Word count: 13,425
“It’s too damn cold,” Johnny grumbled, clapping his gloved hands against his heavy jacket. He hated this kind of frigid weather. He was used to the hot summers of the Tex Mex border towns. Even in the coldest times of the year, when freezing rain soaked you to the bone it wasn’t as bad as this, where each breath you inhaled stung your lungs and the air bit at your cheeks and nose. “Why couldn’t we just cut down a tree on Lancer land? It’s just a tree for God’s sake.”
“Oh, that’s where you’re wrong little brother.” Scott grinned. He had to laugh at his brother’s misery. He had been brought up in Boston where the snow piled high from winter’s beginning to winter’s end. “A Christmas tree has to be a Ponderosa Pine. Nothing else will do. And you can only find them up here in the high country.”
“Well,” Johnny looked up at the threatening sky, “we better find that tree of yours fast before we get snowed in.”
“Relax, Johnny, we’ll have that tree felled and down the mountain before a single snowflake hits that sun baked face of yours.”
Johnny nudged Barranca forward; at least the horse had the good sense not to want to go on. He wasn’t as convinced as Scott that they could find his tree and get back down off the mountain before the gray sky above opened up. “What’s the big deal about a tree anyway?” he growled. “You cut it down and it just dries up and you got to throw it in the fireplace like any other log. A lot of work for nothing.”
Scott halted his horse, suddenly aware that this concept was new to Johnny. “Johnny,” he asked, trying to keep the surprise out of his voice, “haven’t you ever had a Christmas tree before?”
“No need,” Johnny snapped, not looking back “when you don’t celebrate Christmas anyhow.”
Scott sat motionless, watching Johnny slowly pull away. He had never even thought of Johnny not celebrating Christmas, in some way. He knew it wasn’t in the way he remembered his Christmas’s. His grandfather’s house, decked out from floor to ceiling with Christmas decorations. The smells of cookies and cakes filling the house mingling with the scent of the huge pine tree that dominated the parlor. His grandfather was still cold and distant, but to the housekeeping staff it was a labor of love to make the small blond boy giggle with delight all through the month of December. Come Christmas morning presents were piled high beneath the tree. The memory brought a guilty smile to his face. The smile faded quickly as he wondered what Johnny did on Christmas day. Was it like any other day, just trying to survive? He couldn’t even imagine the life Johnny led. When the only thing that brought him pride was the killing of another man?
He kicked Charlemagne gently and trotted to catch up with Johnny. A question suddenly burrowed itself in his mind; had Johnny ever killed a man on Christmas day?
They rode side by side for another half hour, both men lost in thought until Scott suddenly pulled up short and pointed to a hill dotted with a dozen towering pine trees. In front, sixteen feet at its very tip, stood a perfectly formed Ponderosa Pine. “There it is.” Scott proclaimed. “There is our Christmas tree.”
To Johnny it looked like any other tree, in fact it looked down right puny standing next to the rest of the trees. “It’s just a tree,” Johnny shivered, his breath forming little puffs of smoke as he talked.
“No it’s not. It’s perfect. Look at the shape, there’s not one bare spot. And see how strong the branches are? They will easily hold all the ornaments.”
“And how do you suppose we get this perfect tree of yours back to Lancer?” Johnny asked, convinced Scott’s years in Boston had addled his brain.
Scott pulled a large folded tarp from his saddlebag. “We wrap it in this and drag it back.”
“That simple, huh?” He looked up at the sky and shook his head. “I don’t know much about snow, big brother, but I’m betting that sky is about to burst its seams. If you need that tree all that bad, we better get started.”
Scott grinned happily; this was going to be Johnny’s first Christmas. And they were going to do it in style. When they got back to the ranch he was going to tell Murdoch and Teresa, and together it would be a December Johnny Lancer would never forget.
Together they hiked up the hill with axes, the tarp and a length of rope to secure the precious tree in the tarp. It took more time than Scott expected. The ground was hard and slippery with a layer of ice on the pine needles. Once they were at the top Johnny acquiesced to Scott’s orders, after all it was Scott who wanted the damn tree in the first place. He unfolded the tarp and spread it to the left of the tree and they began chopping at the base of the trunk, as close to the ground as possible. Scott wanted to keep every bit of the sixteen feet, and when the truck was nearly cut through Johnny stepped away and Scott took the final swing. The tree creaked and moaned then slowly began to fall in the direction of the tarp. Just as Scott had intended, the tree landed in the center of the tarp and they quickly wrapped the limbs tightly against the trunk then folded the tarp around the tree tying it snugly in place.
