(With thanks to my beta Terri Derr)
“There, that should hold it. Pass me the sand.”
Cautiously Johnny let go of the trunk and fetched the bucket from the hearth. He watched as Scott poured sand over the rocks wedging the Christmas tree in place.
The brothers had gone out early, trudging up the hillside from an old back road through Deadman’s Gully. It didn’t take long once they found the ‘perfect tree’, but boy, was Scott fussy.
“Choosing a Christmas tree is not a task to be rushed.”
“Yeah, but we’re halfway to the ridge.” Johnny was beginning to think they’d freeze to death before they found a tree ‘majestic’ enough or ‘lush’ enough or ‘symmetrical’ enough—shoot, Scott had a fancy word for everything. “What about that big one over there? To the right of the outcrop.” Johnny pointed to a Douglas fir and then rubbed his arms and did a little jig to keep warm.
Scott climbed up, circled the tree three times and grinned. “I told you we’d find the right one.”
Johnny scrambled up to join him. The fir tree was even bigger than he’d thought. “We’ll be lucky to get it through the door, but if you say so.”
“Mind out.” Scott swung the axe. When the tree fell, they dragged it to the wagon together.
They needed Murdoch’s help to get it into the hacienda. He produced a half barrel, saved for the purpose, and then Johnny rested against the door frame and enjoyed the great debate.
“We’ll place the Christmas tree in front of the French Doors.” Scott left their prize lying in the entrance to the great room and pulled the drapes back.
Murdoch shook his head. “It would be too cold at night with the curtains open. Further over next to the clock would be better.”
“No, that won’t do. We want the candles to be seen from outside.”
“What candles? You’re not putting candles on the tree.”
“But we want the candlelight to reflect off the decorations.”
“No candles.” Murdoch headed towards his desk without waiting for an answer.
Scott frowned. He glanced at Johnny and then pursued their father. “We’ve got to have candles.”
“We’re not burning the house down.”
“That won’t happen.”
Murdoch raised his eyebrows but said nothing. He started sorting through his mail.
“It’ll be fine if we’re careful. Johnny agrees with me, don’t you?”
Johnny pushed himself off the jamb and sauntered into the room. He looked from the French doors and the drapes to the nearby furniture and paintings. How was he going to say this? Candles on a tree in a draught with all those paper decorations Teresa had made—Scott was plum crazy. “Nope.”
His brother scowled.
Murdoch tried to hide a smile behind his hand, but Johnny could see the laughter in his eyes. “You can put it over there between the fireplace and the side door, if you want. It will catch the firelight.”
Scott opened his mouth to argue, but Murdoch started moving furniture out of the way. Johnny stepped over some branches into the hall and got in position to lift the bottom end of the tree. “Well?”
With a sigh, Scott picked up the top and helped Johnny haul the fir across the room. When they set it upright in the half barrel, it stood just short of the ceiling, enough leeway for the star and no more.
“Not so close to the fire.”
“We have an agreement, remember? I call...”
Scott waved his father to stop talking and bent to take the tree’s weight again. Grumbling under his breath, he helped Johnny shift it back a foot or two more from the hearth and out from the wall a little so it could still catch the light from the fire. Johnny had a hard time keeping a straight face. It was a nice change not to be the one at odds with Murdoch.
Their father left them to it once the tree was in a safe position, and as soon as he disappeared, Scott started working out what was needed to keep it upright, cheerful as a bird in spring. He never stayed in a pucker for long.
It was one of the things Johnny liked about his brother. “I thought you had everything ready.”
“Hmm.” Scott wasn’t listening. He went out to find rocks and sand.
What had the world come to when Johnny Madrid was left propping up a Christmas tree? Not that Johnny really minded. The nearby wall took most of the weight, and he was enjoying himself. The morning’s tree hunt had been fun, and the disagreement with Murdoch was a hoot. Mind you, his shoulder was starting to ache by the time Scott came back. “Forget me?”
“Sorry, someone had moved the rocks I’d left by the barn.”
Johnny pushed the tree up straight again, and Scott wedged the rocks in place around the trunk. “Do you do this a lot?”
“Every Christmas. It’s been my job as long as I can remember: mine and Jordan’s—our butler. I choose the tree. We set it up together. Then all the servants helped me decorate it.” Scott smiled at the memory. “When I was small they made a kind of party of it for me, and when I grew up I made it a party for them.”
“Your grandfather too?”
