Word Count 2,635
Johnny sat on the golden palomino and watched as his father and brother slaved away cutting down the fir tree. He shook his head at them. It made no sense to cut a perfectly beautiful tree; to kill it; and stick it in the house to dry out only to toss it in the fire a few days later.
All the boughs that hung around the house now were drying out, too. Parts of trees killed for some unknown reason. He’d never seen the like. It made no sense to kill a living thing to celebrate the Lord’s birth.
Not that Johnny celebrated it anyway. Never had really. But he’d been around it enough as a child to know this just wasn’t right. Still, here they were, doin it anyway.
“You could help us!” Scott shouted from a distance as he and Murdoch wrapped rope around the branches.
“I could but since I think you’re both loco, I’ll just keep away. If it’s all the same to you,” he grinned.
Scott grumbled something Johnny was sure he was better off not hearing. They finally got the mammoth into the wagon bed and secured.
Scott leaned against the side of the wagon, trying to catch his breath. “If you weren’t going to help, why did you come?”
Johnny pointed an accusatory finger at their father. “He made me.”
“I thought it would be nice to share this tradition with my sons,” Murdoch gasped out.
“I told you it was a crazy notion, old man. Don’t know why you’d think I’d want anything to do with it,” Johnny retorted.
Murdoch held up a hand, unwilling and, at the moment, unable to spar with his younger son.
After a few more minutes of heavy breathing, Scott and Murdoch climbed onto the wagon seat and Johnny reined his horse toward home. He allowed them to stay close though he really just wanted to get off this mountain as fast as he could. Those two were slowing him down.
At last they made it back and Johnny stabled his horse then headed inside to the fire. It was colder here than he was used to and he had decided he didn’t like it one bit.
“Where’s the tree?” Teresa asked.
Johnny nodded toward the front door. “They’re bringin it.”
“Aren’t you going to help them?” she asked.
“Nope. Not my idea, didn’t wanna go and ain’t helpin,” he stated adamantly.
She put her hands on her hips and scowled at him. “Johnny, don’t you have any Christmas spirit?”
He turned and faced her, a sly grin forming. “Sure, querida. Right over there in that bottle,” he motioned toward the bar.
She made a growling noise at him that he was sure could rival one of Murdoch’s then turned on her heel and strode to the door; hair flying behind her.
Johnny laughed softly. She was such a kid sometimes.
After much maneuvering and unwanted direction from Teresa, the tree was put in its place. The corner between the fireplace and the sideboard.
“Why’re you putting it so close to the fire? Are you trying to burn the house down?” Johnny asked, arms folded over his chest.
Murdoch sighed and stood up straight with a grimace. “We keep water in the bottom so it doesn’t dry out, Johnny. It won’t catch fire.” At this point, he was tired, cold, hungry and quite annoyed with his son’s attitude.
Johnny only shrugged but said no more.
“Now, after dinner, we can decorate,” Teresa said excitedly.
Scott smiled wanly at her, hoping he found some energy. It seemed his was all depleted at the moment. He’d never had to obtain his own tree before. It just appeared in the living room at home every year. Completely decorated by the time he saw it, usually.
Murdoch was sure he’d be “supervising” that chore himself. He was also sure Johnny would be helping. Whether he liked it or not. And he was sure it was a ‘not’.
After dinner, Teresa hurriedly cleared the table. Johnny just as hurriedly went outside with a glass of tequila in hand.
He heard his father bellow at him fifteen minutes later and rolled his eyes. Stepping through the door, he peeked around the corner.
“It’s time to decorate the tree,” Murdoch informed him.
Johnny looked nonplussed. “Have fun,” he smiled and lifted his glass as if to toast.
“I’m sure YOU will. Come on, Johnny. This is part of being a family and you will participate,” Murdoch ordered.
Johnny’s initial reaction was to fire off a sharp quip. But, he saw Teresa’s face then and that was that. Sighing, he walked slowly into the room and sat his glass down.
“Okay, what do I do?” he asked.
For two hours Teresa handed off ornaments and told him where to hang them. She brought out strings of cranberries and the brothers wrapped it round the tree. Scott pulled out a shiny gold star and handed it to the girl. He wrapped his hands around her tiny waist and lifted her up while she placed the topper.
Setting her down easily, he gave her a hug. Then they both walked halfway across the room and turned to admire the work.
“It’s lovely,” Teresa smiled. Her face seemed to glow as her cheeks filled with roses.
