“What kind of secrets are you two cackling about? You sound like a couple of hens!” Teresa held up the basket of eggs she had just collected from the henhouse for punctuation.
Johnny deftly maneuvered himself between her and his brother. “Save me, Teresa! Scott’s trying to force me to tell what I got him for Christmas!”
“Oh, no, you don’t! You’re not putting me in the middle of this!” Teresa quickly stepped away.
“Come on, Johnny,” Scott directed to his brother. “Everybody wants to know before Christmas Day. It’s the American thing to do!”
“I was raised in Mexico,” Johnny helpfully pointed out.
Deaf ears. “If you don’t tell me, I’ll sneak into your room when you’re out and tear everything apart until I find it!”
“No, you won’t. It’s not hidden in my room.”
“Ah ha! Now we’re getting somewhere!”
“If you really want to know where your present is, Scott, dig through the compost pile. I hid it deep inside!”
Not a pleasant thought. But doable. And only a dozen compost piles on the ranch. “Which one?”
Johnny and Teresa both laughed. “For heaven’s sake, Scott, your brother is teasing you!”
Time to try a different approach. “OK, Johnny, I’ll tell you what I got for you if you want.”
Johnny turned back to his brother in genuine interest. “You will?”
“Yes, I will! You go first!”
“Oh, no! Nope, I’m not falling for that! You tell me first or no deal!”
“No chance! I’m not falling for any tricks! You tell me first!”
A Mexican/American standoff. Arms crossed, they scowled at each other.
“Well, keep it up,” Teresa said smugly as she walked away. “That way neither of you will be wondering if I got you anything for Christmas!”
They both turned to look at her.
– – – – – –
Ten minutes later, the argument was once again in full force as the brothers barged into the house. Murdoch, who had been concentrating on credits (and debits), was forced to listen and intercede. “Are these my sons who get along so well?”
“Oh! Sorry, sir.” Scott had been so absorbed in teasing his younger brother that he hadn’t even noticed his father.
Johnny didn’t miss a beat. “I hope you mean that, brother, because you are not getting anything out of me first!”
Clearly the debits would have to wait. Murdoch assumed his stern fatherly manner. “Now hold up a minute, you two. What exactly is it that Scott is trying to get out of you, Johnny?”
Scott spoke first. “I was merely trying to teach Johnny about the time-worn American tradition of giving hints to your Christmas gift recipients about what you’re going to give them. If they want to know, of course, and obviously I do!”
“It’s going to be a secret until Christmas Day. Unless you tell me first!” Johnny growled.
Although amused, Murdoch maintained a serious demeanor. In situations like this, a father always has an important role to play. “Am I to understand that neither of you can wait two more days until Christmas before you discover the gifts you’ve given each other? Two days? And both of you grown men?!”
Scott and Johnny looked at each other. Put like that, their mutual desire to know each other’s gift choices just didn’t have the same importance. Murdoch glared at them a moment longer and then sat back down to his credits (and debits).
“I’m sorry, Johnny,” Scott said, genuinely contrite. “I shouldn’t have pushed so hard if you didn’t want to tell me.” He held out his hand.
Johnny took it. “Yeah, me too. It’s not important, anyhow.”
Best of friends again, they walked back outside. Scott said, “Murdoch’s right – we’re not children. I don’t really think it’s a tradition anyhow, Johnny. I made that up. I was just intrigued because you’ve been very secretive lately. I have absolutely no idea what you’re giving anybody and it’s driving me a little bit crazy.”
“Just not announcing it, that’s all; I want it to be a surprise. Unless, of course, you’re willing to tell me first!” The argument was starting all over again.
“Rest assured, brother, if you have no intention of falling into a trap, neither do I!”
“Come on, Scott, you can trust me. If you tell me, I’ll tell you!”
Scott put his head in his hands. “I think we’re going about this all wrong. Let’s just think a minute. OK, Johnny, let’s try this. We’ll both talk at the same time.”
“Nope. Then I won’t hear you.”
“All right, we’ll write our gifts down on pieces of paper and exchange the papers at the same time.”
“Nope, I don’t trust you. You’ll probably write it in Latin or something.”
