Disclaimer: I was leafing through an old song book I’ve had since I was very young; one of those great hardcover editions, richly illustrated and full of the stories about how the songs came to be, and found an old favorite.
It’s a Christmas Carol; one that Scott Lancer would have been familiar with, and I thought how it just might fit into a Lancer Christmas Story. (I am fudging a bit on when it was actually put to music, but not by much.)
Supper was over and the house was quiet; and Johnny Lancer was doing what he did best, prowling about the great hacienda. Still new to this family thing, he was adjusting reasonably well, and pestering his big brother had become one of his favorite things.
He loved sparring with Scott; poking and prodding at his brother and watching as the usually calm Bostonian rose to the bait. Oh, it got out of hand sometimes – Scott had a hell of a right hook – but for the most part it was just fun and games. They’d end up getting a bit rowdy, sometimes carrying their mock combat out into the yard, but even Murdoch seemed willing to put up with their mischief.
Well, most of the time. Other times…well, Johnny really didn’t want to go there.
He peeked around the pine boughs framing the arched doorway leading to the Great Room, smiling as he spied Scott sitting at Murdoch’s large desk. His brother was deep in concentration; pen and ink in hand, sheaves of paper spread out before him. Rubbing his hands in anticipation, Johnny grinned. It was time to play.
Scott pretended not to hear the soft whisper of his brother’s stockinged feet across the tiled floor. He kept his head down, concentrating on the task at hand.
“What’cha doin’?” Johnny asked.
The blond’s eyes momentarily closed, the hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. The last time Johnny had asked that question, they had ended up in a brawl over a fountain pen; and it had taken him days to get the ink stains removed from his skin. His shirt had been a total loss. “Writing,” he answered.
The first two fingers of Johnny’s right hand crept across the desk, coming to rest on a single piece of paper. His brow furrowed as he studied the sheet. A series of double lines with unusual little curlicues were imprinted across the vellum. There was a definite pattern to them, but they didn’t seem very practical. “What’s this?” he asked.
“Composition paper,” Scott answered. He still hadn’t looked up.
Johnny snorted. “Don’t look like composition paper to me.” Using the same marching fingers, he rotated the sheet in his direction. “At least not like that composition paper Murdoch made me use to write down all 618 commandments from that damned Bible,” he frowned, flexing his right hand as he remembered the cramping.
Scott smiled. “Six hundred thirteen,” he corrected. Johnny had spent more time whining than he had spent writing. At least until Murdoch threatened to take the boy for a long walk to the barn. “And you would only have had to write the Big Ten if you hadn’t kept arguing that Murdoch had more rules than God.”
“Well, he does,” Johnny pouted. “So what’cha …” he grinned, “…composin’?”
Scott put down his pen. “Transcribing, actually,” he said. He tapped the piece of paper he had been working on with his right forefinger. “This is the kind of paper that’s used to create musical scores,” he continued. When Johnny leaned across the desk, he explained. “This,” he began, tracing the top-most line; his finger coming to rest on the distinct treble clef, “is the line where I’m going to transcribe a melody.” His finger slid to the lower series of lines, “and this is where I’m going to transcribe the harmony.”
Johnny’s brows lifted. He tapped the paper. “What are these?”
“Those indicate the key,” Scott answered. “In this case E flat.”
Johnny was on the move. He rounded the corner of the desk to stand at his brother’s right shoulder. “Heard you say once the Widow Hargis sings flat. She con you into doin’ something just for her?”
Scott laughed and shook his head. “I’ll thank you to not share that comment with the Widow,” he grinned. “She thinks she has perfect pitch.”
Johnny’s eyes warmed with a glint of mischief. “I stomped on a cat’s tail once,” he said. “Comes to mind every time I hear the Widow start singin’.” And then, knuckle-punching his brother’s shoulder, “So how much is it worth, me not tellin’ Old Lady Hargis you said she sings flat?”
“Not as much as it will cost you if I tell her you said her singing reminds you of a cat yowling in great pain,” Scott countered.
