#1 in the Guest series
Usual Disclaimers: I do not own these characters. I’m just borrowing them. A part of this was inspired by Chris, Sammi and Sharon: Thank you!
Word count: 33,060
Murdoch sat behind his desk on a cold December afternoon. The wind had been blowing hard for the last couple of hours signaling a storm. Scott had arrived back a short while before and he hoped Johnny would get home before the rain started.
The winter days were short but with the storm clouds overhead it seemed even darker this afternoon. He puffed on his pipe enjoying the aromatic flavor and thought how full his life had become in the last eight months since his son’s had come home.
They had their share of problems and misunderstandings, but much of that was past them and they had settled into a familiar routine. As he took another puff on his pipe, he realized it had gone out. He reached for the match box to light it when he heard a crash on the porch. Murdoch opened the French doors to find a pot had blown off the wall and broken.
The broken pieces rocked back and forth in the wind on the tile. The rain was coming down steady now and the wind swirled the leaves every which way. They reminded Murdoch of snowflakes blowing in the wind and he suddenly felt homesick for the snowy winters of Scotland.
Most of the time he enjoyed the California weather. Hot dry summers, wet winters fed by pacific storms and occasional snow dusting the lower foothills. More and more as he aged, he found himself riding to the highest outposts on the ranch to gaze on the snow capped Sierra Nevada’s to the east. Those majestic mountains refreshed his soul almost as much as the new spring grass.
Another blast of cold air chilled him and he quickly returned to the warmth of the house. The grandfather clock chimed five o’clock and outside the last rays of light were going down behind the western hills.
Murdoch, for some reason felt anxious about Johnny. ‘Where is that boy?’ He asked himself. Feeling restless, he walked back over to the French doors and looked out toward the barn. Movement caught his eye in the dusk, and a figure appeared leaving the barn. ‘Johnny.’ He thought with relief.
He watched Johnny slowly walk across the yard kicking a rock in front of him. Murdoch shook his head as he realized his son was actually enjoying walking in the rain getting wet.
“What?” Scott’s voice broke through his thoughts.
“Your brother.” He said, his voice ringing with affection.
Scott came forward and looked out the window. “What is he doing?” He asked as he watched Johnny spread his arms out and turn in a circle.
Chuckling Murdoch said, “I sometimes wonder about that boy,” as he watched Johnny resume his stroll through the rain.
“He’s getting soaked and seems to be enjoying every minute of it.” Scott agreed.
Johnny opened the front door and he looked with surprise at his brother and father. Both were standing there with their arms folded across their chests looking at him appraisingly.
“Hi?” he ventured.
“Hi, my son. You’re just a bit wet aren’t you?” Murdoch said as water dripped off Johnny’s hair and clothes onto the tile entranceway.
Grinning, Johnny took off his jacket sending water spraying in all directions.
“Johnny, you’re all wet.” Scott scolded.
“Don’t ya just love the rain?” Was his response followed by a boyish grin.
“Actually, I like my entertainment to be a little dryer.” Scott replied arching his eyebrow.
“Well, I like it when it rains like this…”
“Johnny!” Teresa exclaimed at seeing the water dripping on her clean floor. “What are you doing? You’re getting the floor all wet.” She scolded.
‘It’s okay Teresa. I meant to get wet.”
“I don’t care! You’re not traipsing through the house like this.”
Johnny recognized the look of determination on her pretty face and if he didn’t see the resolve in her features, those hands placed firmly on her hips told him she meant business. “Okay, I’ll go around to the kitchen.” He sighed.
“I should make you strip off outside.” Teresa said.
Murdoch could see a friendly battle getting ready to start between the two youngest members of the family, and while he knew Johnny would eventually give in, he wanted his now shivering son to change into warm, dry clothes before he caught a chill.
Intervening, he suggested that Johnny go up the kitchen stairs and get out of those clothes.
“All right.” Johnny said.
“And son…don’t do it again.” Giving Johnny his version of ‘the look’, he had found worked best on these occasions.
“Yes sir.” Johnny said as he slipped out the front door to the sound of Scott’s delighted chuckle.
“Don’t encourage him.” Teresa advised as she returned to the kitchen.
After supper that night the family settled around the roaring fire to talk about the days events and plans for the next day. “If it stops raining in time Johnny, head on out to check the creeks and fences out on the south side. Scott would you check to make sure the new bridge is hold up all right?” Seeing both son’s nod their agreement, he continued. “These kind of rains can bring 4 or 5 inches overnight which will cause flooding. There will be lots of runoff and the ground will be very slippery, so be careful.”
“Okay, no problem. If it keeps rainin’ tomorrow, we get the day off huh?” Johnny asked.
“I think I can find something for you to do. Don’t worry.” Murdoch said with a smile.
“You could help me get ready for Christmas.” Teresa suggested. “One of you could polish the silver, and we need the book shelves dusted and the fireplace cleaned out…” Teresa said with excitement at the thought of getting ready for Christmas.
“You just had to ask, didn’t you brother?” Scott groaned as he interrupted her list of chores.
Johnny shot Scott a look, his brother wasn’t sure he wanted to read. Shrugging his shoulders, he picked up the week old newspaper from Sacramento.
Johnny sat on the couch braiding some rawhide, his nimble fingers working quickly. Murdoch was reading the book he swore he was going to finish, and Teresa sat in the blue chair working on some embroidery.
Johnny looked at the other three and felt boredom wave over him. Even after 8 months, he still wasn’t used to sitting around in the evenings doing nothing. This time of year, the ranch work was mainly maintenance, so he wasn’t doing the heavy work that made him bone tired and glad to retire to his bed each night.
“Scott.” He waited and getting no response, tried again a bit louder. “Hey Scott, do ya want to play checkers? or chess?”
Scott looked at him over the top of the paper as though he only heard part of his brother’s sentence. “Uh, no not tonight Johnny. I’m not done with the paper.”
Seeing that his brother couldn’t be swayed, he turned to Murdoch. “Murdoch, do you want to play chess with me?” He asked in his most persuasive voice.
“Not tonight Johnny, why don’t you find something to read?”
Sighing, Johnny turned to Teresa, but before he could say anything, she shook her head. “No. I’m not going to play with you.”
Murdoch hid his smile behind his book as he saw Johnny frown. Standing up, Johnny muttered. “I’m goin’ to bed.”
After he left the room, Scott chuckled and said. “I wonder when it’s going to dawn on him that it’s only 7:30?”
A few minutes later they could hear Johnny stomping back down the stairs, frustration evident in the sound of his footsteps and they all burst out laughing.
Johnny scowled at the three of them. “It’s too early.” He said as he flopped back down on the couch.
That brought more laughter. “What’s so funny?” He demanded.
“Nothing Johnny.” Scott said as he got his laughter under control. Setting his paper aside, he took pity on his brother. “Let’s play pickup sticks.” he suggested.
“I got these in San Francisco last week.” He said as he reached over to the end table and held out the tin box. He opened the box and spilled out the brightly colored sticks onto the coffee table.
Teresa stopped her embroidery to come over and see what Scott had brought out. “Can I play too?” She asked.
“No. You didn’t want to play. Remember?” Johnny reminded her.
“You can play the next game if you want.” Scott told her, ever the diplomat.
“So what do we do with them?” Johnny asked.
“You hold them like this and let them fall. The object is to pick up each stick without moving one of the others.” He said as he demonstrated. He looked at Johnny who was staring at the sticks, his chin resting in one hand.
“Go ahead Johnny. You try it. You keep picking up the sticks until you move one, then it’s my turn. Whoever gets the most sticks wins.”
