Maura Talbot’s kitchen smelled wonderful. The scent of sugar, ginger, cinnamon, rising bread dough and chocolate, among other things, filled the air as she went about her usual weekly baking and then some. There was to be a Christmas party at the orphanage in Morro Coyo and she was making Christmas cookies for gifts, ornaments, the party and for the consumption of her beloved husband as well as any friends, such as the Lancer boys, who stopped by.
The kitchen table was cluttered with mixing bowls and spoons, baking pans as well as containers filled with flour, salt, sugar, vanilla and a bowl containing several dozen eggs. Every inch of counter space, as well as an additional table, was covered with ginger snaps, chocolate cookies, oatmeal raisin cookies and she was currently working on cutting out sugar cookies in the shape of stars and bells mostly with a few stockings and trees thrown in for good measure.
It was into this atmosphere of warmth and good smells that Johnny Lancer, his brother Scott and Johnny’s three pals – Willie Mays, Rico Portillo and Kevin Millar – stepped as they entered the house from the back door, their arms laden with firewood, evergreen branches and boxes of ribbon and pinecones.
“Here’s the firewood you wanted, Mrs. Talbot,” Scott said as he led the group into the kitchen.
“Thank you, Scott,” the redheaded Irishwoman said. “Just drop it in the wood box by the stove. I don’t need it just yet.”
“Where do you want these evergreen branches?” Johnny asked his surrogate mother.
“There’s a box in the living room, dear,” she said without missing a beat as she cut out more stars. “Just put them in there. We’ll put them out when we get the room scrubbed and whitewashed.”
“Do you want the ribbon in the same place, Mrs. Talbot?” Kevin asked.
“You can put the ribbon next to the branches dear. Just make sure it doesn’t get tangled up with the greenery. If it gets in the pine pitch it will be difficult to get it unstuck and it won’t be of any use to me.”
“Señor Talbot just returned with a wagonload of supplies, Señora,” Rico spoke up as he entered bearing two large sacks of flour. “He asked me to bring this flour in.”
“Thank you, Rico,” she smiled at the young Mexican. “Put it over there in the corner if you would.”
“Sí, Senora.” The young man did as she asked and was followed through the door by Willie Mays who was carrying several smaller sacks.
“You can put the sugar and salt over by the pantry, Willie, dear,” Maura said. “When you boys are through have a seat in the living room and I’ll bring you a snack.”
The young mens’ faces lit up. Maura was known throughout the San Joaquin Valley for many things including her hospitality. Any trip to the Talbot ranch was bound to find some sort of a treat being handed out. Even before losing their three sons in the war she’d always been happy to have young people around. Now she seemed to adopt every young person, stray or not, that made their way to her kitchen. The Lancer boys were especially welcome given the long friendship between Maura, her husband Jim and Murdoch Lancer. She’d known Scott’s mother briefly before Catherine’s untimely death and she’d helped bring Johnny into the world, watching him grow from infant to chubby, curly haired toddler who charmed everyone with his grin and his laugh. She’d grieved for her friend when his son was spirited away, apparently in the middle of the night, by his dissatisfied mother. The other boys she’d know for most, if not all, of their lives.
Working quickly she gathered a tray, a plateful of cookies, the coffeepot and several mugs. A small pitcher of cream and a bowl of sugar as well as spoons and napkins were also placed on the tray. Having these things together she walked from the kitchen to the living room where the four young men sat talking or perusing some of the books from Jim Talbot’s rather extensive library. When they’d remodeled the house prior to moving in permanently, Jim had had bookshelves installed, which took up one whole wall of the room.
“Here you go, boys,” Maura said as she entered the room. “Scott? Would you pour? I need to get back to my baking.”
“Of course,” the elder Lancer son agreed. “But can’t you take just a couple of minutes to enjoy a cup of coffee with us?”
“No, dear,” she answered. “I’m afraid I can’t. I have bread that’s just about ready to be put in the oven and cookie dough that will dry out if I don’t finish rolling, cutting and baking it. You boys enjoy your treat. Just leave the cups and all on that tray when you’re done and let yourselves out.”
Scott took the tray from her and placed it on the small table to the left of his chair. As Maura left the room he began pouring coffee for his brother and the other three. When the coffee cups had all been filled Scott passed around the plate with the cookies on it. Maura had placed twenty sugar cookies, in various shapes, on the plate so that each of the young men could have two. They weren’t small cookies either – they were fully two inches or better across their widest point. They were also a quarter of an inch thick. Nonetheless they disappeared in a hurry - as did the coffee. By California standards it was quite chilly outside and the young men were glad to have the opportunity to warm themselves up in the house before heading to their own homes. It also appeared that a storm was brewing and the three young men that Johnny was pals with had a longer ride ahead of them than Johnny and Scott did.
“Mrs. Talbot, those cookies were superb,” Scott said as he returned the tray with the empty plate and coffee service to the kitchen despite what she had told them.
“I’m glad you enjoyed them dear,” Maura smiled at him as she continued to remove cookies from the baking pans and set them aside to cool.
“They really were good, Mrs. T.,” Kevin said. “I don’t suppose we could have another one?”
“Dos,” Rico chimed in.
“Why not three?” Willie asked with a gleam in his eye.
Only Johnny was quiet and that was because he was eyeing the fresh out of the oven cookies longingly.
Maura saw the look and started laughing merrily.
“You boys are going to turn into cookies if you’re not careful,” she teased. “All right, you may each take three more cookies.”
“Mrs. Talbot, you’re the best!” Johnny exclaimed as he eagerly chose his next three cookies.
“You say that to everyone who spoils you with goodies, little brother,” Scott jibed.
“That’s all right Scott,” Maura said with another laugh. “I know he says it to Maria and Teresa too but he means it no less. Your little brother loves sweets as much now as he did when he was a little boy toddling around this house on visits with his mama.” With a gleam in her eye she added, “I used to call him my ‘Cookie Monster’ when he begged for more. Maria was always so embarrassed.”
“’Cookie Monster’?” Scott looked at the other three young men with a glint in his eye that bespoke promised harassment that would begin as soon as they walked out the door.
“Don’t go getting’ any smart ideas, brother,” Johnny warned.
The three young men each kissed Maura on the cheek as they left with their cookies. Outside they encountered Jim Talbot returning from the barn where he’d just put his wagon team up for the night. His personal mount, a black and white Paint named Pintauro, had already been turned loose in the corral next to the barn. Jim had no plans to go back out unless an emergency arose during the night.
“Well, I see you boys talked my wife out of some of her cookies,” he laughed. “As if that was very hard to do.”
“Well, not until after we put that stuff away in the house like you asked us, Mr. Talbot,” Johnny said.
“Yes, this is true,” Scott said. “The best part is though that she imparted some new information about my little brother.”
“Oh?” Jim’s blond eyebrows rose. “What might that be?”
“That she used to call him ‘Cookie Monster’ when he was little,” Kevin said.
“That she did, boys,” Jim said with a grin. “I have news for you though, Kevin, Rico and Willie – she used to call all four of you cookie monsters. Personally I don’t think things have changed much and Scott, you’re beginning to earn that nickname yourself.”
The four young men mounted their horses and rode toward home after saying good-bye to their neighbor. As they rode down the lane from the house Jim could hear them trying to decide who the biggest Cookie Monster was of their little group. The consensus seemed to be that it was Johnny though that young man vehemently denied it.