Murdoch Lancer was, in his opinion, a man mightily blessed by the Good Lord. After more than twenty years he finally had his sons with him again - sons whom he had missed greatly.
Tall, blond Scott was sunny natured, intelligent, diplomatic and, above all, a voice of reason when Murdoch and Johnny, the younger son, clashed so often in those early days after Johnny’s return. Dark-haired Johnny was tempest in a teapot according to his surrogate mother, Maura Talbot. Now in his early twenties Johnny had been born at Lancer but stolen away in the night by his dissatisfied and restless mother when he was about two years old. After his mother’s death Johnny had had no one to take care of him. He’d had to live on the streets, take any odd job he could get, and eventually became known as Johnny Madrid – gunfighter.
It wasn’t just the temper that Johnny was notorious for that made Maura think of him as a tempest. It was his boundless energy as well. Sometimes he was more of a boy than a grown man. Maura would often declare that Johnny had more energy, even as a toddler, than her three sons put together had had. That was saying a lot for Kendall, Rory and Blair had been quite a handful – both as children and as young adults. There wasn’t a day went by that Maura and Jim didn’t miss their three sons, all lost to them in the war, but having Johnny and Scott close by was a blessing to them both. Scott was roughly the same age as their youngest, Blair, would be. Many were the visits back and forth between the two families when Johnny was small, and many were the visits now by the Talbots to Lancer, and by the Lancers to the Bar T. Those visits, of course, included Murdoch’s ward, Teresa O’Brien. Daughter of Murdoch’s martyred foreman Teresa was as much a daughter to Murdoch as she had been to Paul O’Brien, and the two boys considered her a younger sister.
Christmas was rapidly approaching and all of the Lancers were getting excited. It was infectious and it started with Teresa who insisted on accompanying Jelly Hoskins, the bearded old handyman, and a couple of the ranch hands, to find the perfect tree. For the past two years Scott and Johnny had been the ones to go with her, but Scott was still walking with crutches having fallen a week before Thanksgiving and broken his leg. He’d gone after an orphan’s pet goat, which had run away, and in lunging to catch the creature before it could get away again, had slipped on gravel in the path and fell fifteen feet. It had taken the combined efforts of Johnny and three of his friends to get Scott up from where he was while first binding his legs together in a makeshift splint.
Now all Scott could do was sit around and supervise – something his brother told him he was an expert at. Johnny couldn’t help getting some digs in at his big brother – it seemed to him that it came with the territory. After all, if Scott said bossing little brothers around came with the territory of being an older brother it seemed to him that little brothers should have something they’re supposed to do, too. For two young men who had been strangers to each other, and their father, until a couple of years ago they had become virtually inseparable. Only a fool would try to come between them – their bond was that strong.
Teresa was not content to let Scott sit and supervise though. Only his leg was broken – there was nothing wrong with his eyes, voice or hands. So she gave him the bowls of popcorn and cranberries that needed to be strung, and the needle and thread to do it with.
“That will keep you busy for a while,” she said. The kiss she gave him on the cheek took the sting out of her words.
In truth, Scott wasn’t really insulted – he knew that it was her way of helping him make a contribution to the tree decorating even if he couldn’t climb a ladder and hang the ornaments from the tallest boughs. Sam Jenkins, the local doctor, had told Scott that he would be six weeks in the cast he’d put on the leg, which meant that Scott was essentially grounded until the middle of January. He didn’t dare risk the old medico’s wrath by trying to ride or put much weight on it. Sam was frustrated enough with the Lancer family, though it was usually Johnny that was driving him crazy.
Loud voices could be heard from just outside the Great Room as Jelly and the hands wrestled the tree from the wagon they had carried it down from the hills on.
“Consarnit! Watch where you’re goin’!” Jelly exclaimed. “You pretty near took my eye out with that tree trunk just now!”
“If you weren’t underfoot, Jelly,” another voice could be heard. “you wouldn’t have that problem! Frank and I have it – you just open the doors and tell us where to put it.”
“Jelly! Stop fussing at the men!” Teresa’s voice could be heard, “You come with me and help me pick out the perfect spot by the fireplace. I need help moving furniture, and the things that are on the mantle.”
“Sounds like Teresa’s got her hands full,” Murdoch Lancer commented as he entered the room from the kitchen.
"Yes, I’d say so,” Scott agreed with a grin. “Jelly’s trying to boss the job and the men are getting a little frustrated.” As the French doors opened a blast of cool air came in causing both men, who had wandered over to see what was happening, to back up. Scott backed up a little rapidly and found his father’s hands steadying him before he could fall and do any further damage to himself.
“Careful there, son,” Murdoch said as he caught his son. “We don’t need any more accidents around here.”
“Thanks,” Scott said as he maneuvered back toward the sofa and out of the way when his father released him.
“Look out! Gang way! Coming through!” Jelly burst through the doors with Teresa on his heels trying to get Jelly to “gang way” before he was run down by the men who were carrying the tree. It was a tall tree, and a very full one, which made it difficult for the men to see where they were going.
“Where do you want the tree, Miss Teresa?” asked Walt, one of the hands carrying it into the house.
“I’m not sure yet,” the girl answered. “What do you think Jelly? This side near the door to the kitchen, or this one near the French doors?”
“I think by the kitchen door,” the old handyman said. “That way the wind won’t knock ornaments off every time the doors are opened.”
“You’re right, of course,” Teresa said to him. “Why don’t you go get the saw and the wood for the bottom of the tree? And we’ll need a fire screen so the sparks won’t set the tree on fire. I think it’s in the storage shed where we put it last year.”
“Sure. I put that fire screen there myself. It being such a special one for Christmas and all, I wrapped it up good before I put it away. And the wood for the tree and the saw are handy, too.”
The grizzled old handyman went out the door in search of the items they would need to set the tree up, closing it against the strong northwest wind that had come up bringing with it much cooler temperatures. He was barely out the door, and the doors tightly closed, before Scott started laughing unable to contain it any longer. The ranch hands that had brought the tree in started laughing as well.
