The Presence of Christmas
by  S.

Little wisps of frosty breath emerged from the curved lips of Scott Lancer as he stood out under the night time sky.  Overhead, the blanket of stars shimmered like a lace mantilla.  Scott always marveled at the beauty of his new home at Lancer.  True, Boston had many beauties of its own, but the sheer natural splendor of the mountainous landscape was unparalleled.

This late in the year the nights were cool and crisp, but nothing like it would have been in the East so Scott took every opportunity to be outside at night, even for a little while.  Often, he felt like he had consumed two or three glasses of champagne just looking up at those celestial points of light.  This night, one star gleamed especially bright.  Perhaps it was the Christmas star, although that was not likely this far west.  Still, it gave the blond young man pleasure to think of it as such.


The middle Lancer turned to see a tall figure in front of him.  "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you.  I'd like your opinion on something."

"Of course, Murdoch.  What is it?"

Murdoch glanced around for a moment as if to make sure that no one else was about. "Since this is Johnny's first Christmas at Lancer, I thought I'd like to get him something special.  Would you happen to have a suggestion?  I need to get it ordered if there's a chance of receiving it before the holiday."

Scott's blue eyes closed for a moment, thinking about what his sibling might enjoy. "Well, perhaps you could have someone copy that painting you have of his mother in your room?  I know he doesn't have much to remember her by."

Coolly, the rancher put aside the suggestion.  "I don't think that's a good idea.  I'm sure it would bring back some. . .unpleasant memories and besides, I'm not sure I could find a competent artist.  That painting was done in San Francisco, right after our wedding day."

"I see.  Well, maybe some kind of rifle then?"

"That's an excellent idea.  I know his is rather old.  Of course, he doesn't use it as much as his handgun, but a good rifle is always needed.  Thank you, Scott.  I'll go into Morro Coyo and order it tomorrow."

"You're welcome.  I guess it's time to go in.  It's getting cold out here."

Sniffing at the air, the tall man agreed.  "You're right, there's going to be a heavy frost tonight.  The mountains feel very close this evening."

"They are certainly beautiful with their snow-capped peaks."

"You don't see that kind of beauty in Boston, do you?" questioned the patriarch.

"Well, no, but when the trees change color, the sight is breathtaking."

"Uh, well, of course, if you like that kind of thing.  Now, I'd better go in, I can't afford to take a chill.  We have too much work to do around here.  'Night, Scott."

"'Night, Murdoch."

Following the tall man inside, Scott headed to his room.  Now that Murdoch had mentioned Christmas, the blond realized that he would have to think of something to buy for his newly-acquired family.  He had already ordered his father's present from Boston so that was no problem, but he still needed to think of something for his brother and Teresa.  He really didn't want to get the brown-haired girl anything too practical.  On the other hand, he wouldn't feel comfortable getting her something like perfume or a dress. This definitely was going to be difficult.  Lying down on his bed, Scott tried to think, but the ideas were not tumbling over themselves in his muddled mind.

Taking up his journal, Scott began to write.  Somehow, putting down his thoughts in the small volume always helped to clarify his thinking.  Reading back through the various entries, the young man reflected on past holidays.  The Garrett mansion had always been decorated with garlands and the fresh smell of fir during the holidays.  For nearly the whole month, there were incredible smells emerging from the kitchen.  These luscious goodies culminated on December 19th and on the 25th.  The first occasion was for family only, but Christmas brought many guests to the mansion for the grand dinner in the impressive dining room.  The table was always laid with the fine china and good crystal.

Until Scott had reached the age of thirteen or so he had been terrified that he might drop one of the precious pieces, but gradually his fear had subsided and he had taken great pleasure in the beauty of the special occasion.  Sitting there at his grandfather's right hand, Scott knew that this was a step on the road to adulthood which he cherished.  Usually, he would feel too shy to venture many words with all the important people who attended the dinner, but inevitably, Harlan Garrett would pick one topic which was of special interest to Scott and then would make it a point to question his grandson about something pertaining to the subject.  Since Scott had always been fascinated by military history, the topic frequently related to battles or war itself.  When his blond grandson started to talk about the Battle of Waterloo, it was almost impossible to change the subject, but Garrett never seemed to mind.  He was proud of his grandson's knowledge and wanted the boy to feel comfortable talking with adults.

As the march to civil war became inevitable, Garrett usually tried to stay away from political topics as some of his guests were ardent abolitionists who seemed to forego Christian charity in their zeal.   During the Christmas dinner of 1862, one of Garrett's guests committed the faux pas of lambasting the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac which had taken such a drubbing, just two weeks before at Fredericksburg.