Scott smiled. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Just forget it, brother. The only real way to solve this is a gunfight and in my opinion you would lose. Then I’ll be out a present and a brother. We’ll just have to wait until Christmas… unless….”
Scott’s smile got wider. “Unless…?”
“Murdoch and Teresa!”
“What about them?”
“Maybe they got us presents, too!”
“I wouldn’t mind knowing ahead of time what Teresa and Murdoch got me, and I bet…”
“…I would, too! But you know how close-mouthed they are. If I can’t bully you, I certainly can’t browbeat either one of them!”
Johnny narrowed his eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Suddenly an idea occurred to Scott, who put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “It means, little brother, that we can do a little searching without them knowing!”
Johnny smiled broadly and reciprocated. “Maybe that expensive education of yours is finally starting to pay off!”
They walked to the bench outside the barn and sat. “Step one,” said Scott. “Let’s review their activities of the last few days. We’ll start with Teresa. What have we observed her doing?”
Johnny thought hard. “Well…nothing!”
“Nothing unusual. Just the things she always does. Collect the eggs, milk the cows, clean, cook…I can’t think of anything else. Unless she’s planning on giving us milk and eggs. Hard to wrap.”
“And at night, she just sits and knits like she does every night.”
“Well, maybe she’s knitting us something.”
“No, I don’t think so. She’s been working furiously all month knitting hats and scarves for the poor children of the church. And toys, too. She wants to make sure every child gets something she made. So if she did get us gifts, where is she hiding them?”
“I still think she knitted us things. But, even so, where are they? Whatever they are, she must have hidden our things in her room somewhere.”
“I agree. We’ll wait until she is away and then search her room.”
“I don’t know, Scott. I don’t feel right about searching Teresa’s room…”
“Neither do I.” Slight hesitation only. “When do you want to do it?”
“Tonight after dinner!” They both laughed.
Scott said, “OK, now what about Murdoch?”
“Murdoch! Yesterday a crate got delivered. I was in the barn and watched Murdoch take it in the house right away. Then he poked his head out the front door to see if anyone was watching. He couldn’t see me but I thought it was mighty suspicious.”
“That it is, little brother. You’re absolutely right.”
“Scott, last year was my first Christmas in this country, so, like you said, I don’t really know all these traditions yet. But it just seems to me that if there are gifts, Murdoch and Teresa are going to a lot of trouble to hide them.”
“Almost sounds like they don’t trust us, doesn’t it?”
As the brothers looked at each other, big smiles split their faces and they read each other’s minds. Devious plans had been made and hardly a word spoken.
– – – – – –
After supper that night, the family settled as usual in the great room for an evening of relaxation and idle chatter. Scott arrived a little later than everyone else, and when he had made himself comfortable in his favorite chair, Johnny excused himself. Johnny returned a few minutes later. The brothers made eye contact and shrugged – a testament to their lack of success uncovering hidden gifts. Teresa missed that nonverbal communication, but Murdoch did not. He smiled gently and looked down. After a moment, he said, “Sons, I’m glad you settled your argument.”
“Argument?” Johnny was puzzled.
“You know, Johnny,” Scott hastily spoke. “From earlier today. When we were arguing…”
“Oh! Right. We settled.”
Teresa looked up from her knitting, mildly interested. “Don’t tell me you two were serious about that gift disclosing! Although, I have to admit, it was funny until you put me in the middle of it.”
Aware of Murdoch’s overprotective attitude toward his ward and his sudden close scrutiny, Scott said, “Uh, sorry…Teresa. We didn’t mean…”
“We were funning,” Johnny hastily added. “Only funning.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that, boys,” Murdoch said in a fatherly-commanding tone. “Since we are a very blessed family, do gifts really matter that much?”
– – – – – –
The next morning, Christmas Eve, Scott and Johnny did not have the opportunity to confer privately due to a heavy load of chores to earn Christmas Day off. They finally ran across each other washing their hands at the pump before lunch.
“Nothing!” said Johnny. “I’m beginning to think nobody got us any gifts! Especially after what Murdoch said last night.”
“Don’t despair, little brother. As you know, I got you something.”