“You handled that very well, Miss Teresa,” Scott said as he tried to catch his breath. “I thought Walt, here, was going to drop his end of the tree and strangle Jelly before it was all over.”
“Well, he means well,” Teresa defended the older man, “but he does get carried away.”
“That, Miss Teresa, is putting it mildly,” said the aforementioned Walt. “It’s a good thing he’s got his own quarters or the new men would be ready to kill him every night – he’s that full of self importance sometimes.”
“Don’t worry boss,” Walt told the concerned Murdoch. “Cipriano won’t let anything happen to the old guy and neither will the rest of the old hands. We’re actually rather fond of him. Just don’t tell him I said that.”
“Sssh. Here he comes,” Teresa said with a giggle as she spotted the old man returning.
Even with Jelly’s “supervision” it didn’t take long before the tree trunk had been trimmed and the boards nailed to the bottom of it so that the tree was ready to set in place. Then, all that remained was placing the tree in a position where it was prominently displayed, yet out of the way while still leaving room for those that would decorate it to move around it easily without knocking it over.
“Murdoch, will you put the star on the top of the tree please?” Teresa asked her guardian. “Scott usually does it but we don’t want him to climb the ladder, now do we?”
“No, we certainly do not want him climbing ladders with a cast on his leg, darling,” was the answer she received. “But I don’t know if I dare – my leg has been acting up this week and the cold weather we seem to be in for isn’t helping.”
“Now, Teresa,” Jelly said, “don’t bother the boss. He’s got other things to do. I’ll put the star on the top of the tree for ya. Just let me go and get the ladder.”
The handyman hustled back out to the storage shed and was back in a very short amount of time with the ladder. He set it up so that it was leaning against the fireplace and started to climb. He was at the top and leaning to put the star on the top when Johnny walked in. Unfortunately, the tree was seven feet tall and the ladder only about five feet tall – just short enough that Jelly, who was less than six feet tall, couldn’t quite reach. In leaning he lost his balance and would have fallen if Johnny had not caught the ladder while his father steadied the older man. Walt, who had not left the room just yet, caught the tree and steadied it.
“Take it easy there, Jelly,” Johnny admonished his friend. “What are ya tryin’ to do – kill yourself and take the Christmas tree with you?”
“Smart aleck. Why don’t you put the star on iffen you’re so smart?”
“Give me the star, Jelly,” Johnny said as though speaking to a naughty child. “Ya ought to know better than to try and reach something that’s so far over your head!”
Quick as a monkey, and agile as a cat, Johnny scampered up the ladder he’d straightened up and placed the star on the top of the tree. With very little coaching from his brother and the rest of the onlookers he soon had it in place and was back on the floor before they knew it.
“I coulda done that you know,” Jelly groused. “You young’uns think you’re so smart!”
As the old man and Walt left the room – Walt trying to hide his grin from the older man – the rest of the family settled down to finish the decorating. Maria, the housekeeper and cook, came into the Great Room with freshly cut boughs of pine. Right behind her was Cipriano, Murdoch’s Segundo and right hand man since the death of Teresa’s father, Paul O’Brien, several years earlier at the hands of land pirates. Cipriano was carrying boughs of holly, which would also be used to decorate the house. Close behind them, Rosa, one of the girls who pitched in when Maria and Teresa needed help, was carrying several sprigs of mistletoe to be hung in the doorways.
“Señorita Teresa,” Maria said. “We are ready to decorate the banister in the hall and the mantles if you like.”
“Would you Maria?” Teresa asked. “I want to get the tree done and you always do such a nice job. Do you have enough red ribbon?”
“Sí, I always save some of the red velvet for this occasion. We will start with the stairs and the table in the hall. When you have finished the tree we will do the decorating in here.”
“Gracias, Maria,” the girl said. “It shouldn’t take us long – that is if Señor Scott has made a long enough string of popcorn and cranberries for us.”
“When you are through with the ladder, Señorita, I will need it to hang the mistletoe for you,” Cipriano said.
“I’ll let you know when we’re done,” Teresa told the man. “Thank you so much for helping decorate the house. I know you’re very busy.”
“De nada, Señorita Teresa,” the Segundo said. “It is nothing.”
The three Mexican employees left the family to their tree decorating. The first thing Teresa did was to check on the progress Scott had made in stringing the popcorn and cranberries. The heavy cast on his leg kept Scott from standing for very long as much as it kept him from moving very quickly and he had been forced to reseat himself as his back was beginning to bother him.
“Let’s see how you did, Scott,” she said as she approached the sofa where he was sitting again. Picking up the string of popcorn she was pleased to see how much progress he had made. “Not bad. A couple of more feet and it will be ready. Now how about the cranberries?”
“See for yourself, Miss Slave Driver,” Scott teased the girl he thought of as a sister.
“You’ve done very well for yourself, sir,” Teresa told him with a giggle. “Now I wonder what I could reward you with? Oh, I know,” she said after a very slight hesitation, “how about that lemon meringue pie that Mrs. Talbot sent over?”
Scott’s eyes lit up. “When did Mrs. Talbot deliver a pie? I didn’t see her.”
“She didn’t. Tim was here for a few minutes this morning. She sent it over with him along with an invitation to dinner tomorrow night.”
Tim was Tim O’Connor – a young man who worked for the Talbots. He and Teresa were just friends but she was teased a lot about the amount of time he spent with her. Tim received the same treatment from Johnny and Scott.
“Really?” Scott was eager to get out and the Bar T wasn’t far enough away that he couldn’t tolerate the ride – even if it would have to be in a buggy or a buckboard.
“Yes, but you better not let Maria hear you sounding so eager,” his “sister” told him. “She might begin to get the impression you don’t like her cooking!”
“I’d never let her think that, and you know it, Miss Teresa,” Scott said. “Maria’s a marvelous cook.”
“We gonna decorate this tree or are you two gonna argue all night?” Johnny wanted to know.
