Twas The Night Before Christmas
by Linda Borchers
It had been one of those days he would sooner forget, Johnny thought, as he opened the massive front door. The smell of cookies and cakes and cinnamon treats wrapped around him like a warm blanket and he smiled. Oh how he needed to just get a hot meal in his stomach and stretch out on the floor in front of the fireplace. Maybe Scott would read more of that story he liked so much…What was it called? Oliver Twist? The way Murdoch and Teresa acted, it was like they had never seen a kid forced to work for nothing but watery gruel. He’d seen it. He’d lived it. Johnny brushed off the morbid thoughts and shucked his boots, deciding to leave them by the door instead of leaving a trail of mud all the way to the kitchen. Tonight was not a night to upset Maria. Not when he could eat a horse, he was so hungry.
Hanging his holster on the peg next to Scott and Murdoch’s, he again thought about his day. If it could go wrong it did. If it couldn’t, well, it found a way. From dumb cows getting stuck in mud holes to the stream feeding the lower pastures dammed up by a family of beavers. Even Barranca picked up a stone and he had to walk the palomino the last two hours.
The sound of Teresa humming a Christmas song and the crackle and pop of logs burning in the fireplace left Johnny without a hint of what he was about to walk into.
“Scott…?” Johnny blinked to make sure he was seeing what he thought he was seeing. Scott stood on the coffee table while Teresa hemmed the bottom of a red and white striped night shirt.
Scott whirled, the white ball at the end of the oversized red and white striped stocking hat bopping him in the nose.
“You got a big date tonight, Boston?” Johnny grinned.
“Very funny, Johnny. It’s my costume for the play tomorrow night.”
“You better be careful you don’t freeze off what God gave ya out there in the cold.”
“Johnny!” Teresa yelped, pricking her finger with a pin.
“Johnny….” The warning voice came from Murdoch sitting in his favorite chair in front of the fire.
“I’ll be quite warm. Thank you for your concern. I’ll be wearing my long johns and a jacket.”
“You know how silly you look?” Johnny smirked.
Scott rolled his eyes. “Yes. But I, unlike some other people who will remain nameless, care enough about the children to swallow their pride for one night.”
“Hey! I care! I spent three days building that fake house of yours in the middle of the street. Dios, never saw a house without front walls.”
“And you did a fine job, Johnny,” Teresa beamed. “It’s going to be such a wonderful night. Val and Mr. Spenser finished painting the scenery. Who would have thought that Val was so artistic?”
“I still don’t see how you got Val to pick up a paint brush for more than whitewashing the side of a barn.”
“I have my ways,” Teresa giggled.
“Teresa…” Murdoch warned.
Scott pulled off the stocking hat and threw it at Johnny. “Would you mind going over my lines with me tonight?”
“Ain’t you remembered them yet? We’ve been going over them everyday for a week. I think I know them as well as you do!”
“It’s tomorrow night. I just want to make sure I’m ready.”
“All right. After dinner. I’m starving.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Johnny. I didn’t have time to cook tonight, and Maria has been busy every night with the Posadas. But there’s leftover roast and a slice of apple pie.”
“Great,” Johnny murmured. “Seems like things aren’t getting any better.”
“Did you say something, Son?”
“No,” Johnny said dejectedly. “I’ll make myself a sandwich, but you…” Johnny pointed to Scott as he slowly turned on the table for Teresa to check the hem. “can get me a glass of tequila before we go over your words. Thank God it will all be over tomorrow.”
Johnny headed for the kitchen. “Cold roast sandwich. Just what I needed…” he muttered.
The morning dawned cold and crisp. Johnny snuggled deeper beneath his blankets and thought about the play tonight and Scott in his nightshirt. The memory of his brother in that red and white striped nightshirt and matching stocking hat brought Johnny nearly to tears. How was he going to keep from bursting out laughing when he saw his brother in that ridiculous getup? And how had Scott convinced the old biddies from the sewing circle that there was nothing wrong with him and Abigail Worth huddling under the blankets for everyone to see? It helped that Abigail was about as pretty as a swayback mule.
