Johnny remembers a Christmas from the past.
The late day sun had waned, giving way to the muted light of evening. The Great room danced with the shadows cast by the flickering flames of oil lamps and the fireplace. Standing midway in the room, Johnny’s face was softened by the warm glow and his own reflective expression. He studied the tiny manger with all the animals and the little people that had so carefully been arranged on the table which usually held Murdoch’s cherished ship. For some reason he felt as if this was a scene he had viewed before but his memory couldn’t quite conjure up a time or place. Johnny subconsciously tilted his head to the right and chewed his bottom lip as he struggled to remember. He had seen many nativity scenes before but this one seemed to have a personal hold on him that he just couldn’t shake.
Teresa and Maria had been flitting around the house decorating with fresh greens and ribbon over the past few days. Baskets with spice scented pinecones filled the air and mouth watering aromas were escaping from the kitchen. The Lancer Christmas tree stood in the corner decorated with glass ornaments that had been carefully brought from Boston when Murdoch and Catherine had migrated west after they were married. Ribbons and homemade ornaments filled in where the glass baubles had left gaps.
The house had been decorated for days when the Nativity had just suddenly appeared. Teresa had been mystified by its presence and had questioned Maria, who denied ever seeing it before. She later asked Scott about it wondering if it was something he had brought with him from Boston. He had also denied knowing anything about it. When she asked Johnny he had starred for a long time and when she asked him again he hastily told her he hadn’t a clue as to how it got there. Teresa had intended to ask Murdoch about it but with the hustle and bustle of all the holiday activities she forgot.
Johnny looked around the room smiling as he recalled how Teresa had roped him and Scott into helping with decorating the tree by stringing strands of popcorn and cranberries. He’d never done anything like that before and Teresa had fussed at him when she found him eating more than he was stringing. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to string food and put it on a tree that was going to be coming down in a couple of weeks. He was especially sad about having to string the popcorn. He would much rather eat it himself.
As it did every time he came into the room, Johnny’s attention turned back to the display on the table, he seemed powerless to fight the urge to be near the little nativity set. He sighed heavily as once again he grappled with the vague memory that he couldn’t quite bring to the surface. The lamb seemed to hold a special interest for him and for the life of him he couldn’t figure out why. It sure looked mangy compared to the other small figures. His little wool coat had pulled away in places and it was matted in others.
Glancing about to see if he was being observed, Johnny inched closer and reached out to touch the little lamb; just as his fingers made contact he snatched them back as if someone had slapped his fingers. Subconsciously, he rubbed the back of his hand as a something seemed to push its way towards the front of his mind. No, no, Johnny mustn’t touch. The memory floated briefly through his mind but it was as wispy and fleeting as dandelion seeds taking flight in a sudden breeze, try as he might he couldn’t capture it.
Strolling into the room, Scott paused as he studied Johnny, wondering why his little brother seemed so fascinated with the nativity scene. He had noticed on several occasions Johnny would just be standing there staring at the small manger and figures. At first, he thought maybe it was because it was the one thing Johnny was probably most familiar with. The boy had asked a lot of questions when Maria and Teresa had begun to decorate every corner of house. He was especially curious about the Christmas tree.
Scott laughed at the memory of Teresa fussing at his little brother for eating most of the popcorn they were supposed to be stringing requiring her to pop more. Later, that evening he had noticed how Johnny would return periodically to the little Nativity scene and when he asked him about it Johnny only shrugged and said he was just remembering others he had seen when he was just a kid. Now here the boy was again, staring at it, with a deep expression of fascination on his young face.
“Johnny,” Scott called quietly not wanting to startle his little brother.
“Hey, Boston, I thought you were goin’ to see that new school teacher tonight,” Johnny teased, trying to hide the fact he was so drawn to Nativity scene.
“I am but it’s still early,” Scott said as he moved around to the side of his kid brother; wrapping an arm companionably about his shoulders. “What are your plans tonight?” Scott asked as he studied the little animal figures.