“Decorate, of course,” Teresa said. “Now that the star is on the top of the tree we can start putting the garlands on.
The whole time that Scott and Teresa had been going at each other Johnny, with his nimble fingers, had been finishing the garlands – and filching some of the popcorn to munch as he did. Teresa had anticipated this and had ensured that there would be plenty of popcorn for both the garland and for the boys to munch.
“Johnny those look wonderful! Now we can start putting them on the tree! Would you mind doing the top branches while I circle around?” Teresa was delighted to see that the garlands were now ready to be draped.
“I think I’ll just go sit at my desk,” Murdoch said, “and try to stay out of the way.”
“Murdoch Lancer! This is a family tree and you will help us decorate it!” Teresa was indignant that her guardian would try to get out of this little chore.
“All right, all right, Miss Teresa!” Murdoch laughed. “I’ll help you decorate. Why don’t I help Johnny drape the garlands on the high branches then you can do the lower ones.”
“That’ll be fine,” Teresa said, “Just as long as you don’t try to skip out on us again.”
Murdoch was hard as nails and a tough businessman but he never could resist a pleading look from Teresa’s brown eyes or her smile. She’d wrapped her fist around his heart when she was but a baby, and he’d been helpless ever since. Now, she was as much his daughter as the boys were his sons – there just wasn’t the blood connection.
It didn’t take long for the garlands to be draped at all. It did help that Murdoch was well over six feet tall therefore he was able to reach the garland as Johnny draped it around the upper branches and bring it around as Johnny came down a rung or two on the ladder. That part of the job was soon done and they moved on to clipping candles to the branches so that they could light it. It was a custom, or practice that had started back in the seventeenth century, but only recently had taken hold in Germany and the Slavic countries. Teresa had seen it in a book or a magazine that she had read and had talked Murdoch into incorporating it into their Christmas decorations. It was to Jelly that the task had fallen to create the clips that would hold the candles in place.
While Murdoch, Johnny and Teresa were draping the garlands – or rather Murdoch and Johnny were draping them under Teresa’s supervision – Scott was digging through the wooden crates that had been hauled from the attic looking for the clips. Teresa had bought new candles for the tree the last time she’d gone to Spanish Wells. She’d had the man who owned the General Store order plenty of them so that they could be replaced as necessary. It wasn’t just clips that Scott was finding, for Teresa had carefully and lovingly wrapped, and packed away, glass ornaments from Germany as well as ornaments that her parents and the boys’ mothers had bought or made.
Scott had to stop several times to blink tears away. He’d never known his mother, Catherine having died giving birth to him, but he knew she must have treasured them as they were in the shape of donkeys, cattle and sheep and painted by little hands. His grandfather had told him that she had made those ornaments herself when she was just a child. The woman who had taught Catherine’s Sunday School class when she was a little girl had had all of the children make these ornaments to take home to their parents. They had been carved and sanded by the teacher’s husband and the children had enjoyed painting them. They’d been her favorite ornaments and she’d brought them with her when she married Murdoch and moved with him to California. Scott himself had made a few when he was a child but he’d left them back in Boston. While preparing to celebrate Christmas with his new found family, he’d discovered these ornaments in a box that he’d brought down from the attic at Teresa’s direction. It never failed to move him when he found these ornaments safely tucked away because he knew that they’d meant a lot to his mother to have these to pass on to the child she was expecting but would never know.
“Scott? You find those clips yet? Teresa wants me to start fastening the candles to the branches while I’m up here.”
“Yes, yes,” Scott blinked away the tears. “I’ve got them - most of them anyway. There seem to be a few missing.”
“Missing? They can’t be missing.” Teresa walked over and looked in the box. “Here they are right here silly!”
She gave him a knowing smile as she took them and went back to the tree. She knew as well as he did that seeing those ornaments moved him every year. It was one of the few personal reminders of his mother that still existed in the house at Lancer. Harlan had taken most, if not all, of the things she had with her when he took Scott back to Boston after she died.
She took the three boxes with the clips and handed them over to the men working on the tree. Johnny took some, as did his father, and they started fastening them onto tree branches.
“Hey Scott,” Johnny called to his brother. “You may not be able to climb this ladder but how about some ideas as to where to put some of these ornaments. Murdoch and I can’t agree on them.”
“Coming,” Scott said as he carefully maneuvered his way around the clutter by the sofa.
Scott’s gray pants were split up the leg to his knee so that he could get them over the cast on his leg. His brown shirt was untucked and his hair mussed. Getting around on crutches was not an easy task for him and it was especially difficult to balance on one leg long enough to tuck a shirt in properly. It was an irritation for the blond but his little brother was having a lot of fun teasing him about it.
Johnny held up a large red, glass ball, “Where do you think we should put this one?”
“Hand it to me,” Scott replied. “The larger balls should be at the bottom of the tree where they have room to hang down.”
“Here you go, brother,” Johnny said.
Scott took the proffered ornament and placed it on a branch not quite halfway up from the bottom. Johnny promptly offered him a couple of others and Scott soon found places for them as well.
“So what time are we expected for dinner tomorrow night?” Scott asked as they continued to trim the tree.
“I believe six o’clock,” Teresa said. “Mrs. Talbot always likes to allow time for everyone to finish evening chores and get cleaned up. Unless there’s an emergency she and Mr. Talbot have always insisted that their men finish their work by four-thirty so that they can tend to their horses and clean up before they eat. That way they have a few hours to relax. You know that as well as I do so why do you ask?”
“I only asked what time we were expected, little girl,” Scott said. “Not for a lecture on their working and eating habits.”
Teresa just wrinkled her nose at him and went back to work hanging ornaments. Five minutes later Maria and Rosa returned to the Great Room to tell them that they were finished putting the pine garlands in place. When Teresa and the others went to see what they had done they found pine boughs entwined in the railings on the stairs, three foot wreaths hung on the doors and all festooned with red velvet bows. The house was beginning to look very festive.
