Word count: 4,823
“Johnnyyyyyy!” Murdoch Lancer’s voice was angry and loud (mostly angry!) and pretty much everybody in the house showed up in response to it, except the intended recipient, who guessed it was not in his best interest to do so just then and remained sequestered in the kitchen.
“Where . . . is . . . my . . . son?!” Murdoch continued to bluster.
“Right here, sir,” Scott said half-heartedly, and then withered under the look his father bestowed on him.
Murdoch tried to control his temper because this was not the son in question, but, frankly, he didn’t try hard enough. “You know damn well I’m talking about Johnny. And that . . . that . . . dooooog of his!”
Both Scott and Teresa had already figured out that puppy Johnnie was involved because there was a shattered coffee cup on the tile floor, plus they’d heard doggie paws scampering away on that same floor, and – most incriminating of all – that dooooog was no longer present.
“Um,” Scott stated confidently. “Well . . . um . . . he might be . . . “
“He most certainly is not!” Certain looks and voice tones from Murdoch Lancer were formidable enough to be registered as lethal weapons, and he was employing both right now. “Stop defending your brother, Scott! It’s about time he owned up to some of the mischief that dog of his has been causing around here!”
“It’s just a coffee cup. Sir.”
“I’ll clean it up,” Teresa gamely volunteered, as she began picking up the pieces.
“You will not! And you, young lady, can stop defending him as well! JOHNNY!!! Get in here right now and clean up this mess!” The volume of Murdoch’s voice caused both Scott and Teresa to cringe. Stay away, Johnny, wherever you are, they both thought.
But Johnny did not stay away. (Although his dog certainly knew better.) Johnny appeared from the kitchen, self-assuredly walked right up to his father, looked him in the eye, and very assertively said right to his face, “Uh . . .”
“Look at this mess, Johnny! The latest in a long line of problems that dog of yours has caused!”
“Well . . . he is still just a pup . . .”
“And neither one of you seems to be growing up!”
“In all fairness, sir . . .” Scott tried to interject.
“Murdoch, don’t be so hard on . . .” Teresa suggested.
Johnny was always cowed by his father when he was in this mood, which, truth be told, only seemed to have started happening since the puppy Johnnie came to live with them. But now Johnny decided he had to say something, maybe even real words, to look like he was taking a bravura stand. “Now, wait a minute, Murdoch! Don’t yell at Scott and Teresa! They had nothing to do with it.”
“You got that right, Johnny! This is your fault! Completely!”
OK, that didn’t go well. So much for bravura stands.
“That dog of yours ran between my feet, almost tripped me, and made me drop my coffee cup! Yesterday he ran off with a ball of twine, unrolling it around the whole house in the process. And remember last week, when Teresa laid steaks out for supper and that dog stole them and hid them under the rug? And let’s not forget all the times he’s stolen my boots!”
“So that’s why they looked half-eaten . . . “ Johnny said thoughtfully.
“Your dog hasn’t been on his best behavior! If it’s even possible for him! Your dog! As of right now, your dog is on probation!”
Johnny looked up. “You mean – like a prisoner?”
Murdoch was still bellowing. It was abundantly clear he meant business! “That’s right – like a prisoner. But in reverse! If that dog does one more thing wrong, he is going!”
“That’s right – going! AWAY! Out of here! Off this ranch! Is that clear?!”
“Oh, no, Murdoch! You can’t mean that!” wailed Teresa.
“Come on, Murdoch, that’s a little harsh,” Scott ventured.
“Murdoch!” Johnny pleaded. “How can I . . . ? I mean . . . I’ll need a little time. You know . . . to teach him some manners.”
“You have two days! That dog had better learn some manners in two days. Or else!” And with that, Murdoch Lancer harumphed his way back to the kitchen to get another cup of coffee. Johnny hoped that his father would not again run into the dog, who Johnny had last seen distributing everyone’s gloves around the kitchen. At least if he didn’t see that dooooog in the act, he could always assume the gloves walked out to the kitchen themselves.