“Don’t start that again, Scott. Didn’t you find anything in Teresa’s room last night?”
“Nothing. Just women’s things. I can’t even begin to imagine where she hides anything! And you didn’t find anything in Murdoch’s room either?”
“Clothes! He has lots of clothes! Thrown in a pile in the corner.”
“That’s odd. Murdoch’s usually more organized than that. You looked through it, of course?”
“Yeah, I pawed through them. But he’s got a chest that’s locked.”
“But he’s always had that.”
“Well, it’s locked, so I don’t know what’s in it.”
The conversation ended when Teresa called them in to lunch. There was no more opportunity for them to plan, and they had just about run out of ideas, anyway. As they walked to the kitchen, Scott put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and whispered, “There’s got to be gifts!”
Johnny just shook his head sadly.
– – – – – –
Christmas Eve evening was a festive affair at Lancer, with a small contingent of neighboring ranchers and their families invited for the socializing part of the holiday. Drinks flowed and conversation was animated and enjoyable. A small band provided music for those who cared to dance. Johnny and Scott did not have much time to converse privately but on one occasion when they looked at each other, they rolled their eyes, a clear indication that neither had had any more luck in discovering hidden gifts. Scott took the opportunity of Murdoch being deeply engaged in conversation with another rancher to slip into his room and scavenge around. He did not realize Murdoch saw him leave. And he found nothing more than Johnny had.
On Christmas morning, Johnny rose early and raced to the Great Room hoping to see wrapped Christmas presents. Nothing – just the same decorations that had been there for a week. Then his disappointment was compounded when Murdoch came into the room dressed up and announced that Johnny should get ready because they would all be going to church services shortly. No gifts, no breakfast, dressing up; Johnny was very disappointed. When Scott came in and was told the same thing, he had the same expression on his face. The two brothers looked at each other and shrugged.
Were there any presents?
– – – – – –
This question was answered when the family returned from church and saw about a half dozen or so wrapped presents scattered throughout the Great Room. This of course presented another mystery – who put them there if the entire family was at church? – but Johnny, at least, was satisfied at their appearance and was anxious for the gift-opening to begin. He recognized one large box, his present to Teresa, sitting by the window. Since he felt he had been successful in hiding it, he wondered at its appearance without his help, though. He stole a glance at Scott, who seemed to be having the same thoughts about a small box sitting on the mantle. When their eyes met, they smiled and shrugged. Time to open…
“Dinner’s ready!” called Maria.
– – – – – –
Murdoch had clearly gone all out for the Lancer family Christmas dinner. It was a lovely sumptuous affair that everyone enjoyed, particularly Teresa who, as almost-family, had been told not to lift a finger in its preparation and to simply relax. Murdoch had given Maria carte-blanche in its preparation and she had recruited her own family to assist her. The conversation and wine flowed and the fowl and meat and sauces were superb. By the end of the meal, all the Lancers were fat, sassy and happy and (some of them more than) anxious to open their presents.
The family settled in the Great Room. While Scott poured glasses of wine, Johnny took Teresa’s arm and guided her to the chair by the window. “Teresa,” he said excitedly, pointing to his present, “this is your present from me!”
Her eyes opened wide as she looked at him, at the present, and back to him again. It was by far the biggest wrapped present in the room – about four feet long and a foot high. She lost no time in tearing off the wrapping and was delighted to see a flower window-box, with several packets of flower seeds and some small garden tools packed neatly inside. “Oh, Johnny,” she said as she hugged him. “I’ve been wanting to grow flowers! This is so wonderful! Where did you get it?”
Johnny was a little embarrassed by this kind of attention. “Well, I – thought it would mean more if I made it.”
Murdoch smiled and Scott lauded Johnny’s work but additionally wondered, “When did you get the time?”
“Worked on it a little each day. Finally finished it yesterday.” He smiled when he continued. “Hid it where you’d never find it, Boston!”
“Something that big? Where, Johnny?”
“Just set it on that pile of lumber next to the barn whenever I stopped working on it. Put one or two boards on top and knew no one would find it.”
Scott just smiled and shook his head. There truly was no better place to hide something than in plain sight. Everyone laughed.
