A Lancer Christmas Story
Lancer 25th December 1870
Christmas Day 1870 was coming to an end as Murdoch Lancer looked around the great room at his family. He should have been concentrating on the game of chess he was playing with his eldest son, Scott. His sons had arranged for the beautifully carved set, modelled after medieval kings and knights, to be shipped from Europe. It had only been eight months since his boys had come home and he had been overwhelmed at the thought and effort they had put into organising his present.
Teresa was sitting in a chair by the fire happily sorting through skeins of brightly colored silk, trying to decide which color to use for the embroidery on Johnny’s new white shirt. His youngest son hated drab clothing although even he had admitted that the soft material would be a pleasure to wear.
Johnny was curled up on the rug in front of the roaring fire, heavy lidded with the heat and a surfeit of food and liquor. He was engrossed in tracing a finger over the illustrations of famous horses in a beautifully bound book that had formed part of his Christmas present from his doting father. Johnny reminded his father of a satisfied house cat, soaking up the warmth from the hearth. It was hard to believe that his youngest could change, in the blink of an eye, into a deadly predator.
It had been a hectic week in the Lancer household. On the 19th Scott had turned twenty-five and a few days later, on the 23rd Johnny had celebrated his twenty-second birthday; a birthday he shyly admitted to his father, that he had never expected to see.
The day had passed in a flurry of activity. The whole family had attended the morning service at the local church. Murdoch had been touched by his sons’ decision to join Teresa and him. Both boys had dressed in their finest clothes, so different from each other, yet looking as if they belonged together. After the service they and Jelly had delivered presents to the young orphans that Jelly had cared for until they had found new homes a few months previously.
Returning home, with Sam in tow, they had eaten a light lunch before exchanging presents. The looks of pleasure and easy going banter between his sons and Teresa had made Murdoch’s heart swell with pride and happiness. The magnificent dinner had lasted for hours before they had all retired to the great room to take their ease.
About an hour previously Sam had been called away to deliver Rosie Henderson’s baby. Her husband had complained that she had only gone into labor as a result of eating too much, but his eager anticipation for the birth of his first child couldn’t be disguised. Jelly had excused himself a short time earlier and the family had laughed when they heard Dewdrop’s strident demand for food as Jelly reached the yard. Despite all Murdoch’s threats, the goose had survived Christmas Day.
Spending this first Christmas with his family caused Murdoch’s thoughts to range back to his family in Scotland. It had been almost twenty-nine years since he had last seen any of them.
“What’re you thinking about, Murdoch?” The softly spoken question came from Johnny who was now sitting up with his back against the side of the chair occupied by Teresa.
All eyes turned in his direction leaving Murdoch feeling slightly embarrassed at being caught daydreaming. “I was just remembering my last Christmas in Inverness.”
Scott and Johnny’s interest was piqued. In the few months since they had returned home their father had rarely spoken of the past and had never told them anything about the Scottish side of their family.
The brothers looked questioningly at each other. “Care to share those memories?” Scott asked.
Murdoch returned his attention to the chess board. “It’s just ancient history.”
“Well it’s your ancient history,” Johnny responded with a cheeky grin. “I don’t know about Scott but I’d sure like to hear about it.”
“I agree, sir. Grandfather never told me anything about your side of the family, as you can imagine.”
Teresa stood up, scattering silks all around her. “Why don’t I get some coffee and cake?” Seeing Johnny’s reaction to the mention of cake she leaned down and pulled on his arm. “You want cake, Johnny Lancer; you can come and help me.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Johnny grinned and got to his feet. “Be right back. Don’t start without us.”
