Christmas Prayers

By Cadillac Red ()

Disclaimer: The characters belong to someone else. I make no money, and mean no harm in using them.

____________________________________________________________________

Murdoch Lancer stood at the Great Room window and watched the overcast sky with a growing sense of gloom. He had been kicking himself for sending his sons on a business trip three weeks before Christmas, the first Christmas since their return to his home. There should have been more than enough time to get to Carson City and back before the holiday. In fact, if all had gone as planned, they should have been back days earlier. A business delay, followed by an unexpected winter storm had held them up. Scott's last telegram said the snow seemed to be ending and they would try to come across the mountains as soon as they could, to cut a couple of days off the return trip and make it home for Christmas.

Murdoch knew that was the shortest route but it would be treacherous in a snowstorm. However his sons were new to this area, having come home to Lancer barely five months earlier, and they would have no way of knowing that. He'd sent a response as soon as their wire reached him, telling them to take the longer, safer route home but having gotten no answer, he couldn't even be sure the message reached his sons. That was three days ago and there's been no further word.

And now it was the morning of Christmas Eve and a heavy gray sky to the north told him it was snowing again in that direction, the direction from which his boys would be traveling if they didn't get his warning. He had been disappointed his sons would miss their first Christmas since returning to the ranch as adults; now he was just praying they were all right, no matter how long it took for them to get home.

"There's still time, Murdoch," his ward Theresa said softly, from somewhere behind him. "They might make it….."

Murdoch turned and smiled at the girl, wanting to reassure her, and keep his worries to himself as long as possible. "I know, darlin'. And if anyone will make it, it's those two. Scott's been looking forward to that turkey dinner for weeks. And I bet Johnny can smell that chocolate cake already."

She tried to smile but it was a sad attempt and the big Scotsman reached out and pulled her into a hug, laying his cheek on the top of her dark hair. "I know you're disappointed. I am too. But we'll have our Christmas celebration whenever they get home…."

Theresa nodded and sighed deeply. "I know. I've got Christmas cookies in the oven," she said, giving him a quick hug. "I'm going to keep baking anyway… and praying.."

Murdoch turned back to the window and looked back into the darkening sky. Prayer might be his sons' best hope if the weather was as bad as he feared. "Please God," he silently prayed. "Bring them home, safely. That's all I ask."

____________________________

Two young men hunkered down in their saddles as their horses plodded through the deepening snow. Between the near blizzard conditions and the bone-chilling cold, they'd given up trying to speak to each other hours earlier and just traveled side by side in silence. When the pass over the mountain narrowed, the older of the two wordlessly took the lead, having spent many more years riding in snow conditions back East than his younger brother could even imagine. After another hour of cold, wet and slow going, Scott Lancer turned in his saddle to see how Johnny was faring. One look at the younger man and he resolved to find someplace to stop as quickly as possible. The boy looked nearly frozen in his saddle.

It was hard to see much in the blinding snow and Scott was starting to losing hope that they'd find a shelter of any kind but after another twenty minutes, miraculously, a line shack appeared a short distance ahead. He wasn't even sure they were on Lancer property but he turned his horse toward it, knowing Johnny's mount Barranca would follow. Scott swung out of the saddle and tethered Cormac. He called to his brother to dismount, then motioned to him when he didn't seem to understand.

"Why are we s-s-stopping?" Johnny shouted as he awkwardly swung down from Barranca. He was shivering violently.

"We need to get out of the cold for a little while!" Scott motioned Johnny toward the cabin, taking Barranca's reins and leading both horses to shelter in the lean-to next to the shack where he gave them hay from the supply there. There were dry saddle blankets in a crate, in addition to the hay. Scott guessed at once this was a Lancer line shack and silently thanked his father and Cipriano for the rigor they brought to keeping them well stocked and in good repair.

Stepping into the shack, he removed his hat and rain poncho and shook the snow from them, then hung them on a peg near the door. Then he removed the heavy woolen jacket he'd been wearing underneath. It was soaked despite the poncho because of the whipping, snow-laden wind they'd been fighting. That's when he noticed Johnny was just standing in the middle of the room, still covered in snow.

"Johnny? Don't you think you should take off your jacket?"

The younger brother just stared at him. It almost looked like he was trying to work out the meaning of the words he'd just heard. Scott caught his eye and spoke again.