Murdoch’s heart felt like it would overflow as he watched his sons playing a game together. Dark head almost touching light head as the two of them concentrated on the brightly colored wood in front of them.
Johnny awoke to the crash of thunder and a flash as lightening lit up his bedroom. Immediately after the sound of the thunder faded away, he heard the rain pouring down in sheets. He groaned and rolled over envisioning the streams and creeks flooding all over the ranch.
‘There’s gonna be a lot of clean up after this.’ He thought. ‘But at least I don’t gotta get up early in the mornin’.’ With a resigned sigh, his last thought was ‘I guess I’m gonna get stuck with polishin’ silver instead.’
It had been raining for 16 hours straight as the grandfather clock counted the hours methodically. Johnny had long since tired of polishing the silver and after Maria showed him for the third time how to get the tarnish out of filigree work, she threw up her hands and gave up. “Juanito! You are practically useless. Leave this. Go help your brother.”
Johnny gratefully left the task and wandered over to watch his brother methodically dusting every flat surface in the living room. He sat on the back of the couch and watched his brother work until Scott noticed him. Scowling, he asked. “Aren’t you going to help?”
“I am. I’m supervising.”
“Get over here.” Scott ordered as he threw a dust cloth at Johnny.
Johnny caught the cloth and began dusting one of the shelves. “I’ve already done that one.” Scott informed him. “Do that one.” Scott said pointing at a dusty shelf.
Johnny looked at his cloth which had a trace of dirt on it and showed it to Scott, but before Scott could say anything, he went over to the shelf Scott pointed out and began dutifully dusting.
Murdoch had been half listening to the exchange and found himself smiling at their brotherly bantering. He began looking through the stack of mail that had been brought out from town yesterday. He set aside some of the letters to read later and his eyes came to rest on a thin envelope addressed in neat feminine handwriting.
‘Dora.’ He thought as he smiled. He quickly cut open the envelope and unfolded the page. The letter read:
I hope this letter finds you and your family well. I’m sure this will come as a surprise, but I’ve decided to take you up on your long-standing invitation , and come for a visit to California.
My Grandson, Alan and I will be leaving on a westbound train on 10, December. Depending on weather delays this time of year, we should arrive in California between the 18th and 22nd.
I will send you a telegram from Denver to advise you of our arrival date. I’m so looking forward to seeing you again my dear lad, and of course meeting your sons and ward.
Murdoch set the letter on his desk in total surprise. He hadn’t seen his father’s sister in almost 20 years. He visited her Baltimore home when he had traveled east years ago to claim Scott.
For the last ten years, since her husband died, he had been urging her to come for a visit. He was looking forward to seeing her again, but at the same time felt a bit disappointed that they weren’t going to be celebrating their first Christmas together, just the four of them.
His awareness returned to the present when Teresa brought him a steaming cup of coffee. ‘Stay a minute darling.” He requested. “Boys. Come over here.”
Teresa sat on the edge of his desk as Johnny and Scott settled into the chairs in front of their father. He held the letter in one hand and cleared his throat. “We’re going to have some visitors any day now.” He announced as three sets of eyes looked at him expectantly.
“Who’s coming, Murdoch?” Teresa asked.
“My Aunt Dora and her grandson Alan.”
“That’s that old lady you told us about back east?” Johnny asked.
“Johnny!” Teresa censured.
Murdoch chuckled. “I wouldn’t call her that to her face son. You could live to regret it.”
“When will they be here Murdoch?” Scott asked.
“They left on the 10th. She’s going to send a wire from Denver to let us know when they’ll be here. It should only take a week or so normally, but with winter weather, there are probably delays.”
“Oh I hope they get here before Christmas.” Teresa enthused. “As soon as you two are done with the dusting, you can help me get the guest rooms ready.”
At Johnny’s groan, Teresa asked. “You do know how to fit sheets on a bed, don’t you?”
“Yeah…I can do it.” he said slowly.
Scott chuckled and slapped Johnny on the arm. “Come on brother. Let’s get those rooms made up.”
Later that evening the family was enjoying the roaring fire. The day had been a complete wash out as the rain never let up and now that it was dark, the storm had finally blown itself out.
Scott was sipping his brandy as he watched the dancing flames. “Tell us about your Aunt, Murdoch. When did she leave Scotland.?”
Murdoch put down his book and his face took on a far away look. “Aunt Dora is my father’s youngest sister.”
“How old is she?” Johnny asked.
She must be in her late 60’s, I believe.” Murdoch answered. “She married Richard McClean. I remember it well as it was the first wedding I ever attended. I must have been 5 or 6. Richard was well to do by our standards.” He paused remembering. “They sure surprised everyone when they announced they were going to America.” Murdoch took a sip of brandy.
“I remember that my father ranted and raved about the danger and their irresponsibility in leaving the family.” He was lost in his thoughts and failed to see his son’s smile. “They settled in Baltimore and Uncle Richard set up a mercantile. They had two sons, both gone now. Alan, their grandson is the only one left.”
“How old is he?” Scott asked.
“He’s about your age Son, maybe a year younger. He graduated from Harvard a couple of years ago and has been working in his Grandfather’s firm. I’m surprised he could get away, but I’m glad he’s escorting Dora.”
“Did you know him Scott? I mean you went to the same school.” Johnny asked.
Scott smiled at his brother’s naiveté. “No Johnny. Harvard is a large university. There are lots of students, attending smaller colleges. He may have been there when I was there, but unless he was studying the same course, it was unlikely we would have met.”
“Oh, just wondered.” Johnny sounded disappointed.
The crackling fire and ticking clock were the only sounds in the room as each family member became absorbed in their own thoughts.
Breaking the silence, Teresa asked. “How long do you think they’ll be staying?”
“Her letter doesn’t say. I’m sure several weeks at least, but she may be planning a trip to San Francisco while she is here.”
“Oh maybe we could go too!” She enthused.
“Let’s not jump the gun here.” Murdoch cautioned. “Let’s see what they have planned and then we can decide.”
Johnny was riding along a creek on the south side the next day grateful for Barranca’s surefootedness. The ground was slippery and the palomino had to scramble several times to maintain his footing.
It had been a long day clearing debris from the creeks and streams on the vast ranch. All the men were out checking on the cattle and fences. So far, Johnny had found several places were tree limbs had fallen on fences and he knew he’d be spending the next week repairing fence lines.
‘Fencing.’ He thought with disgust was not his favorite chore to do and it rankled to think he was going to repair fences he built just a few months ago.
As he rounded a bend in the creek, he stopped Barranca and groaned in dismay at the fence laying on the ground. The water had jumped the creek bed and pushed branches and grass into the fence knocking it flat.
“Well, boy.” He said as he patted Barranca’s neck. “We’re practically going to have to rebuild this whole section. I sure hope cousin Alan has a strong back, ‘cause we’re gonna need the help.”
Johnny continued following the creek taking note of problem areas as he knew Murdoch expected a complete assessment of the damage. This was one report he was not looking forward to giving his father.
Murdoch was walking across the yard toward the house content that the hands were dispatched properly to check on the cattle and the condition of the fences. Scott was out with a large crew making a sweep of the north pasture where there were several critical areas of concern. Johnny was working in the south area.
Satisfied he had done all he could for now, he was ready for another cup of coffee before heading into town. A rider coming through the gate caught his attention. He stopped by the hitching rail in front of the house and waited for the rider to approach. Recognizing young Red, he greeted him. “Hello, Red. What brings you out this way?”
“Good morning, Mr. Lancer. Mr. Travers asked me to deliver this wire.” He said as he handed Murdoch the envelope. “Here’s some mail too.” He said as he reached back into his saddle bags.
