Prankster Posse Santas

By Janet Brayden 

            Christmas was only a few weeks away and the little towns of Morro Coyo, Spanish Wells and Green River were bustling.  Everywhere you looked people were hanging decorations such as wreaths or bunches of holly and mistletoe.   Young ladies were “accidentally” bumping into their fellas on the streets and just “happened” to have a little twig of mistletoe to hold over their heads.  Storekeepers were running out of red velvet ribbon, of all sizes, there were so many bows for wreaths and packages and trimming on dresses and jackets being made.

            Many families, including the Lancers, were hunting for the perfect Christmas tree.  Johnny and Scott had found one about five miles from their property line.  It was situated on a high hill with other, smaller and less perfect trees, around it.  Together they had chopped it down and dragged it back to the house where it now stood in a bucket of water waiting for the boys to find/create the wooden slats that would hold the tree up so that they could stand it in a corner by the fireplace.  Together, as a family, they would decorate it.  At least this year Scott would be able to participate more.  The previous year he had fallen at Thanksgiving time, and broken his leg.  Christmas had seemed very bleak for the young Lancer until their friends, Jim and Maura Talbot turned up with a sleigh that could run on wheels or runners at the push of a lever.  Scott had been rather homesick for Boston with its snow, caroling and sleigh rides.  The sleigh was both a reminder and a remedy.  There had even been a rare and wonderful snowfall the day he was presented with it.

            At the orphanage in Spanish Wells Johnny Lancer, Kevin Millar, Rico Portillo and Willie Mays, as well as Scott, Teresa, Maura Talbot and her husband Jim, and others were scrambling to see that the dining hall and other rooms in the building were scrubbed and decorated.  The five men had gone out and found a tree, which they were in the process of putting up so that the children could decorate it.  It fell to Jim Talbot, the tallest of the group by an inch or so, to put the star on the top of the tree.  The others would assist in putting the garlands – strings of popcorn and cranberries provided by different ranchers, farmers and shopkeepers in the area – on the tree as the children weren’t tall enough to do the topmost branches.

            There had been a brief interlude where the youngest members of the group threw popcorn at each other, which gave Jim a good laugh, but that ended when Maura caught them at it and threatened them with her broom.  Said broom was promptly given to Scott, as the older brother – though only to one of the other young men – to initiate the clean up and set a good example for the other three. Jim was set to work in the kitchen popping more corn to string to make up for what would now have to be thrown out.

            “You’re as bad as they are!” she exclaimed as she shooed him toward the kitchen.

            “Oooh! Look at the tree!” exclaimed little Teresita Hernandez as she came into the dining room after running an errand for the one of the padres.

            The seven foot tall fir tree stood near a corner of the room dominating most everyone and everything in the vicinity – especially six-year-old girls.

            “It’ll be even nicer once you kids decorate it.” Kevin smiled at the excited child.

            “Sí, tomorrow we bring the decorations out of the attic.  Señor Talbot is popping more corn for you and your friends to string.  I think the Padre said you could do it after lessons were over.”

            “That’s what he said,” Padre Felipe came along at just that moment. The elderly, gray-haired Franciscan smiled at the excited child.  “You run along now, Teresita, Padre Tomás is waiting for you if you have delivered his note.”

            The little girl skipped out of the room to return to her classroom leaving a group of amused adults in her wake.  Maura then turned to the priest.

            “Do you have that list of requests, Padre?”

            “Sí, it is right here.”  So saying he reached into the pocket of his robe and withdrew a folded piece of paper, which he handed to her.

            The paper contained a list of the items that the children wanted for Christmas.  It was Maura’s habit to try to fulfill these requests as best she could every year.  It made her happy to see the smiling faces of the children as they opened their gifts at the party each year.

            Most of the requests were simple enough.  There were the usual dolls, tops, balls, a checker game or two, a chess set, new hair ribbons and, this year, a request for a new puppet stage for the orphanage and a doll house.

            “Where are we going to get a dollhouse?” Kevin wanted to know.

            “I would imagine one of the stores in San Francisco or Stockton would have them,” Scott said.  “I’ll send a wire to them and request an immediate answer.”