“Can we get out of here now?” Johnny asked. He had felt the unmistakable kiss of a snowflake hit his nose.
Scott nodded, his face flush with excitement. With each step he took he planned the Christmas of a lifetime for Johnny. He drove a stake with an eyelet at the end into the bottom of the trunk with the side of the ax and threaded a length of rope through the hole. Once the other end of the rope was fastened to the horn of his saddle, they could easily drag it back to Lancer. They rolled the tree into position so the tip of the tree would slide down the steep slope of the hill while they used the rope to guide it down slowly. Too fast and the tarp would be cut to shreds and the tree ruined. Scott took the end of the rope while Johnny took the center, wrapping the rope around his left gloved hand, using his right hand to keep enough slack to slowly feed the rope through. Scott nodded and Johnny kicked at the tree sending it sliding toward the bottom. The tree was heavier than Scott expected and he felt the snap of the rope as it suddenly jerked to a stop on its downward passage.
“Are you alright, Johnny?” Scott called. Johnny was ten feet further down the hill, digging his boot heels into the slippery ground.
“Yeah, just fine.” He snapped back. “If this is what it takes to celebrate Christmas then I think I was the lucky one.”
Scott laughed; Johnny was never the one to let a smart retort go by. But he saw the smile cross Johnny’s face and knew his brother was enjoying himself despite his grumbling.
They were half way down the hill when Scott’s heel slipped on an icy patch of grass and his foot flew out from beneath him. It seemed like an eternity before he landed on his back with a jarring jolt. The rope slipped from his hand, whipping toward his face. He jumped to his knees trying to catch the end of the rope but it slid out of reach. He tried to yell to Johnny but he saw the tree suddenly pick up momentum without his added weight on the rope. Johnny was pulled off his feet, the rope tightening around his left hand. For an agonizing moment he watched Johnny dragged down the hill until the tree came to a stop at the base the incline.
At breakneck speed Scott ran down the hill in time to grab Johnny’s shoulders as he picked himself up from the ground.
“Are you alright?” he shouted, trying to spot any injuries. “Johnny, are you hurt?!”
“No.” Johnny barked, brushing the ice and dirt from his torn jacket with his right hand, “I just bought this damn jacket last month, now look at it.”
Scott grinned in relief, “I’ll buy you a new one, little brother.” He didn’t notice Johnny carefully guide his left hand into his jacket for support.
“Let’s get this thing hooked up and get out of here. I don’t want to get caught up here in the middle of a snowstorm.”
“Relax. It won’t start snowing for hours. By that time we’ll be down to an elevation that will only give us a dusting. Just a gentle reminder that it’s Christmas.”
Johnny was having none of Scott’s joviality and stood aside watching Scott struggle to secure the rope to the horn of his saddle. He saw a few quick looks of disgust from Scott when he didn’t willingly help, but what Scott didn’t know was the rope had clamped around his hand so tightly that he was sure bones were broken. And he could feel the warm moistness of blood collect beneath his glove. Too afraid to see exactly what the damage was he left his hand cradled in his jacket. When he got home he would deal with it. Besides, this was Scott’s moment. He would do nothing to ruin it despite his outward show of disgust at the entire adventure. He was vicariously living Scott’s excitement for the upcoming Christmas. His first Christmas.
Scott’s weather prediction was woefully inaccurate. Ten minutes after they started making their way back down the mountain the sky opened up and an hour later they were plodding through three inches of snow, with almost no visibility. Johnny hunkered down over the saddle trying to keep his hat lowered over this face to keep the wind-pelted snow out of his eyes. His teeth chattered as the bitter cold wind sunk into his clothes, making his left hand throb with every uncertain step Barranca took. They were in the middle of a full-fledged blizzard. The very thing he was afraid of. How ironic it would be if he died here in the freezing snow when time after time he had faced death in the scorching heat of the desert.
“What now?” he yelled, making sure he always had a glimpse of Scott’s horse.
“There’s a line shack three miles east of here.” Scott shouted back. “If we can find it we can take shelter until this blows over.”
Johnny didn’t bother to ask how Scott knew about the line shack. For now he would just be grateful to find shelter.