“All right, Teresa,” Scott said, “I think it’s time for me to give you my present.” He walked to the mantle and fetched the small gaily-wrapped package for Teresa.
Once again her eyes opened wide as she unwrapped her gift, and this time there may have been a tear or two present. “Oh, Scott,” she gushed quietly, “it’s beautiful! It’s just beautiful!” She held up the little brooch for all to see. Since she was sitting near the window, the light made all the stones in it sparkle. Stones of many different colors.
“It’s lovely, Scott,” said Murdoch quietly. “I haven’t seen anything like that in the shops around here. Did you send to Boston for it?”
“Yes, I wrote to Julie and asked her for gift ideas for a lovely young lady. Since she knows you, Teresa, she had a pretty good idea what you’d like. She suggested this. I’m glad you like it.”
She hugged him. “Oh, I do! Thank you so much. Thank you both so much,” she said as she turned to Johnny. “These beautiful gifts mean a lot to me.”
Scott smiled and looked down. Then he turned to Johnny. “Don’t you want to know where I hid this? I mean, after all, you practically tore my room apart looking for these things.”
Johnny didn’t flinch. He had faced down some very dangerous people in his day and a small accusation or two from his brother didn’t seem too fierce. Especially when it was true. “OK, where did you hide it?”
Scott smiled and patted his breast pocket. “In here. Took it with me everywhere since it arrived. Although, I have to admit, I left it in my room when we went to church this morning and I can’t explain how it showed up out here. Or the flowerbox, either! On the other hand,” he said slyly, “I’m beginning to think that our illustrious, and occasionally sneaky, father might know a thing or two about that particular subject.” All eyes turned to Murdoch.
Caught! Murdoch smiled. “You might just be right about that. I told Maria where everything was hidden and asked her to bring the presents out here while we were at church.”
Johnny was confused. “But Murdoch, how did you…? I mean, if Scott and I couldn’t…I mean, how did you know where everything was hidden?”
“I’m your father, Johnny,” Murdoch said kindly. “I was lucky enough to have you living here until you were two years old. In many wonderful ways, you haven’t changed a bit.” He turned to Scott. “But I have to admit, son, you may not see all your gifts out here. I never knew you and you did baffle me a little.”
Scott walked over to his father and pulled out an envelope from his inside jacket pocket, which he handed to him. “This is something else I’ve kept with me at all times,” he said simply. “Merry Christmas, Murdoch.”
Murdoch unfolded the document inside and began to laugh. “Scott! How did you do it?”
“Oh, it took a little finesse, sir. And a lot of haggling. In fact, I have been haggling with them for some time now. But they finally came through.”
“What is it?” asked both Johnny and Teresa.
Murdoch handed over the document to be passed around. “It’s the deed to some land I have been trying to procure for Lancer for a couple of years now!”
“You mean that 200 acres that Old Man Simmons willed to his family? Man, I thought they’d never sell!” Johnny was obviously impressed with his brother.
“I was beginning to think that myself,” Scott admitted. “But they finally changed their minds two weeks ago.”
“Thank you, son,” said Murdoch, who stood and rested his hand on Scott’s shoulders. It was a touching moment, and there were many more to come.
Murdoch looked around for the closest box to him and handed it to Johnny. “Johnny, this is from me to you. Merry Christmas!”
Johnny took it excitedly and examined it for a moment before divulging its secret. This box was mid-sized and had plain brown paper wrapping. It was tied in the twine that was kept in the barn. It was slightly heavy. He shook it. Murdoch laughed. “Well, go on, open it!” “Come on, Johnny,” Scott said to his brother. “You’ve been plenty curious. Here’s your chance.” Of course he was equally curious.
Finally Johnny untied the twine and ripped off the paper. Inside the box was a beautiful leather bridle with lots of silver trim. “Ooh, Barranca’s gonna love this!” he exclaimed with a wide smile.
Murdoch smiled at his son’s reaction. “Well, I’m not sure about the horse, but I suspect you’ll be proud to show it off.” He allowed Johnny a moment to admire the intricate silverwork before he said, “By the way, did you search my room before or after Scott did?”
Johnny looked up in fear. “Uh…” He saw his father was smiling.