That took the wind out of the younger man’s sails. He sucked in a deep breath and turned his attention back to his brother’s handiwork. “So what are all those little dots with them tails?” he asked.
“Musical notes,” Scott answered. “Tells the musician what to play.” His finger came to rest on the stacked 4’s, anticipating more questions. “Those tells the beat. Four notes to a bar.” He indicated the vertical lines at the end of each measure.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed, a sly smile coming. “Speakin’ of bars…”
Scott raised his right hand; knowing damned good and well what his brother was thinking. “We are not going to town; and you are definitely not going to do any drinking.”
There was a soft chuffing sound as Johnny let out a long sigh. “Still pissed off about that punch I spiked last night?” He shook his head. “How the Hell was I supposed to know T’resa’d suck it up like it was water?”
Full out guffaws now, from the elder brother. “What part of ‘Rum Punch’ did you not comprehend?” he snorted. “There was already enough alcohol in that little concoction to knock out the entire population of Green River, without you adding a second bottle!”
Johnny snickered. Teresa’s ‘surprise’ birthday party for Scott had been pretty damned boring until he’d doctored the fruit punch. He didn’t know what was funnier: the Simmons twins chasing all the girls around with sprigs of mistletoe, or Teresa trying to explain to Murdoch why she and Paco were sliding down the banister in tandem. That and the lip rouge on Paco’s cheek.
Scott was leaning back in the chair, studying the expression on his brother’s face. Even in profile, it was obvious the boy was remembering the mayhem that had occurred. “I realize you think the party was much better after you added that second bottle of rum, but our father didn’t think it was all that amusing.” He shook a long finger beneath his brother’s nose. “Which is exactly why you spent the entire day sitting at his desk in the study doing all that writing,” he finished.
Johnny smacked at his brother’s hand. “Yeah. That won’t be happen’ again.”
The blond smile; broadly. “Would you care to make a little wager on that?” He picked up his pen and resumed his notating.
“We talkin’ big money, or nickels and dimes?” Johnny regretted the words even as he spoke them; but damn, his brother had made it sound like a dare.
“Big money,” Scott chuffed. “The folding kind.”
Johnny decided not to take the bait. He was already into his brother for twenty-five dollars after the last bet went south. “So what – exactly – are you composin’?” His mouth twitched as he suppressed the smile. “A love song for Rachel Fairchild?”
Scott shook his head. “I’m making a copy of this.” He tapped his finger against a much smaller piece of paper just above the one he was working on.
Once again, Johnny’s curiosity got the best of him. He leaned across his brother’s shoulder to look at the small sheet of music. “‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day?’” he read.
Looking up, Scott nodded. Johnny, he knew, was going to continue the interrogation ad infinitum until he ferreted out every bit of information. Putting down his pen, he leaned back in the chair; waiting to speak until Johnny had changed position and perched on the edge of the desk facing him. “When I was at Harvard, I had the privilege of meeting Henry Longfellow. He had – still has – a real gift of turning ordinary things into very eloquent poetry.” He picked up the sheaf of paper, studying it for a time before returning it to its original place.
“Mr. Longfellow wrote this during the War,” he said, his tone reverential. “Christmas Day, 1863…” His voice drifted off and he was quiet for a long moment. “He was still grieving over the loss of his wife, and then his son Charles – who had run away from home to enlist – was severely wounded.” Again, he was silent for a time. “It was a time of great despair, and he began to question everything. His faith in mankind, his faith in God; perhaps even his hope that things could ever be made right.
“And then he wrote this poem.”
Johnny’s chin dipped against his chest. He knew all about losing faith; and hope. It struck him then. Scott didn’t talk much about his wartime experiences; in fact, all he knew for sure about his brother was that he had been in the cavalry. Hoping to learn more, he asked, “And the poem helped?” the words coming in a soft whisper.
Scott nodded. “A man named Jean Baptiste Calkin set the poem to music. This music,” he said, tapping the smaller copy of the score.