“Thank you Red. Would you like to come in for some coffee or breakfast?”
“No sir. I have to get back. Some storm wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it sure was. We needed the rain, but not all at once. I have the boys out checking for damage. How did the bridge over the river look?”
“It looked good Sir. It held up real well. There’s some debris up against the supports though.”
“I’ll get someone out to clear it later today. Thank you for letting me know.”
Red tipped his hat and bid Murdoch goodbye.
Murdoch looked at the envelopes in his hand focusing on the telegram. He tore it open and read the telegram from his Aunt.
LEAVING DENVER TODAY. ARRIVE MORRO COYO 22ND. DORA
‘That’s today!’ Murdoch thought as he hurried into the house. “Teresa!” he called as he walked into the living room.
Teresa hurried through the door from the kitchen drying her hands on a towel. “I’m right here. What is it?”
Murdoch held the telegram toward her and aid. “They’re arriving today, on the afternoon stage.”
“Today? They can’t come today! I’m not ready yet!”
“I’m sorry darling, but…” He stopped, looking with amusement at Teresa’s expression. She was normally unflappable, but this news had her twisting the towel in her hand as though she was wringing the neck of a chicken.
“The house is a mess. We’re not ready.. Scott was going to take Johnny to get a hair cut and some new clothes. We need to decorate for Christmas.” She stopped and looked around frantically as if trying to decide where to start.
“It’s going to be fine. Teresa calm down. The house is fine. Johnny can get new clothes later and Aunt Dora would enjoy helping you decorate I’m sure.”
The color in her cheeks returned to normal as she calmed down. “I’ll go tell Maria our guest will be arriving so we can plan supper.” She turned to go to the kitchen, when she whirled back to Murdoch. “Oh no! I don’t even know what kind of food they would like.”
“Teresa, they’ll like any kind of food you and Maria fix. That roast you were basting will be fine.”
Teresa rolled her eyes at her guardian. Hurrying toward the kitchen, she thought as long as it’s beef and potatoes, Murdoch was happy. ‘I bet I could cook an old boot in beef broth and he probably wouldn’t even know it.’ She thought with a smirk.
Murdoch checked his watch once again impatiently while waiting for the 2 PM stage. It was now 3:15, and his patience was wearing thin. He picked up a few packages he had ordered and he just wanted to collect his Aunt and her Grandson and get home.
He began pacing up and down the wooden sidewalk. His boot heels making a hollow thunk with each impatient step. Checking his watch once more, 3:18 he saw with disgust. He wished he had been able to send for Scott and Johnny but there hadn’t been time. If he’d known for sure the stage was going to be over an hour late, he would have sent for them. Sighing, he resolved to wait, and settled back down onto the bench in front of the stage station.
Johnny looked up from where he was once again clearing a dammed up stream. He saw Scott riding toward him at a trot.
“Hi Johnny. What a mess!”
“Yeah, I’ve been in and out of water all day. I don’t know if I can get enough oil back in my boots to keep them from squeaking after this.”
“You about done here?” Scott asked tipping his hat back.
“Yeah.” Johnny grunted as he tossed a snag out of the stream onto the bank. Swishing his muddy hands in the fast moving water, he climbed out of the stream. Bending down, he rubbed his hands clean in the grass and dried them on his pants leg.
Johnny walked over to Barranca and untied him. “Ready to head home? I’ve done about all I can today.”
“Let’s head over to that small stock pond on the way home and make sure it’s okay. That way we don’t have to go all the way over there later.”
“Good idea, Scott.”
Both brothers rode at a ground covering lope anxious to get his last chore done and head for home.
Arriving at the pond, they were relieved to find little damage. The pond was filled to over flowing, but the earthen dam was holding, and the flood bypass was letting water out as it was supposed to do to relieve the pressure.
“Well that’s good to see. As far as I can tell, most of the ponds did fine. Most of the damage is to fences and there are lots of blockages in the creeks and streams.” Scott reported.
“A bit of road washed out by Oak Meadow. We may not be able to fix it until it dries out a bit.” Johnny added.
The brothers headed for home at a leisurely walk, enjoying the crisp winter air and the weak afternoon sun.
“Hey Scott?” Johnny said softly.
“I was wonderin’…about Christmas. Well…this is our first one and all. I was wonderin’…” Johnny stopped to collect his thoughts.
“Go on. Johnny.” Scott urged and stopped his horse.
Johnny combed his fingers through Barranca’s mane. “I just..It’s been so long since I’ve has a real Christmas. I don’t know exactly what to expect or what to do.” he finished with a rush.
“Didn’t you celebrate Christmas with your mother?”
“Yeah. We’d go to the Posadas. He stopped at Scott’s look of incomprehension and sought to explain.
“It’s a tradition in Mexico. Starting on the 16th of December, each night until the 24th, two children lead a procession to a home where the Posada was being held. My mama and me would join the procession holding candles…well maybe not every night, but some of the nights.”
“We’d go to mass at midnight on Christmas Eve then come home and have supper. My mama always fixed her special tamales.” Johnny felt his mouth start to water at the thought of his mother’s tamales. “We didn’t have a lot Scott, but my mama would give me a present. Usually a shirt she made.” He smiled in remembrance. “One year she gave me a wooden set of horses. A mare, stallion and colt. I played with them all the time”
“Those sound like good memories, Johnny.”
“Yeah…” Johnny said slowly. He started Barranca walking toward home and asked. “What about you Scott? How did you celebrate Christmas when you were a kid?”
“Grandfather would have a tree decorated in the front room. The house would small wonderful from all the baking. I remember the house smelling of evergreen and pumpkin pie. It’s funny, but whenever I smell evergreen and pumpkin pie, I think of Christmas in Boston.”
“Do you ever miss it?”
“Sometimes. But Johnny, here is where I want to be with you and Murdoch and Teresa. I can’t really explain why, but this is home. This is where I belong, with all of you.”
It was a few minutes of nothing but the sound of saddle leather creaking and hoofbeats, before Johnny broke the silence. “I know what you mean. I don’t know why or how, but this feels right for me too.”
Scott reached over and squeezed Johnny’s arm. “Merry Christmas brother.”
Johnny laughed and challenged. “Race ya home.” He sent Barranca off at a gallop with Scott racing to catch up.
Murdoch’s head jerked up when he heard the sound of the stage coming into town. The stage ground to a jerky halt as the driver hauled on the reins and put on the brake. The stage rocked back and forth, and then the passengers began disembarking.
Murdoch’s heart raced as he saw a young blonde man about 23 climb out of the stage. He was tall, slim and reminded Murdoch vaguely of Scott. “Alan?” He asked.
The young man turned around and replied. “Cousin Murdoch?”
Murdoch reached his hand out and they shook hands. “Welcome to California.” Murdoch said as he looked back up into the stage. A woman stood at the door dressed in a gray traveling suit. She wore a matching gray hat just a shade darker than her gray hair.
“Grandmother, let me help you down.” Alan said as he extended his hand.
“Murdoch! It is so good to see you!” She cried.
“Dora!” Murdoch said as he picked up his aunt and swung her around in a circle.
“Murdoch, put me down.” She said laughing as she tried to catch her breath.
Murdoch set her back on her feet and took a step away to look her up and down. “It’s so good to see you. I still can’t believe you’re here.”
“It’s been much too long. I should have made the trip years ago.” Her wrinkles breaking into laugh lines, and her slate blue eyes alight with delight.
Composing himself, Murdoch said. “I have a buggy over there. Let’s get your bags and get started for the ranch…or do you want to go to the hotel to freshen up?’
“How far is it to the ranch?” Alan asked.
“Not far. Less than an hour, closer to 45 minutes.” Murdoch answered.
