The Night Before Christmas - Lancer
Johnny sprawled out on the rug in front of the fireplace, as close to the hearth as he could get. Even though it was getting late, there was too damned much yappin’ goin’ on to sleep, even upstairs; Teresa and Scott sittin’ on the couch yammerin’ on about tomorrow. Hell, the place had been crazy for more’n a week now with all the decoratin’ and the cookin’; so much so he’d taken off for town right after lunch.
Not that that had been such a great idea. Ended up sittin’ in the Red Dog about two tequilas longer than he should have, even after Val reminded him he wasn’t ‘sposed to be in town in the first place. Twenty minutes of an ass-chewin’ he really didn’t want, and on top of that -- after he’d finally gotten away from Val’s mouth -- Barranca picked up a stone about five miles from home. Had to walk ‘im the rest of the way; which, of course, made him late for supper. Again.
He reached back to touch his right buttock with the fingers of his right hand. Bein’ late was why he was layin’ on his belly. Murdoch had been waitin’ for him in the barn when he finally made home and the next thing he knew -- right there in front of God and everybody -- the Old Man decided they’d have a discussion. Yep. Commandments 1 through 586, the usual list of rules; which wasn’t too bad, even with the headache he was gettin’. Until he made the mistake of tellin’ Murdoch to shut the fuck up. That was good for damned near a half-dozen pretty solid whacks across his ass end before the Old Man’s arm got tired.
He sighed; a prolonged, dramatic sigh, pointedly massaging his sore rear-end as he waited. Teresa looked up from her popcorn stringing and gave him a small, sympathetic smile, shaking her head a bit before resuming listening to Scott. The Old Man looked up from his newspaper, rattling the pages a bit; and Scott…
Scott never even stopped talkin’. Big brother just shot him one of those don’t you even dare suggest I didn’t tell you to stay home; you got exactly what you had coming looks. Like he hadn’t ever snuck off a time or two.
Scott’s voice cut into the younger man’s reverie. “Actually, Teresa, Grandfather made a more than decent effort to make Christmas something very special.” He paused a bit, looking at his father before going on. “In a strange way, I think it was his personal tribute to my Mother’s memory, as well as an attempt to make the holidays easier for me as I got older and became aware of when she died.” He smiled, a bittersweet smile; but a smile none-the-less. Then, wanting to lighten the mood. “He even read to me, every Christmas Eve!” When Teresa failed to hide her surprise -- she had met Harlan Garrett and had found the man cold and quite haughty -- he continued. “Oh, yes,” he said, nodding. “He’d pull me right up on his lap in front of the fire place…”
This was too good for Johnny to pass up. He turned over on his side, his head resting on his left hand as he stared up at his elder brother. “What’d he read ya, Scott? That story you and Murdoch was readin’ us the other night,” he winked at Teresa, “about that fella Scrooge?”
More paper rattling, but this time when Johnny looked at his father Murdoch was actually smiling. That was enough to encourage the younger son. “You know, Scott. That old skinflint that stole from the rich and the poor and kept the money?”
“No, little brother,” Scott replied. He rose up and in a few long strides was across the room, into the hallway, and bounding up the stairs; by twos.
Johnny could hear Scott’s footsteps above them, the sound of a door opening; and then more footsteps as the older man retraced his steps. Then the loud trip down the stairs. Yep, Johnny thought, old Scott could come down those stairs soundin’ like a herd of buffalo when he had a mind to. The younger man’s eyes narrowed. And I get my ass chewed out for slidin’ down the banister! How’s that fair? He shook the thought away.
Scott came through the arched doorway, a large book in his right hand. “I found a copy of the same book in Morro Coyo; at the mercantile.” He was waving the volume above his head.
Teresa came forward on the couch, expectant. She was rewarded when Scott placed the book onto her lap. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” she breathed, reading the title as she traced each letter with her fingertips. “By Clement C. Moore.”
Scott slipped into his seat beside his sister. “It’s considered a classic,” he announced. “Dr. Moore,” he said, emphasizing the title, “wrote other books as well -- including a Hebrew dictionary -- but he’s best known for this.” He opened the book, pointing to the elaborate illustration on the first page; the lithographs in full color, the capital letter of the first line of the poem large and ornate. “He wrote it for his children.”