Johnny frowned. The conversation wasn’t going where he had hoped. He tried again. “Did you know his son – this Charles – when you were in the army?”
“Cavalry,” Scott corrected. He remained silent for a long moment, his gaze seeming to fasten on something only he could see. “No,” he answered finally, shaking his head. “Charles was wounded before I enlisted.” He took a sudden breath before continuing. “Although it was something Mr. Longfellow shared with me about Charles that made up my mind about joining up.”
Johnny wasn’t about to let that one pass. He decided to plough on. “And that was?”
For a moment, it appeared Scott wasn’t going to answer; that, in fact, his expression had become one of poorly veiled annoyance. The look passed. “As I said, Charles had been seriously wounded. He’d been brought home earlier that same month – December – to recuperate.
“Charles had written his father a letter after he had run off to enlist,” Scott lifted his head to look directly at his brother, “a letter Mr. Longfellow showed me.” From memory, he repeated the words. “‘I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer. I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good’”. He smiled; a ghost of a smile filled with melancholy. “I enlisted two days later,” he finished.
Johnny tapped the piece of paper with his finger. “Read it to me,” he said. Although he would never admit it, he loved the sound of his brother’s voice; the comforting deep baritone so often filled with so much emotion.
Scott stretched; both arms above his head, his fingers linked. “No,” he said; the word harsher than he intended. The fleeting look of hurt he saw on his brother’s face, in the younger man’s eyes, prompted him to temper the refusal. Elbows now resting on the desk, he resumed speaking. “You know that Reverend McIntyre is planning a special service on Christmas Day…”
Impatient, Johnny interrupted. “Yeah. Some fandango to celebrate that fancy new organ.”
Scott chuckled. “And the new choir loft,” he reminded. It still amazed him; how – at Aggie Conway’s prodding – the ranchers in the valley had contributed to purchase something as grand as a pipe organ for the recently enlarged church. Lancer had been a major contributor. “Widow Hargis may not be the best singer in the congregation, but she certainly knew how to coax some remarkable music out of that old pump organ.” He smiled. “She’s been practicing on the new instrument, and her efforts…” he paused, thinking of the little woman and the reverence with which she had approached the new organ, “…have been outstanding.”
Johnny’s face registered a look of disbelief. Oh, the old hag could play; even he had to admit she rarely missed a note, but outstanding? “It’s an organ,” he snorted, wincing at the memory of the reedy squeaks. Guitars were more to his liking.
Scott’s eyes lit up. “Yes. But an organ with twenty-four different voices and chimes.”
“Chimes?” Johnny’s tone was dubious.
“Bells,” Scott nodded, remembering the carillons in the bell towers of the great churches in Boston. “Glorious, resonating bells. Christmas bells.”
Johnny still wasn’t convinced. “And what the hell does that have to do with me askin’ you to read the damned poem?”
Scott picked up his pen and resumed transcribing the music. “You’ll hear it when it’s sung at the church,” he announced. “Just like everyone else.” Then, feeling a small twinge of guilt at his own stubbornness. “I want it to be something special, Johnny; something unique for everyone to enjoy, to experience at the same time.”
The intensity of his brother’s words, his concentration on the work at hand, struck a chord in Johnny. He shrugged. If Scott wanted the performance to be unique, then so be it.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The week proceeding Christmas Day had been, in Johnny’s opinion, filled with a peculiar sort of madness. From the day long excursion up into the snowy mountains with Scott to find the perfect tree, to Teresa’s frantic decking of the halls, the entire household had been in an uproar. And Scott. Big Brother had spent more time hidden away with his damned transcriptions then he had been around to help. Well, at least Scott had showed up for his birthday on the 23rd; the sneaky bastard. He still wasn’t sure if he was happy about the way the family had snookered him into that celebration. He wasn’t a big fan of surprised; even good ones.