It took another two hours for Scott to lead them unerringly to the shack. Johnny was finding it harder and harder to concentrate. His hand was throbbing so fiercely that it brought tears to his eyes. Tears he regretted immediately as they froze to his face. When they reached the cabin Johnny slid from Barranca’s saddle trying to hide his rubbery legs. Taking a deep breath he headed for the porch. “I’ll get the fire started,” he called through the howling wind, “you get the horses settled down.” It was not a suggestion, but an order, and Scott obeyed. It was not like Johnny to be so dictatorial, but he thought his brother was just trying to hide the fear of being lost in a blizzard. He coaxed the horses toward a barn twenty yards from the cabin, the Christmas tree still tied to his saddle. Once he un-tacked the horses, making sure they were safe and had plenty of hay and water, he grabbed their saddlebags and stepped out into the blizzard. The wind was so strong he had to hunch over, each step a Herculean effort. It seemed to take him forever to reach the line shack.
Johnny forced the door closed with his back and fought the desire to just slide down the door to the floor. He was tired, wet, cold and racked with pain from his injured hand. But there was no time for coddling and he set about checking the cabin for supplies and wood for the fire. To his disbelief he found a cord of wood neatly stacked between the fireplace and the pot-bellied stove. An old Indian blanket covered a pantry filled with cans of beans and bags of coffee, salt pork and jerky. He found lamps filled to the brim with lamp oil, and even a box of matches sitting on the table. This place was better supplied then some houses he had seen.
The first thing was to get the place warmed up. He gripped the glove on his good hand with his teeth and pulled it off. He was frozen to the bone and his hand shook as he stacked the fireplace with wood and set a match to it. Even without kindling it took to the flame immediately and the warmth spilled out into the room. Next was the pot-bellied stove and a hot cup of coffee. He worked quickly but carefully, aware that every move brought a jolt of renewed pain to his hand.
By the time Scott burst in amid a whirl of snow and wind, Johnny had made the place downright homey. A fire roared in the fireplace and a pot of coffee sat atop the pot-bellied stove. “Well, little brother, you seem to have things in hand.”
“A line shack is a line shack,” Johnny shrugged. “Why don’t you get out of those wet things before you catch your death of cold.”
“And you?” Scott asked.
“My clothes are almost dry from starting the fire.” Scott couldn’t help but notice a slight tilt to Johnny’s left shoulder, as if he were protecting his side. “That doesn’t seem likely.”
Johnny ignored him, setting about finding cups for the coffee, his left hand secreted inside his jacket not getting past Scott’s notice. “You can’t be dry already. I’m still drenched to the bone.” He began stripping his clothes off until he was down to his long johns; even they were damp and cold. “I tell you brother, your gonna catch your death of cold in those clothes. Don’t go complaining to me when you spend Christmas day in bed nursing a cold.” Taking a calculated risk, he took a few paces closer to Johnny and asked, “You need any help getting those things off?” Johnny raised a threatening eyebrow, “I said I was fine.” He snapped. Scott took a step closer and `accidentally’ nudged his left arm. Johnny grabbed his arm, gasping in pain. His knees nearly buckling under the onslaught of pain.
“Ok, Johnny, the game’s over. Let me see your arm.”
“No.” Johnny tried to take a step away but Scott clenched his right arm.
“I’m going to see that arm one way or the other Johnny. I’ll hog tie you if I have to.”
Johnny recognized that tone of voice and knew Scott was serious. Once his big brother made up his mind nothing would change it. And he said he didn’t inherit anything from Murdoch.
Steeling himself against the pain and the mystery of what lay beneath the glove he pulled his hand out of his jacket, his face suddenly drained of all color. If Scott hadn’t been there to steady him he would have collapsed to the floor.
“Good God,” Scott hissed, seeing the fiery inflammation on the back of his wrist between the glove and jacket sleeve. “Why didn’t you say something?”
Johnny shrugged, “I thought it could wait until we got home. You didn’t tell me we would be caught in a damn blizzard.”