“Read it,” Teresa instructed, handing the book back to her brother.
Johnny hiked himself up, taking a peek at the first page; his gaze caught by the profusion of bright colors. “Yeah, brother. Go on.” His eyes were dancing and he faked a yawn. “I could use somethin’ to put me to sleep.”
Scott cast a wary eye at his younger brother. Johnny always pretended to go to sleep when Murdoch or he were reading aloud. He’d gotten wise to the ploy when Johnny had quoted, word for word, a complete soliloquy from Hamlet that had been completely appropriate for the situation they had found themselves in. He leaned forward slightly, eyeballing the younger man. “You’re going to listen?” he asked. When Johnny attempted to speak, he raised his hand. “You’re not going to interrupt?”
The younger man feigned shock, his expression pure innocence. “Who? Me?” Behind him, his father snorted.
“Go on,” Teresa urged.
Scott leaned back against the soft cushions, and began reading. “‘Twas the…”
“Twas?” Johnny drawled.
The elder brother’s right eyebrow arched. The interruption had come sooner than he expected. “It was,” he began again, and hurried on, “the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…’”
“Musta had a cat, huh? Maybe a couple a cats. How big was the house?”
“Ten rooms, ten cats,” Scott answered, undeterred. Determined, he resumed reading. “‘The stockings were hung by the chimney with care…’”
Johnny again. “Bet that smelled great.”
“‘In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.’” He didn’t wait for the interruption. “Santa Claus. Based on an old Dutch legend about a man who brought gifts on Christmas Eve; left them in the wooden shoes the children left beside the hearth. Toys for the good children; a lump of coal and a switch for the bad children.” Right about now, Scott thought, a switch didn’t sound like a bad idea.
“If someone’s bringin’ free gifts,” Johnny reckoned, thinking aloud, “then why the He…heck did I spend all that time takin’ Teresa shoppin’?”
Teresa let out a loud sigh. As if it had killed her brother to take her into town a few times. She’d spent as much time looking for him after she was done shopping as she had spent in the stores; all three times. “Yes, Johnny. We buy gifts for each other. It’s a tradition. Santa Claus brings the extra ones -- the surprises -- you find under the tree in the morning.”
Johnny’s lips were twitching. “Ohhhh…”
Scott picked up the book again. “‘The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;’” He paused. Nothing happened. “‘And mama in her kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled down for a long winter’s nap.’”
Laughter this time, Johnny casting a long look at his father; thinking of Murdoch wearing a cap to bed. He quickly sobered when he felt Teresa’s eyes on him.
“‘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.’”
Johnny was toying with a loose thread on the edge of the rug. “Shouldn’t ate it,” he said; grinning up at his brother. “The sash.” Teresa reached out and thumped him on the head.
“‘The moon on the breast…’” Scott closed his eyes briefly and then hurried on, “‘…of the new-fallen snow, Gave the luster of mid-day to the objects below, When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,’” Like a teacher in a classroom of wiggly kindergarten children, he turned the book about and displayed the picture; tapping his forefinger against the page. He continued from memory, “‘With a little old driver, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment in must be St. Nick. More rapid than eagles his coursers they came, and he whistled and shouted, and called them by name.’”
Johnny had pulled himself up into a sitting position, his legs crossed Indian-fashion. His right elbow was resting on his right knee, his chin resting in his right palm. He actually looked interested.
Encouraged, Scott plowed on. “‘Now Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen!’” he saw Johnny’s mouth start to open, and silenced him with a stern glare. “‘On Comet! On Cupid! On Donder and Blitzen!’”
This time, the younger man actually leaned forward before he smarted off, wiggling a finger at his brother to beckon him nearer. He whispered into the man’s ear. “First we got breasts and now we got Prancer, Vixen, and Cupid?” he murmured suggestively.
Scott boxed his brother’s ears; not too hard, just enough to make sure the boy’s mind had stepped out of the gutter. He resumed reading. “‘As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky; so up to the house-top the coursers they flew, with the sleigh full of toys and St. Nicholas, too.