Scott cut in. “All right, Murdoch, where did you hide it? Was it in that locked trunk in your room?”
“No, boys, I actually used Johnny’s hiding method.”
Johnny was confused. “The lumber pile?”
“No, son. I hung the bridle in the barn with all the other bridles, in plain sight. The silver shone, though, so I had to rub a little mud on it and then put it on the far end, and hoped no one would use it. This morning one of the hands was kind enough to clean it up for me and put it in this box.”
Scott laughed and shook his head. “So nothing was in the locked trunk!”
“Well, strictly speaking,” Murdoch said, “that’s not entirely true.” He pointed to another box sitting on the floor, not as large as Teresa’s flower gift but still substantial. “Your gift was hidden in the trunk, Scott. I had to remove the summer clothes to make room for it. Go ahead, open it.”
This large box was nicely wrapped in colored paper, presumably because Murdoch would have had the opportunity to do it himself. Scott smiled and looked from one to the other of them. They were all smiling back at him. “Quit dawdlin’,” Johnny commanded.
Scott laughed and tore at the wrapping. Inside the box was a beautiful gold-edged set of books entitled Complete Works of Sir Walter Scott. “Oh, my,” he barely breathed. “I don’t know what to say. This is just wonderful!” He lovingly opened the first book.
Johnny couldn’t really understand why a set of books was so important to Scott, but he observed that indeed it was, and he was happy for his brother. He did think Scott looked a little silly treating the books with such loving deference, until he realized that he was still holding on to the bridle and running his fingers along the silver. Their father, it occurred to him, was a miracle worker.
“I know he’s one of your favorite authors,” Murdoch said softly. “And you share the same name!”
Scott looked up. “Oh, Murdoch, this is wonderful,” he repeated breathlessly. “I will spend many happy hours with these. Thank you!”
“You’re welcome, son. I’m sorry though that I couldn’t get them autographed!” Everyone laughed, including Johnny, who wasn’t sure why.
“All right, my turn!” Teresa jumped up and grabbed one of the mid-sized boxes and handed it to Murdoch. “Merry Christmas!” she said, kissing him on the cheek.
“Oh, darling, you didn’t have to…”
Teresa sat back down and urged him, “Open it!” She turned to her brothers. “And, by the way, I don’t know which of you two hoodlums searched my room, but just to let you know, my presents were all hidden in my drawer where I keep my…well, unmentionables. Underneath.” She smirked at them and laughed when they each turned a little red.
Murdoch neatly unwrapped her present and held up a beautiful brown sweater for all to see. “You made this for me? I’m speechless.” Clearly he was delighted with his gift.
Johnny sat up straight. “You see, Scott – I told you. She knitted us sweaters.”
“No I didn’t,” Teresa smugly replied. “I have been knitting things for the poor children in the area. I made a sweater for Murdoch, because I knew he would appreciate it. These are the gifts I got for you two.” She handed Scott a small narrow box and she pointed to one of the last two large boxes for Johnny, who pounced on it.
Murdoch by this time had donned his new sweater. “Teresa, this is beautiful. You even knew what color to make it. This must have taken you a very long time.”
“A little while. Whenever you came in the room, I had to stuff it back inside my knitting basket so you wouldn’t suspect. I was hoping you’d like it.”
“Of course I like it! Thank you very much.”
“Yes, thank you, Teresa,” said Scott. He was wearing a new pair of fine leather riding gloves. “How did you know I needed these?”
“Oh, I know your old ones got ruined…”
“Hey, look at this!” shouted Johnny. He had flung the cover off his present and pulled out a patchwork quilt with the name ‘Barranca’ sewn in it. “Whooey! Is Barranca going to love this when it gets cold!” He tipped an imaginary hat to Teresa. “Got to hand it to you, Teresa, this is great!”
Scott laughed. “You and that horse of yours, Johnny!”
“Only the best for Barranca! When did you find the time to make this, Teresa?”
“I joined the town ladies on Tuesdays for their quilting group, but I’m still new at it. When I mentioned it was for you, Johnny, several of the ladies offered to help me,” she said slyly.
“Good of them,” said Johnny innocuously. “This is great, thank you, Teresa!”
