**Many thanks to Kittystitch for the beta. Your input was invaluable. ;-).
In the mid-winter fog and rain of the San Joaquin valley, Christmas comes like a rollicking stagecoach, homeward bound. Its arrival has been prepared for and expected, heralded by mission bells and feted by the goodwill of cowmen and townspeople alike. As the day draws nearer and nearer, wheels spinning like the slick thrum of a thousand bees, the driver throws up a lantern to light the way and shadows and doubts are refracted away, leaving profound relief. Then it’s remembered, despite being secretly afraid of the contrary, that its arrival has always been assured.
Yet some hearts still need gentle encouragement.
Scott couldn’t say exactly when he’d had enough. Perhaps it was after the tenth bough put precisely in place, per dictates. Per Maria’s dictates, anyway. ‘The Patron has always had it this way,” she said, all the while eyeing the room for naked mantles. ‘Always’ wasn’t nearly definitive enough. Had the tradition begun with his mother or with Johnny’s? Or was it something Murdoch had brought over from the old country, a peccadillo of the man himself?
Always. That single word uttered in melodic English held a simple truth: she knew Murdoch far more than he or Johnny did. Even his newly found brother had flinched a bit at the offense. Scott wasn’t the sort of man to lay blame, and after twenty-four years it should have been water under the bridge, but old feelings of being cast off still arose from time to time. If pressed, he knew where to look for the source of the trouble. However, the chair behind the big mahogany desk was empty, its occupant currently overseeing the men in the north pasture.
Likely his aggravation had started before the dictates--the hope of the season was tainted by profound regrets for sixteen comrades who would never see Christmas again--yet it galloped along after Maria had exited for her kitchen haunt, leaving them to finish the greenery. He wasn’t alone in that regard. Although Johnny had agreed to help haul the boughs into the house, his scorn at actually putting them around the room had deepened with every cut branch carried.
Dropping a particularly prickly specimen, Johnny licked a spot of blood off his thumb. “I’ll never understand,” and he swiveled his head around to take in the room, “about all this foolishness. Or why we have to do it.”
Perhaps the foolishness came from the Boston side of the family. Scott didn’t reply, just pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and attempted to lift a dribble of sap from the edge of the mantle. Johnny watched him in silence, fingers churched over his belly, tapping out a Morse code of the thoughts running through his head. Navigation with his brother was as sticky as the stain Scott was working off the wood. Sometimes fruitless, oftentimes nothing but bluff. He wondered, for a brief moment, what Johnny thought about Murdoch.
The pine branches were halfway laid out, and his brother had gone that quiet, still way a cat went when it saw a sudden movement in the bushes. It was something, really, that intensity.
He heard a sigh. “So what are colly birds anyway?”
“Yeah, colly birds. Teresa was humming somethin’ about them the other day. Four of’ em, to be exact.”
Johnny tallied up the expense of having eight milking maids when just one would do--of course it depended on the number of milk cows one had--before Scott could blink.
“Those twelve drummers lined up, now that’d be a sight. But all the noise might just put off those layin’ hens, and that wouldn’t be good, French or not.”
Johnny’s deliberate off-key sing-song chant, and Scott’s ignoring it, became a game as vicious and as pointless as a schoolyard staring match. He cut Johnny off with a wave of his hand. He wasn’t going to win this one, all he was going to do was exacerbate the situation.
He hooked a thumb towards the portico.
The wide smile on Johnny’s face as he tripped out the door led Scott to believe there must have been some snake oil in his brother’s lineage. But from which side, paternal or maternal?
The quiet Johnny left behind in his wake was somewhat overwhelming. So was Murdoch, for that matter, although he’d never tell his father. Hardly the man he thought him to be, all those years in Boston. Ostensibly a good thing, as his thoughts in that general direction tended to be quite dark.
He wandered over to Murdoch’s cache of books lining the wall and thumbed through the leather binders, choosing a well-used first edition of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. It seemed appropriate. The pages were wafer thin and smudged, with spidery handwriting on the inside cover that Scott couldn’t make out, except for a date. It was marked two years before his birth.
Sometime later, the greenery still in a heap by the door, he found himself walking outside contemplating Ebenezer Scrooge and his three spirits. Revisiting the past had done wonders for the old boy, but it was the silent Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, with its pointing finger and shroud of deep black that really turned the tide.