“I thought I might join the boys in the bunkhouse for a game of poker. It’s been awhile since I been out there and I figure it’s about time I relieved them of some of their wages,” Johnny informed his brother. He laughed to himself as he thought about the way Jelly always swelled up and called him a smart alec whenever he won a hand.
“Sounds like fun, maybe I should break my date with the ‘fair’ Miss Gentry and join you boys. After all I wouldn’t want you to have all that fun without me,” Scott teased his brother.
“No… no, you go ahead with your date there, big brother. I can handle the bunkhouse poker all by myself. No need to disappoint the ‘fair’ Miss Gentry,” Johnny assured his brother.
~*~L~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The next morning Scott met his father in the hallway and the two men made their way down to the breakfast table. Johnny hadn’t come to the table yet and after several minutes when he didn’t show up Murdoch decided to check on the boy to make sure he had not over slept. It wasn’t often Johnny stayed in bed anymore but once in a while he would over sleep and needed a bit of prompting from Murdoch to get up and going.
Upon entering Johnny’s room, Murdoch found the bed had been slept in but was now empty with no indication where his son might be. Where is that boy, he wondered? Making his way back to the ground floor by the way of the front stairs, Murdoch was just about to head towards the kitchen when out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of red. He turned to investigate and saw Johnny standing before the little Nativity scene, seemingly lost in another world as he stared at it. Murdoch watched his son for a moment wondering if he was experiencing any kind of memory from when he was a toddler.
“Johnny, Maria has your breakfast ready. You need to come along now and eat while it’s still hot. You know how she gets when you don’t come to the table on time,” Murdoch beckoned his son gently. He inhaled deeply and felt the warmth of moisture pool in his eyes as his youngest turned to acknowledge him and for the span of a heartbeat he saw once again the cherubic face of his baby.
“Sure, Murdoch, I’m comin’.” Almost reluctantly Johnny turned and left the little miniature display of figurines behind and went to join his father, who stood waiting for him.
Johnny managed to finish up the jobs his father had assigned him for the day and made it home early. Quickly, he bathed and changed into clean fresh clothes. Aggie Conway and Sam Jenkins were supposed to join them for supper tonight but no one else had come in yet and it was very early giving Johnny plenty of free time on his own. For a while he wandered around his room picking up some of his clothes and throwing them in a corner instead of kicking them under the bed. He put some of the leather he had been working with away in a drawer and put his work boots in the corner so that Teresa and Maria wouldn’t trip over them if they decided to come in his room for any reason. His ears had been blistered more than once for the ladies tripping over one thing or another that he had left in the middle of his floor.
Becoming very restless when there was nothing left to do in his room, Johnny ambled down stairs. He soon found himself in front of the nativity scene once again. He couldn’t understand why he was so drawn to it but he felt a powerful pull towards it and couldn’t resist the desire to be near it. He had wanted to reach out and touch the little lamb for some reason. It seemed to have the most influence over him and yet as his hand would reach for the lamb, a little voice inside his head would admonish, No… no, Johnny mustn’t touch.
Scott came in the front door and once again found his entranced little brother standing by the manger scene. It puzzled him that Johnny seemed so infatuated with the religious display. “Hey, little brother, I see you got in early today,” Scott greeted the boy.
“Yeah, I got through ahead of time, seems luck was with us. There weren’t that many strays up there and it didn’t take long to round them up. I got back early but too late to tackle anything else,” Johnny informed his brother, his eyes still locked on the Nativity.
Scott reached for the little lamb commenting on its appearance. “It looks like someone has been chewing on this little guy.”
Johnny instantly pulled Scott’s hand back warning him. “No, Scott, don’t touch him!”
Scott pulled his hand back, surprised at how passionate Johnny seemed about the little lamb. “What’s wrong?” he questioned, his slate blue eyes intently studying his little brother.
Johnny didn’t know for sure why he didn’t want his brother to touch the little worn lamb; he just felt it was wrong to touch any of the little figures. “Murdoch might not like it if we play with the animals.”