“Sometimes I think the only thing you didn’t inherit from your father was common sense. Bull headedness, yes, but common sense, no. We’ve got to get you out of this jacket and check that hand.” Scott helped Johnny shrug his right arm out of the sleeve, the effort leaving his legs shaky. Then as gently as he could he slowly pulled the left sleeve over his injured hand, keeping a cautious watch on his brother’s face aware that he was about to pass out. How could he have ridden so far in that much pain? “Let’s get this shirt off too.” Scott said gently, unbuttoning the pearl buttons and pulling the shirt free of his pants. He was concerned that Johnny didn’t put up a fight. With the shirt off Scott got a good look at his brother’s left forearm. It was swollen twice its size with violent black and blue bruising. Not sure if he was ready to see the extent of the damage done to Johnny’s hand he caught a table chair by the toe of his stockinged foot and slid it behind Johnny. He eased him down into the chair and carefully lifted his brother’s hand closer to the lamplight. He fought back the panic as he studied the glove, stretched taut around his swollen hand. With unsteady fingers he pulled back the neck of the glove and saw a raw, bleeding cut encircling his wrist. Infection had set in, most likely caused by the rope fibers embedded in the wound. Another inch higher and he could have severed an artery. “We have to get this glove off and clean out the wound.”
Johnny nodded, but he wasn’t sure if he could go through with it. He was in such pain that he could barely breathe. The thought of pulling the glove off made his stomach reel and he felt Scott holding his head as his stomach exploded in retching spasms.
“Come on, Johnny,” he heard Scott’s hollow voice through the ringing in his ears, “let’s get you to bed.” He felt strong arms half lift, and half drag him until he was lying on the hard cot. He felt Scott quickly pull his boots off then his pants, each movement bringing searing pain to his hand. Despite the heat from the fireplace and the pot bellied stove he began to shiver, the involuntary movement bringing more pain to his hand and up his arm to his shoulder.
Scott quickly bundled a blanket around Johnny’s shivering body and felt his forehead. His fever was rising quickly. He had to tend to that hand, but how to get the glove off? “You hang in there, Johnny,” he coaxed gently, pushing the damp hair from his forehead, “I’m going to take good care of you, you’re not going to miss your first Lancer Christmas.”
Scott looked around the shack, taking inventory of everything the small cabin had to offer. It seemed it had just about everything except water. He grabbed a pan and carefully opened the door onto a world of swirling white. It took all his strength to keep the door from flying open against the howling wind. Snow blew into the shack covering the floor. Scott scooped the pan through the snow and slammed the door shut. For the first time Scott realized the enormity of their situation. There was a real good possibility that they could be snowbound. A shiver of fear ran down his back. Johnny needed a doctor. Even without taking the glove off he knew the injury to his hand was severe. He glanced over at Johnny, his body already wracked with fever chills. He had to stem the infection somehow, if not, he could lose his brother.
He divided the pan of snow into two pots and a bucket, setting the pots on the stove to melt. One would eventually boil, the other he would use for drinking water. The bucket he would use to cool down Johnny’s fever hot body. He found his knife in his saddlebag and began toying with it absently, watching the snow slowly melt. He wasn’t ready for this. He had seen a lot of horrific things in the war. He had seen what an infection like Johnny’s could do to a man if it went unchecked. He slammed his fist into the wall next to the stove, all this, he cried inwardly, because I had to have the perfect tree. Johnny was right, they could have cut one down on Lancer property and been home now, nestled in front of the fireplace, their stomachs full…Taking a deep breath he squared his shoulders and set about collecting the things he would need to treat Johnny’s hand. Punishing himself now would not help Johnny; there was plenty of time for self-recrimination later. He glanced over at Johnny. Even at this distance he could see the pallor of the younger man’s face. He remembered the last time he had watched his brother writhing in pain, wracked with fever chills, after Pardee put a bullet in his back. He had been a stranger then, a brother he never knew he had. Now Johnny was as much a part of him as his own skin. He loved him like a brother who had never left his side, as if they had grown up hand in hand. The easy smile, the jet-black hair that constantly fell into his azure blue eyes; he brought out a part of Scott he didn’t know existed. Brought up in the rigid confines of his grandfather’s house Scott existed but didn’t live. Johnny lived despite his existence. He had a compassion for life, a love of the country. Scott saw things as he had never seen them before, though the eyes of a man who, had up until he came to the Lancer ranch, seen only the toughest side of life. But in that toughness gentleness was born.