Unlike Scrooge whose eyes had been opened, Scott was wholly unprepared for his future. The problem was, despite his signature on the piece of paper at the lawyer’s office, he had no experience at being a son.
He resisted the bit of frisson running up his spine, took a deep breath, and let it go.
The loft was full of winter hay. Johnny tucked the remnants of one bale into the sharp triangle made by the roof struts and sat down gingerly. That spot in his back from Pardee’s bullet was still tingly, especially with the change in the weather.
His pocket wriggled, and he drew her out, blinking solemnly at the new surroundings. Just a small thing, the color of butterscotch candy, that somebody would miss if he wasn’t lookin’ close enough. Better here than down below where she’d get a sharp hoof to her ribs just for nosing around. She climbed up on his lap, padded her feet up and down, digging in claws, purring like a steam engine. Once then twice around and she finally laid down, nose to tail.
Singing, that’s what he remembered from being a kid this time of year, mama’s clear voice rising above the rest, to honor la Virgen de Guadalupe. Almost like she had to atone for somethin’. By early December, she filled the rented room with nacimientos, in every size, and made sweet tamales.
Singing, then yelling when his step-father showed up again, and mama would dip into her flask one too many times. Johnny was told often enough by him what a lousy son he was--how would it be any different here? After all this time he had no idea how to act like one. Maybe he never did.
Someone came into the barn, and Johnny drew his leg up sharply, dumping the surprised kitten on the floor. Bits of hay drifted downwards to the stalls below.
“Who’s up there?” Scott’s question was more of a demand than anything else, and spoken in his ‘soldier’ voice. The one that sounded a lot like Murdoch when he was on a tear.
“You get those pines put up around the room?”
He settled back. “Or maybe you were too busy figurin’ out what those colly birds were, huh?”
“Why don’t you come down and see?”
“Why don’t you come up?”
A door slammed from the hacienda, and Scott heaved himself into the loft over the top of the ladder rungs.
“Who-ee, you move fast. For a man who stood up to Confederates and land pirates, you sure are twitchy about a woman in skirts.”
“And that would make the fact you’re hiding out here in the loft so much better?” Scott made a spot for himself by the window and sat, brushing off a few stray seeds. “Who’s your friend?”
“Found her down below, wandering in and out of the stalls. Fool cat doesn’t know how to act around horses yet.”
Johnny shrugged and the kitten swiped at a button on his coat. “Couldn’t find her mama anywhere, so I expect so.”
“She fits right in with the company, I suppose.”
The kitten took notice of Scott’s upturned hat and padded to it, curling around inside the brim.
“Huh, just like a woman--fickle as all get out.”
“I’d say she has good taste.”
The smell of horses and leather and odd mustiness swept around them like a cloak.
“This place could use a good sweep,” Scott said, face pinched, one hand fisted at his side. He jostled the kitten, and she gave a half-hearted bat with her paw, only to settle down and close her eyes again.
Johnny had come to learn over these past few months how tetchy his brother could be when he was on the prowl about somethin’, and Scott was definitely thinking. It wasn’t easy getting past the front he threw up, but every now and then it was worth a try.
He could guess where the irritation came from. Scott was between places, not sure if he could make it work. It was the type of thing that lingered on a man’s mind. You couldn’t while it away with liquor or herding cows, only find someone who knew about it.
“Once all the shootin’ dies down, it gets pretty quiet, don’t it?”
“That’s an understatement.”
“Why’d you come all the way out to the valley?”
“Same reason you did, I would imagine.”
“I was in a Mexican prison waitin’ to be shot by the soldados. Couldn’t take that thousand dollars fast enough.”
Scott’s eyebrows quirked together. “Perhaps not the same, then.”
“So you can go back?”
“Looking to get another third of the Lancer estate?”
Johnny grinned so wide he could feel the creases at his eyes.
“What would I go back to?”
“Back to school…back to your abuela’s company so you can…”
“There’s nothing for me there. Do you understand?”
Johnny cleared his throat, keeping his eyes on Scott. “Yeah. Maybe. I think I do.”
“What about you?”
A good question all right. It seemed like Scott really wanted to know, not
and that was a wonder right there. “Looks like we both drew to an inside
straight.” And Murdoch was holding all the cards. Dios.
They turned their heads at the sound of footsteps coming their way across the courtyard. Probably Maria with more orders.