Within half an hour all of the ornaments had been hung on the tree, and the room rang with laughter and the sound of singing as “Deck the Halls” was followed by “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”. Other songs and carols followed and they ended with “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as Teresa and Scott, with a little help from Johnny, set up a small nativity scene under the tree.
“I think that’s a fine looking tree,” Murdoch said to his “children”.
“It is rather nice if I do say so myself,” Scott agreed. “But don’t tell Jelly I said so or he’ll be taking all the credit for finding the tree as well as where to put it up.”
They all had a good laugh over that one. They were very fond of the old handyman but there were times when he could be kind of exasperating.
Approximately five miles away, at the Talbots’ Bar T ranch, things were humming along in their own preparations for the upcoming holiday. Among other things Jim Talbot, along with several of his ranch hands, were busily engaged in the old Irish custom of whitewashing the house before Christmas. It was a big job but they were coming along with it. The doors and shutters needed to be repainted as well, as the hot summer sun had caused it to fade some. They were receiving a fresh coat of bright red paint.
Inside the house Maura, and a couple of their employees’ wives, were putting the finishing touches on some wreaths. The dining room table was covered with wire, pine branches and bright red velvet ribbon as well as pinecones. The wreaths would be hung on all the doors of the ranch house as well as the bunkhouse and the barn. Even with her boys gone for more than five years Maura still enjoyed Christmas, and to her being Irish, it was more of a religious celebration than a time of revelry. This year she and Jim had a secret planned for the older Lancer son. One that would be revealed very soon.
When the wreaths were finished and put in place the table was cleared and the heavy housecleaning began in earnest. Soon the house smelled of lemon oil and beeswax as the wooden furniture was dusted and waxed. The upholstery was brushed and the ceilings were cleaned by means of an old sheet wrapped around a broom. With half a dozen women working together the house was soon put to rights and the baking began in earnest. It wouldn’t be long before the house smelled of ginger, cinnamon, chocolate and the yeasty smell of fresh baked bread.
When the windows had been polished with soap and water and lemon juice to make them shine three branched candlesticks were placed in each of them. Into these candlesticks were placed some of Maura’s best beeswax candles. They would be lit every night at sunset and put out when she and Jim went to bed. This, too, was an Irish custom for traditionally the three candles represented the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. In the days when Catholicism was illegal in Great Britain Irish Catholic families had placed the candles in their window to let weary travelers know where they could find refuge with a Catholic family. Maura herself was not Catholic but she thought it was a wonderful tradition - as did Jim.
It was getting downright cold when they called it quits, satisfied with their day’s work. Jim had already chosen their Christmas tree and would head out to cut it down as soon as breakfast was over. He’d already found the boxes with the ornaments in the attic and brought them down to one of the seldom-used spare rooms knowing that the women were going to be cleaning. After supper he and Maura, together, would string popcorn and cranberries – imported from Massachusetts – to drape on their tree just as the Lancers were doing. In fact, Jim always ordered more than enough cranberries for both families as he had cousins living down in the Carver area that had easy access to cranberry growers to buy them from.
“Maura, my love,” Jim said to his wife. “You’ve accomplished wonders as usual. The house looks great and smells great.” With a twinkle in his eye he continued, “Now, how much of that baking is for me and how much is for Scott and Johnny – or any other young people you might lure into our home at this holiday season.”
“You keep up that nonsense,” his wife retorted, “and you won’t get any of it.” She smiled at him though and continued, “I promised Padre Felipe I’d supply the forms for the gingerbread houses the children at the orphanage are going to make. And I thought we’d surprise Val, Gabe and Sam Jayson with one for their offices. Just so they have something by way of decorations. You know how those three are – they won’t bother with even a wreath on the door. Well, I’m going to take care of that!”
“And I’m sure they’ll appreciate it too, darling,” Jim said with a chuckle. “If they don’t I’m sure you’ll give them a good talking to about the spirit of Christmas and being gracious receivers.”
The couple headed for bed as soon as the tree was done. There were some glass ornaments but there were also many sugar cookies and candy canes as well. It was a tradition they’d held onto even after their boys died. Now it was fun to see how long the sweet-toothed Johnny Lancer and friends could resist the tree, and getting into the goodies. Nobody was sure which one of them – Johnny, Rico, Kevin or Willie (or Willie and Rico’s little brothers and sisters) had the hardest time resisting the goodies in the tree. It was a never-ending source of amusement to the couple to watch the young men as they tried to resist acting like their younger siblings when it came to the tree. They pretended indifference, paid their compliments and then kept stealing glances at the tree. They didn’t know, though they should have, that their every move toward that tree was highly anticipated and enjoyed.
Scott sighed and looked out the door at the bright sunshine. As much as he enjoyed living in California with his father, brother and “sister”, as well as Jelly and the other men who worked for them, there were times when he was still homesick for Boston. Especially at Christmas. He could envision the large tree his grandfather would have set up in the parlor and all the gifts that would be under it. Many of them from his grandfather to him, some from him to his grandfather while others came from business associates of his grandfather. Those that weren’t from business associates were from people trying to get Harlan to do business with them.
Harlan generally gave his staff a small bonus every year for their faithful service. Scott, as he became a young adult – and especially since returning from the war – had always made it a point to let the staff know how much he truly appreciated everything they did for him. Grandfather’s money couldn’t make up for the lack of warmth in his thanks. Scott’s was genuine and he had his favorites among the staff – especially their housekeeper and the cook who felt it was her job to try and fatten up – or cheer up – their employer’s grandson. Scott always did what he could to lighten their load.
As he reminisced he could feel the cold air on his cheeks and the breeze rushing by as he and his friends went on sleigh rides through the streets of Boston. Occasionally they even made it out to the Concord area and went riding through the fields out in the country as far as Assabet Village – a small mill town which he heard had recently been incorporated as the town of Maynard – named after Amory Maynard who owned the mill complex in the center of town.