"Johnny? Let's get you out of that wet jacket—"

"Don't want to," Johnny said. He didn't move or seem to understand he should. "Too c-cold….."

Scott immediately wonder if he'd waited too long to get them to shelter and if Johnny was suffering from exposure to the brutal cold. He approached the younger brother. "It'll be better once you get out of these wet clothes," he said, reaching to help Johnny out of his jacket but the dark-haired Lancer stepped back.

C-can't," the boy said. "We n-need to get home. M-Murdoch's expectin' us for Christmas…."

Scott grew more concerned now. His normally independent and astute younger brother was confused and unable to figure out what to do next. Out of nowhere a previously unknown older brother instinct reared up and Scott began to speak to Johnny soothingly but with authority. "I know, brother, I know. But we've got to warm up first. I'll start a fire so we can dry out, and heat up some water for coffee. There's probably some food here. Cipriano always makes sure there's provisions—"

"Cip was here?" Johnny asked, looking around the room.

Scott smiled and took advantage of the distraction to start pulling the wet poncho and leather jacket off the boy. Even the shirt below his jacket was wet at the collar but he left that on for now and continued speaking reassuringly. "Yes. This is a Lancer line shack. I'm not sure exactly where we came out of the hills, mind you. We took that shortcut that didn't actually feel any shorter to me. And the snow's covered all the landmarks, even if either one of us actually knew this part of the ranch…."

He continued talking while getting Johnny out of his wet clothes, then wrapped him in a soft wool blanket pulled off one of the beds. Next Scott brought in some wood from the box outside the door and started a fire. He could hear Johnny's teeth chattering so he pulled mattresses off the beds and laid it in front of the fireplace. Then he gently pushed Johnny down in front of the newly-started fire.

"You starting to warm up?" Scott asked.

Two large blue eyes looked from the fire to him. "N-n-not yet."

"Your shirt and pants are wet. You need to get out of them," Scott decided. "Do you have dry clothes in your saddle bags?" Johnny didn't answer so the older brother simply went and looked. There was another shirt, this one as thin as the one he was wearing but at least it was dry. And that was it. "Don't you have any extra long underwear?"

"What?"

Scott decided to put aside his questions for the moment. Johnny's brain appeared to be fogged from being cold too long. He'd seen this before in the War and knew he'd need to get the boy warmed up before he'd make any sense. Scott removed an extra wool undershirt and long drawers from his own saddle bag and went back to help Johnny get undressed. He was shocked to see Johnny had been wearing only his shirt under his leather jacket and poncho.

"This is all you were wearing? No wonder you're near frozen, Johnny! Where are your longjohns?" As he spoke, he handed Johnny his extra pair.

"D-don't have any," the younger brother said. "Never needed 'em before."

Scott was surprised to hear this news. "We were stuck in Carson City for days because of the snow. Why didn't you buy some?"

"Why would I sp-spend money on something when I might never n-need 'em again? Everyone was sayin' this was a freak s-storm." He was looking at his brother as if he had just asked why he hadn't bought a gold mine or two while they were in town.

Scott was trying not to return the same befuddled look. "It's winter, it's bound to be cold occasionally, even in California. Johnny, didn't you ever come north before?"

"Not in the w-winter. N-never even saw s-s-snow before."

Scott pressed his lips together and internally berated himself for not having realized Johnny would be unfamiliar with proper gear for this kind of winter weather. And he wondered why Johnny hadn't mentioned never having seen snow before. Before they set out from Carson City, he'd briefly considered reminding the younger man to dress warmly and wear layers, then thought better of it given how fiercely independent his younger brother had proven to be in the months he'd known him.

Scott was disappointed with himself over his failure to look out for the younger man, but he turned his attention back to the task at hand. Johnny's still frozen fingers were fumbling with the last buttons on his shirt, so Scott helped him get it off, then pulled the thick undershirt over his brother's head and helped him into the garment when he saw that Johnny didn't seem to be following through on his own.. Then he helped him out of his wet pants and into the long underwear bottoms. Finally, Scott gently pushed him down onto the mattress in front of the fire and sat down beside him whereupon he began to pull the younger man into his arms.

"What are ya doin'?" Johnny yelped.

"We need to get you warmed up," Scott explained. "Body heat's the fastest way. I know from experience, Johnny. We have to wait for the water to heat to make coffee anyway so just relax and let's get your body temperature back to normal."