“’And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof, the prancing and pawing of each little hoof. As I drew in my head, and was turning around, down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.’”
Johnny shot a look at the fire that was burning in the fireplace. As much as he was tempted, he didn’t say anything; content in the knowledge that St. Nicholas must drink a hell of a lot to be that stupid.
“‘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 pack.
“‘His eyes --how they twinkled! His dimples how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!’”
Yep, Johnny mused. A whisky drinker. Cheap whisky.
“‘His droll little mouth was drawn up like bow, and the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.
“‘The stump of a pipe he held teeth, And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;’”
Johnny stifled a giggle with the back of his hand, his gaze drawn to his father, who had just taken another puff of his own pipe. Scott’s rich baritone broke into his reverie.
“‘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, 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.’”
Teresa smiled across at her elder brother. “Oh, Scott. That was wonderful!!” she gushed. “What a perfect thing for Christmas Eve.” The smile broadened. “Now we have a new Lancer tradition!”
Johnny reached up with both arms, stretching against the ache in his back. “That’s it?” he asked.
“Talk about a Scrooge,” Scott chided, shaking his head. Shutting the book, he leaned forward and ruffled his brother’s hair.
“C’mon, big brother,” Johnny ventured, scratching his ear. He stood up, turned slightly, and pointed to the mantle. “Down the chimney?” He swung back around, facing Teresa this time. “Not one word in that poem about puttin’ anything under the Christmas tree,” he continued, pointing at the tall pine in the far corner; the one it took Scott two days to find. Two long days. “Just about fillin’ the stockings.” Another grand sweep of his finger, this time in the direction of the barren mantle, “which, if you been payin’ any attention we ain’t got…”
True enough, Scott thought. There were no stockings ‘hung by the chimney with care’. Or wooden shoes for that matter.
Teresa was standing up now. She smoothed her skirt, and then her hair. “Well, maybe Santa will bring the stockings with him,” she suggested smugly.
Again, Johnny turned to look at the fireplace. “Wonder how it’ll taste,” he mused. “Roasted elf.” The flames were just about right for a quick broil.
Teresa lifted her hands to her face, a frustrated “Arghhh,” coming from between clenched teeth.
Murdoch closed his paper, neatly folding it in quarters as he placed it on the ottoman. His pipe had gone out, and he felt a need to refill it. He stood up, crossing the room to his desk. “We bank the fire on Christmas Eve,” he said quietly, his head down slightly as he concentrated on cleaning out the dead ash. Tapping the pipe on the edge of the crystal ash tray, he lifted it to inspect the inside. Satisfied, he pried open the tobacco canister; pinched out a measure of the sweet smelling blend and began refilling the bowl. “That’s a Lancer tradition, too,” he said, smiling across at Teresa.
She saw the smile, and immediately picked up on what he was thinking. “That’s right, Johnny.” Tilting her head a bit, she addressed Scott. “I bet you did that in Boston,” she ventured.
Scott nodded. “Yes.” The grandfather clock that stood on the far wall began to chime. He waited until the tolling stopped; it was ten o’clock. “In fact, we’d start about now.” With that, he stepped closer to the hearth. He was pleasantly surprised when he picked up the smaller of the two pokers that his father had joined him.
Murdoch was nodding. The pipe was firmly clenched between his teeth, just at the corner of his mouth. “We rearrange the logs,” he said, using the poker to pry the top log from the pyre; shoving it to the back of the firebox; “allow them to burn down.” He smiled. “Makes it just about right so there is nothing but embers by midnight.
“That’s when he comes, you know. Santa Claus.”
Johnny scoffed. He had hunkered back down onto the floor, his knees drawn up to his chest, his chin resting atop his folded arms. His face was bathed by the flames; the warm glow making him appear even younger than he was, the dark curls falling softly across his eyes. “Someone comes down that chimney at midnight tonight, he’s gonna find Johnny Madrid waitin’ for him.” He made a pistol with his right hand, and cocked the imaginary hammer as he took aim.
Scott laughed. “Wouldn’t that be a little difficult,” he asked; using his own poker to help his father, “being as your pistol is still locked up in the gun cabinet?”