After they had all settled comfortably round the fire Murdoch gathered his thoughts. “It was a long time ago but it seems like it was just yesterday. I hadn’t long told my family of my decision to come to America and my mother wanted that Christmas to be a grand occasion. Normally we’d have had our main family celebration at Hogmanay.” Murdoch looked round at the bemused expressions. “New Year’s Eve. That was the big holiday in Scotland. Christmas Day was a normal working day except for the expected attendance at Church. I’m sure my father thought it was all a huge waste of money and food to have two family gatherings so close together. He might as well have saved his breath…there was no arguing with my ma when she made her mind up…”
Inverness Scotland 25th December 1841
Murdoch pushed open the kitchen door, his arms full of wood. He shrugged his shoulders to shake off the snow that was clinging to his heavy coat. The kitchen was stiflingly hot and the snow melted quickly into puddles on the floor. His mother and two older sisters were busy preparing an enormous pot of venison stew with shortbread and winter fruits for dessert. A large fruit cake sat on the kitchen table. Murdoch knew that his mother had made this weeks before and had been adding whisky to it ever since. The fruit was now so laden with alcohol that the fumes were enough to make a man feel tipsy.
His mother was a fine looking woman, even after giving birth to five children. She was of middle height, still slender with luxurious grey hair. May, his oldest sister, was fifteen years his senior. She was shorter than their mother and so thin it looked as if a slight breeze would blow her away. She had been happily married for a number of years and her two children, Michael and Jenny, could be heard in the parlour, squabbling enthusiastically as siblings often did.
Anne was closest to him in age. She had never married and it was expected that she would remain at home to look after their parents when they reached old age. She earned her keep by working with the local doctor and she was regarded as being a capable nurse.
Feeling the draft as the door opened and closed Fiona Lancer looked up and smiled at her youngest son. “Put half the wood in the corner and take the rest into the parlour. Then you can take your ease until the meal is ready.”
Murdoch did as he was told before planting a kiss on his mother’s forehead. She swatted him away with her wooden spoon but laughed delightedly nonetheless. He manoeuvred his large body through the narrow door that separated the kitchen from the parlour. The room was crowded, hot and airless thanks to the roaring fire burning in the grate. The mantle, windowsill and every available surface had been decorated with evergreens ornamented with strips of blue, red and black tartan cloth tied in bows. The holly berries added a bright splash of colour. A fat white candle burned in the window…a traditional beacon for weary travellers.
His father, Ian, looked up with a slight frown. It had only been two weeks since Murdoch had announced to his family that he intended to sail for America in the spring. His mother had been distraught and his father incredulous. To Ian Lancer’s way of thinking families should stick together and this urge to travel half-way around the world was incomprehensible. The arguments had been loud and heated but finally his father had grudgingly accepted that Murdoch had his mind made up and he had no wish for his youngest son to leave on poor terms with his family.
New Year was a far more important celebration in the Scottish calendar than Christmas but Fiona had decreed that they would make the effort this Christmas Day. No one really believed, despite Murdoch’s optimistic words, that they would spend another Christmas together. The men had all been at work that morning before being joined by their womenfolk for the lunch-time Church service. More work had followed in the afternoon and they had returned home as the light was fading from the sky.
“It’s still snowing, I see,” Ian stated, noting the thin layer of snow on the logs.
“Aye, sir, it is and a bonnie sight it is lying on the fields.”
“Did you see any sign of your brother?”
Murdoch’s eldest brother David was regarded as the black sheep of the family. He was twelve years Murdoch’s senior and, for as long as Murdoch could remember, had struggled with an over fondness for drink. Earlier in the year his wife had thrown him out – not for the first time – and, since then, his problems had increased. Ian had hoped that David would put in an appearance for his mother’s sake but it was looking less and less likely that he would grace them with his presence.
“Nothing’s moving out there. Even if he were intending to come I doubt he’d be able to get here through the snow.”
“Your ma will be disappointed.” Ian looked hard at his youngest son, the implication that Murdoch’s decision had also caused disappointment hanging heavily between them.
All conversation in the room had stilled and Murdoch’s other brother, Hamish, exchanged glances with his wife, Eleanor. “How about a drink? You look like you could do with warming up, brother.”
The moment passed. While the three Lancer men and May’s husband, Gilbert, had a glass of whisky and the conversation moved to less sensitive topics, Eleanor filled some small glasses with sherry and carried them into the kitchen.
Fifteen year old Michael left his place by the fire and crossed to sit on a footstool by Murdoch’s chair. He was a muscular boy with jet black hair and intelligent brown eyes and he idolised his youngest uncle despite there only being seven years in age between them. “When you find your fortune in America can I come and work for you?”