Scott and Murdoch laughed and rolled their eyes. Scott said, “If I can interrupt your reverie, brother mine, it’s time for you to see the gift I gave you.”
Johnny looked up, suddenly focused. But Scott didn’t say anything else, so Johnny said “OK. Where?”
“It’s over there.” Scott pointed to the halltree by the front door where they sometimes hung their hats and gunbelts. The only thing hanging on it was Johnny’s old beat-up hat that he hadn’t worn for some time. He looked at his brother questioningly. “Go on,” said Scott. “Check it out.”
“You gave me my old hat?”
“Go on, go see,” Scott urged.
Johnny grudgingly abandoned his new silver bridle and blanket and walked over to the halltree. There was nothing on it but his old hat.
“Well, put it on,” Scott continued urging.
Johnny thought his brother was crazy, but he put on his old hat. It didn’t fit. “Scott…”
“Look again,” said Scott.
Johnny therefore took a close look and realized why it hadn’t fit. There was another hat tucked up neatly inside it. The old hat was a very nice cover and hiding place for the brand-new hat, one that he had admired in the store whenever he rode into town but always decided against spending money on. “You knew I wanted this, didn’t you?” he asked quietly, a little overcome with emotion.
Scott smiled. “I did, brother.”
Johnny held the hat to his chest. “Thank you,” he said softly.
“Try it on!” everyone directed. The spell was broken. Johnny paraded around with his new hat, marveling that it had probably been hanging there for days without his ever seeing it. He spied a small package wrapped inexpertly in brown paper and handed it to Murdoch. “From your youngest son, Murdoch,” he said shyly. “Merry Christmas.” He sat back down and locked eyes with his father for a moment before Murdoch unwrapped his gift.
It was a hunting knife. Murdoch recognized immediately that it was similar to the one Johnny owned and remarked on it.
“I know,” Johnny said gently. “You always liked mine so much I got you one just like it. Except yours is different because it has the…”
“Lancer ‘L’.” Murdoch finished his sentence. “Carved in the handle. Very nicely. You did this, didn’t you, Johnny?”
Johnny shook his head yes and looked down. “I was hoping you’d like it.”
Murdoch Lancer, for all his gruffness, could be amazingly soft-hearted and gentle. “I like it very much, son,” he said softly. “Thank you.”
Scott smiled at the fondness in their exchange. Christmas had brought out the best in everyone.
“And…” Johnny said. “I have something for you, Scott.” He reached inside his pocket and pulled out a small item, wrapped in what appeared to be ancient paper. He looked at it lovingly for a moment before gently placing it in his brother’s hand. Scott instinctively knew that this tiny item was very important to Johnny. He gently pulled back the wrapping, careful to avoid tearing it more than the years had. Inside was a small childish wooden carving of a bird. Johnny stared at it in Scott’s hand. “It’s a dove,” he said quietly.
Although a hundred questions occurred to Scott, neither of them spoke for a moment. Johnny continued staring at the figurine and Scott was surprised to see that his brother was close to tears. He held it out. “Johnny, maybe you should keep it,” he offered. “It means a lot to you.”
Johnny shook his head no. “I want you to have it. It means long life and happiness. It’s my wish for you.”
Scott stared at his brother. Clearly there was a story behind the little statue and this story meant a great deal to Johnny. Scott felt his own eyes misting. He glanced at Teresa, who also seemed to be charmed, and Murdoch, who smiled gently and gave him an encouraging nod. He was going to say something but Johnny spoke, still staring at the little statue.
“Where I come from…in Mexico…there’s a tree…people make carvings from the wood. This is…” He stopped talking.
“Did you make this?” Scott encouraged.
Johnny shook his head no. “My friend Carlos. We were seven years old. His father used to beat him…and my stepfather used to beat me…we were amigos. Carlos carved this dove for me and told me it would help me to live long. I couldn’t carve yet, so I just told him I would protect him. I promised.” Johnny bowed his head. “The next day his stepfather beat him to death.”
Scott heard Teresa gasp and he sensed Murdoch about to say something to comfort Johnny, but he held out his hand to stop him. “Why do you want me to have his?” he asked gently.
