew he had been found out, but she didn’t say a word to any of them. Instead, she just drew the blanket up over his shoulders and lowered her head to whisper in his ear, "Merry Christmas, Johnny."
Mary opened first one eye then the other. She was sure that she had heard a clatter of noise outside in the middle of the night. Maybe Santa had found them after all!
She crawled out of bed, noticing Dr. Mike’s empty bed beside hers. Then she padded over to Teresa's bed and shook her awake. "It's Christmas morning," she said. "Do you think Santa found us here?"
The look on Teresa's face told her what she feared and she sighed. It had been too much to hope that he would find them, stuck out here in the middle of nowhere.
"Merry Christmas," Teresa said sleepily, rubbing her eyes.
"Did you hear anything last night?" Mary asked.
"No, but I was so tired I didn't hear a thing once my head hit the pillow." She sat up a little and leaned on her elbow. "Why, did you hear something, Mary?"
"I thought I did. I thought maybe... maybe Santa found us."
Teresa gently pulled Mary onto the bed and covered her with her blanket. "Sometimes Santa knows that presents aren't the best gifts he can give you. Sometimes he knows that love is more important. I think... I think Santa's gift to us is Johnny getting well."
"Yes," Mary nodded. "And that's a good present."
"Why don't we get dressed and get some breakfast. Then we can go see how Johnny is doing this morning? I bet he'll be surprised when he sees that Christmas tree in his room."
Mary and Teresa walked into the kitchen. Russ was busy making breakfast and Dallas was leaning his elbows on the table, a steaming cup of coffee before him. "Dang that noise last night," he lamented. "A man can't get a decent night's sleep with all that clatter."
"You heard it too?" Mary asked quickly.
“Yep, sure did. Too cold ta go out an’ check though.”
Michaela walked out of Johnny’s room.
“How is Johnny?” Teresa asked.
“He had a comfortable night. His fever is down. I think we’re past the worst.”
Mary grabbed Teresa’s hand. “Then we can show Johnny the present I made him!”
“As soon as you’ve eaten breakfast, Young Lady.”
“Oh please, I can eat later.”
Teresa relented with a smile. “All right. Go on, but be as quiet as you can. Johnny is still very sick.”
Mary was all arms and legs as she ran for Johnny’s room.
“I hope Mary’s aunt knows what a precious child she’s getting,” Teresa said softly to Michaela.
“Stop fussin’,” Johnny complained.
“No, you stop fussing,” Scott shot back as he and Murdoch gently slipped an extra pillow behind Johnny’s back. “You are going to have to accept the fact that you need help for awhile. The sooner you realize that the better off we’ll all be.”
Johnny heard Mary giggling in the front room and turned his head away. He didn’t even have a present for her after all. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Murdoch asked.
“For spoilin' it for all of you," he murmured with a sigh. "I know you wanted this year to be special... an' it should've been, for Mary." He looked away. "The kid deserved more."
Murdoch laid his hand on Johnny shoulder. His touch was gentle, reassuring. Such moments were rare between them and it never failed to surprise Johnny that a man as tough as his father was could express so much in a touch.
“It wasn’t your fault, Johnny,” Murdoch told him firmly. “It was an accident.”
“I know but…” Johnny didn’t get a chance to finish his thought as the door opened and Mary ran in.
“Merry Christmas!” she cried, diving for the bed before Scott caught her.
Johnny grinned. “Merry Christmas, Squirt.”
“Do you like the tree?” she asked eagerly as Teresa, Murdoch and Michaela followed her into the room. Soon Dallas and Russ joined the party too, standing back quietly out of the way.
“Looks kinda pretty, doesn’t it? How’d it get in here?”
“We sneaked it in while you were sleeping,” she told him gaily. “We wanted it to be a surprise.”
“Well, it is.”
Mary laughed happily. “You want to open your present now? It’s under the tree.” She didn’t wait for an answer but ran over and grabbed the present, then held it out to Johnny.
“I made this for you,” she said. “I hope you like it.”
“I know I will. Scott, could you open it for me?”
“Of course.” Scott took the present and began unwrapping it.
A hush fell over the room as Johnny saw the picture of a horse, put together with strips of material and strands of horsehair pasted on for the mane and tail. Johnny felt tears prick his eyes and took a deep breath to stave off the emotions. He took the picture from Scott and looked at it more closely.