“It does look good, doesn’t it?” Scott admitted, quite proud of himself.
“What do you think, Johnny?” Teresa asked.
He walked over next to them and took in the full effect. “It’s okay,” he shrugged.
Exasperated was putting how Teresa felt mildly at the moment. It was all she could do not to throttle her brother. She needn’t have bothered. Someone saved her the trouble.
“Johnny, I’d like to see you outside. Now!” Murdoch growled and stormed out the door.
His eyes wide with surprise and confusion, Johnny looked at Scott and Teresa but they were busy looking at anything else. Sighing, he followed his father.
Murdoch was pacing the veranda, his hands clasped behind his back, his head lowered in thought.
“Somethin wrong, Murdoch?” Johnny asked softly.
He stopped pacing and turned to face his son. “Yes, there is something wrong, Johnny. You.”
Johnny felt a clenching in his stomach at the familiar words. He could only look at Murdoch.
“For over a week we’ve tried to involve you in the Christmas festivities only to be rewarded with cynicism and sarcasm. Enough is enough, Johnny. If you’ve nothing pleasant to say, don’t say anything. Teresa has always loved Christmas and this year is particularly hard for her. It’s the first we’ve celebrated without her father.”
Johnny stared at his boots as his father continued.
“This is Scott’s first Christmas away from Boston. He’s trying to settle into the customs and traditions here. He’s trying to enjoy himself. Every time you open your mouth, you bring us all down a little bit more. This is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. A time when family comes together. A time when we show how much we love each other. A time of peace and goodwill. Well, if you hate it that much, maybe you should just not bother at all!”
Johnny slowly raised his head and stared into his father’s eyes. Nodding slowly, he spoke with conviction. “A time to come together as family? A time to show how much we love each other? Is this how you show love, Murdoch? Yeah, I guess it is. No different than any other time of the year. Then again, why should it be? Christmas is just another day, old man. Just an excuse for people to party and drink. Just an excuse to throw a little extra in the church pot.
“I am sorry about Teresa. I should treat her better right now. That was my fault and stupid not to think of it. But as far as Christmas, you can keep it. And I’ll be more than happy to stay away.” With that, he turned and walked inside and up to his room.
Murdoch stood gawking after Johnny’s disappearing back. He couldn’t think straight. Johnny had used many tones of voice with him. Anger, pain, hurt, confusion and yes, sarcasm. But never had he heard all of them rolled into one voice.
Scott’s voice broke the spell.
“Sir? What happened?”
Murdoch looked at his other son and shook his head. “I have no idea. I’ve never seen him like that. I ….”
Before he could finish, Johnny threw open the front door and walked into the yard headed for the barn, saddlebags slung over his shoulder.
“Where are you going?” Scott asked as he caught up just outside the barn.
Scott grabbed his upper arm but Johnny jerked free. “Why?” Scott asked tightly.
“Just followin the old man’s orders. He said if I hated all this so much, I shouldn’t bother. Well, I’m not botherin. You all have a good Christmas,” he spat the last word then stepped into the barn. Â
Scott followed him, watching as he saddled Barranca in record time. “Why do you hate Christmas?”
Johnny stopped and leaned against the saddle, closing his eyes for just a second. “I don’t hate it. I just don’t like it.”
“You’re playing with words, Johnny. Why not?” Scott pressed.
Without looking up, he softened his voice. “Nothin to concern yourself with, Scott. I don’t want to ruin it for everyone else.”
“Don’t you see? If you’re not here it will be ruined,” Scott reasoned.
Johnny smiled a little. “No, brother. If I’m not here, you can all enjoy it without ole sour puss gettin in the way.” He let out a sigh. “Look, Scott, I really don’t want to be here. I don’t want to make Teresa or any of you miserable. The best thing is for me to hole up til December 26th.”
Scott stepped up to the stall. “Don’t go, brother. It won’t be the same without you here. Teresa would rather have a sour puss than no Johnny at all.” Â
“Yeah, well, Murdoch wouldn’t.”
“He didn’t mean that and you know it. Stop this, Johnny. Come back in the house.”
Johnny sighed and shook his head.
He looked up to see Teresa in the barn doorway and sighed even louder as she came nearer.
“Don’t go, please. We’ll stop making you decorate. We won’t even say Merry Christmas to you. I won’t even chase you around the house with mistletoe. I promise.” Her voice quivered and her eyes were wet.