He had spent the next few days getting into all kinds of mischief as he tried to keep up with the hustle and bustle in the great house. More times than he cared to count, he’d been brought up short by Maria and Teresa for his constant snooping and poking around for hidden treasures. It was also, he had painfully learned, a big mistake to pilfer even a single cookie from the seemingly endless supply of pastries that were being churned out on a daily basis. They were even more diligent about the damned candy.
And then, last night, Scott had finally rejoined the family for the entire evening; only to read some silly shit about some drunken elf called Santa Claus. ‘Down the chimney’, my ass, he snickered. Although the cookies and milk had disappeared.
And now they were at church. Again. Like the Christmas Eve service the previous evening, today’s service would also be ecumenical; with people of different faiths from all over the valley. Progress, Scott had called it.
Pain in the ass, Johnny thought. He tugged at his tie for the umpteenth time; sure and certain Scott had purposely tried to strangle him when he had redone the knot. The Old Man had made him wear his new boots, Maria had scolded him into wearing a white shirt, and Teresa…
T’resa had caught him under the mistletoe three times that very morning; once right just before they were leaving for church.
He swiped the back of his hand across his lips, ending the move with a hearty whack to the back of Teresa’s noggin.
“Settle down!” Murdoch rebuked, using his own hand to emphasis the point; only aiming much lower than his son’s head.
“Hope you know God saw that,” Johnny groused.
Murdoch grinned. “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” he whispered. He ushered Teresa into the family pew; and then pulled Johnny aside as he guided Aggie Conway into place next to his ward. Smiling wider, he pushed Johnny forward. He followed his younger son, and sat down.
Johnny squirmed in his seat, leaning far back to peer across Murdoch’s broad shoulders in an attempt to catch Scott’s eye. Big brother had the seat of choice; the one on the aisle. What the Hell is this? he mouthed in his brother’s direction. Scott just smiled.
It was pointless to do anything beyond hunkering down in his seat. His right leg began to dance, only to receive a sharp smack from Aggie’s gloved hand when the leather heel of his boot thumped against the plank flooring. His immediate thought was to smack the woman back, but he changed his mind when he thought about the consequences. Christmas day or not, Murdoch would probably kill him; and then Scott would kill him a second time for screwing up the damned celebration. He sighed, loudly and long. This time it was Murdoch who popped him on his thigh and ordered him, in a harsh whisper, to be quiet.
The opening hymn was “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, sung sweetly by Lottie McIntyre, Reverend and Mrs. McIntyre’s sixteen year old daughter. Johnny paid close attention to the girl, the closest thing to an angel he had ever seen; with the prettiest eyes and perfect lips. He was careful not to sigh; not even softly, but he knew he had given something away when he felt Scott’s long fingers swipe him lightly on the back of his neck, which was remarkably warm.
He hoped God didn’t know what he was thinking.
The service was proceeding at a leisurely pace; a musical interlude occurring when the Reverend offered up a prayer of Thanksgiving for the work that had been done to the Church, and for the new organ. The entire congregation was entranced by the sound of the new instrument and the nimble fingers of the Widow Hargis as she skillfully manipulated the mechanical stops that created the different voices: during this song a soft blending that sounded like violins. Her tiny feet tapped noiselessly against the foot peddles, producing rich bass harmony. Even Johnny was impressed.
Reverend McIntyre had taken his place at the pulpit and announced he was going to forego the usual sermon; choosing instead to read from the Scriptures. Softly, his pleasant, slightly accented voice somehow carrying throughout the entire building, he began reading from the Book of Luke.
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.
“And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; because he was of the house and lineage of David: to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
“And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
There it was, Johnny thought, that ‘peace, good will toward men’ thing. He certainly hadn’t known much peace or good will in his short life. Not in Mexico, and sure in Hell not in California when he had first arrived.
Johnny was roused from his dark musings by the strains of Silent Night being played very softly. It was time for the collection plates to be passed. He watched as his brother and Reese Simmons were called forward to do the honors. It was all very orderly and very quiet, the only sound the occasional clank of coins or the rustle of folding money as the congregation made their contributions.