Johnny sighed. He knelt on the floor and started putting the coffee cup pieces in his hat. “How am I going to teach that dog anything in two days? He’s got a mind of his own.”
“You’re not going to . . . uh . . . wear that soon, are you?” Scott wondered.
“I suppose I could try to teach him to sit still. He can’t really get in trouble if he’s sitting still,” Johnny mused.
“Don’t fret, Johnny,” Teresa interjected. “He’ll learn for you. Remember you already taught him something? – to come when you made a certain noise or something?”
Johnny perked up. “That’s true!” Johnny made the same clicking noise with his tongue that he used on Barranca, and, sure enough, Johnnie the puppy came running. With one of Teresa’s whisks in his mouth.
“Oh no! That’s my best whisk!” Teresa wailed.
“But see!” Johnny said, all excited now. “I’ve already taught him that! (To show up, I mean, not to bring me kitchen tools.) So he can learn commands – all I have to do is teach him to stay still!”
“No small mission!” Scott was skeptical.
“OK, that’s the last of it,” Johnny said, reviewing the coffee-cup-piece situation. He stood up and handed his hat to Teresa, who now also looked skeptical. “And I’ve got a full two days to do it!”
Always the positive cheerleader, Scott added, “Can’t be done.”
“Why not, brother?”
“Don’t forget Saturday – which is two days from now – is when Lancer is having its annual Christmas party for the local children and Jelly dresses up as Santa Claus and gives all of them presents . . . “
And Teresa added, “And I have a lot of baking and decorating to do between now and then, and . . . frankly, Johnny, I’m not going to have much time to help you with your puppy. I’m not sure anyone is.”
“S’all right, Teresa. Don’t you worry about it. I just got an even better idea.”
“OK, Johnny, good luck.” Teresa turned to leave, and then, remembering her whisk, grumbled as she tried to remove it from the mouth of the dog who was unwilling to part with his treasure. Before returning to the kitchen where, presumably, she would find Murdoch grumbling about all the gloves.
Johnny was excited now. He put his hand on Scott’s shoulder. “How about this, Scott? I’ll teach Johnnie to take each present and walk it over to the kid! Good, huh?”
“Not bad! Instead of disrupting everything, that dog will be the hit of the party! On the very rare occasion you’re actually inspiring, brother!”
“Thanks,” said Johnny, and then, recognizing the backhanded compliment for what it was, removed his hand from his brother’s shoulder. Scott smiled widely.
But training little Johnnie didn’t go quite as well as big Johnny had hoped. Johnny wrapped a few empty boxes to use as “practice” gifts, and he was easily able to teach his dog to fetch the gifts, probably because Johnnie was already inclined to fetch just about everything in sight, but there were a couple glitches. For one thing, how would the dog know where to take the gift once he had it in his mouth? And – more importantly – Johnnie had discovered he enjoyed tearing the wrapping off the gifts himself!
Johnny figured out an answer to the first problem right away. In full Santa Claus regalia, Jelly helped out by standing in different places in the room and little Johnnie was taught to pick up the gift that his master would indicate and carry it to Jelly, who would be standing behind its intended child recipient. Johnnie had no problem mastering this job, but once he arrived at Jelly and dropped the package in front of him, he immediately tore into it and ripped off the wrapping paper. This was definitely not part of the plan, but neither Jelly nor Johnny seemed to be able to stop him from “un-wrapping.” At one point Murdoch walked by and just shook his head at the sight of his son and Santa Claus, both grown men, yelling “no no no!” and trying to get an empty box away from the dog.
Jelly sat down and sighed. “We’ve got to stop him from wrecking those packages, Johnny!”
“He’s real good at delivering ‘em, but I’m kinda thinkin’ once the kid has his gift, he’s probably going to want to unwrap it himself!”
“Maybe we could give them packages without wrappings.”
“Come on, Johnny. Kids want to see pretty packages and unwrap the gifts for themselves!”
“Yeah . . . Well, I’m open for ideas.”
Jelly threw up his arms. “I got none, Johnny. I give up!”