"No! Th-that's okay! I—I mean, don't take this the wrong way but…. I just don't go 'round huggin' other men, ya know…."

Scott laughed. "Well neither do I but then again, I'm not just some other man. I'm your brother." With that he pulled the younger man toward him so that Johnny's back was resting against his chest. He briskly rubbed Johnny's arms to create some friction heat and then wrapped him in a bear hug. "Just relax, little brother. Once you're warm, you can move to the other side of the mattress, as far away as you want, and then I'll go fix us some food and coffee, okay?"

Scott could tell Johnny wanted to pull away but the warmth was too tempting. He apparently decided to do as he was told, at least for the moment. The growing sense of warmth and security overtook him after a day of being near frozen and fighting the storm and he drifted into sleep. Scott smiled to himself as he adjusted his hold on the younger man to make him more comfortable, then he settled down for what might be a while.

____________________________

Some time later, Johnny woke with a start. He was warm again, and lying on his side on the mattress in front of the fireplace. He pulled the wool blanket up around his shoulders and reveled in the feeling of comfort and blessed warmth. Then his nose twitched at the tempting smell of coffee and cooking beans and his stomach rumbled in response.

"You awake over there, brother?"

Johnny sat up, keeping the blanket around himself. "Smells good, Boston," he said. "Where are my clothes?"

"On the chair there," Scott said, gesturing toward the chair on which he had laid Johnny's shirt and pants earlier. "Still wet though. I left you some wool socks there. Why don't you put them on and come on over. Dinner, such as it is, is served!"

The younger man smiled and did as instructed. "Smells good to me," he said as he settled himself at the table, still wrapped in the blanket.

"There was some dried beef left here, along with the beans and rice. And coffee. Cipriano keeps this place well-stocked. I think someone may have used this cabin as a home for a while. I found some Christmas decorations when I was rummaging around."

Johnny's eyes widened with surprise, then he looked around and saw Scott had set up a Nativity crèche on the fireplace mantle. "Nice. I remember those from when I was younger."

Scott dished out the food, and poured two cups of hot coffee. "I was surprised to find it here. It's all hand-carved wood, beautiful work. Seemed like setting it up was the right thing to do. It is Christmas Eve."

Johnny helped himself to some food, then looked over at the older brother he was still getting to know. "I guess this ain't much of a Christmas for you, huh? Bein' stuck here like this."

Scott smiled and swallowed before speaking. "I was looking forward to spending our first Christmas as a family at Lancer. I imagine you were too."

"I spent most of the Christmases I can remember in a cantina somewhere," Johnny said. "'Cept for one year when I was at the orphanage and the sisters tried to make it like a real Christmas for the kids. They had a crèche….. My Mama usually worked on Christmas Day when I was little. It's a big drinkin' day for folks with no families around. When I got older, I always found a saloon and maybe a friendly woman to spend Christmas with."

Scott nodded, realizing once again how different his life and his brother's had been. He felt doubly bad now that Johnny would miss the first family Christmas. It had been so important to Murdoch and Theresa to make sure it would be special for them all but most especially for Johnny. Without his having told them anything about his Christmas experiences, they'd all guessed that this would be a new one for younger Lancer.

"I'm sorry, Johnny," Scott said. "I wish we could have made it home for Christmas."

"Hey, nothin' to apologize for! T'resa and the old man are probably disappointed but believe me, this is already better than most of the Christmases I can remember. I'm warm, I got food in my belly and a roof over my head." He grinned. "And a brother for company." He dug into the rest of their meager dinner with gusto.

Scott sighed and lifted his coffee cup. It was mid-day and still snowing hard. He had no idea how far they were from the Lancer hacienda but his innate good sense told him it was too far and too dangerous to try to set out again until the snow at least tapered off. And from the look of things, that meant tomorrow at the earliest.

"So… what was Christmas like back there in Boston, Boston?" Johnny asked, interrupting his reverie.

The older brother smiled. "Well… we had snow, just about every year. Just like this. Only there are street sweepers and city workers who clear it from sidewalks and make sure the streets are passable. When I was a kid, this kind of weather was a time to be outside, having fun—"

"Fun! Freezin' yer ass off is fun?"