And then another hymn, led by the Reverend. “Thank God from Whom All Blessings Flow”. Johnny smiled at that. Right now a lot of those blessings were flowing from the Old Man’s wallet and Aggie’s purse. He’d tossed in a gold piece as well. It was, after all, Christmas.
The church became quiet again, and Johnny watched as Scott slipped back into his seat. A small commotion at the back of the building, just outside in the Narthex seemed to draw everyone’s attention. Muffled laughter was occurring, coming from the adult attendees, and Johnny shifted in his seat to turn toward the sound.
Grinning, Johnny winked at Victorio Baldemero; smiling broadly when the little boy grimaced and stuck out his tongue. The twelve year old was all spit and polish, his normally unruly mop of hair combed and slicked back; his cheeks flushed from a recent scrubbing. Like the children at his back, the boy was dressed in a dark ankle-length robe, which was topped by a brilliantly white, loose fitting camisa. The priest and a robed acolyte were lining the young boys up in a column of twos. Finally satisfied the usually rambunctious youngsters were reasonably subdued and properly aligned – smallest boys in the lead, the taller youths bringing up the rear – the priest took the point and led his small flock forward, the acolyte following close behind.
Heads turned as the children passed, a series of muted ohs and aws coming as the boys marched towards the empty choir loft. Then, splitting apart into two separate lines, the youngsters took their places on the stair step platforms, one on each side of the altar. The boys reached out and picked up the sheaves of paper that had been left with the hymnals.
Reverend McIntyre again approached the podium. Waiting for the congregation to quiet down, he cleared his throat. “Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with a young man from our congregation who arrived here in the San Joaquin valley at the beginning of the trouble brought here by a man named Pardee. Knowing I wasn’t aware of the conflict, or of the things that had occurred, he shared with me the details of what had happened; how the people here suffered, and how many people had died.
“He told me how the communities here in the valley had been devastated by the violence. Homes were destroyed, families scattered, and everyone lived in fear; many without hope. He also told me that what he saw reminded him of the devastation he had observed during the horrifying conflict that almost destroyed our Nation. A war that pitted brother against brother and scarred our country to its very core.
“During our conversations, he spoke of the hope he had that the people in this valley would not only recover from their losses, but begin to rebuild anew; much like we’ve done here with our church.” He gestured toward the improvements with a wide sweep of his arm.
“We are here today to not only celebrate Christmas, but to celebrate a renewal of spirit.” Turning his head slightly, he nodded to his wife and daughter, who stood up and immediately began passing around sheets of paper. He held up his own piece of vellum. “This is a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, written at a time when he was overwhelmed by great despair; the tragic death of his beloved wife by fire, and the serious wounding of his son. The poem has been set to music, and I am asking all of you to join in singing this hymn of hope.” He turned then to the Widow Hargis. “If you will please play it through one time before we begin singing.”
The Widow Hargis nodded her assent. She began to play.
It was, Johnny thought, one of the most stirring pieces of music he had ever heard; made even more impressive by the mellow tone of the resonating chimes.
The people began to sing:
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought as how, the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth.
The cannons thundered North and South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
With each verse, the chorus of voices rose; lifting to the heavens as every man, woman and child poured their souls into their singing. Even the young boys in the choir, who had obviously been well rehearsed, seemed entranced by the wording, as if singing the carol for the very first time.
Johnny especially was struck by the sense of unity that seemed to fill the room; and even more touched by what he heard to his right and his left.
Teresa, Aggie, Murdoch and Scott had harmonized the music with a sweetness that took the young man’s breath away. As they began singing the final verse, he could hear the conviction in their voices; their faith in the words: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.”
The room was completely silent when the song ended. And then, spontaneously, the entire congregation erupted in resounding applause. Murdoch reached out to give Scott a heartfelt one-armed hug; and, grinning, Johnny leaned forward and gave his elder brother two thumbs up.