Defeat was in the air. Johnny, Jelly, and Johnnie all sat on the floor, disgusted (except for Johnnie, who was merely taking a break before attacking another package). No one said or barked anything.
But then Fate intervened, in the form of brother Scott, who was passing through the great room. “Got it all worked out?”
“No we do not have it all worked out,” Johnny replied sarcastically.
Scott looked at the boxes left in tatters by dog teeth and noticed some wrapping paper underneath the dog’s feet and jumped to a wild conclusion. “Dog likes tearing the wrapping off?”
Johnny frowned. “What do you think?”
“Does either one of you have experience training a dog?”
“That has nothing to do with it,” Johnny stated, grudgingly considering that it might in fact have a great deal to do with it.
“Any dog is more likely to do what you want him to do if he’s rewarded after he performs satisfactorily. Have you been rewarding him?”
“I told him that he gets to keep living here at Lancer if he does good.”
“Maybe that’s the problem, Johnny,” Jelly suggested. “Maybe he feels it’s time to move on.”
Johnny glared at him.
“Gentlemen!” said Scott. “He’s a dog! He doesn’t understand all those words. What he understands is a delicious little treat. A small bite of his favorite food. When he performs adequately, give him a tasty tidbit. I think you’ll see better results that way.”
All right, maybe. It was worth a try, anyway. Johnny got some cooked meat from the kitchen and chopped it into little pieces. Then he and Jelly started practicing all over again, with the reward at the end of each delivered package. The idea of the meat was too enticing to little Johnnie to waste time with the non-rewarding package destruction, and he soon learned to deliver the packages and drop them in front of Jelly while awaiting his treat. Johnnie was a smart dog, of course, and after only a few tries, he was very happy to drop that gift off and run back to his master, who would put another gift in his mouth that he could deliver to Jelly and get that treat!
“It by God worked!” Jelly decreed.
“’Course!” Johnny exclaimed. “He’s got it down pat! Now, tomorrow morning Teresa is going to put all the packages with the kid’s names on them under the tree. When the kids get here, they’re going to eat lunch in the dining room, and then they’ll all come in here by the tree. And then you come in and ho-ho-ho and tell the kids that you put all their presents under the tree and you’re going to deliver them – with the help of your special elf Johnnie! And I’ll be by the tree with Johnnie and grab a present and read off the kid’s name and you go stand behind the kid and Johnnie will bring the package to you and then you give him a treat. The dog, I mean. The kid gets the gift. Got it?”
“Of course I’ve got it! I wasn’t born yesterday, you know.”
Johnny magnanimously let that pass, mostly due to his excitement. “I think it’s going to work, Jelly! I really do! I think everyone who comes, kids, parents, everyone – and especially Murdoch – is going to moon over how great Johnnie is!” Johnny leaned down for the puppy to jump in his arms, and they gave each other kisses. The dog’s smelled a little meaty.
“Of course they will! After all, I’m going to be here! Nothin’ goes wrong when Santa Claus is here!”
At lunchtime Saturday, the crowd arrived. There was one wagonload full of children, and lots of other conveyances with families as well. Teresa counted the crowd and pulled Johnny aside.
“Johnny, there’s a lot more children here than RSVP’d,” she said.
Johnny didn’t understand all she said but caught the general tone of panic in her voice. “Well, is there enough food? Enough presents for everyone?”
“We have lots of food. And I . . . I think there are enough presents. We bought some extra toys, just in case. I’d better go wrap them and get them under the tree while everyone is eating.” She turned to head upstairs but said over her shoulder, “Johnny, you’d better tell Scott to put out more chairs by the tree. And cut up lots more meat pieces to give to Jelly for the dog!”
Teresa disappeared and the three Lancer men were the only ones herding the group to the dining room so the crowd would not see the meticulously-decorated tree before eating. Then Scott and Johnny disappeared and Murdoch found himself sole host at his unexpectedly large party. Even Jelly, who normally would not miss a meal, was hiding from view so he could make an exciting entrance later as Santa.
