Word count: 2,990
An unusually cold storm had blown down from the High Sierras and left the San Joaquin Valley under a blanket of deep snow.
As the sun set over the hushed white landscape and the light sky gave way to the blackness of night, a canopy of brilliant stars watched over the white adobe hacienda of the Lancer family.
Never before had this house been filled with so much warmth and contentment, for this was the first Christmas that the Lancers would spend as a family. At long last, after so many years, father, sons, ward and good friends were finally gathered together before the roaring fireplace to celebrate the holiday.
Johnny slowly walked around the great room, amazed by the decorations that adorned the room. Boughs of holly framed the windows and doors. A huge fir tree stood in the corner, its branches loaded with colorful ornaments. . The smell of the tree mingled with the sweet aroma of sugar cookies and pies, and Johnny’s favorite, chocolate cake. He couldn’t remember feeling more at peace with himself as he had helped decorate the tree. And the big shiny gold star that capped the highest stem…that had been Murdoch’s job. And the joy Johnny saw on his father’s face as he placed it at the top of the tree would stay with him for a lifetime.
This was what family was all about. This is what he had missed as a child. But he would not dwell on what he didn’t have. No, he would live for now and the future…for the joys of this Christmas and Christmases to come.
The sound of Teresa’s laughter brought his attention back to the huge fireplace where the fire roared, warming the room and his heart.
“Hey.” He looked at the line of stockings hanging from the mantel. “What are you doing with my sock?”
“Hanging it up for Santa, silly.” Teresa laughed.
The hush that fell over the room startled him.
“You never heard of Santa Claus?” Scott asked incredulously.
Johnny shook his head, growing embarrassed by his ignorance.
Jelly bowed his head sadly. The boy had missed so much, and it was the most innocent little things that Johnny said or did that revealed that so clearly.
“Well,” Scott said walking over to the bookcase. “We’ll just have to introduce you to him.” He pulled a book down from the top shelf and handed it to Murdoch. “Would you do us the honor, sir?”
Murdoch accepted the book and sat down in his favorite chair facing the fire. He studied the book, running his hand over the worn cover. Memories of sitting around this same fireplace with Paul O’Brien and Teresa, as year after year he had read the story, Teresa listening in rapt awe, reminded him of how he longed to have his sons sitting beside her. But Scott had been twenty-five hundred miles away in Boston and he never knew where Johnny was.
“Come here and sit down,” Teresa called, patting the floor in front of the fireplace. Her cheeks were flushed with excitement as Johnny joined her on one side and Scott on the other. The three of them sat, their backs to the warm fire and the Christmas tree standing majestically behind Murdoch, its ornaments sparkling in the firelight. Time stood still as Murdoch slowly opened the treasured book and cleared his throat.
“The Night Before Christmas.
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there…”
“Who’s St. Nicholas?” Johnny asked.
Murdoch looked up from the book. “That’s another name for Santa.”
“Why’d he have to change his name? He in trouble or somethin’?”
Scott looked at Johnny in disbelief until he saw the sparkle in his brother’s eyes.
“Just listen to the story,” the older brother admonished gently.
“May I continue?” Murdoch asked, trying to sound perturbed.
“The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads”
“What are sugar-plums?”
“Candies that look like plums,” Teresa answered. “I’ll make you some tomorrow.”
Teresa giggled. “Yes, I promise.”
“May I?” Murdoch asked again.
Johnny nodded, drawing his leg up Indian fashion as he waited for Murdoch to continue.
“And mamma and her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash…”
“A sash is a storm shutter,” Scott headed off Johnny’s question.
“Thanks Boston. But you’d think they’d write in English, wouldn’t ya?”
Scott’s mouth dropped open, then he saw Johnny’s lips twitching, trying not to laugh.
“The Moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the luster of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer…”
Johnny looked from Scott to Teresa. “I never heard of reindeer.”
“It’s a special kind of deer, Johnny,” Teresa answered. “Just listen and you’ll find out.”
Johnny nodded again then looked back up at Murdoch, ready for more of the story.
“With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his courses they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”
“I like Barranca better.” Johnny grinned.
“Hush!” Teresa swatted him on the shoulder. “Just listen.”
“As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-tops the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too….”
“Wait a minute…” Johnny looked around the room. “You’re not trying to tell me that that sleigh with Santa or St. Nick, whoever you want to call him, flew through the sky like a bird and landed on top of the roof?”