Murdoch ruffled the boy’s hair affectionately. “I’m not sure how your ma would take to that.” He saw the boy’s face fall. “But if you can persuade her, there’s no one I’d rather have by my side.”
Michael beamed with pleasure and cast a smug look at his younger sister who stuck out her tongue in return.
It was cramped around the Lancer dining table but no-one minded. The stew was accompanied by buttered mashed potato and turnip and everyone ate their fill. The fruit and thick cream softened the hard shortbread and provided a perfect balance of sweet and tart flavours. After the meal had been cleared away Ian poured everyone a glass of Athol Brose and raised his glass.
“Slainte Mhath (Good Health).” He looked with obvious affection at his youngest son as he proposed the toast.
Murdoch raised his glass in reply and uttered the traditional response. “Slainte Mhor (Great Health).”
"Did you ever see any of your family again after you left Scotland?” Scott asked, somewhat overwhelmed to find that he had an entire large family that he had known nothing about.
"No, son, I didn’t. It’s my one regret about moving to this country. My parents and my eldest brother are dead now and I can’t see any of the others making the journey.”
"You could visit them,” Teresa suggested.
Murdoch smiled warmly at his ward. “Maybe one day but for the moment I’m happy with the family I’ve got around me.”
Johnny turned his coffee cup around in his hands while he considered what it must have been like to grow up in a close family environment. “What happened to Michael?”
“He went into the Army. He was a very smart boy and he became an Officer. He used to write to me regularly. He was killed in an accident when he was thirty five…such a waste of a fine young man.”
Murdoch shook off the memory and smiled at the two young men that meant the world to him.
Johnny stretched lazily and reached for another slice of cake. He took a bite and chewed thoughtfully before turning to his older sibling. “What was Christmas like in Boston?”
“Cold,” Scott grinned at his brother. “There was this one Christmas though…”
Boston 25th December 1867
Scott straightened his tie and regarded his reflection critically. His blond hair was short and tidy, his face and body still too thin, although no where near as gaunt as it had been upon his release from the POW camp. His well tailored evening wear accentuated his lean figure and long legs while doing nothing to disguise the pallor of his complexion. Over the last eighteen months he had retreated within himself, spending most of his time in his grandfather’s house or office. Just recently he had started to feel a resurgence of his energy and he had promised himself that he would start riding again once the weather improved. His grandfather’s Christmas present to him had been a magnificent stallion purchased, Scott suspected, in response to his half-hearted comments about riding made over the past few weeks. Just seeing the animal had been enough to convince Scott that it was high time he stopped feeling sorry for himself and took back control over his life.
The heavy drapes over the window hid the night sky. It had snowed earlier and he had stood watching it swirling in the light from the gas lamps as darkness fell. Although it was Christmas Day he wasn’t in the mood for festivities and he knew he was already late in going downstairs to greet the guests with his grandfather. He had heard the bell ring several times over the course of the last fifteen minutes and could imagine the irritation his grandfather would be feeling at his continued absence. There was a soft knock on the door and, as expected, one of the servants was there to summon him to take up his expected place by Harlan Garrett’s side. He was to be on show that night…his grandfather had made that clear.
“It’s high time you were thinking about settling down, my boy.” That had been his opening gambit the night before over brandy. “You’ve moped around quite long enough. There are a number of eligible young ladies who are practically queuing up to be noticed by you. I’ve invited a few friends round for dinner tomorrow evening and I would like you to make an effort.”
Scott had lost interest in the conversation almost from the outset. He had no interest in settling down and found most of the daughters of his grandfather’s business associates to be vapid, uninteresting females. He had covered his boredom by taking a large drink of his brandy and a muttered, “Yes, grandfather,” had sufficed.
With a resigned sigh he opened his door and stepped out onto the landing. The air was heavy with the smell of cinnamon, cranberry and apple mixed, unappealingly, with the heavy scents worn by the female guests. He could hear voices floating up from the hallway and grimaced in annoyance. With practiced ease he wiped his expression clear and descended the stairs.