Scott shrugged at Johnny’s reluctance to touch the little animal but didn’t want to upset him over it. He did wonder though if there might be more to Johnny’s little obsession with the little Nativity set. He suspected there was some kind of history between his little brother and the manger but he didn’t have time to question the boy any further at the moment. He needed to get upstairs and get cleaned up for the little dinner party his father was having with their oldest and dearest friends.
Murdoch had watched the entire exchange from the bottom of the stairs and knew he would have to explain the meaning of Johnny’s obsession with the Nativity scene eventually. One of his favorite memories of his youngest child was connected with the little lamb. It was a memory he was looking forward to sharing with the whole family, especially Johnny. He just didn’t know if he could without getting all emotional about it.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N *~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
After a sumptuous evening meal, Murdoch led his friends and family into the Great Room for some coffee and pleasant conversation. Aggie stopped in front of the Nativity and studied the little figurines. Something about it stirred a memory but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Not wanting to be rude by continuing to stare, she made her way over to the couch to sit by Johnny, who was trying to talk his father into letting him have a glass of tequila instead of the coffee that was being passed around.
For the next hour Murdoch enjoyed the company of his family and friends. There were plenty of stories of Christmases past shared. Teresa remembered the year that her father and Murdoch had surprised her with her horse Cinnamon. She was Teresa’s first real horse, always before she had only been given ponies. Murdoch noticed that Aggie seemed to be drawn to the little Nativity scene on the table behind the couch.
It wasn’t long before her curiosity got the best of her and she asked him about it. “Have you always had this little manger scene out at Christmas?” she asked.
With a notable sigh, Murdoch explained about the little Nativity set. “The last time I put it out was Johnny’s last Christmas here. After he and Maria disappeared I didn’t have the heart to set it up. This was Johnny’s favorite decoration and we were always having to tell him no and leave it alone.”
“No… no, Johnny, mustn’t touch,” Johnny recited.
The words were whispered but everyone heard them as they came from the boy sitting on the couch with a very faraway look as if trying to capture a memory that was in the back of his mind.
Murdoch looked at his son and smiled. “You remember don’t you, son? I can’t tell you how many times we would say that and it never seemed to matter, you just couldn’t keep your hands off of it. You were obsessed with it, especially the little lamb. You chewed on it every time you managed to grab it without being caught.”
Johnny stood up and walked over to the Nativity and looked at it as snatches of an old memory began to come forward. He hesitantly reached out for the lamb but stopped just short of touching it. Murdoch saw his boy’s reluctance to touch the lamb and got up and walked to Johnny’s side. He picked up the lamb and gently placed it in his son’s hand. It was then that the memory became vivid. It was odd since he couldn’t remember much of anything else but the lamb sitting in his hand opened the floodgates to long repressed memories. With his finger, Johnny gently traced over the chewed bits of fur thinking about how he had gnawed on it.
Murdoch sensed that his son was having some flashes of recall and filled in the blanks. “You were teething and I suspect that little bit of wool was soothing. I found it in the oddest places at times where you would drop it when something else caught your fancy. It’s held special memories for me. I always pulled it out of its special little hiding place every Christmas Eve and I would sit and hold it while remembering my dark headed baby who loved to play with it. I would hold the lamb nestled in my hand because it was the closest I could get to holding you.
Murdoch found it difficult to continue as emotions blocked his throat and it was all he could do to just breathe. He put his arm around his youngest son and pulled him into a tight embrace. He relished the smell of the soap that Johnny bathed with and the scent of his hair. He closed his eyes and traveled back to the time when he held this same child next to him and rocked him; humming lullabies that had been sung to him as a baby.
“So why did you put it out this year?” Johnny asked, pressing his ear to his father’s chest and relishing the sturdy beat of his heart.
Murdoch stood quietly for just a few seconds before answering. Finally, when he believed he could trust himself to speak without crying he answered, “Because this year my little lamb came home.” His arms tightened in a possessive grip, determined to never lose this son again.