(With thanks to beta Anna Orr)
“Red or green for Scott or Johnny—what do you think?”
Murdoch looked up from the ledger on his desk. Teresa stood before him holding up two short lengths of cloth. “I’m sorry. What are we talking about? I can’t see either of my sons wearing velvet.”
“Not to wear—for their stockings. It will be Christmas soon and they must have a stocking to hang over the fireplace.”
Teresa had made Murdoch a stocking the year before when they spent their first Christmas together in the hacienda. She hadn’t realised he didn’t have one until she came to get hers ready. She kept her Christmas stocking and her father’s in the bottom drawer of her bedroom cabinet.
It still hurt to think of Paul O’Brien dead, but back then the loss had been fresh and she had cried herself to sleep every night. She had held his stocking against her cheek for over an hour, cherishing the faint whiff of pipe smoke that lingered in the fabric from the Christmas before. She knew it was unchristian not to forgive, but at the time, just for a moment, she had cursed Day Pardee. She had wished him dead. He should rot in hell for the anguish she and Murdoch suffered. But months later, when she got her wish, she realised that be it justice or revenge, neither could lessen her loss.
Thankfully—she now thought—a happier idea had soon pushed vengeance from her mind. She would hang her stocking above the fireplace in the hacienda next to Murdoch’s. Their stockings would be symbols that they were now a new family, together. That was when she discovered Murdoch had no stocking. He declared he could not recall ever having one, but when Teresa asked advice how to make a Christmas stocking from the woman who had made hers, she learned the truth.
Retired some years earlier from her position as the hacienda’s housekeeper, Estella Hernandez confided that Murdoch had once had a stocking. He had burnt it in the grate one Christmas after his second wife had run away, taking two year old Johnny with her. “Seńor Murdoch was here alone. The first winter he did not search.” Estella had recognised the charred pieces of embroidered cloth among the ashes when she swept the fireplace on the morning after Christmas. She had removed them from the great room along with a broken glass and an empty whisky bottle.
Teresa was glad she knew the truth. Perhaps because it was a sad truth, it made her feel closer to her guardian, and perhaps because of that she had sewn a new stocking for him with great care and thought. She had even embroidered small black coals and white thistles into the decoration to remind him of his Scottish homeland. The stocking was a symbol for them both of the affection they felt for each other and their hopes for the future.
Now Teresa planned to make a Christmas stocking for each of Murdoch’s sons. Scott and Johnny had returned in the spring from Boston and Mexico, places she had only read and dreamed about. They were already like brothers to her, and beyond all else she wanted their first Christmas at the ranch to be special. “I thought red for Johnny and green for Scott. Those colours seem to match where they grew up. What do you think?”
“Green will be fine for Scott, but don’t make one for Johnny.”
Teresa frowned. Murdoch and Johnny had their differences, but this made no sense. Then she saw the wistful look on his face.
And within seconds he noticed her confusion. “He has one already.”
The next minute, while Teresa was still getting over her surprise, he was on his feet and then on his knees opening the large Spanish chest behind his desk. He had always said that he only kept items of real value in the strongbox, never money. Teresa knew the deeds to the ranch were there and a copy of her father’s will. Murdoch lifted out some papers, a large cardboard folder, letters tied with ribbon and what looked from where she stood to be a jewellery box. He put them to one side. Finally he found what he was searching for near the bottom, wrapped in a brown paper bag. He put the other items back into the strongbox and closed the lid, locking it with a large iron key and returning that to his pocket. “Here you can look after this until Christmas Eve.”
Teresa took the stocking out of the bag. It was made of red velvet, embroidered with white stars and horses. “Oh, Murdoch, it’s beautiful.”
“His mother made it for the only real Christmas we spent together before…Johnny had just turned one. She worked on it for weeks. There is a small stain there, you see. Maria put an orange in the toe. It was like a ball to play with and then she peeled it and broke it into segments for him to eat. He got juice everywhere. He…Well, no matter.” The soft look on Murdoch’s face turned back to business. He sat down again at his desk and started to write.
Teresa watched him methodically transfer the details of a receipt into his accounts book. He was a man of such feeling, but he allowed her only glimpses, and still shied away almost entirely from showing his true self to his sons. Perhaps that was not so very surprising; Scott and Johnny behaved in much the same way towards him. She had not had enough experience to be sure, but perhaps it was the nature of men. She smiled at the stocking on the edge of the desk. Even if that were so, she still had faith that time would unravel the mysteries and reconcile the past.
Teresa picked up Johnny’s stocking and the material for Scott’s. She would take them back to her room and keep them secret until Christmas Eve. But before she went away, she pecked Murdoch on the cheek.
He looked up in surprise. “What was that for?”
There was a bounce in Teresa’s step as she left the great room. Yes, this Christmas was going to be special.
Dying embers glowed in the fireplace, and the fragrance of fir tree, mulled wine and cinnamon hung in the air. Only the gentle tick-tock of the grandfather clock rippled the silence and night threw a serape of darkness and tranquillity over the great room. Four stockings hung from the mantelpiece, expectant but empty, and Murdoch sipped at his whisky.