Johnny stepped out of the stall and hugged her to him. He looked up at Scott and motioned for him to leave them alone.
“Sit down, querida. I want to tell you something but it’s just between us, okay?”
She sniffled, sat down and nodded.
Johnny joined her on the haystack and fiddled with his conchos for a few seconds. “This is hard. I didn’t want to get into any of it. But, I want you to understand. I love you, Teresa. All of you. I’d like nothing better than to be here with you. But, I just can’t. I can’t celebrate Christmas. I can’t be around it. I’ve always disappeared this time of year. No one would see hide nor hair of me til after the first of the new year.”
“Why, Johnny?” she asked.
“Oh, honey, it’s a long story. And it’s a lot of different things, really. I know you don’t understand but I just can’t handle it. Maybe I’m a coward, I don’t know,” he shook his head.
“You are not a coward, Johnny Lancer! You’ve never celebrated because you had no reason to. You had no one to share it with. It’s different now. You’re different now. You love us and we love you. That’s what Christmas is about, Johnny. Love and sharing that love. I know how you men hate showing any emotion other than anger,” she stopped and smiled briefly.
“I know you’re afraid you’ll let your feelings show and be embarrassed. But, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. You should never be embarrassed around us, Johnny. We’re your family. I know how hard it’s been for you. I wish it had been different. But, it can be now. Now, Christmas can be the best time of the year for you instead of the worst. Please, don’t be alone. It would break my heart knowing you were all alone when there’s no need.”
He listened to her words, her voice, and knew she was right. Hit the nail on the head, as a matter of fact. Johnny looked up at her from under thick lashes.
“How’d you know?” he barely whispered.
“Because, I know you. And that, Johnny Lancer, should scare you more than anything!” she laughed and slipped an arm around his waist, hugging him close.
He laughed as well though he was sure it was the truth. “Querida, you think you could make the old man understand?”
“I think he understands, now,” a baritone voice interrupted softly.
Teresa smiled and kissed his cheek then stood. “I have some cookies in the oven, I’m sure.”
Johnny grinned at her and squeezed her hand before letting go. Then, he dropped his head again and waited.
“I’m sorry, son. I didn’t once consider that this may be hard on you. I didn’t even think about how you spent Christmas before. I guess I’ve been so wrapped up in the season, I just expected you to be as well.”
“I didn’t want to be such an ass. I just couldn’t help myself. Everything has been so crazy. Run here, run there. Decorate this, cut that down.” Johnny looked up. “I don’t know how to celebrate Christmas, Murdoch. And, I guess I was afraid to tell you that.”
Murdoch sat beside him and put a hand on his knee. “Why, son?”
Johnny shrugged. “Cause I figured you’d think I was daft,” he grinned. With a more serious expression, he elaborated. “I didn’t want you to think I was ignorant. I’ve seen stuff, ya know. But just from the outside. And I’ve only ever seen Mexican traditions. Never made it north of the border this time of year.”
Murdoch swallowed hard and cleared his throat, hoping it wouldn’t shake. ‘Just from the outside’. That part cut through him like a hot knife. He moved his hand from Johnny’s knee to around his shoulders.
“If you’ll give us a chance, I think we can help you see how wonderful it can be, son. I think you’d really enjoy it if you let yourself. Stop fighting it and enjoy the festivities. Will you do that?”
Johnny nodded his bowed head. “I’ll try,” he whispered.
Murdoch smiled in relief. “Come inside? It’s getting colder.”
“Another reason I stayed south of the border,” he smiled. “In a minute. I just need to take care of Barranca. Poor fella ain’t gonna know which way is up,” he laughed.
Murdoch chuckled and patted him firmly on the back. “Alright then. I’m pretty sure Teresa really does have some cookies.”
Johnny unsaddled his horse, apologizing the whole time. He gave Barranca a special treat to make up for the mixed signals. Taking a deep breath, he laid his head on the silky coat of the palomino’s neck for a few seconds and closed his eyes.
“Lord, give me strength,” he mumbled then shook his head ruefully.
He stepped through the barn door and pulled it shut. Turning around, he felt something cold, wet and feathery light on his nose. Johnny looked to the heavens as the snow flakes swirled gently around him. He smiled.
More moisture found its way into his eyes as he stared at the sky. “Please, God. Let it be like they say. Let it be a merry Christmas.”
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