When things quieted down, Father Santiago pronounced the benediction. Making the sign of the cross, he blessed the congregation; and then turned to bless the choir. Again, the people applauded.
Finally, pew by pew, everyone began filing out into the main aisle. Farewells were exchanged; the polite pleasantries somehow more meaningful. Johnny lingered a bit, sharing a shy smile with Lottie McIntyre before Murdoch cupped his elbow and led him toward the front door.
Murdoch’s head dipped slightly, his mouth close to his younger son’s left ear. “The McIntyre’s are joining us at Lancer for a late lunch, son,” he whispered, smiling. “I’m sure that will give you ample time to get acquainted with Miss McIntyre.”
Surprised, Johnny stopped dead in his tracks. He was sorry now he had torn down all the mistletoe Teresa had hung all over the house. He was also surprised his father had actually noticed his attraction to the minister’s daughter. “I want to catch up with Scott, Murdoch. Okay?”
Murdoch nodded his head, and then called out to his son as the boy bolted for the door. “Don’t forget your hat!”
Scott, who had just bid Reese Simmons goodbye, was well away from the building when his brother found him. He sidestepped as Johnny attempted to smack his flat belly with the back of his hand. “I’d hate to mess up that fine white shirt, little brother,” he teased, reaching out to tug at the boy’s collar. “Knowing how fond of it you are.”
“Yeah, right,” Johnny grimaced. “I’m wearin’ the red one next time.”
Scott’s face betrayed his surprise and amusement. “Next time?” he asked. “You’re actually planning on attending church on a regular basis?”
Johnny’s chin dipped against his chest, his eyes hidden by the brim of his stetson. “Murdoch said the McIntyre’s are comin’ out to Lancer for a late lunch,” he grinned. “If things go good with Lottie, I might be attendin’ on Sundays, and on Wednesday for prayer meetin’,” he laughed.
Scott cast a glance in the direction of the church’s front door; smiling as he saw Lottie McIntyre descending the stairs with her mother. “She is quite fetching,” he declared.
“I ain’t talkin’ about throwin’ a ball and sendin’ her after it,” Johnny snapped.
The blond shook his head. “I said she is fetching, Johnny; not that she was good at fetching.” He hesitated. “It means she’s attractive. In a very little girl sort of way,” he smiled.
“She’s sixteen,” Johnny declared defensively. “Not all that much younger than T’resa or me.”
Scott reached out and patted his brother’s cheek. “And just the right age for you, boy,” he joshed.
Johnny scuffed at the dirt with the heel of his boot. “Oh, go to Hell, Scott,” he muttered. Just as quickly, his mood changed. “Widow Hargis did good,” he said. “And that poem…” His right shoulder lifted in a slight shrug. “You could feel something in that church,” he murmured. “Feel something in the people when they were singin’.”
The blond inhaled. “Hope,” he said finally. “Pardee and his men were here long before we came home, Johnny. They had done a lot of damage; especially to the people who didn’t have the resources our father did. You’ve seen the abandoned farms; the smaller ranches that were burned out and destroyed. They took over Morro Coyo to the point that the Baldemero’s finally closed their store and moved here to Green River; while other families just gave up and moved away.
“The valley needs to rebuild. Homes, businesses. Schools. Spanish Wells has begun to recover, new people are gradually moving in to Morro Coyo. Green River is in the running as the logical choice for a railroad spur for the Southern Pacific, but it isn’t going to happen if the people here aren’t willing to support continued growth; or to encourage the people who have left to come back.”
Johnny had listened intently to his brother’s words. “You ever give that brain a rest, brother?” he asked, the pride and respect radiating from his eyes. “You know, just back off and let it all go?”
Scott laughed. “An idle mind is like idle fingers, Johnny. Too prone to getting into mischief.” He leaned in towards his brother, tapping the boy’s chest with his extended forefinger. “And you know how Murdoch feels about us getting into trouble.”