            “Should it be like the houses that the Mexican folks live in and the one at Lancer or like the houses Scott knows in Boston?” Willie wanted to know.

            “Who’s the dollhouse for, Mrs. Talbot?” Kevin asked.

            “It’s for little Susan Greenhow,” she replied.

            “Then it should be like some of the houses that Scott knows about back in Boston,” Kevin said and all agreed with him.

            “Some of the tree decorations were getting pretty beat up as I recall,” Jim Talbot said.  “Let’s get some new ones. I’m sure Eulalia Hargis and Josiah Higgs will have some in their stores.  Why don’t you boys go see what you can find while Scott and I dig out the old ones and put the wreaths up?”

            It was decided that Johnny and Kevin would go to Green River to see Mayor Higgs and Willie and Rico would go to the Widow Hargis to see what she had in her store.  Each had their own ideas of what to get.

            Meanwhile, Maura went back to the kitchen where a group of girls waited to make gingerbread people.  It wasn’t long before the smell of ginger, cinnamon and cloves filled the air making it very hard for those that were near the kitchen to concentrate on their studies.  The girls who were helping make the special cookies filled the air with their oohs, aahs and giggles as they decorated them.

            It was late when everyone finished their respective errands and headed home.  Jim and Scott had hung several dozen wreaths up all around the orphanage and the mission.  They had supplied the ladies of the Parish with greenery to decorate the altar and the top of the organ.  All agreed that with the fresh whitewashing, courtesy of the Prankster Posse, the highly polished woodwork and the greenery with red and gold ribbons, that the chapel looked wonderful. 


            Due to the fact that the errands they were running, and the work they were doing at the orphanage, was for the children’s party the young men were excused from their regular work.  Nobody was going to earn the nickname of Ebenezer Scrooge because they refused to let their sons help the Talbots organize this party!

            The group gathered mid-morning next day to find out the results of their respective assignments.  While some of the tasks had been accomplished successfully the telegrams Scott had sent brought negative replies.  Nobody in Stockton or San Francisco had a dollhouse for sale.  The few that they had had been custom made and paid for ahead of time by some wealthy families.  They didn’t know when they would have another one from back east what with the snow stopping the trains in places.

            “Well, that’s that,” Scott said dejectedly.  “I don’t know where else we could get one if the stores in San Francisco don’t have one available.”

            “I do,” Rico spoke up suddenly.

            “Where?” Willie asked.

            “My papa can make one!”

            “Rico,” Maura said gently, “your papa is a very talented man but could he really make a dollhouse?  And in so short a time?”

            “Sí!  I know he can!”

            “What about the furnishings?”

            “Felipe and Pedro can make the furniture if they have pictures to look at.  Papa has been teaching them for several years.  Maria, Victoria and Elena can make curtains and rugs and paint the house and the furniture.  They’re very good at that.”

            “Where are we going to get a puppet theater?” Johnny wanted to know.

            “Aw, heck,” Willie said.  “We can knock one of them together in a couple of days. They’re not much more than a frame that folds up with a curtain in front and a curtain in the back.”

            “Mariano can paint the – what do you call it, Scott?”

            “The scenery?  The backdrop maybe?” the former Bostonian queried

            “Sí.  Yes, we have some canvas that he can use and I’m sure Papa will let him work in his workshop since it is for such a worthy cause.”

            “I’m sure if I don’t have some material to make curtains out of,” Maura said, “that we’ll find that Teresa or Maria have some leftover from one sewing project or another.  If not, Eulalia Hargis should have some in her store.”

            “What should the house look like?  And this scenery?”  Rico asked.

            “I think we can help you with that,” Jim Talbot said.  “Dear?  Don’t we still have the boys’ books of fairy tales?  We could pick a couple out and show Rico.”

            “I’m sure we do.  They must be on a shelf in the Living Room with all of your books.  We can find them.  You come out to the Bar T tomorrow, Rico, and we’ll find you those books.”

            “I have one or two books on architecture,” Scott said.  “I can loan it to Señor Portillo so he knows how the dollhouse should look.”

            “What about the fairy tales?  Which ones should we do?” Kevin wanted to know.

            “Well, I would think they should be fairly simple – not too many characters,” Scott said.