“It’s the magic of Christmas, Johnny.” Teresa grinned. “Santa can do anything.”
Murdoch found it hard to hide the catch in his voice as he continued. Here was his twenty-three year old son, a hardened ex-gunfighter, a man who was forced to give up his childhood to survive, experiencing the joys of a flight of fantasy that should have been his years ago.
“And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound…”
“He slid down the chimney? That ain’t possible. What if he got stuck? And what about the fire? Wouldn’t it be safer to use the front door?”
Scott chuckled in exasperation. “Santa…St. Nick…was the size of an elf. As for the fire, I guess he blew it out before he jumped down the chimney.”
Johnny nodded skeptically.
“He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back;
And he looked like a peddler just opening his sack…”
“What was he doing with toys?”
“That’s what Santa does,” Teresa explained. “He goes from house to house, all over the world, leaving presents for all the good little boys and girls.”
“How does he know what the kids want?”
“The children write Santa a letter asking for what they would most like in the world.”
“Did you do that, Boston?” Johnny asked.
Scott nodded. “A month before Christmas so Santa would have time to get my letter. You see, he lives in the North Pole and it takes time for the mail to get to him.”
“What did you ask for?”
“One year… I remember, I guess I was about five, I wanted a shiny new pocket knife I saw in a store window.”
“Did he bring it to ya?”
Scott shook his head. “No, I was much too young for something like that.”
“Were you disappointed?”
“A little. But I had so many presents under the tree I soon forgot about it…” Suddenly Scott realized what he had said. “I’m sorry, Johnny, that was…”
“No need to apologize for having nice things just ’cause I didn’t. It wasn’t your fault.”
Murdoch felt a pang of guilt, but a look from Johnny told him he held no resentment towards anyone. For now, at this moment, he was enjoying the rewards of a loving family.
“His eyes –how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose a like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk…”
“That’s why you hung our socks over the fire?”
Teresa nodded. “Ever since I could remember we always had five stockings hanging over this hearth. One for me, one for Murdoch, one for my father and one each for you and Scott. Murdoch never forgot his sons at Christmas. This year…” her voice caught for a moment, “The fifth stocking belongs to you…” She nodded toward Jelly, who sat to Murdoch’s left. “You are now a part of this family, Jelly.”
The old man’s whiskered face turned red. “I…ah…I don’t know what ta say…Thank ya seems…”
“It is us who should thank you for your friendship, Jelly,” Murdoch said. “Now, shall we get back to this story before the night is over?”
Teresa reached over and took each of her brother’s hands and laid them in her lap, contented. “We’ll be quiet,” she promised.
“And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”
Murdoch slowly closed the book and looked at his family assembled around him. He was truly a rich man tonight. There wasn’t a present under the tree that could give him more pleasure or joy. He wished he could box this moment and keep it for a life time.
“And that,” he said to Johnny, “is the story of Santa Claus.”
“It’s just a story, right?” Johnny asked hesitantly.
A mischievous smile crossed Scott’s face as he squeezed Teresa’s hand.
“He’s real if you believe in him, Johnny. I, for one, believe in him.”
Johnny thought about it. He finally nodded. “I think I believe in him too. Don’t know if I trust a sleigh and eight reindeer on the roof though…”
Murdoch set the book aside and folded his arms across his chest. The warmth of the fire, the glow of his children’s faces…“If I didn’t believe before, I do tonight.”
“Well, I think I’m a gonna go dream of them sugar plums,” Jelly grinned as he got to his feet. “I’m a gonna get myself to bed…and…thank you for my stocking.”
“You are quite welcome, Jelly.”
Johnny and Scott quickly climbed to their feet. “Merry Christmas,” Scott said, shaking Jelly’s hand warmly. “You are, whether you know it or not, very much a part of this family.”
Jelly choked back a tear.
Johnny reached out to shake Jelly’s hand, but instead pulled him into a warm embrace. “Merry Christmas, Jelly. Feliz Navidad.”
“Feliz Navidad, Johnny.” Jelly pulled away, pulling his cap low to cover the glistening wetness in his eyes.
Teresa kissed him lightly on the cheek. “Be here bright and early for breakfast, so we can open our presents. Goodnight, Jelly.”
Murdoch stood and yawned. “I think I will follow Jelly’s good advice and retire myself. Good night all. And Merry Christmas.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Scott said.
“Santa can’t come until everyone in the house is fast asleep.” Teresa giggled. “Johnny?”