Sleigh bells and church bells filled the air with their own special music as carolers made their way through the streets singing Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem and others. O Little Town of Bethlehem was a special favorite of Scott’s as the writer, Phillips Brooks, was pastor of one of Boston’s churches. He had written the carol when he returned from a trip to the Holy Land in 1868. It was now a huge favorite with all the churches in the country.
It was on one of these sleigh rides through Concord that Scott had met Louisa May Alcott whose popular stories for girls would soon be published and bring her great acclaim. For now Miss Alcott was just a neighbor of Ralph Waldo Emerson whose writings Scott was so fond of quoting to his brother. Louisa was a friendly woman who would serve coffee, cocoa and cookies to carolers and those who passed by in their sleighs. Scott and Louisa had another connection – they shared war experiences. Louisa had served as a nurse in Washington, D.C. While there she had become very ill and the treatment she received would, in about fifteen years or so, lead to her relatively early death from mercury poisoning. Nobody knew that the calomel they treated her, and many others with, contained mercury or that mercury was a deadly poison when ingested.
Murdoch entered the room as Scott turned away from the French doors and maneuvered his way back to the sofa. He saw the somewhat dejected look in his son’s eyes and manner and thought he knew the problem. He himself didn’t miss the snow that much – winters in Scotland could be pretty harsh – but he knew that Scott had enjoyed sledding, sleigh rides and skating parties when he was living with his grandfather. There was no way for him to enjoy those activities here in California.
“Tired Scott?” he asked.
“No, not really,” his son answered. “Except for being tired of being trapped in the house – unable to get anywhere unless someone takes me.”
“I know,” his father said. “It’s hard to be tied down with a broken leg. At least you can get around some. If you were back in Boston…that’s the problem isn’t it? You miss the snow and the sleigh rides and such, don’t you?”
“Yes and no,” Scott said, frustrated. “I do miss Boston some but I wouldn’t want to be there and miss Christmas with you and Johnny and Teresa, but this broken leg is tying me down and I feel useless.”
“You’re not useless, Scott,” his father reassured him. “And you have been able to contribute to the Christmas preparations. You got the popcorn and cranberry garlands ready for Teresa. I’m sorry we can’t rustle up a snowstorm for you but just remember that you’ll be out of that cast soon. A couple of weeks after that you’ll be able to ride again.”
“It can’t come soon enough,” Scott sighed. His sigh was even bigger and more heartfelt when he saw Maria coming toward him with his daily dose of boneset tea.
After supper that night Johnny sat with his brother long enough to play a few rounds of checkers before heading up to bed. It was left to Murdoch to make sure that Scott made it to his room all right, as Johnny was tired from handling his work and most of his brother’s. Scott was able to do some harness mending and if someone set up a bench or a chair near the feed bin, he was able to dish out the corn and oats for the working horses. However was frustrated because he wasn’t able to do anything that required riding or standing for long periods of time thus Johnny had taken over.
The next day was the twenty-third – the day they were due to have dinner at the Talbots’. By four o’clock everyone was through with their chores except those that were on night duty watching the more distant bunches of cattle. By five o’clock the Lancers were all scrubbed and decked out in their best clothes. Jelly brought the surrey around to the French doors. The vehicle had been scrubbed and repainted and Jelly had even taken some holly he bought from Maura, who had a very small grove in back of her house, and entwined it in the wheels. It was very festive looking and he was quite proud of the job he’d done.
They were greeted at the door by their host, resplendent in tan slacks, white shirt, black string tie and brown jacket. His blond hair was neatly brushed and a big smile graced his face when he saw his friends who were also dressed in some of their best clothes. Johnny was wearing black pants with silver conchos – Maura would expect no less from him, with a clean midnight blue shirt and a black bolero jacket. Murdoch and Scott were similarly attired in brown slacks, white shirts and brown jackets and Teresa wore a new emerald green dress with gold embroidery on the yoke that Maura had helped her make. She wore green and gold ribbons in her hair, which mostly hung loose but was pulled back from her face and secured with said ribbons.
Their hostess came from the kitchen clad in midnight blue with gold trim. Her hair was piled on her head and fastened with gold combs. She wore sapphire earrings and the necklace that the Lancer “kids” had given her when she was selected as Woman of the Year in a contest run by a San Francisco newspaper. The boys had nominated her together and accompanied her on the all expense paid trip. The necklace had been a gift from all three of them and had their birthstones on it.
“Murdoch! Boys! Teresa! How nice you all look!” Maura greeted each of them with a kiss on the cheek. The boys and Murdoch had to bend down so she could reach them.
Leading them into the living room she said, “Dinner will be ready in about half an hour. Why don’t we sit here and be comfortable while we wait?”
“Can I help you with anything, Mrs. Talbot?” Teresa wanted to know.
“No, dear, thank you,” was the answer she received. “Felicity and I are managing just fine. She’ll let me know when things are ready to be put on the table and then she’ll leave when it is. She and Michael have to leave early tomorrow for Stockton to spend Christmas with her parents.”
The talk would have turned to the current price of beef or some other such subject among the men except that Maura kept after them to discuss more general topics such as the weather and how things were going at the orphanage. They’d had a Christmas party for the children the week before and had distributed many peppermint sticks, cookies, hair ribbons and such. Each child had received one personal gift as well, be it a rag doll or a carved wooden animal or a top. Maura wanted them each to have something they would always remember so she had recruited the Lancers, Pittmans and others to help find and/or make these toys.
“Murdoch, did I tell you that Alex is going to sing a solo at the midnight service tomorrow night?”
“No, you didn’t. How did this come about?” Murdoch said with a sideways glance at his friend.
“Reverend Hawk insists that I do it. He wants more congregational participation and since he’s heard me sing,” Jim explained, “he decided I should have the solo during the offering.”
“I think that’s wonderful!” Teresa exclaimed. “You have a very nice voice, Mr. Talbot. It’ll be a real pleasure to hear you. Have you decided what you’re going to sing yet?”