Johnny looked up, once again in control of his emotions. “I made a promise to Carlos and I failed. I kept this all my life, Scott. He told me someday I should give it to someone I care about.”
Scott was stunned.
Murdoch smiled. “Carlos would be proud, Johnny.”
Scott smiled and looked at his brother, who smiled back. “Thank you,” he whispered.
“That was very sweet of you, Johnny,” said Teresa. “Very thoughtful.”
Johnny Lancer was not comfortable with this kind of attention. To lighten the mood, he said, “There’s one more present left.”
Murdoch walked over to the last present, letting his hand linger on Johnny’s shoulder for a moment. He took the present over to his ward. “Teresa, this is for you from me. It’s something that I know you’ve been wanting.” He stood back and smiled as he watched Teresa’s eyes get wide and she tore into the packaging. Opening the box, she held up her present – a green velvet dress. “Oh, yes! This is exactly what I’ve been wanting! Oh, thank you, Murdoch!”
“You’re welcome, darling. Now that the weather’s cooler, you can wear it to church.”
“Look, Johnny! Look, Scott! It’s got lace around the collar and green satin on the sleeves, and it has braiding, and…and…oh, Murdoch, thank you! Would anyone mind if I went and tried it on right now? Oh, and the brooch will look good right here, and…”
“Go ahead, try it on,” Murdoch laughed. Teresa swooped out of the room, trailing the long green dress behind her and trying hard to keep it from touching the floor. “Just give me a few minutes,” she yelled from upstairs.
“I think you made a hit there,” Scott said to Murdoch.
“She’ll look lovely in it,” Murdoch agreed.
“You know, Murdoch, I think this is the nicest Christmas I ever had.” Johnny nodded in agreement.
“Thank you, boys,” said Murdoch, “but I do have something else for each of you.”
Both Scott and Johnny were amazed. “Murdoch, I don’t see how you could possibly…”
“With all due respect, boys, please allow me to do the talking for a little while.” He opened a drawer of his desk and pulled out a photo in a cardboard frame. “First you, Johnny. This was in the trunk I cleaned out to store Scott’s books. I want you to have it. It should be yours.”
When Johnny saw the old photograph and realized what it was, a change came over him. He held the photo tenderly and his eyes filled with tears. He ran his hand gently, lovingly, over the picture. When the tears blurred his vision, he blinked them away. “This is us, isn’t it?” he whispered.
Murdoch nodded. For the benefit of his amazed older brother, Murdoch explained that the photograph was of Murdoch, Johnny and his mother Maria, the three of them, and it was taken when Johnny was two years old, just days before she took Johnny and left the ranch forever. “The traveling photographer took the picture and then came back a month later with the print. I had forgotten about it. I was angry with Maria, of course. But this was still the only picture I had of Johnny, so of course I purchased it.”
Johnny pressed the photograph to his heart. “This is the only picture I have of my mother,” he managed to say. Murdoch said, “I missed you, son. For many years this was all I had to remember you by. It’s fitting now that you should have it to remember her.” Johnny merely nodded and bowed his head, clutching the photo tightly.
Murdoch touched Scott lightly on the shoulder. “And now you, son. There’s one more present left.” He leaned down and lifted the fabric from the front of an easy chair, gently pulling out a box hidden underneath. As he handed the box to Scott, he explained, “These are yours,” but Scott recognized the box before he even finished his sentence.
“Oh, my!” Scott sat down and put the box on his lap. He smiled as he said, “These were the toy soldiers I used to play with as a boy. I haven’t seen these in years!” He pulled a couple out and examined them lovingly. “How I used to love these! I remember many happy hours playing with…how did you ever get these, Murdoch?”
“I wrote your grandfather and asked him to send you some mementos of your childhood. I reminded him he owed me a favor,” he said with a smile. Then the smile turned sad as he pulled out a small photograph from the bottom of the box. “He also sent you this,” he said.
“Let me see.” Scott looked at the picture. “Oh, that’s just a picture of me when I was eight. We had pictures taken all the time.” He went back to the soldiers.
Something in Murdoch’s quiet voice caused both Scott and Johnny to look at him. “Son, would you mind then if I kept this? You see, I don’t have any pictures of you at all.”