            “How about Hansel and Gretel and The Three Billy Goats Gruff?” Maura suggested.  “I’m quite sure that those stories are in the boys’ books. Now who do we know that can make the marionettes to go with the puppet stage?”

            “I can!” Rico exclaimed.  “I have made many toys for my little brothers and sisters and cousins.  Papa bought me a book on puppets for Christmas last year.  It has instructions on how to make such things.  We just need to know what characters.”

            “The books we’re going to loan you will take care of that,” Jim assured him.  “For Hansel and Gretel you only need five and you only need four for the Billy Goats. There’s Hansel, Gretel, their father, stepmother, the witch, three goats of different sizes and the troll.  I’ll make the bridge and we’ll need something to hold water to be the river that the goat butts the troll into.  Who will be the puppeteers?”

            “I will,” Kevin said with a grin.  “I always wanted to be on stage.”

            “As what - ”  Johnny wanted to know and asked with a gleam in his eye, “A clown?”

            Kevin’s other three pals laughed while Jim and Scott chuckled.  Maura just shook her head and waggled her finger at Johnny scolding him for picking on Kevin the way he had even though Kevin had left himself wide open for that particular remark.  Soon thereafter they all set off to find the wood they needed, nails, tools, paint and everything else to make the dollhouse, its furnishings and the marionettes and their theater.




            Señor Portillo was more than happy to be asked to build the dollhouse.  Work at his little shop was slow at the moment as far as woodcarving was concerned.  The basic carpentry jobs he had could be finished later as they were not needed until after the holidays.

            Jim Talbot found his sons’ fairy tale books on the bottom shelf of one of his many bookcases and showed Rico where to find the two stories he needed to make the marionettes.  Maura had some wool a neighbor had given her that could be dyed and used for the goats so she asked Rico what color he wanted them to be and said she would take care of it.  They decided on gray and determined how much they would need for three different sized goats.  Rico planned on buying the string he would need from Mayor Higgs’ store.  His younger brother, Pedro, who was twelve, would take charge of stringing the puppets when they were completed.  He would also carve the sticks that they would be attached to.

            Scott found the architecture books and brought the one most likely to be of help to the Portillos’.  He and Rico’s father consulted with each other over the design and Scott made suggestions to the children as to what colors to use for the curtains and rugs.  He’d been able to secure a couple of rooms of doll furniture from a shop in Sacramento but Felipe and Pedro would make most of it.

            Teresa, Maura, Eulalia Hargis and the mothers of Johnny’s pals all got together to help the girls make the curtains, rugs and the like for the dollhouse and also made the curtains for the puppet theater.

            Willie, Kevin and Johnny worked to put the stage together while Mariano spent hours in his father’s workshop painting the scenery they would need for the two fairy tales.  The boys would perform the two shows at the party, which was scheduled for the day before Christmas Eve.

            In no time at all the stage was put together, the marionettes were made, strung and outfitted in their costumes and wigs and rehearsals for the two shows began.  They set the stage up in the hayloft of the barn at the Rocking M – the Millar’s ranch and every day the four young men got together to practice.

            They drew lots to see which one of them would do which character.  Kevin was to be the smallest goat, Rico the middle sized goat and Johnny was the largest goat – the one that would butt the troll off the bridge and into the water.  It fell to Scott to manage the troll and Willie would be the narrator who would read the story while the others moved the marionettes according to what was happening in the story.

            As far as Hansel and Gretel was concerned Teresa volunteered to do Gretel and Rico’s sister, Victoria, said that she would do the part of the witch.  Every day the two young women got together with Scott and Kevin, who were going to do the parts of Hansel and the father, to rehearse.  Never mind that the stage was safely hidden away in a hayloft for the time being – they were determined to rehearse and, after reading through the story several times decided that a good way to keep up with their lines was to have them written out on paper and pinned to the back of the theater until they learned them.  It didn’t take long for the girls knew that they couldn’t be reaching for paper while performing.  They mastered their lines in less than a week and teased Scott when he had trouble remembering his few lines.  It wasn’t that Scott was bad at memory work but he was learning the lines for two characters at once and dealing with his brother and his brother’s pals was wearying after a while.  They deliberately tried to throw him, and each other, off track by making smart remarks and speaking their own lines out of turn.  In short they acted more like children than young adults which, as far as Scott was concerned right about then, was exactly what they were – children.