“You don’t like it?” Mary asked anxiously. “It’s Barranca. Scott told me what he looked like.”
“No, Mary….it’s the nicest present anyone has ever given me. Gracias niña… muchas gracias. Come here.”
Scott gently sat her on the bed and Johnny kissed her cheek. “I love it. But I’m sorry, I didn’t have time to….”
“Here you go, Brother,” Scott said handing him a small gift wrapped in cloth. “I wrapped it for you .”
Johnny took the small package, his eyes questioning Scott.
“Dallas showed me how to finish it,” Scott whispered.
“Just give her the present, Johnny.”
She took it with glee and pulled away the cloth. Lifting it up, she smiled happily. “Look how pretty it is!” she said, showing it off to Murdoch and then to Teresa and Michaela.
“Here, let me put it on for you,” Scott suggested and tied it on her wrist.
“Thank you, Johnny,” she said, her eyes glistening. She reached over and carefully hugged him.
“You’d better thank Scott, too. He finished it for me.”
She turned and hugged Scott as well. “Thank you, Scott. It’s so pretty.”
“There are other presents under the tree,” Michaela pointed out.
Mary jumped back to the floor and ran for the tree. “Yes, there are!” she cried. One by one, she pulled out presents and opened them – a pretty blue ribbon from Michaela and a little draw-string purse from Teresa. There was a scarf from Murdoch – the one she’d seen wrapped around his neck on the stage, and Russ and Dallas had given her a pair of hand-stitched moccasins.
Michaela moved closer to the bed and whispered, “Well, we couldn’t let you two out-do us. We all decided to find something for her.”
“There’s one more, right at the back,” Teresa showed her when Mary had finished opening the gifts and thanking everyone.
“Who’s it from?” the little girl asked.
Michaela looked around. Johnny could see the curiosity on her face. He looked from one face to another but no one seemed to be giving anything away. He wondered who it was from as well.
“Better go look,” he suggested and Mary crawled under the tree to pull it out.
“There’s no name on it,” she said, picking it up and turning it over. “Doesn’t say who it’s from.”
“Open it,” Michaela urged her.
“Yes, let’s see what it is,” Teresa agreed.
Mary pulled away the fine tissue paper it was wrapped in and gasped. “It’s a pony!”
And so it was – a small porcelain horse, delicately crafted, painted and glazed. Mary looked around for someone to thank, but no one owned up to giving it.
“Papa said he’d get me a pony,” she whispered, her eyes filling with tears. She clung to the little ornament. “Do you think he told Santa?”
Mary turned her head to look at Johnny. Their eyes met and she smiled through her tears. “You were right, Johnny. Santa did find me here.”
“Dang it!” Dallas exclaimed heartily. “Told ya I heard someone outside last night.”
“Yep, so ya did,’ Russ answered, scratching his chin through the layers of his beard. Almost hidden under his white whiskers, was a surreptitious smile, but the twinkle in his eyes was there for anyone to see.
Silence filled the room for a long moment. Mary went back to sit on the edge of the bed, her horse held tightly to her chest. “I’m glad you’re feeling better, Johnny,” she told him, crawling over to sit beside him. She carefully snuggled in close. “Told you that Christmas is fun.”
Johnny looked down into the little girl’s eyes. They gleamed with excitement and he swallowed hard over a lump in his throat. “Feliz Navidad, Chica,” he told her, smiling.
Michaela thought of Sully and the children and wished they could be here with her, but she wouldn’t have given up this moment for anything. “Merry Christmas,” she said.
“Merry Christmas,” Scott added. Boston, even with all its expensive presents, could never come close to this.
Murdoch looked from his dark haired, still pale son to his blond elder son. Teresa stood smiling happily at the other side of the bed. At last he had his family with him. All those years alone faded in the face of this happiness. “Merry Christmas,” he said, beaming.
Teresa looked over at Murdoch when he spoke. The joy on his face dispelled all the fear and worry of the last few days. So what if they weren’t at Lancer. This was the Christmas she had dreamed of. “Merry Christmas,” she told them all.
“Merry Christmas,” Mary said as she pulled the little porcelain horse closer to her heart and smiled.
And a very Merry Christmas to everyone.