The frown his grandfather sent in his direction might have bothered him a few years previously, now he simply acknowledged it with a slight nod of his head. He snagged a glass of red wine from a tray being held by one of the maids and plastered a totally insincere smile on his face. His grandfather’s definition of ‘a few friends’ extended to at least thirty people most of who couldn’t be classed as friends at all. Harlan Garrett had associates or acquaintances while having very few close friends. Scott saw the front door open to admit one of the few men who could be classed as a friend, Matthew Dennison.
He wandered over to his grandfather’s side, happy enough to greet Dennison and his companion. That companion was female although Scott couldn’t get a good look at her as she was swathed in furs.
“Matthew. So nice to see you. Compliments of the season.” Garrett held out a hand in greeting.
“The same to you, Harlan.” Dennison beamed. “Scott, you look well. You remember my daughter Julie, don’t you?”
The young woman stepped from behind her father and fixed a clear, direct gaze on Scott. “It’s been a long time, father. I doubt if Scott remembers the little girl in pigtails who used to trail along after the older children.”
Her smile lit up the entrance hall and Scott found himself staring at her, uncharacteristically tongue-tied. Suddenly aware that he was being stared at by the two older men, Scott gathered his wits. “Julie…of course I remember. It’s been a long time. I haven’t seen you since…” He found that he didn’t want to speak of the war in front of this beautiful, young woman.
“I’ve been in New York for the last two years…staying with my cousins. I only returned to Boston two weeks ago.”
Ignoring convention and without any embarrassment, Scott took her hand. “Excuse us, gentlemen.” He steered Julie into the parlor oblivious to the smug expressions on the faces of their respective relatives.
The room smelled of pine and a large tree occupied one corner. Scott had watched the butler and senior housemaid decorate it a few days previously. It was festooned with gingerbread men, candies, strings of dried fruit and berries, and colored fans made of paper. He plucked one of the fans from the tree and handed it to Julie with an exaggerated flourish. Her chuckle was low and melodic, unlike the high pitched giggles of most of the young women of his acquaintance.
“Why, thank you, Scott.” Julie fluttered the fan delicately and gave him a heart stopping smile. “I understand that you are working for your grandfather now.”
“He has made me a junior partner.” Scott tried to sound enthusiastic but the fact was he hated being in an office…his whole life ruled by the clock.
“That’s wonderful. I can see that you will have quite a glittering career ahead of you.”
A blast of cold air stirred the candles as the front door was again opened to admit the sound of carol singers. <I heard the bells on Christmas Day…> “A glittering career is nothing without someone to share it with.”
“I’m sure that there are a number of young ladies who would be happy to share your life.” Julie’s smile didn’t waver. <Then pealed the bells more loud and deep…>
“Will you walk with me…after dinner?” Scott hesitated. “Perhaps your father wouldn’t think that appropriate.”
“I can take care of my father.” A mischievous grin appeared to accompany the sparkle in Julie’s eyes. “I do believe your grand-father is trying to attract your attention.”
Scott tore his gaze away from the ravishing, young woman in front of him.
“Dinner is about to be served, Scotty. I was wondering if you and Miss Dennison would like to lead the guests to the table.” Garrett smiled paternally at his grandson.
Scott held out a hand to Julie. “It would give me great pleasure.” <With peace on earth, good-will to men.> As Scott led Julie back into the entrance hall he could see that the Carol singers had been invited in for a hot drink. The wind was battering the house and he began to wonder about the wisdom of his invitation to Julie.
Seeing the direction of his gaze she leant close against him. “With you beside me I’ll never be cold.”
Scott felt a flush appear on his cheeks and cleared his throat self-consciously. He wasn’t by nature shy when it came to women but with Julie he felt like a novice. They entered the dining room to find the table covered with an immaculate while lace table cloth, the very best Garrett china, brightly polished silver cutlery and gleaming crystal glasses. He led Julie to the chair next to the head of the table where his grandfather would sit and took his place beside her.
The meal was superb…joints of turkey, goose and ham accompanied by potatoes and assorted vegetables. There was pumpkin pie, cranberries, fruit and nuts and the very best wine from his grandfather’s cellar. Throughout the meal he and Julie had eyes only for each other, oblivious to the fond looks being bestowed on them by their friends and relatives.