“I’ll be up in awhile…Good night and Feliz Navidad”
“Merry Christmas, brother.”
Johnny watched as the family filed out of the great room, leaving him behind with the tree and the stockings hanging from the mantel.
He couldn’t remember being more happy. He couldn’t help taking one last look at the presents under the tree. He smiled at the four packages scattered among the other presents, the ones he had carefully wrapped for his family. His family. The words sounded good. The words sounded right. Johnny remembered how he had looked long and hard for the perfect gifts. He couldn’t believe that he was more excited about his family opening his presents to them than he was opening his own. He took one last long look at the tree. It was going to be a long night.
Johnny lay very still, nestled under his covers, safe and warm in the comfort of his family’s love. He couldn’t help but listen for the sound of sleigh bells in the sky. It was only a story, and he knew it…but Scott said he believed and so did Murdoch.
Memories of dark and cold Christmases tried to nudge their way into his mind, but he would have nothing of them. This was the only Christmas he wanted to experience.
Slowly his eyes closed as in the distance he thought he heard sleigh bells echoing through the night air.
“Hey, brother! Are you planning on sleeping the morning away?”
Johnny tried to pull the pillow over his head but it was yanked out of his hand and Scott was leaning down close to his ear. “Merry Christmas, Johnny.”
“Merry Christmas.” Johnny sat up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “What time is it?”
“Almost seven. Breakfast is on the table and we’re just waiting for you.”
Johnny climbed out of bed and grabbed his pants off the floor where he left them last night. “Ah… Boston, did you hear anything last night?”
A smile twitched the corners of Scott’s mouth. “Such as?”
Johnny looked at Scott then shook his head. “Nothing. I was just dreaming. You go on down…I’ll be there in a few minutes. But don’t start without me.”
“Never even considered it, brother,” Scott laughed as he closed the door behind.
Breakfast was wolfed down, everyone’s thoughts drawn to the tree and the presents beneath it. But Johnny had only one thing on his mind…his stocking. He had spied it as he rushed through the great room to the kitchen.
And there it was, bulging with a fancy wrapped package. Teresa looked to Scott and Murdoch. She had only stuffed his stocking with nuts and candy just like the rest. Murdoch and Scott could only shrug.
“Aren’t you going to see what it is?” Scott asked.
Johnny carefully pulled the present out, fingering it.
“Open it,” Teresa urged.
Slowly Johnny unwrapped the gift. His hand shook as he held an intricately carved replica of the Lancer “L” brand. He rubbed his thumb over the smooth wood.
“Johnny…are you all right?” Johnny felt Scott’s hand on his shoulder and he nodded.
“It’s a beautiful piece of work,” Murdoch said softly. “Which one of you had it made?”
“I didn’t,” Teresa said.
“Nor I,” Scott said.
Jelly shook his head.
“I certainly didn’t…Then where did it come from. Johnny…?”
Johnny looked up, a tear in his eye. “I made it,” he said softly, remembering a lonely Christmas Eve so many years ago.
“When?” Teresa brushed her fingers across the carving.
“Five years ago,” Johnny answered, his voice shaking. “I passed by the ranch. Don’t know why. I just found myself here. Guess ‘cause it was the holidays and I felt lonely. But I didn’t think you wanted me when I was a baby, and you sure as hell wouldn’t want me as a gun hawk, so I traveled on.”
“Oh, Johnny…” Murdoch’s voice trembled. “If you only knew that I had been looking for you for all those years.”
Johnny smiled sadly. “Spent Christmas Eve a few miles from here, carving this. I threw it in the stream the next morning before I headed back to Mexico, and hadn’t thought about it since.” He looked from the stocking to Murdoch. “But how did it get here?”
“I don’t know if there is an answer to that, son,” Murdoch said.
“Ya don’t think…” Jelly sputtered.
“I think we should just accept that it happened and be grateful that we are all together as a family,” Scott said, his own voice cracking a bit.
“Johnny, I think that would look perfect on the tree.” Teresa suggested, her eyes sparkling with tears.
As Johnny added his ornament to the other ornaments on the tree he felt more loved than he had ever felt before in his life.
“Johnny…Scott…” Murdoch pulled them both into a warm embrace. “This is something I have waited many years to say. Merry Christmas, sons.”
Merry Christmas everyone.
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*A Night Before Christmas – By Clement Clarke Moore.
First published as “A Visit From St. Nicholas” on December 23, 1823 by a New York newspaper, The Sentinel.
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