“No. Grandfather was always too busy.” Scott got up off his knees and brushed himself down. “It became a tradition for just me and the servants. They were like my family when I was a child. Grandfather and I had the evenings and Christmas day together. I never lacked for anything, and Boston is a wonderland of balls, feasting and gift-giving during the holidays. It’s strange though, I don’t miss the parties and presents. I will miss going to the midnight service with Grandfather, and I would have missed this. Thanks for sharing it with me, brother.”
Damn, did Boston have to look at him like that? Johnny felt like he was turning red. Having a brother was better than he’d expected, but he still wasn’t used to…heck, he didn’t even know what it was. He dodged around the sofa and helped himself to some nuts from the dish on the sideboard. “Teresa says we’ll decorate it tonight.”
“My special ornament is bought and ready as ordered. What about yours?”
“I made something.” Johnny grinned as Scott raised his eyebrows. “You’ll have to wait and see.”
“Is this much different from how you celebrated Christmas before?”
Johnny took another handful of nuts, tossing one up in the air and catching it in him mouth. Oh, if Scott only knew. But there were some things Johnny wasn’t going to share about his life, not yet. “I moved about the border towns, but I usually spent Christmas in Mexico. No Christmas trees, but las posadas like the families have here.”
“Those are the processions Murdoch told us about?”
“That’s right, one for each of the nine days leading up to Christmas. Two children will dress up as Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay, and at the end of each posada there is food and a piñata.”
“I’m looking forward to it.” Scott picked up his hat from Teresa’s displaced armchair. “Did your mother make a big fuss at Christmas? My friends’ mothers and sisters were like Teresa, always decorating and plying me with food—sugar plums and toffees. A man could die happy at Christmas.”
Johnny laughed at the expression on Scott’s face. “Christmas Eve was my favourite time of year as a kid.” Mamá would escape the saloon and the gambler for a few hours so they could join the final posada to the church door. A couple of times she got away on other nights to see him hit the piñata and scramble for sweets, but she hardly ever followed the posada. She said there was no point; only kids who belonged to the town got chosen to be Joseph or one of the other characters in the posada. Johnny just tagged along. “We travelled a lot, but Mamá made sure we had poinsettia like those on the mantelpiece, and she’d always take me to mass on la Noche Buena.”
He would hold her hand. When he was very small, she’d put her arm around him, and he’d listened to the Mass of the Rooster snuggled into her, so close that he could hear her heart beat. She smelled of cinnamon and fruit, and in the dim flickering candlelight she looked like the Madonna, as devout and respectable as any of the other women at the service, black veil over bowed head and lips murmuring the rosary. Johnny felt proud then to be her son. Even when things were at their worst, Mamá pulled herself together for those few hours on Christmas Eve, a treasured glimpse of what she could have been. She’d smile and thank the padre for a beautiful mass like a real lady as they left the church, and the priest would bless them and wish them Feliz Navidad. Townsfolk would follow his lead, and for a few minutes Mamá and Johnny would be included in the spirit of Christmas. Señora Maria couldn’t be all bad, they’d say in whispers; not if she brings her boy to Misa del Gallo.
Johnny thought about his mother for the rest of the afternoon. He missed her, but as weeks turned into months at Lancer he grew angry with her too. She’d lied to him about Murdoch. He knew that now. She may not have said the words—the gambler did that—but she never disagreed. She could have told Johnny the truth when they were alone, but she never did.
“Penny for them.” The evening was nearly over and they were putting the finishing touches to the Christmas tree. Murdoch handed him a glass of red wine—Scott and Teresa already had theirs—and settled down into his favourite armchair with a look of contentment on his face.
“Not even worth a centavo.” Shaking his head, Johnny grinned and reached for the last cornucopia. He tied it to a lower branch and stepped back to admire their efforts. The tree stood where Teresa’s chair normally did, to the side and slightly back from the corner of the hearth. It looked magical with ribbons and strings of popcorn, glittering paper angels and cones filled with sweet treats. “Why are we decorating the Christmas tree today? I thought the thirteenth was supposed to be unlucky.”
“That’s just superstition, but this is tradition. The tree is put up twelve days before Christmas and taken down twelve days after it.” His father sipped his wine. He suddenly had a faraway look in his eye. Strange how such a gruff, tough man could seem so…gentle. Why Johnny’s mother ever left Murdoch for the gambler was hard to figure. “My brother and sister and their families in Scotland will be decorating trees this evening too.”
“You still think of them after all this time?”
“Always. Family stay in a man’s heart no matter where life takes him—or them.” Murdoch held Johnny’s gaze.
“Family is what makes our lives worthwhile, I think.” Teresa sat down in her chair next to the tree and started looking around the floor. “It’s time for our special decorations…now where…oh there it is.” Picking up her sewing basket, she rummaged inside.