“I didn’t get to decide,” Jim said with an embarrassed grin. “Reverend Hawk decided for me. It’ll be O Holy Night.”
“I’m sure you’ll do fine, Jim,” Murdoch told his friend. “Unlike me, my friend, you do have a decent voice.”
A few moments later Felicity White, wife of one of the Talbots ranch hands and part time housekeeper for them, announced that dinner was on the table and she was leaving. The two families went into the dining room and took their seats. Jim sat at one end of the table while Murdoch sat at the other end. Maura sat to Jim’s left with Scott next to her while Johnny and Teresa sat in the seats they would normally sit at during meals at Lancer.
A large ham sat on a platter in front of Jim’s place. Bowls of baked potatoes, cole slaw and corn also graced the table. A plate of celery stuffed with cream cheese and sprinkled with paprika sat near the end of the table near Murdoch. Baskets of fresh baked rolls along with dishes of butter sat in the middle. A three branch candelabra with fresh candles sat at each end of the table providing the light for an intimate meal among friends.
“Mrs. Talbot, you’ve outdone yourself!” Johnny exclaimed when he saw all the food. “What’s for dessert?”
Everyone started laughing – especially Maura. She was fond of saying that feeding Johnny was like feeding a growing teenager. It seemed that he was always hungry – especially if they were at the Bar T and he knew that Maura had been baking all day.
Before the food was served Jim said a brief grace and offered up a toast that was also a blessing.
“If I may – a toast for friends both here and elsewhere:
‘May you, wherever you are this golden hour, know joy. May your hearth fire be surrounded with those near and dear to you; and may the happiness of your children re-echo the gladness Heaven sent forth in this time of the miracle of Bethlehem.
‘May the faith the humble shepherds found in a starlit stable be yours in fullest measure; and may the exultation of Mary and Joseph light your heart with the glow of divine love.
‘May you gather together in bright bouquet love, charity and tranquility of spirit; for he who possesses these holds the key to riches beyond measure.
‘May all your dreams in the splendid hour reach fulfillment; And may all the paths you walk be lighted with peace not only today, but in all the days of the year to come.
The meal passed quickly with a lot of friendly chatter. When they were through with the main meal Maura brought out a triple layer chocolate cake, a white cake and a lemon cake of which Johnny polished off large pieces of each. The other men managed smaller pieces of each while Teresa settled for a small piece of the white cake while Maura had a small piece of the lemon.
After dessert had been consumed, and Teresa had helped Maura with the dishes, they all retired to the living room. Maura settled herself at her piano and started playing Christmas carols. They started with The First Noel – all the verses – and moved rapidly through It Came Upon The Midnight Clear, We Three Kings and What Child Is This. When it came time for Silent Night Jim Talbot brought out his guitar and played a solo for the first couple of verses and then convinced Johnny, who had been known to play around with it, to try his hand. It wasn’t a difficult melody and it had been written for guitar as the history of the carol explained. On Christmas Eve 1818 the Pastor of a church in Oberndorf, Austria, a small village near Salzburg, discovered that the church organ was damaged and there was no time to have it repaired. Pastor Mohr walked several kilometers to visit with schoolteacher Franz Gruber who was also the organist. Gruber then wrote the music for the carol which Pastor Mohr had written two years earlier and had with him. He also found enough time to rehearse it with a choir. The carol debuted at Midnight mass that night.
Jim patiently coaxed Johnny through it and together they did a pretty fair job of accompanying their little group. Maura then coaxed Scott into sitting at the piano – he’d had music lessons years before while living with his grandfather – and trying his hand at O Come All Ye Faithful. For a man who hadn’t played the piano in years Scott didn’t do too badly – with Maura’s encouragement and shushing of his baby brother.
Before long they were ready to exchange gifts among themselves. The boys and Murdoch each received new shirts (dark blue for Scott, forest green for Johnny and brown for Murdoch) warm socks and warm woolen mittens from their hosts as well as scarves to wear when they went up into the high country during the colder weather. Teresa received enough dark blue velvet to make herself a cloak, and midnight blue linen to make a dress, as well as the thread and other essentials to put it together and trim it. Maura promised to help the girl find just the right pattern.
The Lancers and Teresa presented Maura with dark green dress goods (plus the essentials to put it together and trim it as she had done with Teresa), a set of silver combs with small sapphire chips set in them and a watch, which she could pin to her dress or shirtwaist. Jim received a set of James Fennimore Cooper’s novels, a couple of new ties and a pocket watch to replace the one he’d recently lost. All the gifts were warmly given and received.
Soon the Lancers and Teresa said “good-bye” to their hosts and headed for home. Maura presented them with a package for Jelly, which contained a new plaid shirt, a pair of mittens and a scarf such as she’d given the Lancers. It would never do to have Jelly feel left out!
Christmas Eve dawned bright and quite cold for the San Joaquin Valley. It put a spring into every able-bodied man’s step to be out in the cold air. The horses were restive and some, Barranca included, were somewhat difficult to handle. They seemed to be sensing something though nobody knew what exactly.
The day flew by quickly as each ranch hand, and member of the family, performed the necessary chores toward getting meals, tending to the stock and anything else that couldn’t wait. By three o’clock all had been accomplished other than milking the small dairy herd of five Guernseys that Lancer kept to supply milk and cream for all the needs of the household and hired help. The Lancers sat down to supper at promptly five o’clock. After the dishes were done Maria, the long time housekeeper and “mamacita” retired to her quarters to prepare for the midnight mass at the local mission. There were several teenage children and grandchildren to get scrubbed and dressed in their finery.
By eleven o’clock the Lancers were bundled up and on their way to the only Protestant church in the area. They were warmly greeted by many friends and neighbors, and Scott had more than enough people willing to help him maneuver his way out of the buggy and up the few stairs into the church. To a certain extent he appreciated their willingness but he was still chafing over the feeling of helplessness he had having to use crutches to get around. Sam Jenkins, the local doctor, had already told him – more than once – that he was acting worse than Johnny usually did. That was saying a lot for Johnny was a terrible patient and keeping him down was next to impossible once he started feeling better.