            Scott got so disgusted with them that he threatened to quit altogether but his father talked to him and got together with the fathers of the others.  After that talking to the boys all settled down and learned their parts right.  Furthermore they stopped tormenting Scott – for the time being.  That wasn’t to say that they wouldn’t plan something else – just that they would keep quiet about it until they could pull it off.

            As the day of the party drew nearer the orphanage bustled with women scrubbing walls, waxing floors, polishing furniture and mending clothes or making new outfits for the children if nothing near their size could be found among the decent hand-me-downs.  The men – Murdoch, Jim and Jelly among them – went around making sure that the furniture was in good repair, that doors opened without creaking and helped the boys set up the puppet stage and put it together. 

            The builders had done a good job of making a sturdy stage – with a little help from Willie’s father who was a blacksmith and provided the hinges and nails they needed for free.  Mariano had read the stories thoroughly several times and had created beautiful backdrops for the Three Billy Goats Gruff ,and the witch’s house for Hansel and Gretel was every bit as beautiful as it was supposed to be.  There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the children would be thrilled when they saw this.

            The greens, blues, reds and yellow were as bright as any real flower could be.  The mountains seemed to jump right out at those who viewed the scenery for the Three Billy Goats Gruff.  The witch’s house for Hansel and Gretel looked good enough to eat.

            The dollhouse that Señor Portillo created, with help from Scott’s book on houses in New England, was another work of art.  It never ceased to amaze those who knew him how he could take a piece of ordinary wood and turn it into something beautiful.  The house was three stories tall and the children had done a marvelous job of creating tables, chairs, curtains, rugs and everything else they thought it needed.  All that was lacking was the little dolls to use it and Scott had sent for them.  They were arriving, by special messenger, the day before the party.

            Finally, the big day arrived.  Everyone scrubbed themselves and dressed in clean clothes from the skin out.  Murdoch and Scott wore dark brown trousers with white, button down shirts, black string ties and tan suede jackets.  Johnny wore a spruce green pullover shirt that laced up from the breastbone, more or less, to the throat.  He wore, for the time being, his bolero jacket over it.  Both brothers knew that when the time came for the marionettes to do their thing that the jackets would be discarded for freedom of movement.

            Teresa wore a blue dress with a white yoke that had dark blue ribbon around the edges.  Her hair hung loose but was pulled back and tied with a dark blue ribbon.  The Talbots arrived shortly afterward.  Jim was dressed much the same as Murdoch and Scott while Maura wore a dark emerald green dress with the gold necklace with the birthstones of Johnny, Scott and Teresa on a Claddagh charm that hung from the chain.  Her hair was held in place by gilt combs.

            The dining hall of the orphanage rang with the shouts of excited children as the group made their way into the building.  The boys and Teresa, spying the other members of the puppeteer troupe, headed immediately for the backstage area out of sight of the children.  Murdoch, who had not been able to do much of the other work, was going to be the announcer for the program.  He went immediately to the front and got the children’s attention.

            “If I could have your attention, children,” he said, “we’d like to get started.  If you’re real quiet then everyone will be able to hear.” 

Nodding to Jim they pulled back the curtain that hid the performers.  You could have heard a pin drop when the children saw the beautifully decorated puppet stage. The first performance was Hansel and Gretel.  The brother and sister puppets came out to the front of their humble woodcutter father’s cottage amid the cheers of every child, and many of the adults, who were present in that room.  Silence fell as Willie started to read and Teresa and Kevin manipulated Hansel and Gretel while Scott and Victoria worked with the father and stepmother.

“’Hard by a great forest dwelt a poor woodcutter with his wife and his two children’”, Willie started.  “’The boy was called Hansel and the girl Gretel.  He had little to bite and to break, and once when great dearth fell on the land, he could no longer procure even daily bread.’” 

 On and on Willie went through the story as the woodcutter struggled with how to feed his family and whether or not to abandon his children in the forest.  The children cheered when Hansel and Gretel dropped the white pebbles and found their way home the first time they were left and cried when they were lost the second time because the breadcrumbs had been eaten by the birds and animals. 