“Let’s go straight away so we can get there before dark.” Dora suggested.
Once they were on their way to the ranch, Dora and Alan filled Murdoch in on their trip from the east coast. They marveled about the majestic mountains and vast plains.
“There was a herd of buffalo so large crossing the tracks that we had to wait 25 minutes before we could proceed.” Dora reported.
“We also saw a band of Indians. Very colorful individuals, I must say.” Alan added.
Murdoch, for his part showed them points of interest along the way. “Johnny and Scott should be back about the same time we are. They left for the day before I got your wire.”
“You just got my wire today?” Dora asked.
“Yes. It must have been delayed due to the storm.”
Dora laid a gloved hand on Murdoch’s arm. “I hope we aren’t an imposition, Murdoch.”
“Of course not. We’re delighted to have you. This is our first Christmas with the boys home. With you and Alan here, it will be a very Merry Christmas indeed.” He finished catching a whiff of Dora’s familiar lavender scent.
“So tell me about the boys. In your letters, you talked a lot about Scott. I feel like I already know him. But Johnny. You never say much. Are you still having problems with him?” She asked gently.
Murdoch looked a bit flustered. He tried to remember what he had written and when. He said slowly. ‘Johnny and I have come to an understanding. Things are good between us. Real good.”
“If I remember correctly, you said he was insolent and talked back to you all the time.” Dora made the statement sound like a question.
“He sounds like a rude, disrespectful boy.” Alan remarked.
Murdoch felt the color rise on his cheeks as he began to defend Johnny. “He’s had a hard life. He’s had to live with decisions made by his mother and me and he practically raised himself. He made choices he never should have had to make, but he survived. He was a lost boy, but he’s come home. He’s trying very hard to fit in, and I respect him for that.” Murdoch felt a bit out of breath after such a long speech. He couldn’t remember ever saying so much about Johnny to anyone, but it was all true.
“Dora reached over and patted Murdoch’s arm. “I’m happy for you. I’m glad it’s working out.”
Murdoch nodded and sought to change the subject. He pulled the buggy to a halt at the overlook and said. “This is it. Lancer. As far as the eye can see.”
The guests sat there in stunned silence for a moment before Dora spoke. “I had no idea. It’s absolutely beautiful.”
Alan looked at the vast land in front of him with the white hacienda in the distance. “Yes, very impressive.” He murmured.
Murdoch slapped the reins and started the horses trotting down the road leading to home.
Johnny and Scott rode together across the pasture with home in sight. Johnny suddenly pointed. “Look. There’s Murdoch. He’s got somebody with him.”
Scott squinted and said. “Yes that’s Murdoch. I can’t quite make out the others. There’s two of them.”
Johnny nodded. One’s a woman. Hey, do you think it’s Aunt Dora?”
“Might be.” Scott replied.
Urging their horses into a lope they cut across the pasture to intercept the buggy.
“Whoa.” Murdoch said as he saw his sons riding to meet them. “Scott! Johnny! Aunt Dora, Alan these are my sons. I’d like you to meet my oldest son, Scott.”
Scott removed his hat and said. “Aunt Dora, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
“Scott. I’m so happy to be here.” She replied. “This is my grandson, Alan.”
“Hello Alan.” Scott said reaching across to shake his hand.
“Nice to meet you Scott.” Alan replied.
Johnny was a bit behind Scott. Scott backed his horse a couple of steps so Johnny could meet their guests. “Aunt Dora, this is my youngest son, Johnny.” Murdoch introduced. “Johnny meet Aunt Dora and her grandson, Alan.”
Johnny tipped his hat and politely said. “Ma’am, Alan.”
“It’s nice to meet you Johnny.” Dora responded as her eyes took in his youthfulness, his slightly darker complexion and those eyes.
He didn’t have the Lancer eyes, she noted. She had seen those eyes before. They were the color of a cold winter sky or a deep mountain lake. Eyes that could sparkle and dance or turn cold and icy as emotions ran high. Her thoughts were interrupted by Alan’s words.
“That is a beautiful horse.” Pointing to Johnny’s palomino. “I’ve never seen a horse that color before.”
“It’s called a palomino. They’re bred here in California from Spanish stock. They’re somewhat rare.” Murdoch informed his cousin.
“I’d love to ride him.” Alan said and Scott saw Johnny bristle.
“Johnny’s horse is quite a handful. We have other’s you’d enjoy riding more.” Scott put in.
“Oh Alan is an accomplished rider. I’m sure he could handle him.” Dora said.
Before Johnny could reply, Scott intervened. “It’s starting to get dark. We’ll get the horses taken care of and see you back at the house.”
Murdoch started the buggy toward the house and Johnny said quietly. “No one rides my horse,”
“Don’t worry about it Johnny. He didn’t know any better. We’ll find him a horse to ride. Maybe that appaloosa. He’s pretty gentle.”
By the time Scott and Johnny had their horses cleaned up and bedded down, their guests were in their rooms getting freshened up. They went in through the kitchen and Teresa caught them just before they sat down for a cup of coffee.
“No time for that. Hurry up. Go get cleaned up. We’re having dinner in half an hour.” Teresa urged.
As the brothers climbed the stairs, Johnny asked. “Have you noticed how bossy she’s gotten?”
“Yes, I have noticed.” Scott replied.
“What’s with callin’ supper, dinner anyway?”
“The evening meal is called dinner in the east.” Scott informed him.
“So now she’s gonna talk all eastern, is she?” Johnny said with a gleam in his eye.
“Johnny don’t pull anything to embarrass Teresa.” Scott warned.
“Me? I’m not gonna do nothin’.”
“Well, mind it, little brother.” Scott advised as he entered his bedroom.
Supper was lively as Murdoch and Dora reminisced and caught up with each other. Murdoch looked at his table with pride. His family finally all together.
Scott gave his father a look which Murdoch recognized as a challenge. “Aunt Dora, could you tell us about Murdoch when he was a boy?” Scott said with an deceptively innocent tone to his voice.
Before she could say anything, Murdoch said. “No one wants to hear about that.”
A chorus of “yes we do” rang out in unison from Scott, Johnny and Teresa.
“You’re outvoted Murdoch.” Dora said with a gleam in her eye. At his look of defeat she continued. “Let me think a minute. Your father was quite mischievous as a boy. If I recall, he was always into trouble. We used to say trouble was his middle name.”
Teresa and Scott turned to Johnny. “What?” he snapped.
“Go on Aunt Dora.” Scott urged while Murdoch just looked resigned to his fate.
“If I recall, there was a mysterious mine explosion…”
“You blew up a mine!” Johnny said with a huge grin on his face.
“No! I did not blow up a mine…I just caught it on fire a bit.” Murdoch defended.
Scott began chuckling. Low in his throat then a full fledged laugh at the idea. Taking a sip of his wine, he said. “Would you care to enlighten us sir?”
With a huge sigh of resignation, Murdoch told his story. “There was an old abandoned mine near our home. We were forbidden to go near it..”
“And of course you did.” Dora put in.
Murdoch glared at her. “Who’s telling this story.”
Dora smiled and said. “You my dear. Only you.”
“Some of the older boys had been exploring in the mine, and they were taunting me and some of the younger boys about how we were too scared to go down into the mine. I decided to show them, so I took a lantern and went in.”
Murdoch looked at the faces of the people he loved most in the world. Teresa looking at him with an indulgent smile on her face, Scott enjoying his fathers predicament and Johnny sitting on the edge of his seat leaning forward eagerly awaiting the full story.
He cleared his throat. “Er, well… I tripped over some old timbers, the lantern fell out of my hand and the oil caught on fire. There was nothing I could do to put it out, so I got up and ran out of the mine figuring I’d be in real trouble if I was caught.”