"Well, when you're a kid, and you're dressed for it, yes, it's a lot of fun. There was a park across from the house and all the children from the neighborhood would gather there when it snowed. We'd build snowmen and snow forts, and have snowball fights. And ride our sleds down the hill at the other end of the park. When I got older, I stopped doing that and the Christmas season began to be filled with social engagements. Parties and balls, concerts. Some nights there'd be two or three places to get to before the evening was over."

Johnny listened to the litany and tried to imagine what Scott's life back East had been like. And why his brother had left it all behind to be part of this new family, with a father and brother he'd never met before, in a place that offered none of the refinements to which he'd been accustomed. Suddenly it occurred to him that Scott must be missing his old life something fierce, and this disappointing first Christmas might make him think about going back. He began to worry the beads on his wrist, something he did whenever he was anxious about things. It helped him focus his mind when he needed to think.

It was near dark outside despite the fact it was only early afternoon. The two men took their second cups of coffee over to the mattresses near the fire and sat down, basking in the warmth and the light it put out. They sat in companionable silence for a while, then Johnny noticed something amiss.

"Hey! There's a piece missin' from that manger."

Scott smiled. "Yes. The baby Jesus. It's over there," he said, gesturing toward the end of the mantle. "Traditionally—at least in Boston, that is – we don't put him in the manger until Christmas Eve."

"Well, that's today, isn't it?"

"Oh, you're right. I was thinking to do it later tonight but… it's midnight somewhere in the world so why don't you put him in there now?"

Johnny got up, keeping the blanket wrapped around his shoulders and went to the mantle. He picked up the put the small carved wooden figure and laughed out loud. "Someone chewed on this one," he chuckled.

"I saw that. I guess someone's baby used it as a teething ring at some point."

Johnny nodded, still smiling and placed the piece in the middle of the scene. "There. That's right now," he said. He gently touched the carved wooden angel on the top of the manger then sat back down next to Scott and the two fell once again into the easy silence they had been sharing. In a moment, he noticed Scott humming to himself and he looked over at his older brother. "I know that," he said. "What are the words?"

Scott stopped humming, then started to sing quietly.

"Silent night, holy night,

All is calm—"

Johnny nodded, remembering, then joined in at barely more than a whisper.

"All is bright,

Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child,

Holy Infant, so tender and mild,

Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace."

The two young men smiled at each other somewhat shyly, each thinking their voices had blended nicely on the tune. It was another new thing they'd learned about each other. Then they each turned their gaze back to the fire.

"Nice to know we both share that memory," Scott said. "It's one of my favorite Christmas hymns."

"Me too. Reminds me of…., well, what Christmas is supposed to be about."

As he listened, Scott remembered something he'd noticed about his brother but never wanted to ask before. This admission surprised him, and it seemed like a good moment to broach the subject. "Johnny, why don't you ever come to Sunday services with Murdoch and Theresa and me?"

Johnny looked away, and shrugged. He didn't answer at first, then when the silence stretched and Scott made no attempt to end it, he reluctantly responded. "I guess—well, don't seem like Church is a place for someone like me. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was killed in a range war we was hired on for. When it was over, I tried to get the local preacher ta give him a proper burial but he wouldn't. Said there weren't no place in Church, or a decent graveyard, for folks like us. He said the place might start to shake and the roof might cave in if I as much as stepped inside…."

Scott shook his head. "Even a supposed man of God can be ignorant, Johnny. I'd say you're a heck of a lot better a man that that "man of God" was." With that, he rose and briefly laid a hand on his brother's head. "I'm going to check on the horses. You stay here and keep drying out…."

Johnny offered to get dressed and help but his brother insisted he stay inside where it was warm. "I have the right kind of jacket for this weather, Johnny. We'll have to get you a heavy jacket when we get back. This kind of weather may be unusual around here but this might be particularly hard winter from the look of things. I don't want to answer to Murdoch if I bring you back with full-blown pneumonia."

Johnny swallowed down a lump in his throat as he watched Scott go. Even though he'd known his brother only a short time, he'd come to respect and care about the man more than he'd ever thought possible. To know he had Scott's unconditional support – Dios, Scott didn't even know that preacher and he automatically took Johnny's side against him! – well, nothing ever made him feel so good before.