The younger man frowned. “Yeah. Well you ain’t the only one that knows how to pick a lock, Boston.” The bathroom incident was still in his mind, and he wasn’t feeling particularly forgiving.
“There will be no more lock-picking in this house,” Murdoch announced sternly. He turned another log over; using the poker to pull it forward just a bit on the grate.
Johnny stared up at his sire. It never ceased to amaze him how his father could talk with the pipe in his mouth. “So it’s okay if someone breaks into the house as long as he’s comin’ down the chimney,” he groused.
“It’s Christmas Eve, Johnny.” Scott said. “It’s what happens.” He was trying hard not to smile.
“Never happened in Mexico,” the younger man challenged.
Scott refused to be drawn into the trap. “Dutch saint,” he announced. “Maybe they wouldn’t let him in.” He returned the poker he had been using to its proper place among the other tools.
Johnny’s mouth opened, and immediately shut. Sometimes his elder brother could be a real pain in the ass. “We’re Scottish,” he said triumphantly.
“We’re Americans,” Murdoch trumped, putting his own poker away. “We create our own traditions. Borrow them, if you will.” He nodded toward the Christmas tree. “A German custom,” he said, pointing to the heavily decorated tree. He had drawn the line at lit candles. “The English have a Yule log, the Scottish share a similar tradition…”
“And the Mexican part?” Johnny shot back.
Again, Scott refused to fall into the snare. “The lamperas (lamps),” he breathed. He had Johnny had spent days getting the posada lanterns clean and ready, and they shared -- with Cipriano’s sons -- the nightly chore of making sure they were properly lit. “And just about everything Maria and Teresa have been baking for the last two days.” He bent down slightly, tapping his brother’s nose with his forefinger. “You aren’t putting a damper on the holiday, little brother; not our first Christmas at Lancer.” His tone softened. “And if you don’t change your attitude, and get into the spirit of things, you may just find that when Santa Claus does show up, all you’re going to get is two lumps of coal, and an even bigger switch!”
Johnny swatted his hand away. “Right,” he grumbled. He looked up, watching as Teresa disappeared into the hallway, obviously heading for the kitchen. Good thing, too. He was getting hungry after having missed supper.
When the young woman returned, she was carrying a plate and a glass of milk. A very small plate, and an equally small glass. Instead of handing it to her brother, she passed him by and headed for the fire place. He watched as she put the plate down on the tiled hearth. Reaching out, he grabbed for one of the cookies.
Teresa frowned and smacked his fingers. “Oh no you don’t,” she warned.
She smiled at him, sweetly. “They’re for Santa Claus,” she replied. “And if you dare touch them, Johnny Lancer,” her right eyebrow arched, “you will be very, very, sorry.”
He withdrew his hand. Teresa had a way of exacting revenge that would make Wild Bill Hickok proud. But there was no way he was going to yield completely. “I’m sleepin’ right here,” he growled in his best Johnny Madrid voice. He tapped the floor with a rigid forefinger. “Right here.”
Murdoch had moved back to the ottoman and was lounging back in the chair; his long legs propped up. “Scott,” he called. “I think a Christmas Eve brandy would be in order.” Also a Lancer tradition. “For everyone.” He nodded to the grandfather clock. Maria and her adult son, Guillermo; Cipriano’s wife and sons; along with their wives would be joining them at eleven thirty in anticipation of the usual midnight toast.
Scott nodded. He looked toward the hallway, expectant; moving forward when Maria came through the door. She was carrying a tray filled with an assortment of cookies and sweets, along with marzipan candies Teresa had fastidiously shaped into intricate shapes; wreaths and small candy canes. Graciously, he took the tray from the woman. “Your desk, sir?”
Murdoch nodded. He levered himself up from the chair, stretching a bit against the usual pain in his right hip. “Johnny,” he called gently.
The young man reluctantly rose up from the floor. He cast a long look toward the front hallway; grimacing a bit as he heard the front door open. The room would be filled soon; with people he knew, who knew him as well, but he took no real comfort from that thought. Trust was difficult for him; he had cautiously extended it to his father, brother, adopted sister and Maria; but the circle was still tenuous and he often rebelled at the idea of letting anyone else in. But he knew it was expected. That his father expected it. Well, he mused, at least there was going to be food.