Just as Harlan had decided that he had endured enough of the man's pomposity, Scott spoke up to deliver a short but effective defense of the courageous army.  Then he had asked to be excused and walked out.

Later in the evening, Harlan Garrett had knocked at his grandson's door.  Knowing that he had been rude to a guest, Scott was prepared to apologize to his grandfather, but the white-haired man had waved aside the apology with the simple statement, "The man is an impossible jackass."

Scott had stood their speechless for a moment, but Garrett had never mentioned the topic again, not even some months later, when Scott had confessed that he intended to join a Massachusetts cavalry unit.  It was only after his return from imprisonment at Libby Prison that the Bostonian had found out that his grandfather had not celebrated the holidays the entire time that Scott had been away to war; however, on December 25, 1865, once again the Garrett mansion celebrated the safe return of Harlan's grandson.


Looking up from his journal, the blond took in Teresa O'Brien's harried appearance. "Is there a problem, Teresa?"

"I bought Johnny a new shirt for Christmas, but I want to put a special embroidery on it. What do you think he might like?  He doesn't seem the type for flowers."

Scott smirked in agreement.  "I think you're right about that.  How about a cactus or a Joshua tree or maybe a mountain peak?"

"A Joshua tree!  That's wonderful.  I'm going to use a mountain peak on. . .on Murdoch's."

"Well, they both should like that.  You're certainly a talented young lady."

"Thanks. Well, I'm going to bed.  This next month is going to be busy and I want to get a head start on my cooking.  Fruitcakes take quite awhile with all that added brandy."

"Umm, I love brandied fruitcake. I didn't realize you made it here."

Teresa grinned happily.  "Oh, I make several different things, including a pudding that Murdoch likes.  I flame it right before we eat it.  One year I put on too much brandy and poor Murdoch lost an eyebrow!"

Both young people laughed robustly at the thought of the tall rancher trying to arch one eyebrow in disapproval.

The days before Christmas passed quickly.  There were many whispers, secrets and the wonderful smells of Teresa's goodies that filled the days.  A certain dark-haired young man was frequently seen in the kitchen offering to test the items.  He had also been caught in the off-limits area of the attic, much to Teresa's chagrin.

Finally, Christmas arrived.  Teresa had insisted that the three men open her gifts first.  Each received a shirt in a different color with embroidery on the left breast pocket--Murdoch, a Lancer brand, Johnny, the Joshua tree, and Scott, a mountain peak.

Johnny loved the rifle that Murdoch gave him.  The two men had immediately gone outside to try out the weapon.  The brunet hit the bullseye on his first try and began to plan a hunting trip to put his gift to good use.   While Murdoch and Johnny were outside, Scott gave Teresa the present he had purchased for her.  It was a large book with pictures from many European countries.  Teresa's eyes glowed with pleasure as she looked at photographs of places she had only read about.

When Murdoch walked back into the great room, he shrugged in fond exasperation as he explained that Johnny wanted to stay outside for awhile longer.  His younger son would come inside soon or at least he so he had said. Teresa had only grinned and declared that she intended to start on Christmas dinner and would let them all know when it was ready to be served.

Honoring her wishes, Murdoch sat down in his favorite chair to read the leather- bound first edition book that Scott had ordered for him. Immediately becoming engrossed, the tall man welcomed the chance to rest and relax, a true luxury for any rancher.

Scott returned to his own room, taking a medium size object from under his bed, and making his way to Johnny's room.  Undoing the brown wrapping paper and string, Scott took out a framed canvas.  While Murdoch had been away for a week, Scott had taken Maria's picture to a local artist and asked that she make another portrait for Johnny's room.  To his astonishment, Rosa Martinez had done even better.  She had created a portrait of two people.  The woman had the facial features of Maria Lancer and on her lap was a small boy with black hair and blue eyes.  Maria's eyes seemed to stare out at the viewer and yet, somehow her dark eyes managed to look lovingly upon her son. Scott's breath caught in his throat.  Rosa had done a magnificent job.  He could only hope that Johnny would see it the same way.  Tacking a small nail into the wall, the blond hung the painting on the wall opposite Johnny's bed where he could see the portrait as soon as he awoke each morning.
Standing back to have one last look, Scott nodded his head in pleasure then walked into the kitchen to see if Teresa might like some help with Christmas dinner.




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