The smell of hot coffee and bacon drifted into his room and Johnny remembered he only had a sandwich last night and he was starved. He dressed quickly and was half way down the stairs when he saw Teresa looking up at him. There were tears in her eyes.
“Querida, what’s wrong?”
She flung herself into his arms as he reached the last step. “It’s all ruined,” she wept. “All of it.”
Scott stepped out of the kitchen, a towel wrapped around his throat.
“Me,” he croaked. “I can’t talk.”
Murdoch handed Scott a cup of something steaming hot. “Hot lemon and honey.”
Johnny couldn’t believe it. He actually felt disappointed. All the work they had done. The house, the scenery, Santa’s sleigh and the eight reindeer made of sawhorses. And all the time Scott spent practicing.
“Maybe you can do it next week,” Johnny tried.
“No…” Teresa belted out a howl of misery that nearly shook the whole house. “The children have been practicing all month for this. And it’s not just Green River. People are coming from Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells. And…people heard about it all over the valley. They are already filling up the hotel. They’re all here. And they’ll all be disappointed.”
“I’m sorry, Teresa,” Scott croaked.
“I know you are. It’s not your fault, Scott. It’s just…”
“Johnny knows all the lines.”
Johnny sent Scott at look that could have frozen his brother to death instantly.
“Well, you do,” Scott squeaked. “You’ve been saying them with me all week.”
“Oh, no. You ain’t getting me in that getup in front of all those people.”
“But Johnny…” Now Teresa was looking up at him, her tears drying up. He could almost see her brain working.
Johnny took a step back. “I’m Johnny Madrid!”
“You go by Lancer now…remember?” Damn, Scott. Even when he couldn’t talk above a whisper he had to put his two cents in.
“What about Murdoch?”
“I’m playing Santa, remember? Ho, ho, ho!”
“No. I can’t do it. I’d rather stand in front of a firing squad.”
“It’s only one night, and it won’t be fatal.”
“Only to my reputation.”
“Oh, Johnny, please. Think of all the kids at the orphanage.”
“Think of Dolly McGuire.”
Johnny looked at Scott. “Dolly?”
Scott nodded. “Abigail Wroth got a case of the nerves and backed out two days ago. It’s Dolly who’ll be nestled in that bed.”
“In a nightgown?”
“Well, she’ll have enough clothes on to keep an Eskimo warm…but she’ll still be close enough to kiss.”
Johnny thought about it. Hell, if he’d get any kissing in with the whole town watching…and her father too.
“You know I don’t do good with crowds. And…”
“Oh, Johnny, please! Everyone has worked so hard. And you are the only one who knows the story as well as Scott. It would mean so much to me.”
Johnny looked at the new tears forming in Teresa’s eyes and knew he was a doomed man. He dipped his head. It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t fair. Nobody told him this side of being part of a family.
Finally he nodded, just once, just ever so slightly.
“Oh thank you, Johnny!” Teresa wrapped her arms around him. “You won’t regret it.”
“I better not.”
“Well,” Murdoch said as he pushed himself out of his chair, “that’s settled. I have lines of my own to rehearse. Let’s see…On Dancer, On Prancer… Ho, ho, ho…” As he passed Johnny he leaned down and whispered in Johnny’s ear. “I’m proud of you, Son. And believe me, you won’t regret it.”
Johnny had a feeling he would for a very long time, and moaned when Teresa ran back into the room with the red and white striped nightshirt. “I’ll have to take the hem up just a bit. I wouldn’t want you tripping on your way to the window.”
Dios! Johnny thought. What have I done?
It seemed that breakfast was barely over when Teresa set lunch in front of him, but he was too nervous to eat. Scott walked him through all the scenes, writing down notes when his voice was at its weakest.
“Hey, wait a minute. I just thought of something.”
“Yes?” Scott croaked.
“Santa is supposed to be this little guy sliding down the chimney…Right? How’s Murdoch…?”
“Basil Stephanopoulos is playing Santa. Murdoch will be hiding behind the house reading his lines. Basil is perfect for Santa, but I don’t think Santa speaks with a Greek accent.”