Once dinner was over the two young people ventured out into the cold night air. Scott wrapped his arm around Julie’s waist and they walked to the Common, their feet crunching through the newly fallen snow. When they reached the lake Scott turned Julie to face him, reached down to place his hands on either side of her beautiful face, and kissed her. Maybe his grandfather’s idea about him settling down wasn’t such a bad one after all….
Scott brought his thoughts back to the present and found his brother watching him intently.
“Sounds like that girl was really something, brother.”
“She was.” Scott smiled fondly. “For a while I thought…well it doesn’t matter now. It’s all in the past and I guess I wouldn’t be here now if things had worked out between us.”
“D’you miss her?” Johnny persisted.
“Not any more. It’s been over a long time. But, it was good while it lasted.” Scott grinned at his dark-haired sibling before sobering. “What about you? Did you…I mean I know life was hard but…”
Johnny stretched lazily. “Wasn’t always hard. My mama always tried to make sure Christmas was special for me. It was sorta our tradition that there would just be the two of us. It’s called Navidad in Mexico and I never had to freeze my butt off the way you two did. I reckon my best Christmas was when I was ten years old…
Mexico Christmas Eve/Christmas Day 1858
Johnny sat on his mother’s bed and fumbled with the buttons on his new blue shirt. He was so excited he could barely keep still. The shirt was a Christmas present from his mother…the soft material felt wonderful against his skin. She had made it for him in secret and it had little butterfly shaped buttons. He loved butterflies…their grace and the infinite variety of colors on their fragile wings.
He could see his mother’s reflection in the mirror as she ran a brush through her long dark hair until it shone. She was wearing her favourite emerald green skirt and white blouse. Laying down the brush she picked up a matching green shawl that had been Johnny’s present to her. He had worked hard, helping out at the livery stable, and hoarding his wages. It had taken considerable time and effort to persuade Senora Mendoza at the general store to sell him the shawl for less than it was worth. He would be sweeping floors for her for some time to come to make up the difference between what it cost and what he could actually pay. Not that he minded. The look of pleasure on his mother’s face when he gave her the first present he could ever afford made it all worth while.
Maria stood up and arranged the shawl around her shoulders. “Well, Juanito, we will make a handsome couple.” She turned to smile at her beloved son. “You are growing so fast, Niño. Soon you will be a man.”
“Si, mama, and then I will be able to earn the money to buy food and you won’t have to work so hard.”
Maria planted a kiss on her son’s soft curls. “There will be time enough for that. Let me see your face and hands. Are they clean?” She inspected him closely before pronouncing herself satisfied.
Johnny stifled a yawn. It was late and they were on their way to the Church for the Nocte Bueno Misa de Gallo (Christmas Eve Rooster’s Mass). It was well past his normal bedtime and he was tired from having taken part in Las Posadas, nine days of candlelit processions and parties. It was a special time for children, filled with laughter and treats.
When they reached the Church, Johnny pulled away from his mother and went to stand in front of the Nacimiento. He was fascinated by the traditional Nativity scene and would happily spend hours standing in front of one of the many such scenes dotted around the village…staring at the figures of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus.
He did his best to sit still during the long Mass and was rewarded with words of praise from his mother. Afterwards they joined Pepe and his family for supper. Pepe owned the livery stable and was happy to have the small boy help out, given his clear affinity with the horses. After the simple meal of tamales and atole he called Johnny over and held out a small package.
Eyes shining with excitement Johnny ripped away the paper to find a carved horse. The body was painted a soft gold with the hair and mane being white…a miniature palomino. Johnny had only ever seen one palomino. A gunfighter had stayed in town a few months previously and had stabled his magnificent stallion at the livery. Pepe had whispered that the animal was probably stolen. Johnny had fallen in love with the animal from the first moment he saw it. He would spend hours grooming it, much to the amusement of its owner. He would chatter away to it and had been in heaven when the gunhawk had allowed him to ride it under supervision.