“I was out of breath by the time I got home, but made it into the house without being caught. My mother knew something was up, but I just said I had gotten dirty while playing.” He looked at his family. “It wasn’t a lie…exactly. What I didn’t know at the time was that gasses had built up in the old mine shaft and they caught on fire and burned for about a week before it burned itself out. That was just about how long it was before I could sit down again.” Murdoch finished with a chuckle.
Everyone at the table broke into laughter and soon the napkins were being used to wipe tears from their eyes. Dora dabbed at her eye. “Ah, Murdoch. That was quite a time. You were the talk of the village.”
“How old were ya Murdoch?” Johnny asked.
“I believe I was 9 years old Johnny.”
“It happened just before Richard and I left for America in fact.” Dora put in.
Johnny sat back in his chair and thought about the story Murdoch had told. He had listened to Dora and Murdoch talk about Scotland and while much of what they spoke of was foreign to him, he found comfort for some reason in the fact that his father came from another country. It made him feel closer to Murdoch. More like himself he supposed.
Johnny jumped slightly when he felt a sharp rap to his shin. “Hey!” he said to Scott. “Why’d ya…” He stopped when he realized everyone was looking at him.
Clearing his throat, Murdoch said. “Aunt Dora asked you a question.”
Flushing, Johnny admitted. “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.”
Aunt Dora smiled and said. “I asked you how you liked living in California.”
“I like it fine, Ma’am.” He said playing with the green beans he detested.
“Call me Aunt Dora. Ma’am is just too formal.”
Johnny smiled at her shyly and nodded. “Yes Ma’am, I mean Aunt Dora.”
The family retired to the living room. The evening was spent getting to know each other. Alan and Scott found they had a lot in common. Similar education, a love of books, business, politics.
“I’ll show you around tomorrow if Johnny will take over a few of my chores.”
Johnny who had been staring into the fire said. “Sure, no problem Scott.”
Scott turned to Murdoch. “Is that all right? I could show him around for a couple of hours then join the men on clearing up the storm damage.”
“That sounds fine son.”
“I think I’ll turn in.” Johnny said getting up. “Night everyone.”
Dora also stood up. “I think I’ll head upstairs as well. It’s been a long trip and I could use the rest.”
All the men stood up and Alan said. “I’ll do the same. Miss Teresa, dinner was wonderful, Thank you.”
Dora also spoke to Teresa, “Yes dear. It was very good.”
Teresa blushed and shyly said. “Thank you.”
“Tomorrow we’ll sit down and plan our Christmas festivities.” Dora suggested.
Teresa brightened. “That’s sounds wonderful!”
A chorus of goodnights followed the guests out of the room.
Murdoch and Scott were left alone to finish their brandy. “You look happy.” Scott commented.
“I am. Content is a word I’ve not associated with myself for a long time, but tonight I feel content.” Murdoch said as he drained off his brandy.
“It’s going to be a great Christmas.” Scott said as he headed for bed.
The next day passed quickly. Johnny spent all the day light hours helping restore the ranch to its former order before the storm. Scott spent quite a bit of time with Alan finding they had a lot in common.
On their way home, they met Johnny also returning to the house. “How did everything go today Johnny?” Scott asked.
“We got that fence started over by stumpy meadows, but we ran out of posts and wire so there’s still about a mile to go.”
“Why didn’t you plan ahead and take out more than enough supplies?” Alan asked.
Johnny already was uncomfortable around Alan. It was nothing he could put his finger on exactly. He had chalked it up to his city ways, but this remark bothered him. “Wall now…” he said with an exaggerated ol’ Texas boy accent. “I guess I weren’t not usin’ my brain for thinkin’ today. Next time I’ll be morin’ happy askin’ yer advise.” Johnny abruptly turned Barranca and started home.
He failed to see Scott’s hidden smirk and Alan for once had nothing to say. Scott was grateful, as Alan had talked his ear off all day about ranching. Evidentially he had read a book on ranching on the train, and he was now a self proclaimed expert.
They caught up to Johnny just before the gate and Alan tried to engage him in conversation. “That is sure a fine animal Johnny. How old is he?”
“He’s 4 or 5, from his teeth.” Johnny replied.
“What do you mean?”
“You can get an idea of how old a horse is by lookin’ at his teeth.” Johnny explained.
“Their teeth change as they age.” Scott explained at seeing the perplexed look on Alan’s face.
“Would you ever consider selling him?”
“Nope. He’s not for sale.” With that Johnny loped off heading for the barn, leaving Scott to deal with their guest.
“I hope I didn’t offend him.” Alan said.
“Johnny’s just very particular about that horse.”
“I notice he has the Lancer brand on him. Does that mean he belongs to the ranch?”
“Johnny picked that horse for his own on our second day here.” Scott replied, not exactly answering the question.
That night at supper Teresa and Dora were going over their plans for Christmas. The house looked festive as they had decorated with garlands and pyracantha berries. Greenery was everywhere and the house smelled like pine.
The ladies had a lot more decorating planned, but would wait until tomorrow to put on the finishing touches.
“Don’t forget Scott, you and Johnny need to get a tree that’s really full and straight.” Teresa reminded for the third time.
“It’s a family tradition to decorate the tree on Christmas Eve.” Dora added.
“I thought Christmas wasn’t celebrated in Scotland.” Scott said.
“It’s not officially.” Murdoch replied. “Families often have their own traditions.”
“Why don’t they celebrate Christmas in Scotland?” Johnny asked.
“The government doesn’t recognize it as a holiday, though I hear more families celebrate it than before.” Murdoch added.
“New Year’s day is a day of celebration in Scotland.” Dora said.
Feeling a bit unsure how to take this information from the Scottish side of his heritage, Johnny didn’t know how to respond. Murdoch had never talked about politics and religion from the country he was born in.
Changing the subject, Scott began telling them about a buck he and Alan had seen that day on their travels around the ranch.
“He was magnificent.” Alan added. “I’ve probably only seen one other creature more magnificent and that’s the palomino Johnny rides.”
Johnny’s sapphire eyes locked with Alan’s steel blue eyes. Alan ignored the frosty look he was getting from Johnny and went on blindly. “I’d really like to buy him from you. I’m prepared to make a generous offer. Three hundred dollars.”
Teresa gasped at such a large amount for a horse, but Johnny only scowled. “I told you before, he’s not for sale.”
“He’d get the best of care. I promise. Five hundred dollars.”
“I said no!” Johnny got up and threw his napkin on his plate and stalked out of the room.
“Alan, if the horse is not for sale, he’s not for sale. Just let it go. Perhaps Murdoch has another horse you would like to purchase?” Dora interjected.
Alan shook his head; “I really want that horse.”
Later that night Murdoch knocked on Johnny’s door. “Johnny? May I come in?”
“Yeah.” Came the faint answer.
Murdoch pushed the door open to find Johnny still fully dressed sitting in a chair by his window. Johnny glanced at his father and turned back to the window.
“I ain’t sellin’ him Barranca if that’s what you came for.”
“I didn’t and I don’t expect you to. Though that was a mighty good offer.”
“There’s not enough money in this world to buy that horse.” Johnny said forcefully.
“I know son.”
Murdoch looked out the window at the clear dark sky. “Nice night isn’t it? The stars look so close.”
“They’re real bright tonight. Have you ever noticed that in winter the stars seem closer?”
“I’ve noticed that. I wonder why that is.” Murdoch mused.
“Maybe we should ask Scott? “ Johnny said with a little smile at Murdoch.