“Leave him be, son,” Murdoch murmured. He stood at the hearth, the remainder of his brandy coating the interior of the snifter as he swirled it gently in his right hand. Johnny was asleep on the floor, his left arm above his head; his right tucked beneath his stomach.
Scott stared at his younger brother. It still amazed him, Johnny’s ability to sleep wherever he dropped; no pillows, no blankets. Reaching back to the couch, he pulled the large knitted afghan from the corner, bending down to arrange it around his brother’s shoulders. “He did all right when everyone was here,” he observed. “I expected him to disappear as soon as things got under way.”
Murdoch took the final drink from his glass. Everyone had gone back to their homes and the house was relatively quite now. Contrary to the Night Before Christmas poem, he could hear the faint skittering of mice in the rafters.
“We might need to get a cat,” Scott smiled, reading his father’s thoughts. “I’m surprised Johnny hasn’t brought one home.”
Murdoch laughed, softly. “He did. We just aren’t supposed to know. We’ll have to figure a way to get him to stop feeding it, though; so it will do its job.” He sighed. “It’s late, son.”
“Early,” Scott countered, looking towards the clock. It was one thirty in the morning; an unusual hour for the house to still be awake. “I have some things to do early in the morning, sir. I think I will turn in.” It was a small lie; for a good cause.
The younger man moved around the couch to place his glass on the tray of glasses. “Nothing urgent, sir. Just a little something for our doubting Thomas.” He nodded in the direction of his sleeping brother. “Goodnight, sir. And merry Christmas.”
Murdoch returned the young man’s smile; wondering for a bit if the boy didn’t miss Boston. He shook the thought away. “Good night, son.” A smile touched his lips, warming the pale eyes. “Feliz Navidad.”
Johnny came awake slowly, aware that he was alone in the Great Room. He lay still for awhile, turning his head away from the couch to look at the dying embers that glowed orange beneath the grey ash. His gaze was caught then by the plate and glass Teresa had placed on the hearth the night before; and he rose up. The glass was empty, and the cookies were gone, just a trace of sun-colored crumbs remaining.
Shoving himself up from the floor, he levered himself into a sitting position; surprised when the afghan fell from his shoulders. Scott, he thought. Someone had left a lantern on too, burning low on the table beside Murdoch’s chair; the soft, pale glow drawing long shadows across the floor.
“Good morning, brother,” Scott greeted. He was holding a mug of coffee; one in each hand, and he offered one to his sibling.
“The cookies and milk are gone,” Johnny groused. “You don’t happen to know anything about that, brother?”
Scott took a seat on the couch. He was already dressed. Nothing fancy, but something more than what he would have worn for chores. He ignored the sarcasm. “Of course I do. Santa came,” he stated. He nodded toward the fireplace.
Johnny followed his brother’s gaze. Hanging from the mantle were four long stockings; suspiciously misshapen and bulging in all the wrong places. “Well, it looks like we got the legs,” he drawled. “Where’d you hide the bodies?”
The elder brother took a long drink of coffee. “I think we can assume that one is yours,” he declared, pointing to the third stocking in the row.
The younger Lancer snorted. He didn’t even bother to look. Scott wasn’t pullin’ his leg, not this time. “And you know that how?” he asked, pretending he wasn’t interested.
“It has your name on it,” Scott answered.
This time, Johnny did pay attention; sort of. The sun was coming up now; flooding the room and driving away the shadows. He watched as Murdoch entered the room, Teresa’s lighter tread following in his father’s wake. “You know about this?” He still hadn’t turned around, stubbornly refusing to look, but indicating what he was talking about with a single jerk of his thumb.
Teresa looked at him as if he were stupid. “Santa came,” she announced, not one trace of doubt in her voice. With that, she flounced across the room, standing with her hands on her hips before the fire place. “Yes,” she declared. “See,” she pointed, looking back at her guardian. “There’s one for each of us.” Biting her bottom lip, she turned back and read the names. “Murdoch. Scott. Johnny. Teresa.” The smile she was fighting came then. “He even put us in order by age!”