It made perfect sense. Basil was barely five feet tall, and it was a shock to everyone the first time they saw him walk from behind the counter at the telegraph office to find that he had been standing on a two foot platform.
“Is there anyone you didn’t trick into being in your little play?” Johnny asked.
“Tricked?” Scott croaked, though his voice seemed louder than it had a few hours ago. “We tricked no one. We simply asked those who could help to volunteer their services.”
Johnny arched an eyebrow. “There’s all kinds of volunteering…”
“Believe me, Johnny, you won’t regret this. Now let’s get going, we don’t want to be late for your debut.”
“Come on, I’ll tell you later.”
All too soon they were at the church. Costumes and props took over most of the vestibule and general chaos abounded. The Prendergast twins, Eleanor and Thomas were dressed in warm pajamas and ready to hop into bed.
The only bright moment came when Johnny saw Dolly. But even that was quickly dashed when Mr. McGuire walked into the church…all six foot four and three hundred and fifty pounds of him. Johnny was sure the man wouldn’t be much of a fighter…hell, he didn’t need to be. Just one punch from his ham sized fists and a man would be out cold for a week.
Outside the children were singing Christmas songs, the sound seemed lighter than air. Teresa was fiddling with his stocking cap and he had to push her away. He was nervous enough.
“Five minutes!” someone yelled and Teresa yelped in excitement.
“I know you will do fine, Johnny. I love you!” She pecked him on the cheek. “We all love you.”
Dolly slipped her arm around Johnny’s and grinned up at him. “Shall we, husband?”
It took every ounce of courage Johnny Madrid and Johnny Lancer possessed to squeeze Dolly’s arm and walk into the Christmas house.
The night was bright and clear. The scent of hot apple cider hung warmly in the crisp air.
Teresa made their way through the throng of people, men, women and children
with theirs faces aglow with excitement. Who would have thought that a
simple Christmas play would attract so many people? Rows of chairs brought
from homes and business, and even a few sofas and easy chairs, lined the
street in front of the stage.
The sounds of Christmas carols and the hum of anticipation filled the air. Playbills had been printed, and to Scott's disappointment, he saw his name scratched out in black ink and Johnny's written in as lead actor and narrator. It was now Johnny's night. He hoped he had not asked too much of his brother.
He found Jelly and Sam sitting on a short sofa in the front row, and recognized it as Sam's office sofa. He and Teresa snuggled in between the two older men. For a moment this morning he had felt terribly homesick for the snow and the festive holiday spirit of Boston. But nothing could rival this.
"I don't rightly know how you got that brother of yours ta do this." Val slapped his knee in delight. "But I sure can't wait to see how it goes."
"That young'en will do just fine," Jelly said, full of pride for his boy. "Ya just mark my words."
Aggie Conway leaned forward from a chair someone brought over from the hotel lobby. "He'll do just fine. I know we have you to thank for this wonderful night, Scott. And I was sorry to hear that you lost your voice. But I can't think of anyone else other than Johnny who could replace you."
Maria and Cipriano arrived and sat in the seats reserved for them right behind Scott and Teresa.
"Feliz Navidad," Cipriano greeted them. "It is good that Juanito has offered to do this. I know it is not something that would come easy to him."
Val plopped into a seat next to Maria. "I'd bet a month's wages that he'd rather face a dozen armed men, than face this crowd." He chuckled.
It made it all the more remarkable that Johnny had agreed. Maybe it was Christmas. Maybe it was being part of a family that brought his brother the courage to step before an audience that had swelled way beyond one hundred people. Or maybe it was just Johnny: the man who never had the chance to share something so special.
And it was special. Scott had to marvel at the set he saw before him. It may not have been a stylized New York stage, but it rivaled anything in Union Square. Three rooms sat on top of a three-foot-high draped platform so everyone in the audience could see the actors. He remembered the time it had taken to figure out where the holes had to be cut in the floorboards so the light from dozens of lamps could illuminate the stage. Lamps were also hidden behind pictures on the walls and vases in the corners where holes were cut so Ned Bolger and his two sons could light the lamps from outside as the play moved from room to room.