This time it was Johnny’s turn to laugh. “Aw, Hell, Scott; it’s our job. Keepin’ the Old Man on his toes.”
Scott snickered. “And you do it so well,” he complimented. Turning slightly, he glanced back to where his father and Aggie Conway were standing talking to the McIntyres. “It looks like Aggie will be joining us for lunch as well,” he observed.
Johnny followed his brother’s gaze. He frowned. “You think the Old Man’s kinda sweet on her?” he asked. “Fu…” he blushed, “Sleepin’ with her, maybe?”
Hearing the tension in his brother’s words, Scott hesitated before answering. He purposely kept his tone neutral. “They’ve been good friends for a very long time, Johnny. And they’ve both been without the kind of companionship many of their friends enjoy.”
Again, Johnny scored the dirt at his feet with his heel of his boot. “What’s…” his brow furrowed as he replayed the word in his mind, “what’s espoused mean?”
Scott had expected more questions from Johnny, but certainly not this one. It was far afield from the very direct questions the boy usually asked; and totally unrelated to what they had just been discussing. “It depends on the context; the way the word is used, Johnny.”
Johnny’s head lifted. “Reverend McIntyre said it; when he was readin’ from the Bible, talkin’ about Joseph and Mary. That part about ‘with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child’. Why didn’t he just say wife?”
Where the hell is this coming from, Scott thought. And then, instinctively, he knew. Recalling that very first day in the Great Room, the implication of the words Murdoch had spoken regarding Johnny’s mother and the circumstances of her pregnancy, he carefully considered his next words. “There are some scholars, brother, who interpret that passage to mean Mary and Joseph weren’t married.” He raised his hand when Johnny started to interrupt. “That they were simply pledged – engaged – to each other, but the traditional marriage, the physically coming together, had not yet taken place.” His voice softened and he proceeded with great care.
“He must have loved her very much, Johnny, to pledge himself to a woman who in all likelihood would be scorned by her family and neighbors, subject to all kinds of foul accusations and malicious gossip. Especially since he could have just walked away.”
Johnny’s expression was stoic; cold almost. It was enough to prompt Scott to reach out and lay a hand on the boy’s shoulder; and to hold on. “But he didn’t walk away, Johnny. He married her. He loved her enough to marry her.” Realizing those few words weren’t enough, he continued. “He loved her, and he loved and wanted her child.
Johnny swallowed and averted his eyes. Scott, he knew, was no longer talking about Mary and Joseph; he was speaking about Murdoch and his mother. He let the words sink in; relished the truth in them.
“Boys!” Murdoch’s voice called out to the two young men. He was beside the buggy with Aggie and Teresa, gesturing for his sons to join them.
Johnny fell in behind his brother as Scott lead the way across the yard. He hung back a bit, thinking about the church service; the songs that had been sung and the words that had been spoken. All about peace and good will.
But mostly he was thinking about the things Scott had just said. All his life he had felt he had been unwanted; first by his uncaring mother, and then later – after all her lies – by the man who was his father.
But no more. Now, for the first time, he realized he had been wrong to keep believing his mother’s lies. Murdoch had wanted him. And how did he know? Because Murdoch had pledged himself to his mother; had married her. Had not walked away.
Picking up his pace, Johnny hurried to catch up with his brother; grabbing the man’s arm as he came up beside him. “Thanks,” he said.
Scott turned to look at his sibling. “For what?” he asked.
Johnny flung out his right arm in an ambiguous gesture that seemed to encompass the entire world. “For Christmas,” he grinned. “For bein’ my older, smarter and better lookin’ brother!” He punched Scott’s arm, danced away; and immediately danced back, like a boxer sparring. And then, dropping his hands; his tone softening to a near whisper. “For teachin’ me about peace and good will; but most of all, about hope.” With that, he was off, sprinting toward his father.
Smiling, Scott shook his head. As always, Johnny was a puzzle. Someday, he hoped, someday very soon, he would unravel that enigma.
Christmas, 2012. For Mary.