Everything went well at the meal. The adults fit, just barely, around the large table, and the kids sat at little tables, enjoying the excitement of it. The roasted beef was delicious (despite the fact that Johnny had stolen a substantial chunk of it for other purposes). The adults from town would probably have preferred lingering in the dining room over a cup of coffee, but the couple dozen kids, all of whom were fairly, shall we say, opinionated, precluded that notion, so everyone was herded into the great room. Teresa had just finished placing the final gift under the tree. She directed all the children to the chairs and the adults stood off to the side in little groups. Teresa also stepped to the side and Johnny gave her a chunk of beef so she would not starve. Johnny had done the same for Santa Jelly, who was still hiding behind a door, and had also handed him a large sack of meat tidbits for the doggy rewards.
The air was charged with excitement. Johnny went to the kitchen to put on his elf hat, and then picked up Johnnie, who had been leashed outside. The dog was also wearing an elf hat. When Johnny returned to the crowd and set Johnnie in front of them, the kids all wanted to pet the dog and they all called him at once and Johnnie ran from kid to kid, enjoying the attention. He also was enjoying the fact that they all smelled like food, since he hadn’t been fed, to ensure he’d be real interested in those treats! But when Johnny stood by the tree and made the clicking noise, little Johnnie dutifully returned to his master and sat by him. The dog was already a big hit and the action hadn’t even started yet! Johnny stole a glance at Murdoch, who was actually smiling, and Johnny’s confidence level rose.
“Okay, everyone, calm down, calm down!” Johnny called to the crowd. “Santa’s already been here and dropped off your gifts, but he’s coming back so he can have his assistant deliver them to you personally! I hear him now! If you’re real quiet, kids, I think you might be able to hear him, too!”
The crowd hushed at Johnny’s request. This was Jelly’s cue to come out of hiding and ho-ho-ho, but he had been rushing to finish off the last of his beef. He stepped into the room and called out, “Ho . . . cough . . . ho . . . cough cough . . . ho!” Cough cough cough. He cleared his throat. “I mean ho-ho-ho! Merry . . .” Cough cough.
Teresa’s eyes got wide and Scott laughed. Scott went over to Jelly and slapped him on the back. “Looks like Santa’s had a few too many Christmas cookies!” He poked Jelly in his pillowy stomach. “See what I mean?”
The crowd roared. Jelly said “Ho ho to you, too” to Scott, in a very un-ho-ho way, and Scott sat back down, still laughing.
Jelly raised his hands. “All right now, kids, quieten down, quieten down. My elf assistants are going to help out. It’s gift-getting time!” This last statement did not exactly have the quietening down effect Jelly was hoping for, so Johnny the big elf had to intervene to keep the crowd at least moderately still. (He used words, not his gun. Elves don’t use guns, not even gunslinger elves.)
Finally order was restored. Then, with Johnnie watching him intently, Johnny picked up a package, read the name tag, and said, “Which one of you is Gordie England?”
A boy raised his hand and called, “Me!” Jelly went to stand behind the boy’s chair.
“Now,” said Johnny, “Santa’s other assistant will bring you your gift!” With that, Johnny placed the wrapped package in the dog’s mouth, and Johnnie dutifully delivered it to Gordie England, dropping it at his feet and happily accepting the treat Jelly took from his bag and tossed to him. Then he scampered back to Johnny and waited for the next package.
It worked like magic! Johnnie did everything he was supposed to and unwrapped nothing. All the Lancers beamed, even Murdoch. Jelly himself was smiling underneath all those beards, real and fake. And of course the kids all loved it!
Another package. “Hildy Wagner?”
A hand shot up. Jelly took his place, Johnnie grabbed the package, Hildy got her gift, Johnnie got his reward, all the kids praised the dog, Murdoch smiled, and all was right with the world.
Johnny straightened his elf hat, which kept falling forward. He picked up a package. “Oh. I know who this is. Santa, this one goes to Millie Dalrymple.” Johnny pointed, Jelly took his position, and the dog took the package to eight-year-old Millie Dalrymple, who was more excited about little Johnnie approaching her than anything else. She clucked and cooed over him and kissed him and little Johnnie smelled food on her breath and kept licking her and it took Johnny the Big Elf clicking a number of times before hungry Johnnie the Little Elf was willing to part with such a delicious-smelling gift recipient. He grudgingly trotted back to Johnny and sat down, his eyes on Millie Dalrymple instead of his master.