The Portillos, Millars and the Mays family were in attendance for they were as anxious to hear Jim Talbot’s solo as they were to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. The three families slid into pews behind the Lancers and settled in to wait for Reverend Hawk to begin the service. They hadn’t long to wait for Reverend Hawk was prompt. At exactly midnight he started the service by having each one light the candle they had been given upon entry with the flame from the candle held by the person next to them. The good Reverend had started it by lighting a candle from the candelabra on the altar and using it to light Maura’s. She in turn lit Jim’s after which he lit Murdoch’s who lit Teresa’s and so it went until each person in the sanctuary held a lighted candle.
The service then was under way with the singing of O Come All Ye Faithful followed by Angels We Have Heard on High. The soprano voices could be heard soaring on the high notes – the tenors as well. However, the baritones, altos and other lower pitched voices had some difficulty and many people struggled with the drawn out Gloria in excelsis Deo. But it was a joyful noise and that was all that mattered to the Reverend.
Halfway through the service it was time for the offering and Jim’s solo. The tall blond rose from his seat near the front and stood near the altar rail. A local man who played the harp gave him an introduction and the next thing everyone knew they were being transported to another time and place as Jim sang:
O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘til he appeared and the soul felt it’s worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees – o hear the angel voices
O night divine – oh night when Christ was born
O night divine – oh night
Oooooh night divine.
By the time Jim reached the five-note final “Oh” you could have heard a pin drop as the sanctuary became silent. All squirming by restless children and teenagers ceased. Mothers no longer had to shush their children. Jim’s voice had cast a spell over everyone – even the most restless young person sat and listened attentively. Maura beamed with pride and tears of joy gleamed in her brown eyes as she listened to her husband of thirty-five years. The Reverend Hawk looked inordinately pleased with himself for having talked Jim into this.
There was absolute silence when he finished and made his way, somewhat self-consciously, back to his seat by Maura. The reverend waited briefly before rising to lead the congregation in the Doxology. Then he offered up a brief prayer, a short sermon and led them in a final carol – Joy To the World – to end the service.
Outside there was bedlam as everyone crowded around the Talbots in order to have a word with Jim about his solo. The tall rancher blushed as he listened to all the compliments being heaped on him. Maura simply beamed radiantly because she felt he deserved every one of them and then some.
As they offered their compliments and congratulations each family then made their way to their own buggy or wagon to start for home. Finally, only the Lancer, Mays, Millar and Portillo families were left. Rico’s father, Juan, pulled Jim aside to let him know that a certain item had been delivered and was ready to be given to its intended recipient.
“Thank you, Juan,” Jim said with a big smile. “I’ll be by to see you on the day after to finish paying you.”
“No need to hurry, Señor Talbot,” Juan said. “I only hope you find it satisfactory.”
“I’m sure I will,” the rancher reassured the woodcarver/carpenter. “After the work you did on that giant chicken at Halloween I’m convinced that I hired the right man for the job.”
Johnny and his three pals took advantage of the fathers all being distracted to exchange gifts with each other. Johnny had bought a new bridle for Kevin’s horse, a new blanket for Rico’s – one of the Indian blankets he’d bought from Val who, in turn, had bought it from Lone Crow’s widow, and a hat for Willie who had a reputation for losing them on a regular basis.
Johnny’s gifts from his pals would turn out to be a new bolero jacket made and embroidered by Señora Portillo, new leather gloves from Willie and a hand tooled belt from Kevin. Scott was included in the gift giving and received gloves, a belt and a box of nice stationery. He was quite pleased – and touched – that the younger men had included him.
Nor were Teresa and Murdoch excluded. The boys had bought hair ribbons and dressy gloves and acquired some homemade candy for her. Murdoch received pipe tobacco, stationery and gloves. Teresa rewarded the young men with a kiss on the cheek after each presentation while Murdoch thanked them and shook hands with them.
Finally, the last of the families entered their vehicles, all of which had lights fastened to the front of them for night travel on this special occasion, and headed for home. The wind had picked up and everyone was anxious to get back, and get into warm beds. The Lancers knew that Johnny, encouraged by Lady Sweet Friend – their energetic little border collie, would be up quite early and anxious to get at the gifts that were under the tree.
Christmas morning was, if anything, colder than Christmas Eve day had been. Murdoch built up a roaring fire in the Great Room while Teresa set the table and prepared to serve up flapjacks and bacon. The coffee cups at the men’s places were refilled more than once as they had been thoroughly chilled while out tending to horses and cows and other stock. A skeleton crew of hands were ensuring that the cattle out in the pastures were able to get to water and feed.
The clouds over the San Benitos looked like snow. Scott had given up hoping that they would have any. After all, this was California and this part of California wasn’t prone to getting snowstorms. Yet, somewhere deep down inside of him, some part of him still wished it would.
Everyone gathered around the tree – even Jelly, Maria and Cipriano. Johnny had gone through a lot of trouble to find a good woolen poncho for Cipriano and a fancy, colorful shawl for Maria to be presented by the family. Jelly received several new pairs of suspenders as well as a painting of his pet gander known as Dewdrop. All of the men who had worked for the Lancers over the last year received a twenty-dollar bonus and the promise of a week off in the future. A schedule would need to be worked out before that could happen, however.
The sound of jingle bells drew their attention to the yard where, through the French doors they could see a team belonging to the Talbots pull up and the neighbors alight from their buggy.
“Jim, Maura! Merry Christmas!” Murdoch exclaimed. “We weren’t expecting you quite so early.
It was a tradition for the Talbots to host the Lancers on the twenty-third, attend church together on Christmas Eve and the Lancers to host the Talbots on Christmas Day.
“Well,” Jim drawled. “My wife couldn’t stand it any longer. We have one last gift to bestow upon you all. Technically speaking it’s for the whole family but mostly for Scott.”