Scott pushed his fingers pushed through the soft fur of the kitten’s head, stroking it behind the ears. “I think this one is yours. I did the mantles, or most of them anyway,” he said with a dare of a smirk.
Johnny’s lips pursed. “I helped carry.”
“Not enough,” Scott snorted on a bit off chuckle.
“Mebbe it’d be for the best,” Johnny said. “That way it can get done right.”
tell you what,” Scott said, ignoring the jibe. “When she outlines the next
split it down the middle.”
“Yeah. Okay,” he said with a slight nod.
“Fifty-fifty,” Scott nodded back.
Johnny stared down through the floor slats when she walked into the barn. He mouthed ‘Teresa’ to Scott and they both eased back into the bales. She stopped and cocked her head to the side, looking like a pigeon sighting down a June bug. Sure enough, she climbed up the ladder.
“I thought I heard something. What are you two doing up here?”
“I just came out to get a nap. And Scott here got tired of fixing pines over the fireplace in the house.”
“You mean, ‘we’, right brother?”
Teresa seemed ill at ease, ready to bolt. Worried, not afraid, though. “What’s wrong?” Johnny asked.
“This is my thinking place. I never thought it would be occupied.”
Scott slid over and gestured beside him. “There’s always room for one more thinker. Come on up.”
The edges around her eyes softened at that, and he helped her into the loft while Scott brushed aside the hay from the floor.
Once seated, her hand went to her mouth to hide the smile. “So you mean you were...?”
Johnny grimaced. “Yeah, that’s right, but I don’t see anything funny about it.”
“Well, it’s just that she usually gets Tomas and Patricio, her nephews, to do that job. The devils. They must be hiding out.” She bit her lip to stifle a laugh.
“Teresa, when Johnny and I were in the house, Maria said Murdoch has always put greenery around the house for the season.”
“Oh, you must have heard wrong, or maybe Maria was in a hurry to get it done. My dad was the one to start that, ever since I was a little girl.” Teresa’s voice was different, soft with the edges blurred. Not worried anymore, just a little sad with remembering.
“So Murdoch didn’t have a hand in it?” Johnny asked, following Scott’s thoughts.
She shrugged. “He’s never said anything. But he does bring out an old book to read on nochebuena. Um, the night before. It’s the one with three ghosts--The Christmas Carol?”
Scott swallowed, looking like he wanted to hear more, was disappointed when Teresa went on.
“Then there’s the nacimiento, the manger. Murdoch made it a long time ago, carved it from hard oak himself. He puts it out on the side table every year. So I guess those would be his traditions.”
Johnny leaned back into the hay bale, a thin breath escaping from him. Outside, the breeze had shifted, currents eddying in the drafty barn, bringing with it the sound of hoof beats.
Her eyes met his. “What’s the matter?”
“Murdoch’s a hard man to figure out, or what he wants.”
“Not so hard. Dad said you just have to wait him out. I guess I never really understood it, but having you two here, I think I do now.”
Boot heels sounded in the courtyard. Methodical steps--no wasted energy there--heading straight for the barn. Teresa’s eyes rounded.
Murdoch cast a big shadow in the doorway, one hand holding onto the frame as if to steady himself. Then he bent down.
“So little Miss, who are you looking for?” They heard a soft mew. “Your child most likely. Well so am I, only not one but three. They’re hard to keep corralled, aren’t they? I had hoped this Christmas…well, anyway.”
Murdoch’s hand swept back and forth lightly under the cat’s chin, then he smiled but it was sad and knowing and old.
“They’re a mystery to me most days.” His hand stopped. “Although not children anymore. Definitely not. My advice? Find them and keep them close. It’s a lesson hard learned.”
He lifted the cat up higher in his arms. “Come along, Miss. They have to be around somewhere.”
They waited until the footsteps dwindled away, looking everywhere except at each other. The air had been sucked out of the barn, and Johnny had to coax himself to remain still, because he wanted out of there, just wanted to get outside and go.
Scott finally spoke, hardly more than a whisper.
“I guess that solves the mystery.”
Teresa nodded. “He wants us.”
--Johnny, of course, is irritating Scott with the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, first published in 1780. “Colly birds” were a precursor in 1855 to the ‘Calling birds’ we know today.
--Nochebuena is Christmas Eve, la Virgen de Guadalupe is Our Lady of Guadalupe (huge festival starting early in December and the symbol of Catholic Mexicans), nacimiento is a manger scene (literally: ‘birth)