There was a chorus of oohs and aahs when Hansel and his sister stumbled upon the witch’s house.  More than one child was crying when the wicked old hag locked Hansel up in the stable in order to fatten him up.  There were many boos and hisses when the witch forced Gretel to work like a slave.  The cheers,when the witch was shoved into the oven by Gretel, shook the rafters.  All the children clapped and cheered and shouted with glee when that performance was over and Hansel and Gretel were reunited with their father.  Even more so when they gave him the pearls that Gretel had taken from the witch’s house when the wicked creature was burned in the oven - just as she had planned to do to Gretel and then Hansel. 

The audience now took a fifteen-minute intermission break while the performers set up the stage for the next show.  There was much scrambling as the Prankster Posse, Johnny and Scott put things to rights with the river, bridge, stage and retrieved their goats and took their places.  Teresa and Victoria, relieved of their duties now, found seats with Murdoch and the Talbots to watch the next performance.  The two young women giggled as they watched the goats make their appearance.

 Once again Willie was the narrator for he had been told that, outside of Scott, he was the best one for reading aloud but they wanted Scott to do the troll since he was so familiar with the story.

 “’Once upon a time there were three billy goats, who were to go up to the hillside to make themselves fat, and the name of all three was ‘Gruff’”  Willie turned the page of the book he was reading from and continued on as the three goats made their appearance one by one.

 “’On the way up was a bridge over a cascading stream they had to cross;  and under the bridge lived a great ugly troll, with eyes as big as saucers, and a nose as long as a poker.’”

 The children howled with laughter when the great ugly troll made its appearance for Rico had outdone himself when he made it.  Some people would have sworn that the troll puppet’s nose truly was as long as a poker and its eyes as big as saucers.  The adults in the group laughed until great tears ran down their cheeks.

 “’So first of all came the youngest Billy Goat Gruff to cross the bridge.’”  The water cascaded over a jury rigged “dam” as Kevin, waiting his turn as the middle-sized billy goat, poured it from a watering can down the disguised pipe that they were using as a waterfall.

 “’Trip, trap, trip, trap!’” went the bridge.’”

 “’Who’s that tripping over my bridge?’” roared Scott the troll.

 “’Oh, it is only I, the tiniest Billy Goat Gruff, and I’m going up to the hllside to make myself fat,’ said the billy goat, with such a small voice.’”  Rico was laughing so hard to himself that his little billy goat was shaking and the children were laughing.

 ’Now, I’m coming to gobble you up,’ said the troll.

 ’Oh, no! pray don’t take me.  I’m too little, that I am,’ said the billy goat.  ‘Wait until the second Billy Goat Gruff comes.  He’s much bigger.’ 

 Rico’s little goat shivered and quaked with fear until the troll finished thinking.

 ‘Well, be off with you,’ said the troll.

 A little while after came the second Billy Goat Gruff to cross the bridge.

 “Trip, trap, trip trap, trip, trap, went the bridge.”  Willie continued his narration as the middle Billy Goat Gruff as played by Kevin came along and splashed the troll as he passed by the “cascading stream”.

 Scott shook his head, annoyed as the water splashed him in the face.  He hissed to Kevin, “Watch it!  The troll doesn’t get wet yet!”

 Kevin just grinned at him and continued on with his goat.

 As before the troll roared, “Who’s that tripping over my bridge?”

 “’Oh, it’s the second Billy Goat Gruff, and I’m going up to the hillside to make myself fat,’ said the billy goat, who hadn’t such a small voice.

 ‘Now I’m coming to gobble you up,’ said the troll.

 ‘Oh, no!  Don’t take me.  Wait a little till the big Billy Goat Gruff comes. He’s much bigger.’

 ‘Very well!  Be off with you,’ said Scott.

 Kevin “walked” his middle-sized goat over the bridge taking care to splash Scott again.  The glare he got from Scott did nothing to quell his high spirits – he and the others were having a lot of fun and so were the children who didn’t realize that this wasn’t part of the play.

 Now it was Johnny’s turn.  He had chosen, for personal reasons, to take on the part of the Big Billy Goat Gruff.

 “’But just then up came the big Billy Goat Gruff.’”