Pulling himself out of his reverie he set to work preparing for the ordeal. He took the extra shirt he had in his saddlebag and tore it into strips for bandages. Found an old flour sack to soak up the blood. He lit every lantern and every candle and dragged the table over to the cot illuminating the area as much as he could. The sound of the wind howling outside the shack hammered at his raw nerves. He realized he was doing everything he could to forestall the inevitable; the glove had to come off. He dropped the knife in the boiling water. With a loud sigh he turned to face Johnny. Five minutes. In five minutes the knife would be ready to use. Was Johnny strong enough for this? Was he?
Then it was time. He fished the knife out of the boiling water with a spoon and set it on the table to cool. He brought the boiling water over to the table and mixed some of the ice water to cool down the temperature.
Johnny had fallen into a fitful sleep. Scott dragged two chairs over to the bed and placed the folded flour sack on one. As gently as he could he lifted Johnny’s hand from the bed and placed it on the chair. The small movement brought a cry of pain from Johnny. Scott felt sick. How was he going to subject his brother to so much pain?
But the alternative was not acceptable. Pushing his emotions aside he grabbed the knife, still hot to the touch and carefully pulled back the neck of the glove. The small movement brought a cry of pain from Johnny’s lips and he thrashed on the bed trying to swat his hand away.
“Johnny!” He grabbed his right hand, “you’ve got to lay still. This has got to be done.”
“No!” Johnny tried to whip his hand away, his strength born of fear and delirium. “Leave me alone.”
“I can’t. Now listen to me, if you don’t settle down I’m going to have to tie you down. Do you want that?”
Johnny looked at him with fever bright eyes, pain and fear etched on his face. It frightened Scott how quickly the fever had taken over his mind and body. “Johnny,” he tried to get his brother to focus on him, to understand what had to be done. But Johnny’s wild eyes saw nothing. “Johnny, the infection is spreading.”
Johnny leaned over swatting at Scott’s arm, nearly knocking the knife out of his hand. “You touch her again and I’ll kill you!” he yelled, his face a mask of hatred. “I’ll kill you!”
Scott wrenched his arm away pushing Johnny’s shoulders back on the cot. “Johnny, it’s me, Scott.” But he knew Johnny was somewhere far off in a nightmare of his past. Was he relieving the death of his mother? Had the pain of his hand brought back the emotional pain of losing her?
He made the only decision he could, the only way to save Johnny’s life. With tears in his eyes he grabbed his brother’s still wet shirt and used it to tie his right wrist to the bed frame. Johnny’s eyes went wild with fear. He tried kicking and bucking his way loose and Scott used his own shirt and his belt to tie his ankles to the bed. “No!” Johnny jacked knifed his body up and down until suddenly all his energy was gone. He mumbled words in Spanish that Scott didn’t understand until that too was silenced. With a shaky hand Scott reached over and alive, but his heart was beating at an alarming rate.
Scott took a deep breath and steadied himself for what had to be done. He carefully began to cut away the bloody glove. As he stripped layers of the leather away he saw the deep gash the rope had left in Johnny’s wrist. Blood still seeped into his palm. He wrung out a rag in the hot water, ignoring the heat on his own hands, and dabbed at the wound. The touch brought a gasp of pain and Johnny’s head snapped back. Ignoring the increasing moans of pain Scott continued to cut the glove away. Bile rose in his throat as he saw his brother’s mangled, swollen hand. The rope must have broken the bone just below his wrist.
Taking a deep breath he began cleaning the wound. He poured copious amounts of hot water over the wound flushing away the congealed blood, pushing the rag deep into the cut to remove what rope fibers and dirt he could, using the knife to dislodge pine needles nestled deep in the wound. It was not perfect, but it was all he could do. He would continue to clean the wound every few hours in hopes of ridding it of all the foreign matter. The next thing he had to do was set the bone. He wasn’t sure he was doing the right thing, but he feared if he did not set the bone back in place Johnny would lose the use of his hand.
He rose on shaky legs, wracked by nausea. The ordeal was far from over and he had to stay strong for Johnny. He had to find something to use as a splint once he set his wrist in place. He spied a wooden crate next to the stove, probably used to store vegetables in springtime and with his bare hands he broke away three slats.
Determining that it was the right length he opened the bag of salt pork and pulled the cord from the sack. He found another sack, lying empty at the bottom of the pantry and he had two of the cords he needed. The third was the stampede cord from Johnny’s hat.
Johnny lay as still as if death had already taken him. The only sign that he was still alive was the small up and down motion of his chest. Scott dressed the wound, wondering how he was going to clean it once the splint was in place. Whatever he did was going to have to be enough until he got Johnny off this damn mountain and back to Lancer.