“Thank you for reminding me, Darling,” Murdoch muttered. But he was smiling. “Is there more of that coffee somewhere?”
“Your desk, sir. I’ve started breakfast.” Scott heard his brother’s guffaw. “Maria made sweet rolls yesterday; they just needed to be warmed up.” He tapped his brother’s shoulder. “Give Teresa a hand, brother. Santa packed her stocking pretty full.”
Teresa was struggling to lift her stocking off the hook. “I’ve been a good girl,” she announced. “Oh, Johnny…” she frowned a bit and peeked into her brother’s stocking. “I don’t think you’re going to like what Santa left you!”
He couldn’t stand it anymore. “What!?” Turning around, he finally succumbed to the curiosity that was pulling at him. He grabbed at the stocking that bore his name; cringing a bit as he heard a faint rip. Feeling somewhat guilty (but not knowing why), he lifted the sock away from the mantle, and plopped onto the floor in front of his brother. “Real funny, Scott,” he growled. At the top of the stocking were two lumps of dark coal. A long switch had been jammed into the sock, and extended a good six inches above the cuff.
“What?” Scott responded, his voice sounding very much like his brother’s. He had an annoying habit of doing that; mocking Johnny with their father’s voice, or imitating his brother’s drawl.
Johnny pulled out the switch and gave his brother’s leg a good whack.
Scott didn’t even flinch. “I warned you.” He smiled a bit and blew into his coffee. It was already cold, but he needed to stop the smile.
Murdoch had filled his own cup, and made his way back to his chair. His stocking had somehow magically appeared on his ottoman, and he cocked his head; sharing a smile with his eldest son. He mouthed a silent thank you. Scott just shrugged, his expression betraying nothing.
Teresa had already emptied her stocking, the goodies piled on her lap. The final thing to fall from the stocking was a small jewelry box, and she opened it; a gasp coming as she spied the treasure inside. “Oh, look,” she breathed, displaying the open box. A pair of ruby and diamond earrings glistened beneath the growing light from the outside.
Murdoch stood up and crossed the room. He took the small box from Teresa, staring hard at the gems; recognizing them at once for what they were. They had belonged to Catherine, Scott’s mother; a gift to her from Harlan Garrett on her 18th birthday. He smiled and handed the box back to the young woman; amazed at the generosity of his eldest son, but saying nothing.
Johnny was finally getting into the spirit of things. The two lumps of coal had covered the real treasure within the sock. A variety of treats tumbled out as he dumped the contents on the floor: oranges, an apple, walnuts and pecans. Several packages of the hard candy he favored. There were other trinkets; things of practical use. A small pocket knife, a brass matchbox. And then another box, similar to Teresa’s dropped onto the floor.
The young man picked up the leather box, turning the thing over in his fingers. Slowly, he lifted the lid.
He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Hands trembling, he reached into the box and felt the warmth of gold against his finger tips. He looped the chain around his fingers, lifting the medallion from its soft cushion. Turning it over, he read the words on the back, one finger tracing the delicate script centered on the piece: ¿No estoy yo aquí, soy tu Madre? ¿No estás bajo mi protección? (Am I not here, who am your Mother? Are you not under my protection?)
It was his. He knew that for certain when he saw the small indentation where it had been scratched when he was still very young. On its front, the medal bore the engraved image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico; the protector of small children. It had been a gift, long ago, from a man who had been like a father to him. He had lost it, that day up on the hill when he confronted Day Pardee, somewhere in the Hell that had followed.
His hands were shaking when he put the medal on, and he closed his eyes as the chain settled against the back of his neck; the medallion warm against his chest, just above his heart.
When he opened his eyes, he saw Scott looking at him; saw the smile and -- more importantly -- the incredible warmth in his brother’s eyes. Not one word passed between them. Words, it seemed, were no longer necessary.
There were smells coming from the kitchen; aromas wafting throughout the house that bespoke of the feast Maria and Teresa were preparing. The Christmas meal would come later in the afternoon; a bit earlier than the usual dinner hour.