Johnny flung his arms around Pepe’s waist before rushing over to show the statue to his mother. “When I’m grown I’m going to have a horse just like this one,” he announced with the absolute certainty of a child.
“If you put your mind to it I’m sure you will.” Maria felt a pang of regret for the life her son could have had. There was a determination about him which told her that he would pull himself out of his humble existence and make something of himself.
It was the early hours of the morning before Johnny snuggled down in his bed. He had laid his clothes carefully on a chair before lying down and pulling up the bright patchwork cover. His mother and her two best friends had been working on the cover for weeks and all of them had been delighted by Johnny’s beaming smile when he unwrapped it. Johnny had a full belly and was feeling very drowsy as his mother kissed him goodnight. He rubbed his cheek against the smooth sides of the wooden horse which he had been clutching protectively. “Barranca,” he mumbled before closing his eyes and falling into a deep sleep.
“Well, you got your wish with Barranca. No wonder you were so keen to claim him.” Scott had watched his new-found brother with admiration, and some jealousy, as he had broken the palomino on the morning of their first full day at Lancer. The jealousy had soon passed, but the admiration would last forever.
“I’m glad, Johnny…glad that you and your mother had happy times.”
“You know what Murdoch? I reckon you were right that first day. The past is dead and gone. I didn’t do so bad and Scott turned out alright as well despite his grandfather’s influence.”
“Johnny!” Murdoch instinctively reacted to spare Scott’s feelings before realising that his eldest son was grinning.
“What more could we ask for brother? We’re smart, good looking…”
Teresa broke in with a giggle. “And modest.”
“And modest,” Scott continued with apparent sincerity. “We’ve triumphed over our upbringings to become almost perfect.”
“Ya got that right, Boston.”
Teresa caught a glimpse of the clock. “Oh, look at the time. It’s almost midnight and I need to get these dishes cleared away.”
“You go to bed. Scott and I’ll tidy up,” Johnny offered. “We can manage that, can’t we Scott?”
Scott looked solemnly at his brother. “I guess helping out once a year won’t give Teresa unreasonable expectations.” His eyes sparkled as his grin broke through again.
After Teresa had said good night Scott and Johnny began collecting the plates and cups and stacking them on a tray. Murdoch returned to the unfinished chess game and began to put away the pieces. He could hear his sons whispering to each other as Scott gathered up the tray and Johnny picked up the coffee pot.
“Murdoch?” Scott waited until he had his father’s attention. “Johnny and I were thinking of going hunting tomorrow to try out those rifles you gave us. We were wondering if you’d like to come. It’s not often that the three of us can take some time together just to relax.”
Murdoch looked at the expectant expressions on the faces of his two sons. “I think that would be a fine idea.” He watched as Johnny threw his free arm around Scott’s shoulders. “Good night boys…and thank you for today. I can’t think of a Christmas that I’ve enjoyed more.”
“Good night, sir.”
Once he was alone Murdoch resumed his task. He left two of the knights until last, one black and one white. He picked them up and studied them…identical except for the coloring. They reminded him of his sons…so different in looks and temperament but the same when it came to courage, honesty and a growing love for the land. He laid the last two chess pieces in their proper places, nestled in the purple silk, and then closed the lid.
The light from the lamp lit up the small metal plate set into the lid. ‘To Murdoch. Thank you.’ The inscription finished with the names of his sons and the date, and the simple message spoke volumes about the growing attachment they were feeling toward each other.
Words from a long forgotten Christmas prayer sprang to mind.
‘That the good that lies in each of our hearts
may day by day be magnified
that we will come to see more clearly
not that which divides us,
but that which unites us.’
So much had divided them for so long but now, at last, they were united and it had truly been a happy Christmas.
‘That the blessing of peace be ours – the peace to build
and grow, to live in harmony
and sympathy with others,
and to plan for the future with confidence.’
With his sons by his side Murdoch knew he could plan for the future with confidence. He could look forward to a bright New Year. Maybe he would even find the time to make that long promised visit to his homeland. He would like that, he decided, especially if he had his sons with him.
He stood up and stretched tiredly. After taking a last look around the room he extinguished the lamps and went to bed…a happy and contented man.