He studied the situation for a long moment, deciding how he was going to pull the bone into place and bind the splint at the same time. He decided to use a slipknot. Carefully sliding one slat beneath Johnny’s forearm, extending it a couple inches beyond his fingers, he set the other two slats on either side of his arm and tightened the cord just below his elbow. Satisfied there was enough pressure on the arm he did the same, just above the wrist, far enough away from the infected wound that he could still clean it, and tied it tightly in place. Now came the crucial part. He formed a slipknot and slipped it over the splints just above Johnny’s knuckles and held it between his teeth. Taking a deep breath he took a strong hold of Johnny’s hand and yanked, feeling the bone slip into place and jerking the cord tight with his teeth. Closing his ears to the blood curdling scream of agony, he couldn’t help but look up at the stunned look on Johnny’s face as his right arm and legs thrashed against the bindings.
“It’s ok.” He soothed, laying his hand atop Johnny’s heaving chest. “It’s ok. The worst is over.” But there was no conviction in his voice. He feared the worst was far from over. Johnny turned his head to look at Scott, his eyes masked by pain and confusion. “I’m here, little brother,” he said softly, wringing out a cloth in the melted snow and wiping his fevered face, “I’m here.” Scott wasn’t sure if he saw a slight smile twitch at Johnny’s lips before his eyes slid upward and his long black eyelashes settled on pale cheeks.
A combination of shock and adrenalin coursed through Scott’s body as he sagged back into his chair. He had been through hell in the war, had seen good men, some his friends, wither in pain. Some of them made it and some of them didn’t. But he had never been through an ordeal like this. He was inflicting horrible pain on someone he loved. He closed his eyes, willing his heart to stop throbbing. He listened to the howling wind outside the shack. It seemed to have a life of its own, as if the more pain Johnny had to endure the stronger it got. He never knew at what point fatigue overcame him and he slipped into a deep troubled sleep, his hand resting on Johnny’s hip.
It was hot here in the desert. The sun stood at high noon in the clear blue sky beating down on him, ravaging his body with its heat, burning his face, draining every ounce of energy he had left. He tried to wipe the sweat from his face but his arm wouldn’t move. His head ached with a dizzying ring. He tried to take a deep breath; the searing heat burned his lungs. Then the pain hit. Sudden and violent. Pain was something Johnny Madrid was all too familiar with. Physically and mentally, he couldn’t remember a time when he was not fighting one or the other. Pain radiated from his hand, up his arm to his shoulder and down his left side. Each breath brought a new spasm that wracked his body. His mind needed to find a reason for the pain, something to fight against, and he traveled back in time attaching faces to the agony. The men his mother brought home who hurt him, and worse, hurt her. The whippings he took at the hands of men who only wanted his mother. The black shadow that always loomed in the background. The specter of a father who didn’t want to admit he sired a half-breed. His mother told him how his father had lashed out, embarrassed by his dark skin and jet-black hair. He promised himself, the day his mother died, that he would hunt down and kill the man who had driven them into the hell they called life.
A long low shadow suddenly appeared above the horizon, dark against the white desert sand. He watched it grow larger as it came nearer. He studied it, the sweat stinging his eyes. It separated into twelve shadows and began to take shape, then divided into twelve more, then twelve more until the line crossed the desert for as far as his eyes could see. He gasped, trying to back away as each shape took human form. He only recognized two faces…the faces of the two boys who faced him in empty streets in forgotten towns, with the same goal, to be the one who outdrew Johnny Madrid. He searched the shadowed faces of the others, nameless faces that haunted his dreams. Why did they force him to draw? He died a little inside each time his bullet snuffed out another life. Couldn’t they understand the pain of being Johnny Madrid? He staggered backwards, searching the empty desert. He was alone except for the shadows advancing on him. His hand closed around his gun, and cruel laughter filled the air. He didn’t want to draw. He couldn’t kill again. He couldn’t watch the astonished faces as their life’s blood poured out of them. “No!” he screamed. “I can’t…I can’t.” But they kept coming, blocking out the sun with their shadows, their eyes accusing…
Scott awoke with a start. Johnny’s sobs of pain and fear sent a shaft of pain through his heart. He wrung a cloth out above the cold water and gently wiped his fevered face and chest. He could feel the terrible heat rising. If he didn’t get the fever down Johnny would not survive. He felt Johnny’s muscles tighten, his legs thrashing against the bindings, once again in the throes of another nightmare. He felt devastating guilt. Guilt that he had to tie him down, and guilt that he had brought him here to this damn mountain in the first place. He talked to him gently, trying to sooth away the fears. He sat there hour after hour, wiping him down with the cool water, only moving away from his side to put more wood on the fire and keep the pot-bellied stove burning. He listened to the blizzard outside the warm shack and wondered how much snow was out there. He would have to leave Johnny for a little while soon, the horses had to be tended to.