“If he doesn’t know, perhaps Alan could inform us.” Murdoch said with a grin. “Johnny, I know Alan can be a little hard to take. He won’t be here much longer, so just try to put up with him.”
Johnny sighed. “Yes sir. I’ll try my best.”
Murdoch gave Johnny a pat on the back as he headed for the door. “Good night son.”
The day before Christmas dawned bright and sunny. Dora met Johnny returning from the barn. “Oh Johnny, the weather here is glorious. It is so different than Baltimore. We can almost always count on a white Christmas.”
“Do you miss it?” Johnny asked.
“Not at all.” She took his arm, and let him lead her back to the house. Once they reached the porch, she said. “Sit with me a minute.”
“You may think me a meddling old woman Johnny, but I want to talk to you about your father.”
Johnny looked at her intently. “All right. What did you want to say.”
She looked at him with her kindly blue eyes and continued. “Even though we lived thousands of miles apart, your father and I have always kept in touch by letter. I know how happy he was when he married your mother. He was so proud when you were born. He wrote such glowing letters about his new family and his hope for the future.”
Johnny felt his heart hammering against his ribs. He wasn’t sure he was ready to hear about his father’s happiness before his mother hurt him so badly.
Dora went on. “He planned to come east when you were a year old to get Scott. By then he would have been old enough to make the journey.” She took Johnny’s hand. “Your mother devastated him when she left.”
“I know.” Johnny said and he felt his throat constrict with the effort of saying those two words.
“Johnny, you have the power to do that to him also. Like she did.”
Johnny felt physically ill at the turn in conversation. His mind screamed, ‘Stop!’ but he had been totally unprepared for this conversation and he felt too numb to respond.
Aunt Dora took his silence for interest and continued to make her point. “Whether you are aware of it or not, your father’s greatest fear is that you will leave him like your mother did. You remind him so much of her.”
Johnny’s eyes were downcast as he struggled with her words. Johnny finally found his voice. “I won’t leave him. This is my home.”
“I’m happy to hear that.” She was silent for a moment, then said. “You have your grandmother’s eyes. Did your father tell you that?”
This abrupt change in the conversation once again kept him off balance. This elderly lady had a way of rendering him speechless in a way few could. “Ah…no. I didn’t know that.”
“As soon as I saw you, I recognized my sister-in-law’s eyes. Your father and brother have the Lancer eyes like mine and Alan’s.”
She abruptly changed the subject again and Johnny was starting to wonder if there wasn’t something wrong with this old lady. His patience was growing thin, but before he could make an escape she said. “Your father tells me you haven’t had much chance for schooling.”
“My mama taught me mostly. I went to school when I could.”
“Reading is a wonderful gift, Johnny. It can take you to new worlds and open doors to new ideas.”
“I don’t get those big words real well.” He said again feeling uncomfortable with Aunt Dora’s relentless stare.
She patted his hand. “We’ll see if I can’t help you with your education. I was a teacher you know.”
“No I didn’t.” Johnny replied.
Dora looked into Johnny’s eyes and spoke from her heart. “Murdoch calls you his lost boy.” She pulled him into a big hug and whispered in his ear. “Welcome back Johnny. You’re finally home where you belong.”
She stood to go into the house as Scott came out with Alan on his heels. “Johnny are you ready to find a tree?”
Johnny started to speak and found he had to clear his throat. “Yeah. I hitched up the horses and put a couple of saws and axes in the back.”
“Teresa made us some sandwiches, so I guess we’re all set.” Scott replied.
The three men headed out in the buckboard on a mission to find the perfect Christmas tree. An hour and a half later, they reached the higher elevations of the foothills where the tree line had changed to pines and firs.
“At home, we always get a spruce.” Alan said looking with disappointment at the scraggly pines dotting the landscape.
“We should look for a nice fir.” Scott said. “Johnny, tether the horses here and let’s start looking.”
Johnny tied off the horses and began unloading the tools. He had been quiet most of the trip as he had a lot on his mind after his talk with Aunt Dora. About the only part of the conversation he listened to was when Alan and Scott were talking about the bawdier aspects of college life. He made a note to himself to ask Scott for more details later.
Johnny handed Alan the saw and he hefted the axe. He tossed Scott the block and tackle just in case they needed it and then the three men went off in search of a tree.
“Teresa dear, do you have a recipe for egg nog?” Dora asked sweetly.
Teresa brushed her hair away from her perspiring face. The heat of the kitchen and the constant, but kindly suggestions by Aunt Dora were wearing thin her patience.
Taking a deep breath and letting it out, she sighed. “No Aunt Dora, I’ve never made egg nog before.”
“I’ll see if I can remember how to make it then.’ She smiled at the flustered girl.
Murdoch’s Aunt left the kitchen in a rustle of skirts to inspect the setting of the table. She looked over the sparkling silver and china and adjusted a fork making sure it was precisely in place. She wiped a water spot off a goblet clicking her tongue in dismay.
“Leave it, Aunt Dora. Everything is fine. Why don’t you join me for a cup of coffee by the fire?” Murdoch said as much to distract her as for the company. Murdoch handed her a steaming cup of coffee as she settled on the couch. He sat next to her with his own cup. She fiddled nervously with the spoon.
“What’s wrong?” Murdoch asked.
Her slate blue eyes met his. “I don’t want to bother you with my problems Murdoch, especially not on Christmas Eve.”
“We’re family, Aunt Dora. If there’s anything I can do to help. Let me.” He said gently.
“Oh Murdoch, I’ve been so worried.” She set the coffee cup down untouched and tears welled up in her eyes.
“Tell me what’s wrong.” Murdoch urged gently.
“It’s Alan. I just don’t know what to do with him.”
“He seems like a fine young man.”
“He does, doesn’t he? He’s had all the advantages.” Sighing, she said. “He’s not taking a leave from the firm for vacation. He’s…been dismissed.”
Murdoch felt his eyebrows raise as he looked into her tear filled eyes.
“The board was talking about charges for embezzlement, but they settled on misappropriation of funds. He didn’t mean to do anything wrong, Murdoch. He just trusted the wrong people and the firm lost money.”
“I don’t know what to say. What is he planning on doing?”
“I thought he could start fresh somewhere else. I sold some shares of the company to use to help set him up in business. We’re planning on going to San Francisco to see what opportunities may be there.” Dora smoothed her skirt and continued. “He’s at loose ends, he seems unable to make a decision about his future.”
“What can I do to help?” Murdoch asked.
She looked at him with hope on her face. “Perhaps you could make some suggestions of a good business investment?”
“I’ll be happy to help, but Aunt Dora, Alan is a Harvard graduate. Surely he has his own ideas of the type of business he wants to invest in.”
Dora’s eyes dropped to her hands and she played with the lace handkerchief in her lap. She said quietly. “He didn’t graduate from Harvard. He was expelled after a year…for cheating. He finished his education at a small college near Baltimore.”
Murdoch was shocked. “I didn’t know” was all he could think of to say.
“He’s put all that behind him.” Dora insisted.
Before Murdoch could respond, they heard the sound of a wagon at the front door. “Let’s talk about this later.” he suggested. “After Christmas we can sit down and come up with a plan.” He squeezed her arm and said. “Don’t worry, it will be all right.”
Dora gave Murdoch a big hug at his words of encouragement, then turned to watch Johnny and Scott lug a large fir tree through the door with Alan following.
Alan excused himself to wash up while Johnny and Scott wrestled the tree into its place of honor.
“It’s beautiful!” Teresa said clapping her hands together. “Maria and I got the ornaments and trimmings out of the storage room and we can decorate it after supper.”