He bowed his head and whispered aloud. "God? It's me, Johnny. You probably remember me as Madrid but… I go by Lancer now. I—I got this brother…. Well, I guess you know that. And I guess I oughta thank ya for him, seein' as you probably made that happen. Anyway, I just wanna ask ya for one thing. Scott's been used ta pretty fancy Christmases and this one's not lookin' like it'll be much for him. If ya can find a way to get us home, I… well, that's all I'm askin' for. I just don't want him ta be disappointed or anythin'. So whatever ya can do, I'd—well, I'd thank ya. Amen."

Outside, Scott made sure the horses were settled, then he looked at the darkening sky and sighed. The snow seemed to be ending but with evening closing in and a heavy, overcast sky, it would be too dark to travel at night. He was disappointed they wouldn't make it home before Christmas, far more for Johnny than for himself.

"Lord," he prayed silently, "this would have been his first family Christmas, maybe ever. If you can help me get him home tomorrow, I'd be grateful. He has no idea what he's missing but I do, and…. I've had more than my share of good things but Johnny's never had much you know. And, well, I'd consider it the best Christmas gift of all if you can help us get there before tomorrow is over….."

Scott went down to the stream nearby and filled two buckets with water. He returned and placed one in the lean-to for the horses, then turned to go back to the cabin. He stopped for a moment to watch the cloud covering as it cleared and a bright, full moon appeared on the horizon. He smiled to himself at the light it threw then stopped in his tracks when he realized it would light their way home. "Johnny!" he yelled, opening the cabin door. "Get dressed. It stopped snowing and there's e a full moon and I think it'll be light enough for us to try to make it home."

Johnny didn't argue, he simply whispered a quiet 'thank you' and threw his now dry clothes on over the long underwear he'd been wearing. Scott pulled a muffler out of his other saddle bag, then wrapped it around Johnny's neck.

"How much stuff ya got in there anyway?" Johnny asked, laughing.

"I picked this up for Murdoch as a Christmas gift. It's made from Scottish wool. I think he'll approve of you using it first though. Let's go, brother!"

The two young men moved quickly to mount and start out, each surprised and grateful for the bright moon rising, and the stars that were beginning to appear in the dark sky. The north star was particularly bright this evening and helped to guide their way.

___________________________

Back at Lancer, their father was walking back from the barn after seeing that the hands and his Segundo were back and the stock was settled for the night. He'd exchanged Christmas greetings with Cipriano and the ranch's foreman asked if the Patron wanted anyone to go out and look for the sons.

"No, Cip," Murdoch said. "We wouldn't know where to start. I have no idea what route they took. I'm hoping they're holed up somewhere waiting out the storm." He'd looked up at the heavy sky and shook his head. "It doesn't look like it will let up any time soon."

"No, Seňor," the foreman had agreed. "But the men will go anyway, if you wish them to. They would do it for you, Seňor. And for your sons."

That exchange had warmed Murdoch's heart briefly, despite his worry. When his sons arrived some five months earlier, he'd hoped they'd settle in and be accepted. One was an Easterner who might have despised the life they led there. The other was a former gunfighter who could have been so hardened by that life, he wouldn't appreciate or accept the family that wanted him. But Scott and Johnny had both surprised him and stayed, and learned to be ranchers. And they seemed to like each other, though their relationship was still new and a little tentative. Murdoch had hoped these couple of weeks working and traveling together would be a chance for the two of them to get to know each other, with no other distractions. Now, he hoped they were finding a way to work together, to survive a treacherous storm and find their way home. He stopped at the front door and turned around, gravely concerned as the heavy snow continued to fall.

"Please, God," he whispered. "Let them be safe. Let them be warm. And please… bring them home to me. I don't care if it's in time for Christmas any more. I just want them to be okay and come home."

_______________________________

The two young men had made better time for about an hour after leaving the line shack. The light from the moon and stars helped them set their direction and keep up a good pace. But now Scott was growing worried. Snow was falling again, heavily. The cloud cover was blocking the light that had been giving them line of sight and navigational assistance. He kept them moving in what seemed to be the same direction but it got harder to be sure as the snow began to get heavier and the wind picked up again.

Soon Scott was kicking himself silently for having left the shelter behind. He could hear Johnny's teeth chattering behind him and he had no idea how far they might still be from Lancer, or if there was any other shelter to be found. Realizing they would have been better off if they'd stayed in the warm cabin, he started scanning the horizon for new shelter. They were both cold and wet again and he knew Johnny would be feeling it worse than he was. Despite the long underwear and Murdoch's Christmas scarf, his leather jacket was inadequate in this weather. Not to mention the younger man just wasn't used to this kind of cold.