 “’Trip, trap, trip, trap, trip, trap! Went the bridge, for the billy goat was so heavy that the bridge creaked and groaned under him.’”

 The two characters who had been manipulating the first two billy goats created the sound effects of the bridge by knocking on it from underneath and behind the curtain where the children couldn’t see what they were doing.  They wore big grins on their faces because they knew, as did Willie, what was coming.

 ’Who’s that tramping over my bridge?’ roared Scott as the troll.

 “’It’s I!  The big Billy Goat Gruff,” said the billy goat, who had an ugly hoarse voice of his own.

 “’Now I’m coming to gobble you up,’” roared the troll.

             “Well, come along!  I’ve got two spears,

And I’ll poke your eyeballs out at your ears:

I’ve got besides two curling-stones,

And I’ll crush you to bits, body and bones. 

            That was what the big billy goat, as portrayed by Johnny Madrid Lancer, said.  And then he flew at the troll, again and again, butting it until he had, as the story went, poked his eyes out (not really but the children sure thought so), and crushed him to bits, body and bones (Kevin and Rico tossed bits of fabric and wood into the air as the troll marionette was tossed into the cascade with a might splash soaking Scott. 

            “’That was what the big billy goat said.  And then he flew at the troll, and poked his eyes out with his horns, and crushed him to bits, body and bones, and tossed him out in the cascade, and after that he went up to the hillside.  There the billy goats got so fat they were scarcely able to walk home again.  And if the fat hasn’t fallen off them, why they’re still fat; and so, 

                        Snip, snap, snout

                        This tale’s told out’” 

            Willie had scarcely finished reading when Scott came charging out from behind the puppet stage chasing his wayward little brother much to the amusement of the children in the audience and the chagrin of Murdoch.  He rose to put a stop to their nonsense only to have the children distracted by the sound of jingle bells in the big entrance hall.

            “Ho, ho, ho!  Merry Christmas!”

            “Now who do you suppose that could be?” Murdoch asked the children.

            “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!”  In the door of the dining room came a jolly little man with white hair and a beard, dressed in red.  To the children he was Santa Claus and they ran to him and mobbed him as he walked into the room carrying a big bag of toys for the children.

            For the next hour “Santa” distributed tops, balls, carved wooden animals, dolls, books and games and little Susan Greenhow was presented with her dollhouse.  The look on the little girl’s face when she saw it made all the time and effort Manuel Portillo had put into all worthwhile.  It would be hard to pry her away from it long enough to attend vespers and eat before going to bed.  She was one very, very happy little girl that Christmas.

            Just prior to “Santa’s” arrival Maura had taken her leave, along with Teresa and Victoria, of the men.  The three women were smiling as they watched the children, one by one, go up to receive their gifts.  It was Murdoch who approached her first about who Santa was.

            “How’d you manage to get him to do it?”

            “Why whatever do you mean, Murdoch?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye.

            “I know him.  You must have bribed him or else he’d never have agreed to it no matter how much he loves children.”

            “I merely told him that the children would love him.  That was enough and it’s true – they do love him,” she said.  “Just look at him – he’s in his element.”

            “He” was the Lancers’ handyman, wrangler and friend – Jelly Hoskins.  Maura was right, Jelly was having a grand time playing Santa for the lonely orphans.

            The youngest Lancers, Kevin, Willie and Rico were helping him to distribute the toys.  All were having a wonderful time though they did have to watch that the youngest children didn’t pull too hard at Jelly’s beard.

            “Merry Christmas, Maura,” Murdoch said with a kiss to her cheek.

            “To you as well, Murdoch,” she said as she returned the kiss.

            “Merry Christmas, Jim,” Murdoch said to his friend, holding his hand out.

            “Merry Christmas to you as well, my friend,” Jim said shaking Murdoch’s hand firmly.

            “Merry Christmas, boys,” Maura said.  “Merry Christmas, Teresa.”

            “Merry Christmas,” they all chorused.

            “Merry Christmas, ‘Santa’,” she said.

            “Merry Christmas, Miz Talbot,” Jelly replied.

            “And God Bless you all,” Padre Felipe said.  “The children will never forget this Christmas and the joy you all brought to them.”



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