Johnny took one last look at the majestic fir tree and walked out to the barn. Murdoch looked worried at Johnny’s abrupt departure. “What’s eating him?”
“I’m not sure. He’s been quiet all day, I’ll go talk to him.”
Scott walked out to the barn and stood in the doorway watching Johnny with Barranca. Johnny methodically brushed his horse’s coat in long even strokes from just below the ear, along his neck, over his shoulder, and down his foreleg. Barranca stood there motionless with a bit of unchewed hay sticking out of his mouth as he enjoyed his grooming.
“He sure loves that.” Scott remarked.
Johnny turned to see his brother better and gave him a faint smile and returned to brushing Barranca across his broad back and hindquarters.
“You’ve been pretty quiet today, Johnny. What’s bothering you?”
Johnny stopped brushing and turned to face Scott. Leaning against Barranca, he looked at the toes of his boots and scuffed the straw. He shrugged his shoulders and said. “I guess I’ll just be glad when they’re gone. The guests I mean.”
Scott smiled a rueful smile. “Alan…He is a bit hard to take. He’s been riding you pretty hard Johnny. I was going to tell him to lay off.”
“It’s okay big brother, I can handle a few more days of it. Murdoch says they’ll be gone soon. I don’t want to spoil their visit.” Johnny said with an affectionate smile at his brother’s concern.
“All right. Anytime you want my help, let me know.” Scott said. Scott started to turn away and leave the barn but Johnny’s soft voice stopped him.
“Hey Scott.” Johnny waited a moment while turned back. “Now that we lugged that big ol’ tree into the living room, what are we gonna do with it?”
“We’re going to decorate it. You heard Teresa.”
“Yeah, I know, but why?”
“You’ve never had a Christmas tree before? Sorry…” Scott would have cheerfully cut off his tongue to take back that dumb question.
“No…at least not that I can remember. It’s not a tradition in Mexico…and why are ya sorry?”
Feeling worse if that was possible, Scott searched for the right words. He walked over to his brother and put a hand on each shoulder. “I didn’t mean sorry exactly. I just feel bad we weren’t raised together. We missed out on a lot.” Now it was Scott’s turn to take a step back and look at his boots.
“Yeah I know Scott. I feel bad about that too. But we just have to make the most of it now.” Johnny was at a loss for a moment. “You could make up for lost time ya know.” Johnny said in a teasing voice Scott had come to recognize.
Knowing he was probably being set up, Scott asked. “And how might I do that little brother.”
“You could maybe talk Murdoch into lettin’ us skip out after supper tonight and we could maybe go into town…” he trailed off seeing Scott’s smile and shake of his head.
“No way Johnny. Absolutely not. Not only would Murdoch say no, Teresa would go through the roof.”
“Yeah.” He said with a big sigh. “She’d probably still be yelling at us a week later.”
Chucking at the thought, Scott slung his arm over his brother’s shoulder, “If you’re done here, we’ve got a supper to get to, and a tree to decorate.”
“I still don’t get why we have to decorate the tree ”
“You’ll see tonight. Once it’s decorated, it will be magnificent.” Scott said.
“It’s already magnificent just the way it is.” Johnny pointed out.
Smiling at Johnny’s unique way of seeing things, Scott said. “You just wait little brother, this is one Christmas you will always remember.”
Scott could feel Johnny’s tension ease as he walked with his brother back to the house for their first Christmas Eve together as a family.
After a sumptuous dinner, the family retired to the living room to decorate the tree. Aunt Dora poured eggnog into cut crystal glasses and sprinkled cinnamon on top. She handed one to each family member.
Scott took a sip and nodded. “Thank you, Aunt Dora. I haven’t had eggnog this good in years.”
Johnny held the glass up and smelled it. He looked around and everyone else seemed to be enjoying it so he took a cautious sip. He wrinkled his nose and set the glass down on the coffee table while rubbing the mustache off his upper lip.
“Don’t you like it Johnny?’ Dora asked.
“I like it fine…it’s just…sweet.” He said taking another small sip.
Teresa, anxious to start decorating the tree said. “Let start trimming the tree.” She opened a box and began pulling out strands of colorful ribbon and tartan bows. Scott went over to help her while Johnny looked on.
Murdoch sat on the couch enjoying watching his family. Dora reached over and pat him on the arm, smiling at his obvious enjoyment.
“Johnny, lay out the ornaments so we can start hanging them as soon as we have the trimming on the tree.” Teresa instructed while gesturing to another box.
Scott handed Alan one end of the long red ribbon. “Help me wrap this around the tree.”
The two cousins began threading the long ribbon around the tree. Scott stood on a stool to reach the top of the tree.
“Oh, that looks so nice.” Dora encouraged.
Murdoch watched Johnny who was carefully removing the ornaments and laying them one by one on the coffee table. He held up a wooden horse and looked at the faded paint. He set it on the table and watched as Murdoch leaned forward and picked it up. He turned it over and looked into his youngest son’s eyes. “I made this for you for your first Christmas.”
Johnny eyes got big and locked on his father’s as Murdoch handed the ornament back to him. Johnny’s eyes dropped as he carefully laid the treasure on the table. He cleared his throat as he continued to unwrap the ornaments. There were several beautiful glass stars and balls. One was delicately etched with a snowflake design. Johnny held it up and watched as the glass reflected the light.
“Those were Catherine’s. Her grandmother gave them to her when she was a child. She insisted we bring them with us. I was amazed they survived the sea voyage.” Murdoch cleared his throat. Looking at Scott he said. “Your mother loved Christmas.”
Scott reached over and took hold of the delicate ornament and traced it’s exquisite design with his finger.
Teresa’s voice roused him from his thoughts. “Scott, why don’t you go ahead and hang your mother’s ornaments?”
Scott went over to the tree and hung the precious bits of glass where they would reflect the light shimmering from the fireplace. “Johnny, you go next.” Scott told his younger brother.
Johnny stood in front of the tree with the wooden horse held between two fingers for what, to the others, seemed like an eternity. He reached out and hung his childhood ornament on a long sweeping branch where it could dangle and dance with the slightest movement of the air currents.
“It’s beautiful. It looks like it’s in flight.” Teresa enthused. Teresa was next to place an ornament. Her favorite one was given to her by her father when she was 11 years old. It was made out of cloth and ribbon and was old when she received it. Now several years later, it was a bit more faded, but Teresa knew that bit of cloth shaped like a star would hang on all her Christmas trees for the rest of her life.
Aunt Dora cleared her throat and stood a bit unsteadily, taking an object out of a piece of folded linen. “My mother made this many years ago, and I would like to give it to all of you as a reminder of how important family is.” She held up a intricately tatted piece of lace sewn on a linen cloth and placed in a wooden frame. She carefully hung it by it’s gold braid on the tree.
“Thank you Aunt Dora. We’ll treasure it always.” Murdoch said running a finger over the tiny stitches making up the lace.
For the next half hour, Murdoch watched his children decorate the tree. They were happy together and that’s all that mattered to him. His eyes drifted to Alan sitting silently on the couch sipping his brandy and he wondered what the days ahead would bring for the troubled young man. Pushing unpleasant thoughts aside, Murdoch brought himself back to the present as Scott declared the tree finished.
Teresa stood back, hands on her hips. “It’s all done except the top. Murdoch where is it?”
“Right here honey. I’ve been keeping her safe.” Murdoch held up the likeness of the Virgin Mary and said softly. “This was your mother’s, Johnny. She brought it with her from Mexico. She said it had been in her family for generations.”
Johnny looked at the face of the figurine and wondered about the history behind it.
Murdoch carefully stood on the step stool and Johnny helped steady him as his father placed the figurine at the very top of the tree. Her gentle face looking kindly down on the new family.