He kept looking for some sign of a house or shelter but after another quarter hour, he stopped his horse and turned back to his brother. "Johnny? I think it was a mistake to leave the cabin. I don't know where we are, or how much farther it is to home. We—we should probably go back." As he said it, he looked at the trail behind them and the snow that was rapidly obscuring their tracks, and his heart sank. He only hoped they could find their way back.

Johnny nodded glumly, and he started to turn Barranca around. Then suddenly his face brightened. "Look! There's a light up there!"

Scott turned, trying to spot whatever it was Johnny thought he saw. He hadn't seen any light up ahead. "Where?"

"There! Can't you see it?" Johnny spurred his horse and they quickly passed Scott on Cormac and raced ahead toward something Scott hadn't seen before. He kicked his horse into canter and pulled up next to Johnny and Barranca.

"Where'd that come from?" he asked, finally seeing what his brother had noticed.

"It's a Posada lantern!" Johnny said. His excitement was hard to miss. "It's a Mexican Christmas tradition, the folks light these lanterns and carry 'em from house to house."

Scott nodded. He'd actually heard about this tradition from their cook, Maria. "But what's it doing out here?"

"Don't know…. But there's another one!" Johnny rode ahead to a second lantern about a hundred yards ahead. "Come and see!"

Scott followed and saw the second lantern in the snow. The fact it was still burning perplexed him. "Who do you think put these here?"

Johnny shook his head. "I don't know but I see another one up there! Murdoch musta had the hands put 'em out here to guide us home."

Scott was puzzling that over when Johnny moved ahead to first one, then another lit lantern. He caught up with the younger brother again, scanning the horizon for another lamp but honestly not expecting to find one. "Johnny, how would Murdoch know where we were coming from? We don't even know where we came out of the mountains, and we didn't exactly take a direct route with the storm. I don't—"

"There's another lantern! I told ya, Scott. The old man musta had them put here for us to see. Who else woulda done it?"

They followed the lanterns for a long distance with Johnny excitedly scouting for them, and Scott quietly puzzling over how Murdoch or anyone could have known where they'd be, and how anyone could have expected the lanterns to keep burning in the snow. And yet they were.

"Look, Scott!" Johnny shouted some time later, pointing ahead. "It's the Lancer arch! We made it home!" He kicked his horse into a run and headed toward the house, with Scott following closely behind him. The ranch hand on guard duty yelled long and loud when he saw them, and the front door opened and Murdoch and Theresa came running out.

"You made it!" Theresa called, beginning to cry and alternately hugging them both. "It's still Christmas Eve and you made it home!"

Murdoch gave both his sons a hug and Cipriano and Maria and several of the hands followed suit, some hugging, some pumping their hands and wishing them "Feliz Navidad" and "Bienvenidos a casa!"

"I can't believe you made it but it's a prayer answered," Murdoch said to Scott as he laid his arm across the older son's shoulders. "The best I was hoping for was that you'd found shelter somewhere to wait it out."

"Well, we did stay in the line shack by the mountains earlier today, when it was snowing hardest. Thank God that was there when we came down from the mountains."

Murdoch frowned. "Where? There's no line shack in that direction between here and the property line."

"The one near the brook, just down from where the pass lets out. It's probably only about fifteen miles or so, since we were traveling so slow," Scott replied.

Murdoch looked at Cipriano, who was also confused. "We don't have a line shack there, do we, Cip?"

The Segundo shook his head. "Not since the last one burned down, Seňor. That was almost ten years ago.

"What do you mean? It was on our property and fixed up and neat, just like you two always keep 'em," Johnny said. "It had food supplies, and wood for the winter. And a Christmas crèche someone left behind."

Now Murdoch and Cipriano looked really confused, and Scott and Johnny were growing exasperated that no one remembered the cabin.. "Well, no matter," Murdoch finally said. "I'm glad you managed to find your way home in this storm. That's a little miracle in itself."

"It was the Posada lanterns ya put out, Murdoch!" Johnny said. "We never woulda known which way to ride in the snow if it hadn't been for the lanterns."

Murdoch looked surprised at this revelation and he turned to his Segundo once again. "Cip, did you and the men put out lanterns…..?