“Pay attention!” Johnny whispered frantically to his dog. “Okay, now,” he continued loudly, “the name on this one is Timmy Herschberger.”
No one responded, so Johnny tried again. “Timmy? Where are you?”
Timmy Herschberger was a little young and a lot shy, and his mother had to point him out to Santa. But once Jelly was in place, Johnny handed the dog the gift and the dog darted over to Timmy, dropped the package unceremoniously and jumped on Timmy to get closer to his treat. Timmy suddenly got un-shy, laughed hysterically, and tried to wrestle with the dog. Several of the kids jumped up and tried to play with Johnnie also, but Johnnie had his mind on only one thing: the treat bag that Jelly was holding.
Jelly gave Johnny a look that said We’re losing them, but Johnny gave Jelly a look that said Don’t worry, I’m in control which he did not feel at all but thought he had better look like because his father was giving him the same look Jelly was.
“Everybody sit back down now! Play with the dog later. Gifts now. Remember? Gifts?” Johnny spoke loudly and apparently got through to most of them. Teresa had also jumped up to assist Johnny in getting the children to regain their chairs. Johnny looked to Scott for possible help, but Scott was laughing, which, Johnny suddenly realized, he had been doing since this whole gift thing began. Johnny scowled at his brother, who saluted him.
Order was marginally restored, and Johnny had to physically remove Johnnie from the crowd before carrying him back to the tree. “Sit! And stay!” he told the Little Elf, with zero hope. When the Little Elf started to stand again, Johnny stepped lightly but firmly on his tail, which caused the Little Elf to look back at his master, at which point he remembered that he was expected to continue the practiced, albeit treat-skimpy, scenario.
But dogs have much stronger noses than people do, and that crowd all smelled like food, especially Jelly! Johnnie whined.
“Okay,” said Johnny, with a feeble smile, “here’s a nice package for Bobby DesJardins. Bobby?”
Bobby DesJardins was a lot more sure of himself than Timmy Herschberger, and he raised his hand high and yelled, “That’s me! Come here, Elf!”
And that was all it took.
Johnnie completely ignored the present in front of him and made a beeline for Bobby, trying to jump over him. But Bobby was too big and they both toppled over and fell into Jelly, who lost his own balance. All the kids were screaming with laughter by now, and Johnny and Teresa were yelling unheard commands. Johnnie scrambled to his feet and jumped on Jelly, aiming for that food bag.
Thinking only of the kids and ignoring his fake beard which was now on top of his head in place of his Santa cap (which Millie Dalrymple had managed to grab in the confusion and adorn herself with), Jelly struggled to stand and headed for the tree to lead the dog away from the crowd, maneuvering behind the kids, all of whom were by now on their feet and reaching for the Little Elf. Jelly Santa-sprinted to the tree, Johnnie dog-sprinted for Jelly’s food bag, and all the kids kid-sprinted after the dog, which is to say they were not particularly organized, and they fell all over each other and everybody was laughing and shouting and squealing and the Little Elf was getting more and more confused and all he could think about was that food bag!
By now all the adults were getting involved, most of them yelling as well, trying to sort out their own kids from the general confusion (mostly unsuccessfully). Even Murdoch and Scott were standing and shouting. Murdoch yelled, “Stop it! Everyone! Calm down! Stop!” And Scott cheered on the dog, “Good dog, Johnnie!” until his father glared at him, at which point he merely lowered the volume of his voice.
In the frantic melee, Teresa tumbled over. Johnny, always thinking family first, grabbed her arm and hauled her to her feet. Then Jelly, tripping in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid the attacking puppy, stumbled into the tree. The pillow tucked in his pants burst open and feathers flew everywhere.
And the tree went down. His beard in his eyes, Jelly fell on top of it. Teresa toppled over again, taking Johnny with her. And Johnnie, the Little Elf Dog, jumped on top of all of them, sniffing for that deeply buried food bag.