“Are you going to explain why we all had to get something?” Scott asked. “Not that I’m complaining. I think it was a nice idea.”
“It’s more than that. It’s another tradition—an O’Brien one that I wanted to share with you, my new family. Every Christmas we each provide a new decoration for the tree. It’s best if it’s something with special meaning, but it can be anything decorative. When we hang them up later they’ll remind us of a Christmas past. See the little blue angel near the top? Daddy made that for our last Christmas together in honour of my mother. Now I look at it and think of them both, holding hands and looking down on me from heaven.” Teresa smiled wistfully; then she took a big breath. “I’ll go first.” She jumped up and showed them a large orange laced with green and gold ribbon and adorned with cloves. It smelled wonderful. “This is the first time I’ve made one of these. It’s called a pomander.”
“Good enough to eat,” Johnny joked. He stretched his hand out to examine the ornament more closely, but Teresa whisked her creation away.
“Not this one, Johnny.” She danced over to the tree and found a branch that would hold its weight. Then she cupped the pomander in her palm, and Scott did the honours, tying it on. “The Widow Hargiss says it will dry out and last for years.”
For a moment, everyone fell silent and admired the new addition.
“My turn.” Rising, Murdoch went to his desk. He took something green and red from the top drawer. “I came across a holly bush just outside Spanish Wells. I was riding along, worrying about the drop in beef prices, and there it was in front of me to remind me there are more important things than money.” He held the sprig high so everyone could see the sharp, serrated edges and small clusters of bright red berries. “When I was a bairn, I used to gather holly with my mother and sister, Maggie. We would decorate every room in the house with it and hang mistletoe over the doors. They were good times.” Going to the tree, he nestled the holly between the needles so that the red berries peeped out from the greenery.
Now sitting on the sofa, Scott looked over at Johnny. “Do you want to go next?”
“Age before beauty.” Johnny smirked from his perch on the arm of Teresa’s chair and then ducked as Scott tossed a cushion at him. Laughing, he picked up the cushion from the rug and held it to his chest, resting his chin on the top.
Scott reached over to the side table and brought a small wooden box to his lap. He opened it almost reverently. “I bought this in Greenspan’s in San Francisco when I visited last month.” Cradled in satin was an exquisite ice blue glass ball with sparkling silver filigree and snowflakes made from a frost of white glass. Blue and white teardrops hung from the bottom. “These baubles are very popular in Boston.”
“Oh, Scott…it’s beautiful.” Teresa accepted the box from him and touched the ball with absolute awe as he lifted it out of its nest. Scott’s eyes shone like the blue glass, obviously pleased by her reaction. “I’m glad it has a box. This really will be something to keep forever—a reminder of our first Christmas together.”
“That’s what I thought when I saw it—something special to mark the occasion.” He attached the ornament carefully to the tree and sat back down, looking expectantly towards Johnny.
Johnny’s little treasure wasn’t as amazing as the glass ball, but he was still pleased with it. He slipped the wooden object from his pocket and held it up for the others to see. He’d never made anything decorative before. Old Pedro had lent him his special penknife and told him what to do, and it had taken Johnny three evenings in the barn with Barranca to carve. It was made from black oak and sanded smooth as silk. He’d painted the white patches from memory. “I shared a few Christmases with this little guy. Picaro was the first horse I could call my own.”
“And you made this? How clever.” Teresa reached out as soon as Johnny tethered the pony to the tree. She turned the ornament on its string so she could see it more clearly. “He looks almost real.”
Johnny smiled, pretending not to see the question in her eyes. Teresa was very good; she didn’t ask it out loud. She seemed to be as unsure of his feelings as he was. He didn’t regret making the replica or sharing this one small insight into his former life, but now he’d done it he didn’t want to say any more. What happened to Picaro wasn’t a story for Christmas, but now every year at this time he could gaze upon the handcrafted trinket and remember his long lost friend.
Johnny blinked twice. Then he raised his glass and turned to the others. “To Lancer.”
“And our lives together.” Murdoch got to his feet, and Scott and Teresa joined them. They all drank to a happy and prosperous future.
“May the road rise to meet us,
May the wind be always at our backs,
The sun shine warm upon our faces,
The rain fall soft upon our fields.”
They were good words, a Scottish toast that Johnny had already heard Murdoch make more than once. His father always recited it with a slight Highland bur in his voice. There was something warm and comforting in that as well as the words. The memory of both lingered in Johnny’s mind as he climbed the stairs to his bed.
For the first Christmas ever Johnny felt like he was home.
1. This story links to From Highlands to Homecoming, 2013-2015.