The tree completed, there was nothing else to do except retire to bed. no one made a move to head upstairs as they admired the majestic tree with it’s bits of memories flickering in the firelight.
As the grandfather clock struck midnight, Murdoch’s melodic voice said. “Merry Christmas, everyone.”
Christmas day at the Lancer ranch dawned bright and clear. Teresa was the first one up the next morning, anxious to get this glorious day started.
One by one the family assembled at the long table in the dining room for breakfast before starting off to church.
Murdoch drove the surrey back toward the ranch. Aunt Dora sat next to him, Alan and Teresa sat in the back. Johnny and Scott rode along behind the surrey enjoying the bright new day. Johnny looked with happiness at his family and felt a contentment he had never experienced before in his life.
The church service had been fairly short with much singing and he found it an uplifting experience, if not somewhat foreign. Johnny sucked in a breath of cool air and smiled at his brother.
Scott looked over and him and said. “What?’
Johnny shook his head and said. “Nothin’ really. Just a nice day.” Scott smiled back as they trotted under the Lancer arch and were all too quickly back home.
Johnny tied Barranca to the hitching rail outside the house and went over to the surrey to help Aunt Dora down.
Alan walked over to Barranca and held out his hand for the horse to sniff. He then ran his hand down Barranca’s neck and patted him on the hindquarters. Barranca, unused to strangers, swished his tail in irritation smacking Alan across the face. Taking a sudden step back, he felt one foot sink into a soft warm pile of freshly deposited manure.
“Oh!” he exclaimed in dismay.
Johnny and Scott turned to see what brought such a cry of disgust. They tried to keep from laughing as they watched Alan as he tried to wipe the offensive green matter off his expensive shoe.
“Disgusting!” Alan declared as Johnny and Scott broke out in laughter over their cousin’s misfortune.
“Alan. You’ll have to take your shoes off outside and wipe them with a cloth before you come in.” Dora said unnecessarily.
Still chuckling, Johnny and Scott took their horses to the barn.
The Lancer family pushed themselves away from the decimated Christmas feast. In addition to the usual Christmas fare they had shepherd’s pie and tamales. Johnny was relieved that the detested green beans had not an appearance.
Dessert would have to wait for later. Everyone was too stuffed to think of eating another bite. They made their way to the living room and Johnny sank onto the couch and held his stomach. “I’ve never been so full in my life. I don’t think I’ll be able to eat for a week.”
Scott chuckled. “Knowing you, I don’t think we can count on that Johnny.”
“Shall we open presents?” Teresa asked.
Murdoch stood and picked up a gift from under the tree. “This is from me” He said as he handed the package to her.
Teresa carefully opened the beautiful paper and gasped at the ornate wooden jewel box. “Oh thank you! Murdoch.”
“Open it, he urged.”
She opened the box to find a necklace with a delicate gold chain so fine and intricate with an aqua marine dangling on the fine chain. “I love it.” She breathed. “Please put it on me.”
Murdoch fumbled with the clasp and finally got it hooked. She turned around for him to admire. “It’s beautiful on you darling.”
Presents were being distributed and opened in a flurry of activity. Scott thanked his father for the calfskin vest and matching belt, while Murdoch admired the hand made pipe and English tobacco Scott had given him.
“Alan, these are for you from all of us.” Murdoch said.
Alan looked a bit taken aback at the packages being handed to him by his cousin Murdoch. “Er…Thank you.” He stammered.
Alan opened one box and found a brown felt cowboy hat. The other box contained a pair of brown cowboy boots. He smiled. “Thank you all. I sure could have used these boots earlier today.” They all shared in a chuckle over Alan’s earlier misfortune.
Johnny sat in amazement at the gifts he had yet to open. His senses were overloaded by the events unfolding around him. Everyone admiring the gifts they received and thanking each other.
“Johnny open your gifts.” Teresa urged as she placed a package ion his lap.. “This one’s from me.”
Under her scrutiny, he open the package to find two shirts. One white and one blue with Mexican style embroidery stitched onto the collar and cuffs.
“Did you make these Teresa?”
“Yes, do you like them?” Her eyes bright with excitement.
“I do. Very much, thank you.” He gave her a peck on the cheek.
“Johnny, this is from me.” Scott said handing him another package.
Johnny opened it and held up a heavy coat with sheepskin lining. “Thank you brother.” Johnny said trying to keep his emotions in check, but overwhelmed by his brother’s thoughtfulness.
Clearing his throat, Scott said. “This is for Barranca.” He handed Johnny another package.
Johnny looked at Scott with a smile and opened the box to find a new set of brushes. “Thank you Scott. He’s gonna love these. I’m gonna go try em out right now.” He said getting to his feet.
“Now, hold on there, son. You can go brush your horse later. I want to give you my gift.” Murdoch walked over to Johnny and motioned for him to follow. Johnny looked at Scott who just shrugged his shoulders. “Come with me a minute Johnny.” Murdoch said guiding Johnny out the French doors onto the patio. The rest of the family followed behind.
Murdoch had a big smile on his face as he watched the emotions play across Johnny’s face. There stood Barranca, once again tacked up, but this time he wore a new saddle and saddle blanket.
Johnny turned to Murdoch with a look of disbelief on his face and whispered. “It’s too much.”
“Merry Christmas son.” Murdoch said with true affection.
“I don’t know what to say. Nobody’s ever…I just never…Thank you.” Johnny said as he fingered the saddle.
Scott caught his father’s eye and said. “Everyone back inside. There’s still a few more presents to open and…” Looking at Johnny he smirked. “And my little brother hasn’t given me my present yet.”
Johnny gave Barranca one last pat and told Enrique. “Unsaddle him for me amigo. I’m gonna go for a ride later.”
Once again settled in the living room, Scott looked expectantly at his brother. “Well?”
Johnny walked over to the tree and picked up a cloth covered parcel. He handed it to Scott and said “Feliz Navidad hermano.”
Scott unwrapped the cloth to find a pair of braided rawhide reins. “You made these?” He asked. He turned them over to see the design better. “These are wonderful. Thank you Johnny.”
Johnny nodded looking a bit uncomfortable as Scott praised his work. “Nice work Son.” Murdoch said as he clapped Johnny on the shoulder.
Johnny smiled and said. “Thanks” and handed a box to Teresa. She opened her gift and gasped as she held up two combs made out of bone in a Spanish design.
“I hope you like them.” Johnny said.
“I love them.” Teresa declares as she hugged her brother. “Thank you so much. They’re perfect.”
Johnny walked slowly back to the tree and picked up a small box and walked back over to Murdoch. He turned the box over and over in his hands before looking up at Murdoch. “I’m not too good at pickin’ out presents…”
Murdoch gave his son a small smile and took the package from his obviously uneasy son. He carefully unwrapped the plain paper and his hand froze at seeing the gift inside.
“It’s a hatband.” Johnny said feeling suddenly very self-conscious after seeing the generous gifts given to him by his family.
Murdoch held up the exquisite horsehair band. The weaving was tight and the pattern made an L when held flat. The pale hairs interwoven with the chestnut and black.
“Johnny, you made this.” Murdoch said more as a statement than a question.
Johnny looked down. “I know it’s not much.”
“Johnny! This is the most beautiful example of horse hair weaving I’ve ever seen!”
Johnny looked up into his father’s face and felt nothing but love flowing from this sometimes difficult man. He said quietly. “I got the hair from our three horses. Yours, mine and Scott’s.”
Murdoch reached out and pulled Johnny in a tight hug. “Thank you son. I’ll cherish it forever.”
“Merry Christmas Murdoch.”
Merry Christmas Everyone!
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