This had never occurred to Scott. He was ashamed of himself for not thinking of it and trivializing something that could mean so much to someone else. “Of course you can keep it.”
Murdoch nodded his thanks and held the picture close to his heart, just like Johnny was doing with his. Johnny surprised everyone by speaking. “A photograph can mean a lot,” he said quietly.
The emotion in the room was palpable. Scott gently ran his fingers through the box of toy soldiers, Johnny bowed his head and held the photo of his mother close to his chest, and Murdoch looked longingly at the picture of his eight-year-old son, ruing all the wasted years. Perhaps they were all thinking the same.
Wearing the new dress, Teresa came halfway down the stairs before noticing the sad reflective state everyone appeared to be in. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “This is Christmas. Everyone’s supposed to be happy. Look, look at my new dress!” She ran down the remainder of the steps and twirled around.
Everyone looked at her and Scott and Johnny both offered her little smiles and compliments. Murdoch said, “You look absolutely beautiful, darling. Come here!” He held out his hand to her.
She ran to him and he hugged her and said something to the effect that he was very lucky to have her in his life. Teresa noticed that both Scott and Johnny were watching with sad smiles on their faces. She broke the embrace.
Murdoch Lancer was in fact lucky to have Teresa in his life, for she was wise beyond her years. What she said next was about to make his life, and his sons’ lives, much sweeter. “I’m not beautiful, Murdoch. I’m just lucky. Because when my father died, you gave me a happy home. And you love me. And you’ve done the same for your two sons. And you love them, too. And they love you, I know they do. And that’s what the Christmas spirit is all about. And yet you’re all standing here, all looking like gloom. Murdoch Lancer, I want your sons to see in you what I see every day of the year.” She grabbed his arm and led him closer to Johnny.
“Murdoch, hug your sons,” Teresa commanded. All three of them looked at her in astonishment. She noticed that Johnny still had tears in his eyes. Or were they fresh? “Murdoch, now. Please,” she begged. She was ready to maneuver him herself but Murdoch took the hint. He grabbed Johnny in a tight bear hug, his long arms encircling his son completely, telling him without words that he was truly loved. Johnny hugged him back, gingerly at first, and then completely, allowing his resistances to melt away for that enchanting moment.
Scott watched longingly, ruing the fact that his grandfather had taught him physical contact of any kind between men was to be avoided. But he had never reckoned on the strength of the love of the Lancer family. And when Murdoch finally let Johnny go and then approached him, he offered no resistance. He allowed his father to embrace him and then felt himself hugging back. Scott heard Johnny sniffle and Teresa sigh and then everything else disappeared. Nothing mattered except this magic moment in time and Scott genuinely wished it could last forever.
But in a moment he and Murdoch felt Johnny and Teresa wedging their way in and turning the embrace into a group hug. They all laughed, and there were tears, and it’s quite possible that every one of the Lancers considered this moment the high point of their lives. Murdoch kissed Teresa on the forehead and Johnny rumpled Scott’s hair and they all stood back and smiled at each other.
“You see, Murdoch?” said Teresa softly. “That’s what I meant. Thank you.”
Murdoch wished to say something but wanted the words to be what he really felt. He looked at his adoring family, noting the tears that were being wiped away, and he saw the photograph still next to Johnny’s heart and the wooden carving still in Scott’s hand. When he realized he was still clutching the picture of his son Scott, his own eyes teared over. He wiped them and then spoke. “I told you the most important thing in the world to me is this ranch. But I was wrong. The three most important things in the world to me are in this room right now. And I will die before I ever let anyone take you away from me again! I don’t say it very often, but I love you all…” He hesitated, unable to speak for a second. Then he whispered, “…very very much!”
Johnny grinned and brushed at his eyes again. Scott smiled gently, looked down, and said very softly, “Thank you.”
And Teresa, wonderful Teresa, whose open honesty exposed the family’s true devotion, merely smiled tenderly and said, “The real secret to Christmas, or any time, is the love we feel for each other! Merry Christmas, everyone.”
~ end ~
May you share the same joy and love in your own life, during the holidays or any time. Thank you for reading.
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