As the children finished their final song, the audience grew quiet. Scott felt Teresa reach for his hand and he held it snuggly between both of his….and they both waited.
From the darkness of the house a voice rang out clear and strong. Scott's breath caught in his throat as he heard the slight drawl in Johnny's voice. If there was another moment in his life when he was more proud, he could not think of one.
"‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."
The fireplace came to life in the middle room. The audience gasped as lamplight spilled up through the openings in the floor and lit the room. One log burned brightly on the hearth floor.
"The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there."
The lights softened then died, leaving only the soft red glow of the log, and a moment later the room to the left came to life.
Johnny's voce rang out, strong yet casual as if he were telling a story to a friend.
"The Children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads."
Colorful balls of candy bobbed over their heads on nearly invisible strings as the Prendergast twins smiled in delight, their eyes squeezed shut as they pretended to sleep.
The room dimmed until only the silhouette of the children remained and the room to the far right came to life. A bed with a heavy patchwork quilt covered Johnny and Dolly to the waist. Without hesitation, Johnny continued his narrative.
"And mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled down to a long winter's nap."
Johnny leaned over and kissed Dolly gently on the cheek. Chuckles and giggles came from the audience. A cat call was followed by a loud thud that could have only Old Mrs. Crumple's cane hitting Ned Crumple's head.
Johnny suddenly sat up straight and threw the comforter aside. "When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter."
Now everyone saw Johnny in his red and white striped nightshirt and they all laughed with delight.
"Away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open the shutters and threw up the sash."
Scott could have sworn he saw Johnny open a pair of shutters and lift the widow. The audience was spellbound. All around him, Scott saw children's faces glowing with wonderment. Parents, whose worries were forgotten for this special time, drank in every moment. This was what Christmas was about. This was the gift Johnny was giving them.
"The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow, gave a luster of mid-day to objects below. When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer. With a little old driver, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick."
A black drape to the side of the house suddenly floated to the ground revealing Basil Stephanopoulos decked out in his Santa costume and white beard, with eight sawhorses somehow turned into perfect reindeer leading a white snow covered sleigh.
"More rapid than eagles his courses they came, and he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name."
Murdoch's rich baritone voice filled the air. "Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On Comet! On Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen! To the top of the porch to the top of the wall! Now dash away, dash away! Dash away all!"
Johnny leaned out the imaginary window, the white ball at the end of his stocking cap swinging as he talked. "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."
Santa's sleigh drifted back into darkness and Johnny looked up toward the ceiling. "And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof, the prancing and pawing of each little hoof."
Johnny put his finger to his lips telling his wife to stay quiet, and to Scott's delight, Johnny looked at the audience and shushed them quiet too. He tiptoed into the front room, and slowly opened an imaginary door as the lights came up to show the fireplace. The hearth was clean except for a layer of ash.
"As I drew in my hand, and was turning around, down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound. He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot, and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot."
Basil slipped down the chimney, and landed on his rear. The audience roared with laughter as he crawled headfirst out of the hearth, dragging his sack behind him. But the laughter died quickly as Johnny began speaking again.
"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!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, and the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath."
Basil blew a plume of white smoke around his face and the children in the audience laughed and clapped.
"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."
Basil slipped back into the fireplace and the lamps dimmed until the hearth was in deep shadow. Johnny walked toward the edge of the stage, looking toward the sky.
"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…"
Murdoch's voice rang out. "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."
Johnny stood looking at the stockings now sagging under the weight of all the goodies Santa had left. Mamma and the children slowly walked into the room and Johnny gathered them in a warm embrace. And looking out over the audience, his voice filled with more love than he could ever remember he called out to everyone, "Merry Christmas to all…and to all a good night."
For a long moment no one moved. Murdoch and Basil walked on stage, and so did Ned Bolger and his two sons. And then the applause began. Everyone took a step forward, but when Johnny stepped forward there was an explosion of clapping and laughing as everyone jumped to their feet.
For all the people of Green River and all the towns around the valley, for all the hearts that were lifted by the spirit of Christmas…no heart was more filled with joy and peace then Johnny Lancer's.
Merry Christmas everyone – and to everyone a good night.