The hacienda was redolent with the fragrance of fresh cut pine and the enticing smells of cinnamon and nutmeg and orange. Near the fireplace in the Great Room, a crèche stood in the shadow of the large decorated tree, its small crib empty awaiting the arrival of the Holy Infant. Earlier that day, the sound of voices singing carols in lilting Spanish had drifted from the kitchen where the women had been hard at work putting the final touches on the upcoming feast.
Upstairs, all was quiet, the fire in the hearth fading. He knew he should stoke it before he lost what meager light it did offer but he continued to sit in his chair, his long frame bent forward at the waist, his eyes focused on the cradle and the baby asleep in a cocoon of blankets.
He had made the cradle himself; had chosen the wood, shaped and sanded each piece until they were smooth. On a whim, he had carved the two tiny horses that pranced among the leaves and curling tendrils that graced the headboard. When he had finished it, he had squirreled it away in the old guardhouse, too afraid of tempting fate to bring it into the hacienda. Each day he would find a few minutes to visit it, running his hands over the polished wood before giving it a gentle nudge to set it rocking. Here, in private, he would allow himself to dream and plan, buoyed by his love for his unborn child.
But there were times when the visit would be abruptly cut short. The emotional wounds he carried were old but only partially healed. Fleeing the guardhouse, he would throw himself into whatever job was at hand oftentimes going from task to task until the memories finally receded.
The cradle he had secreted away was not his first. Instead of vines and frolicking horses, its headboard had towering mountains crowned by a rising sun. It had been the sight that had greeted him that first morning outside his new home; the sun just cresting the peaks of the mountains, its rays fanning boldly across the sky. In awe, he had watched as the light had cascaded down the mountainsides, dispelling the velvet darkness to reveal the land—his land. He had sought to capture in wood what had been the defining moment of his life, the fulfillment of the dream that had sent him across an ocean and a continent in search of it.
When finished, that cradle had sat in pride of place, ready to receive the son or daughter; the first of many, God willing.
It had never been used. The day after he returned from Cartersville, it had been gone from their room along with the drawer full of baby things she had left behind which had smelled of the lavender sachets she had tucked among them. He had not asked what had become of these things, just been pathetically grateful that someone had spared him this heartbreaking task.
Several months later, he had come across the cradle stored in the attic, hidden under a tarp already gathering dust. One touch and the memories had come flooding back; the joy on her face when she had told him she was with child, the quiet contentment that had settled on her as she grew rounder. Never had a child been more eagerly anticipated.
Then he had been forced to make a decision, the only one he believed he could make in all clear conscious. He had been selfish, ignoring her wishes because he needed her, needed them, to be safe. In the end, he had lost everything.
Anguish and guilt nearly drove him to his knees. Roughly jerking the tarp back into place, he had left the room without a backward glance. Although he could never bring himself to dispose of the cradle, he had never looked at it again.
The irony of it was their child, their son, had lived but had been taken beyond his reach. Just as he had been too late to be with her, he had been too late to stop her father from spiriting away their baby.
In time, he forged his grief and anger into a steely determination to reclaim his stolen son but with each setback, he became more bitter and withdrawn. Then, unexpectedly, a second chance at love reminded him of what he could have again and not just of what he had lost.
Her passion for life left him breathless and she became pregnant almost immediately. Fear tempered his happiness and made him vigilant and overprotective. She once chided him for watching her like she was one of his prize mares about to drop its foal. She would playfully mimic his stern features and wag a disapproving finger in his face before relenting and acknowledging his concerns. She was fine, she would say, both her and the bebe. She was a veritable whirlwind of motion, caught up in her plans for the holiday, their first as a family.
But history seemed determined to repeat itself. The baby was not due until well after the first of the year. The pregnancy had been textbook, no complications or surprises so as a result, they were totally unprepared for when her pains came upon her almost a month early.
The welcome appearance of Sam Jenkins a few hours later had done little to alleviate his panic. As if reading his mind, Sam had squeezed his shoulder in unspoken reassurance even while grumbling good-naturedly about the predilection of babies to come in the middle of the night.
Banished from their room, he had nervously paced the length of the Great Room, spurred on by the sounds filtering down from the upper floor. He told himself this was not like before; Sam was here ably assisted by their housekeeper and a wife of one of the vaqueros. They were not in the back of a wagon by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere…
The cries of a newborn, tentative at first but rapidly gaining in strength had him taking the stairs two at a time.
Duties and responsibilities did not stop because of the birth of a baby not even his own. He had been out most of the day not only supervising the work necessary for the smooth running of the ranch but also seeing to the final preparations for tomorrow. He returned, dirty and exhausted, to find the two of them already asleep. After cleaning up, he had settled in his chair to spend some time with his son.
Fascinated, he watched as one incredibly tiny fist emerged from the blankets to waver in the air. When a frown creased the wizened features he moved quickly to forestall a possible eruption of infant displeasure. Easing one hand under his son's head to support his neck and the other under his behind, he carefully lifted him from the cradle then resumed his seat.
It felt right, holding his son. He remembered how frightened he had been when they had first placed him in his arms, afraid that he might somehow drop or otherwise injure the seemingly fragile infant. But all his doubts had quickly vanished to be replaced by an all-consuming, all-encompassing love. In that instant, he knew that there was nothing, nothing he would not do to protect this child.
The baby yawned then slowly opened his eyes. Father and son regarded each other solemnly. He often regretted the stern upbringing that made it difficult for him to express his emotions but he found himself telling his son how much he loved him and his brother and that hopefully, this time next year, the two of them would be celebrating the holidays together.
The grandfather clock downstairs chimed the hour. He knew it was late but he wanted to be the first. His son would not remember this moment but that did not matter; he would. He held his son closer, his breath stirring the silky black hair as he bent to press a kiss to his forehead. Laying his cheek next to his son's, inhaling the scent of him, he whispered into his ear, “Merry Christmas, Johnny.”