And then, one by one, all the kids jumped on the group as well. Millie Dalrymple aimed for Johnnie. Gordie England aimed for Teresa, who was just starting to regain her feet. Rosanne and Roxanne Brackett aimed for Johnny. Cissy MacNamara shrieked in delight and took the opportunity to look for her package. All the parents were by now joining in, most of them laughing, and some of them falling over as well. Everyone was screaming with glee and feathers were flying everywhere.
“Order, order!” Murdoch yelled. But there was none. He turned to Scott. “Help me stop this fiasco!”
“No, Murdoch! Look at the good time everyone is having!”
For the first time, Murdoch looked at the expressions on everyone’s faces. Without exception, every single person in that pile-up, children and adults, was grinning and laughing. The people who were still standing were laughing also, and looking for their chance to jump in. Cissy MacNamara and Donny Stanton had found their packages and were tearing them open. Little Elf Johnnie saw them, which reminded him to attack the remaining unopened ones. A good time was absolutely being had by all!
Murdoch’s expression softened. He shook his head. “I guess it’s a good thing we decided against putting candles on the tree!” he said meekly.
An hour later, after the human/canine pile had unpiled itself and the adults had downed a glass of wine and the kids were playing with their presents and Teresa and each other, Murdoch came up to Johnny (who had been avoiding him), and told him that the dog could stay at Lancer, as long as he learned a little more in the way of manners. He didn’t say anything else, mostly because there didn’t really seem to be anything appropriate to the occasion, but Johnny was very happy to hear those words. He passed the good news on to the Little Elf, who had changed into a regular puppy, thanks to Millie Dalrymple, who was wearing a Santa hat and an elf hat. Johnny’s own elf hat had fallen so it looked like he was wearing it as a loose tie, and his shirttails were out, and he had frosting smeared on his face thanks to the little Brackett sisters. But he and his dog were thrilled, and Johnnie licked his face clean of the frosting.
Even normally grumpy Jelly was happy, even though he still had feathers in his beard(s).
And Scott, who had spent the afternoon laughing, had finally managed to rein it in to just a grin. His second glass of wine in hand, he sought out his brother.
“Johnny!” Scott put his arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “Congratulations, brother! You did it! I can hardly believe it, but you brought it off! Everyone’s going to be leaving here shortly, and every one of these guests has a smile and a fun memory!”
“You never doubted it, did you? I mean, after all, Johnnie makes everybody happy. Except Murdoch. Speaking of smiles, what were you laughing about all day? Johnnie, right?”
“No, brother, actually I was laughing at you. I will always have the vision of you wearing an elf hat in my memory! Thank you very much!” Scott saluted Johnny again and then went back to the noisy crowd.
Johnny glared at his brother for a moment. Then Johnny, the ex-gunfighter, giggled. Giggled.
Once all the guests had left, every last one of them smiling, the Lancers took inventory of their demolished great room. Chairs were knocked over, wine and milk glasses were sitting everywhere, cake (and frosting) were pretty much everywhere else, lots of wrapping paper littered the floor, Jelly’s treat bag was torn open and empty, feathers covered the whole mess and more were still drifting through the air, and, of course, the tree was lying on its side with most of the broken ornaments lying near it. Little Johnnie was sleeping by the fireplace.
Murdoch shook his head. “Someone please at least get this tree upright.”
Johnny and Scott set the tree up again, avoiding the attacking ornaments that fell off in the process.
Teresa said, “It was a fantastic party. But tomorrow . . . I’ll deal with this mess tomorrow.” She collapsed in an easy chair.
Once again, Murdoch smiled. “You’re right. It went remarkably. I think we’ve earned the right to relax the rest of the day. Come on, Scott, let’s find that chess board. Wherever it is.”
Jelly, semi-covered in feathers, was still wearing his Santa Claus pants and open jacket but the beard was hanging down his back. He grinningly surveyed the chaotic mess and proclaimed, “It’s like I said: nothin’ goes wrong when Santa Claus is here!”
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