“For me?” Scott was surprised to say the least. He’d thought the gifts he’d already received were quite enough.
“Come on out, son,” Jim said, “and have a look.”
The Talbots big, black Percherons stood quietly hitched to a large wagon. An enormous crate was loaded into the back of the wagon and the tools to open the crate were soon procured by Jelly and handed to Scott.
“Open it up, brother,” Johnny urged with all the excitement of a small boy.
As soon as Scott opened the crate Murdoch, Jim and Cipriano moved in to remove the contents. What Scott saw brought tears to his eyes for Juan Portillo had, following drawings made by Jim and Andrew Millar – Kevin’s father, built a sleigh. This sleigh, however, was rigged so that the runners could be raised and wheels lowered in their place. Jim and Maura knew how much Scott missed certain things about Boston – especially having a white Christmas and all that entailed. This was their way of ensuring, that even here in California, he could have some of the fun he had had back east while growing up.
“I-I-don’t know what to say,” the older Lancer son stammered. “How did you do this? Wh-?”
“We know you miss things you had back in Boston, dear, even if you are settled in here,” Maura told him. “This is our way of sharing those memories.”
“Thank you,” Scott said simply. He just didn’t know what else to say.
“Hey!” Johnny exclaimed. “Do you hear what I hear?”
More bells on harnesses could be heard and soon the yard was filled with friends from all over who had decided to go caroling one last time. The Portillo, Millar and Mays families were among them. Kevin, Rico and Willie were on horseback while the rest of the family members were snug in wagons loaded with hay.
There was much merriment and shouting as well as laughter as those that had known what was being delivered admired the gift. Scott was completely overwhelmed while Juan Portillo was busy taking orders from others present for sleighs just like the one he had just delivered to the Talbots. John Mays would be busy too for he was the one in charge of the mechanical aspect of the sleigh.
“What was that?” Jelly asked as something wet plopped on top of his bald head.
Everyone looked up in surprise as snowflakes started falling thick and fast. Soon the yard was covered in an inch or better of snow.
“Well, what do you make of that?” Jim laughed. “Here we give Scott a sleigh and the weather suddenly turns accommodating.”
“I have something to say,” Scott said with a grin as he hobbled over to his very special gift.
“What’s that, brother?” Johnny wanted to know, as he stood close by shivering in his light jacket.
“Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” Scott yelled. “Merry Christmas everyone!”
Notes: O Holy Night actually has three verses. I’ve chosen to have Jim sing only the first, and most familiar, verse. The words were written by Placdo Ciappeau in 1847. It was translated into English by John S. Dwight (1812 – 1893). Clappeau, a wine merchant and mayor of Roquemaure, France, wrote poems for his own enjoyment. The music was written by Adolphe C. Adam (1803 – 1856) . This is said to have been the first music ever broadcast over a radio.
Silent Night was written, as stated in the story, by Franz Gruber and Franz Mohr when, on Christmas Eve 1818, it was discovered that the organ had been damaged and there was no time to get it repaired. The village of Oberndorf sits in the Austrian Alps near Salzburg. Salzburg is best known as the setting for The Sound of Music based on the best selling book The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp.
The original German Lyrics and the full story are below.
Silent Night, Holy Night -- it is said that this song has been translated over 200 languages and it the most popular and well known song in the world.
This well known melody we hear today as "Silent Night" or "Stille Nacht", is not quite the same as once Franz Gruber composed it.
In a small village, Oberndorf, near Salzburg, Austria, flooding of the Salzach river had placed the only organ out of commission. Pastor Joseph Franz Mohr had no music for the Christmas Eve Service.
On December 24th, 1818, it was a cold day in Oberndorf. Franz Mohr walked three kilometers to the neighboring town of Arnsdorf to visit Franz Gruber, a School Teacher, and also the church's organist and choir master. He had with him a carol which he wrote two years earlier (1816), and he needed music to the lyrics, so he could play it with his guitar the same evening at the Christmas Eve Mass.
Franz Gruber composed the melody for the carol with guitar accompaniment in just a few hours, and had time to rehearse it with the church choir.
Later that evening on December 24th, 1818, Mohr and Gruber stood before the altar in the Sankt Nikolaus Kirche, (St. Nicholas Church), in Oberndorf, Austria, to perform their own work. The church choir group backed them up as the sounds of Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (Silent Night, Holy Night), broke the silent of the evening and the world most famous song was born.
The master organ builder, Karl Mauracher, from Zuegen, Zillertal, in Tyrol, traveled to Oberndorf to work on the damaged organ several times in subsequent years, until he replaced it in 1825 with a new one. Karl, while working on the organ, learnt about the song and made a copy for himself.
Two traveling families of folk singers, similar to the Trapp Family Singer of "The Sound of Music", got hold of the Christmas carol and started to use it in their performances. It has been recorded, that the "Strasser Family Singers", sang the carol in a concert in Leipzig in December 1832. At that time, several notes from the carol were changed, and the song we know today evolved.
On other occasions, the "Rainer Family Singers", sang the Christmas carol before an audience which also included Emperor Franz I and Tsar Alexander I. Later in 1839, the Rainers sang the carol during a performance in America for the first time. They performed under the open sky before the burnt down Trinity Church in New York.
By the turn of the century, the carol was sang in England, New Zealand, Africa, and South and North America. The song spread with the help of Christian Missionaries to all Continents.
By the time the carol became famous throughout Europe, Pastor Joseph Mohr had died. Although, Franz Gruber wrote to music authorities in Berlin, stating that he was the composer, it had been assumed that the song must be the work of Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven. This assumption went on until the twentieth century. The controversy was put to rest in 1994, when a long lost arrangement of "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" in the handwriting of Joseph Mohr was authenticated. Mohr had written, "Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber" in the upper right hand corner.
There were four songs titles hidden in this story that are NOT carols. Did you find them?
The toast that Jim offered is from the Ideals book Prayers and Poems for Christmas. It is by Loretta Bauer Buckley.