Murdoch stood at the hearth, his backside warmed by the fire he had laid while his children were opening the gifts that had been stacked beneath the tree. He smiled. He had come down very early in the morning to place his own ‘from Santa’ gifts under the pine; having to hide behind the big tree when Scott and Teresa came down to hang up the stockings. And Johnny had slept through it all.
“Thank you, sir.” Scott approached his father. He was holding a copy of Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, an original edition that had been autographed by the author.
“You’re welcome, son.” He had already thanked Scott for the presents his son had chosen for him. All three of the children had overwhelmed him with gifts he had never expected.
Scott was smiling. “Quite a mess,” he observed; watching as Johnny plunked a piece of crumpled up paper at Teresa’s head and she retaliated in kind.
The patriarch nodded. “Johnny’s medal,” he said softly.
The younger man was watching the antics around the Christmas tree. The sounds were good to his ears; Teresa’s lilting laughter. But most of all, it was Johnny’s happiness that affected him. Oh, he’d heard Johnny laugh before; had heard all the different sounds of Johnny’s laughter. The boisterous guffaws when his younger brother heard or was telling a joke; the other extreme when Johnny Lancer became Johnny Madrid. Cold laughter then; merciless, a sound devoid of hope or humor.
But not today. Johnny was happy. He could hear it in his brother’s voice, and it was a sound he treasured.
“The medal,” Murdoch urged.
“Do you believe in miracles, sir?”
The question surprised the older man. “Yes,” he answered. And then, “Sometimes.”
“I saw the medal that first morning,” Scott murmured. “When Johnny came into my room.” Arrogant, he thought, his brother had been so full of himself, so confident. Johnny had sauntered into his room uninvited; prowling about and touching things, trying on his hat.
“I saw he wasn’t wearing it, after he was shot.” The young man’s face clouded as he remembered his brother’s long recovery, “but I remembered how he would reach for it;” he shrugged, “searched for it even when he didn’t seem to be aware.
“I’ve been looking for it, ever since then. Whenever I had a spare moment, or I could get away.” He looked at his father, his gaze steady. “I decided to try one more time; yesterday. It was just there, Murdoch. In a place I had looked a dozen times before. I dismounted, and looked down, and it was just there.”
“Hey, brother!” Johnny was on his knees beside the tree. He stood up suddenly, cocking back his arm as he made the toss. The balled up piece of tinfoil hit its mark, smacking hard against Scott’s chest.
Scott shook his finger at his brother. In a heartbeat, he was across the room; grabbing Johnny in a fierce headlock and dragging him towards the front door. Teresa ran after the two men, shoving ahead as she opened the door and followed them into the yard, Murdoch bringing up the rear.
“I’ve got one more Christmas gift for you, little brother,” Scott laughed. In spite of his brother’s struggling, he held on; dragging Johnny across the yard and to the waiting wagon. A large canvas tarp was slung over the wagon bed, a second one on top. Holding his brother’s head securely locked in his crooked elbow, he reached out with his left hand. “This is a Boston tradition,” he announced. When he withdrew his hand it was filled with a mound of snow. Vindictively, he scrubbed his brother’s face with the white fluff; doing a good job before dancing away and jumping up into the wagon.
He pulled the canvas back, stooping down to scoop up another clump of snow, using both hands to form a ball. Drawing back, he flicked his wrist, his aim true. The wad of snow hit dead center on his brother’s upturned face.
The battle was on. Murdoch stood in the doorway, watching as Johnny clambered up into the wagon; Teresa hot on his heels. Snow was everywhere; as was the sound of laughter. He knew now that Scott must have been up the entire night. It wasn’t just the stockings; it was the snow.
Looking to the mountains, Murdoch gazed at the lower slopes, thinking of how hard his eldest son had worked to make this first Christmas special.
Johnny called to him then. “Hey, Murdoch!”
Brought back to the here and now, he turned to face his son. The snowball hit him in the forehead.
“Oooops.” Johnny’s face registered his own surprise, and he dropped down to disappear behind the wagon’s high sides.
Murdoch joined them. There was still a thing or two he could teach his children about the art of snowball making, and he was determined they would learn that lesson well.