It had been an eventful evening. All Teresa’s plans had come to fruition. They had dined early on a light repast of cold cuts and potatoes, because they were going to take part in the final posada. It ended at their door and the kitchen had been abundant with sweet treats to share with the vaqueros and their families. Teresa had retrieved the copy of A Visit from Saint Nicholas from the bookcase, and she had persuaded Murdoch to read it to the children, the smallest sitting on his lap or next to him on the sofa and the rest at his feet on the floor. He hadn’t read that poem for twenty-one years, but even the adults had enjoyed his rendition. Teresa had organised a priest to come from the mission so that after the posada the Mass of the Rooster could be held under the tree by the workers’ cottages. For once the families of the ranch did not have to make the long trip to and from Morro Coyo. But before these more public activities, Teresa had arranged another more intimate ceremony with only the immediate family in mind. After their evening meal, she had shepherded Scott, Johnny and Murdoch to their seats in front of the fireplace. Only two Christmas stockings had hung from the mantelpiece then, hers and Murdoch’s own.
“This is for you Scott. I made it.” Teresa smiled as she handed Scott a soft parcel wrapped in tissue paper. “Merry Christmas.”
“Why this is wonderful, Teresa. Thank you.” Scott held up the green velvet stocking, cleverly embroidered with stars, snowflakes and fir trees.
“I tried to put things on it that would remind you of Boston. Not to make you miss it, but to make you feel more at home here.” Teresa blushed. Scott’s pleasure at the gift was obvious. He got up and hugged her, kissing her on the cheek.
“I must hang it with the others.” He went to the fireplace. There was a hook waiting either side of the two stockings already hanging from the mantelpiece. He knew which one was Teresa’s; she had shown both stockings to him and Johnny a few days before. Murdoch had pretended to be engrossed in his book as she explained that Estella had made hers when she was a baby and that she had made Murdoch’s the previous year while she waited for him to recover from his wounds. Scott tied his Christmas stocking to the hook next to Teresa’s, and then returned to the sofa to admire it from a distance. Murdoch was touched to see the emotion in his elder son’s eyes.
But then came the moment Murdoch had been half dreading, the moment when his own emotions would be put to the test. Teresa brought out a second parcel. She had left the stocking in the brown paper bag. She gave the bag to Johnny.
“I didn’t make yours Johnny. Your mother did. Murdoch kept it for you from before.” Her hands trembled a little. Murdoch knew how she felt; he gripped the arm of his chair to steady his own.
Johnny stared at the brown paper bag on his lap and said nothing. Then he looked over at Murdoch. There were no words, but Murdoch held his son’s gaze and understanding flowed between them.
Johnny looked up at Teresa and smiled. “Thank you.”
He opened the bag and drew out the stocking with its white stars and horses frolicking across a red velvet pasture. For several moments he just held it, caressing the soft fabric between thumb and forefinger; but then he too was on his feet and tying his stocking to the remaining hook—next to his father’s.
Murdoch wondered if Teresa had planned it that way. Was that why she had set the first two stockings in the middle and given Scott his one first? Did she guess that he would choose to place his next to hers as some subtle acknowledgement of the gift, knowing that then Johnny would have to put his next to Murdoch’s? No, she was still just a child; that idea spoke of the sensitivity and wiles of a woman. Murdoch was not quite ready to see Teresa in that light. Not yet.
He drained the last drop of whisky from his glass and rose from his chair. His family would be settled in their beds now—time for Father Christmas to fetch his sack from the back of the wardrobe.
After a sumptuous feast, Murdoch collapsed into his chair in front of the fireplace and Scott and Johnny spread out on the sofa. Teresa took her usual chair opposite Murdoch with an expression of contentment and satisfaction on her face. Flames licked at the fireback and a Yule log crackled in the grate.
With a nod, Murdoch delegated the job of untying the four stockings hanging from the mantelpiece to Teresa and his sons. The stockings were overflowing; Murdoch smiled to think Father Christmas had had a few helpers adding to the haul of small gifts inside them. Then he watched with delight as the young people proved Christmas makes children of us all. Struggling with the knots that tied the stockings to the hooks on the mantelpiece, they playfully pushed and shoved until the strings gave way and the digging for surprises could begin. The room filled with merry exclamations and thanks to Father Christmas. The thoughtfulness and ingenuity of the presents would be remembered and already-full stomachs found just a little more space for the sweet treats cascading onto the carpet.
As they neared the end of their treasure hunts, Murdoch started laughing at Johnny. “Twenty-one years and you still haven’t learned how to eat an orange.”
With a grin, his son used his thumb to wipe the juice off his chin and without thinking added another small stain to the embroidered white star.
Finally reaching the bottom of his stocking, Scott retrieved an Indian rubber ball—a strange gift for a man of twenty-five and yet…. He tossed it into the air and caught it one-handed. “I remember getting one of these for Christmas when I was a child. I played with it for hours. Did you…?”
Murdoch just smiled.
Handing Johnny a guitar, Teresa settled down at his feet and began to sing. Murdoch added his soft baritone, and Scott joined in. Johnny raised his voice with the rest, and the great room was filled with sweet music, laughter and love long into the evening.
Four stockings lay empty over the back of the sofa, waiting to be stored away in the morning. It was their first Christmas together; part of a story barely begun. One chapter had been written heralding exciting times ahead. For each member of the Lancer family, December 25th, 1870 marked the end of their beginning. They could not know what the future would bring, but one thing was certain. There would be many more chapters in A Tale of Four Stockings.
1. This story has its roots in a back story I wrote for Murdoch, From Highlands to Homecoming.
2. This story refers to events in The Homecoming (pilot movie) and The Highriders, Series 1, Episode 1.