"No, Patrón," Cipriano answered immediately. "We had no idea of it. And wouldn't have known what direction to lay them if we did."

Scott shook his head, more confused than ever. "There were lanterns," he said. "Johnny and I both saw them. You can see them back there – they led right up to the arch—"

Everyone turned to the direction he was pointing but there were no lights to be seen.

"How could that be?" Johnny said. "Scott! They were just there. They lit our way home for the past couple of hours!"

"I saw them, Johnny. Maybe the snow put them out—"

"All of 'em. At one time?" the younger brother demanded. "How could that happen?"

"Well, we'll find them in the morning, I'm sure," Murdoch interrupted. "In the meantime, we need to get you both in the house and into dry clothes. Let's go…."

The Lancers wished the men a Merry Christmas and retreated into the hacienda, where Theresa dished up a hot meal and then went to bed, now more than anxious for Christmas morning to come. Murdoch sat at the kitchen table, watching his boys eat and letting them tell their story again.

He shook his head when it was over. "I don't know what line shack you were in," he said. "We can check that out when the storm is over but we have none in that direction, I promise you. And we didn't lay any lanterns but I'm glad someone did. I—I just can't imagine who…."

Once their bellies were full, the three Lancer men retreated to the Great Room where Murdoch poured each of them a measure of brandy. "Merry Christmas, boys," he said warmly.

The younger men raised their glasses and responded almost in unison,

"Merry Christmas," Johnny said.

"And Merry Christmas to you, sir," Scott echoed, taking a sip. He had just noticed the Christmas tree laden with ornaments and the boughs of evergreen around the mantle. "I see Theresa's been busy decorating while we were gone."

Murdoch chuckled. "Yes. She brought out every Christmas decoration we had stored away. Some I hadn't seen in many years."

"Scott," Johnny called from where he'd wandered over to the fireplace. "Come and look at this."

Scott walked up beside him and then his mouth opened in surprise. "That looks like—"

"The one in the line shack," Johnny finished the sentence for him. The two young men stared at the Nativity scene, complete except for the missing baby. "It looks just like it."

Murdoch had come up behind them. "Scott's mother bought that the first Christmas after we arrived here," he said, his voice quiet and deep with emotion. "We didn't have much money so she sold a piece of jewelry to buy it from an old German man who'd made it with wood from several local trees. She said it was "of this place" and worth more than the porcelain one she had back in Boston. I haven't set it up since… since Johnny's last Christmas here." Murdoch chuckled once again as another memory emerged. "I didn't realize it until we put it out today but your teeth marks are still on one piece, Johnny."

It seemed impossible but Scott spotted one remaining carved figure sitting at the end of the mantle and something told him he just had to check. He picked it up and there were the same teeth marks he'd seen on the figure in the cabin earlier in the day. A stunned look on his face, he turned to Johnny and silently passed the Baby Jesus to his brother. Johnny's face mirrored his shock.

Murdoch spoke again. "I remember we couldn't figure out how you managed to get it down but you had chewed on it pretty good by the time we noticed…. Well, it's midnight. Johnny, why don't you do the honors and put the baby in the manger?"

He watched as his youngest did as instructed, for the second time that day, then Murdoch laid one hand on Scott's shoulder and the other on Johnny's and gave them both an affectionate squeeze. "You two may want to sleep in tomorrow after your journey but Theresa's expecting me to accompany her to Church. I'm going to turn in. Merry Christmas, my sons. And… welcome home."

He left the room but the two younger men remained, each staring at the figures before them. "How… ? I mean, it's not possible, is it, Scott?"

The older brother shook his head. "None of it seems possible but…. I believe it all happened, Johnny. I guess some things just can't be explained." He shook his head again. "And I believe I'm going to go to Church with Murdoch and Theresa tomorrow. So I'm heading up—"

Johnny nodded slowly. "Scott? I—I think I'll go to Church with all of ya too. Been a long time but…. Well, it just seems like a good idea."

Scott placed an arm around the younger man's shoulders and gave his brother a quick hug. He smiled as Johnny returned it.. "Merry Christmas, little brother," he said.

"Yeah, Merry Christmas to you too, big brother," Johnny answered as together they headed out of the room and upstairs to bed..

Behind them the wooden angel on top of the manger smiled. "Another job well done," she whispered. And the star above her head twinkled.

THE END