This story was written for the Lancer Writer’s website (http://tv.groups.yahoo.com/group/Lancer_Writers/) as part of the 2013 Advent Calendar Challenge. My thanks goes to Anna Orr for not only taking the time to organise the Advent Calendar submissions but for beta-ing this story. An Early Christmas Present stands as a story in its own right, but it has links to a chapter story I am writing entitled From Highlands to Homecoming , which depicts Murdoch’s life prior to Scott and Johnny coming to Lancer. That story will eventually be archived here, but until then it can be viewed as a work in progress in the files of Lancer Writer’s or on Facebook at Lancer Fanfiction (https://www.facebook.com/groups/LancerFanFiction/).
“Still not arrived?”
“Nope, I think we’re going to have to find somethin’ else to go with the whiskey.”
“I can’t understand it. Jock promised to send the album in plenty of time for Christmas. Maybe he misjudged how long it would take to get here.” Scott shook his head in disappointment. Murdoch had been rather nostalgic for Scotland some months before and that had given his sons the idea of an album from Scotland with photographs of family and places and people Murdoch used to know. They had decided to give it jointly with a bottle of good malt whiskey. Secretly borrowing Murdoch’s address book, Scott had written to their uncle and sent money. He had received a letter back too, enthusiastic about the idea and promising to get the album to them in good time for Christmas. They had bought the whiskey in San Francisco on their last visit, but they were fast running out of time to receive the main gift.
“What’s going on over there?” Shielding his eyes from the low winter sun, Johnny peered in the direction of the stables. Several men had gathered by the corral at the side of the building.
“No idea. Let’s take a look.”
The crowd was jostling for a better view of whatever was in the corral. Bert Wilson from the Cattlemen’s Association had his pencil out and was writing in his notebook as one of his hands, standing up on the rail, called out measurements.
“Should have known, it belonged to you Lancers,” Wilson growled good-naturedly as he saw them approaching. “Well, I hope Murdoch will lease him out? My herd could do with some fresh blood.”
“Not ours,” replied Johnny, “but whooee! He is a beauty!”
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking, brother?” Scott pushed his way to the rail.
“Could be, Boston, could be. Might be a bit hard to wrap, but Murdoch sure would like him. Hey, Bert, where’s Jeremiah?”
As if on cue, Jeremiah Brown, the owner of the livery appeared through the open barn door. “What in tarnation are you all hangin’ about for? You’re disturbin’ the horses.”
“Mornin’, Jeremiah, who owns the bull?” asked Johnny.
“If it ain’t your Pa, it must be Aggie or Henderson,” Harry Johnson declared. “They’re the only ones who could afford a beast like that.” The Black Angus bellowed as if in agreement.
“Well, it ain’t. Belongs to some foreigner who arrived in town last night. Now you’re upsettin’ the animal so git the lot of you. Anyone would think you’d never seen a cow before.”
“Where’s this foreign fella now?” Johnny asked, climbing up on the fence rail for a better look.
“Over at the hotel, I expect, with his missus,” grumbled Jeremiah. “Now do as I say the lot of you. Git or I’ll call the sheriff.”
Scott and Johnny made a beeline for the hotel, but just as they got near, Johnny pushed Scott back round the corner. “Murdoch. What’s he doing in town?”
“Are you sure? He and Walt were going up to the north mesa. He shouldn’t be back for hours.”
“Well, I only saw his back going through the door, but how many six foot five, grey-haired men do you know?”
Checking around the corner the brothers crossed to the boardwalk outside the hotel and debated what to do next. If Murdoch was in there, they did not want him to see or hear what they were up to.
Just then one of the hotel’s guests strolled outside and paused a moment as if deciding which direction to take. Her grey-streaked, chestnut hair framed an unusually fair-skinned face. She looked vaguely familiar to Scott, although he was certain he had never met her before.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Scott raised his hat politely. “Did you happen to pass a tall man with grey hair in the foyer?”
“That I did, young man,” the lady smiled.
“Murdoch must be in there, Johnny. We’ll have to wait.”
“Och, Murdoch Lancer is it? Nae, lad, he’s not in the hotel. The tall man I passed was my husband.”
“You know Murdoch?” Johnny asked.
“I’ve never met him, but I know of him.”
“Does your husband by any chance own that fine bull over at the stables, ma’am?” Scott enquired. “We’d very much like to talk to him if he does.”
“And I’m sure he’d very much like to talk to you too.” The woman laughed and led the way back into the hotel and over to the lounge where her husband was reading a newspaper.
“Jock, look who I found outside. They’re wanting a word about the bull.”
As soon as her husband put his paper down, even before he stood up, Scott and Johnny realised who he was.
“Cat got your tongues then, lads? That’s no way to greet your long lost uncle. And here’s me come all the way from Inverness to visit you all.” Jock Lancer took hold of Scott’s hand and gave it a hearty shake. “Now Murdoch’s only sent us the one photograph, but I’m right in thinking you’re Scott? And you’re Johnny,” he said, shaking hands with him too. “This beautiful young woman is your Auntie Elspeth.”
Johnny and Scott soon recovered from their surprise and welcomed their uncle and aunt properly. No wonder Elspeth had looked familiar, Scott thought. He had only been looking at her picture on Sunday evening. Murdoch had very few photographs of his family in Scotland, but there had been an old daguerreotype of Jock Lancer and Elspeth Cameron on their wedding day in the 1840s, and a family group with their five children and Grandma Lancer, just before her death four years ago.
“We thought as your cousin Cam knows enough now to be left in charge of Glenbeath, we would bring the album you wanted in person,” Jock explained. His low burr made the brothers smile. It was so reminiscent of Murdoch in his more relaxed moments in the evenings, when he shared stories about Scotland and the family he had left behind. Talking about the Highlands always revived his normally dormant brogue. “We’re going to circumnavigate the world and visit your Auntie’s brother in New Zealand on our way home. I got the idea of bringing the bull as my own present after Murdoch’s last letter. Always complaining about the need to improve his blood stock, and didn’t one of you get skewered by a cow’s horns?”
“That was me,” admitted Johnny. “But it was only a graze.”
“Well, no grazes with an Angus, lad. Hopefully his more civilised characteristics will come through in his off-spring, even if their mothers are wanton beasties with horns.”
“He’s going to be a bit difficult to hide until Christmas. Some of the local cattlemen have already spotted him.” Scott was starting to think about what to do next.
“You should give him as an early Christmas present,” Johnny suggested. “The Cattlemen’s Association Christmas do is at Lancer this Saturday. Murdoch would get a real kick out of lauding that bull over the other members.”
“He’ll get a real kick out of introducing you,” Scott said to Jock. “Pack your bags and we’ll take you out to Lancer. I can’t wait to see Murdoch’s face.”
They hired a buggy from Jeremiah to transport Jock, Elspeth and their luggage and tied the young bull behind. Scott and Johnny rode along side, pointing out the sights on the way and discussing how they should surprise Murdoch with his visitors. By the time they reached the summit overlooking the ranch, they had decided what to do. Johnny rode ahead to make sure Murdoch was still not back and to let Teresa and Jelly into the secret.
The sun was beginning to set when Murdoch and Walt rode in. Scott, Johnny, Teresa and Jelly all stood in the yard to welcome them, grinning from ear to ear.
“We’ve got a little surprise for you, an early Christmas present.” Scott led the way towards the barn.
“What is it?” Murdoch asked.
“Not telling.” Johnny smirked.
“Oh no, not me either, boss.”
“You’ll just have to wait and see. Now shut your eyes,” Teresa laughed, taking his hand and leading him forward around the other side of the barn where some of the hands had also gathered to watch the fun. “Ready? Open your eyes.”
“My God! A Black Angus. I haven’t seen a bull like this in years. Where did you get him?” Murdoch orbited the Angus with a cattleman’s lust, running his hands down the animal’s flanks, checking it out from head to hoof.
Hands on hips, Johnny shuffled his feet and looked up at his father with a mischievous grin, “The man we got him from said to tell you, the bull’s called Bonnie Prince Charlie—junior.”
“What?” Murdoch was clearly startled. The circle of faces around him was gleeful. Who was that woman by Cipriano? She did not live on the ranch.
“Said that perhaps now you have Charlie here, you’ll stop whining about your blood stock problems in every letter,” added Scott, trying desperately to keep a straight face as one towering Scotsman approached the back of the other. They really were remarkably alike.
“But it can’t be—Jock?”
“Behind you, brother. Merry Christmas!”