Scott waited as long as he could, but there was no telling how long Johnny would linger in his delirium, shouting first in English then Spanish. His voice sometimes soft and sometimes angry. The most wrenching moments came when his voice was filled with fear. “I’ll be back soon, little brother,” Scott whispered close to Johnny’s ear. “You just hang in there.”
Hunkering down against the cold Scott stepped out into a world of whirling whiteness, sinking to his knees in the freezing snow. He could barely make out the dark shadow of the barn twenty yards from him. With grim determination he trudged through the snow, noticing snowdrifts wind driven to six feet in some areas. He thanked whatever God there may be above that the drifts had not obscured the barn from him. But if the snow kept up he didn’t think he would be as lucky the next time he had to tend the horses. It took him twenty minutes to reach the barn, the wind threatening to push him sideways off his feet. Too long. Too long to be away from Johnny. He reached the barn door and pushed the mounds of snow away from the door opening just enough to squeeze through. He was mildly surprised at the temperature inside. The hay acted as an insulator and kept the raw cold out. He quickly checked the horses, taking time to rub Barranca’s nose, telling him Johnny would be back soon. He made sure they had plenty of food and water then untied the rope from the spike driven into the base of the tree and coiled it around his shoulder. With a last tender pat against Charlemagne’s rump he headed for the door.
He struggled to push the door open then nearly went sailing as the wind caught it and slammed it open trapping him between the door and the barn wall. With the wind knocked out of him he waited until he got a steady breath then pushed with all his strength to slowly close the door. Once latched shut he tied one end of the rope around the door handle and began the long exhausting haul back to the shack. He tied the other end to the hitching post in front of the door. Next time he would have a lifeline.
He opened the door and rushed over to check Johnny. He seemed to be resting more comfortably. It was useless to check for fever with his hands still half frozen. He pulled his clothes off again and laid them to dry in front of the fire then poured himself a cup of the hot strong coffee. He didn’t notice Johnny opening his eyes searching the room.
Scott turned back to the cot, lost in thought, surprised to see Johnny staring at him. “Hey, little brother,” he smiled, “you finally decided to wake up.”
He poured drinking water into a cup and lifted Johnny’s head just enough for him to greedily gulp down the water. “Not too fast,” he warned.
“Thirsty.” Johnny whispered, his voice almost too faint to hear. “Hot in here.”
“It’s the fever.” Scott gently laid his hand on Johnny’s forehead feeling the heat from the fever, still too high for Scott’s comfort. “You know,” he said, wringing out the cloth and wiping his brother’s face, “you had me worried there for awhile.”
“We’ve been here? Twenty-four hours maybe. Don’t worry. We’re not going anywhere with that storm outside.”
“Barranca!” Johnny tried to sit up noticing the bindings on his right arm and legs for the first time. Fear clouded his already fever-bright eyes.
“The horses are fine.” Scott gently pushed him back down. “Sorry about the bindings. You were thrashing around so much I was afraid you would hurt your hand more.”
“Take them off.” Johnny ordered.
Scott shook his head, “Not until the fever is down a bit more.”
“I promise I won’t move. Please.”
“I’m sorry Johnny. Not yet. Maybe later. How are you feeling?”
Johnny closed his eyes, “Like I was run over by a herd of cattle.”
Scott smiled sadly. He looked like it too. His face was still ghastly white, dark circles forming beneath his eyes. He leaned down and brushed the damp hair away from his eyes. “Hungry? Think you can eat something?”
Johnny shook his head, “Not yet. I’m…” but his eyes slid closed before he could finish his thought. Scott gently pulled the blanket away from his chest and sat down to begin wiping his fever hot body. The fact that Johnny had regained consciousness and seemed lucid was good, but it didn’t mean that his brother was out of the woods yet.
The fever was still too high, and he didn’t like the looks of the dark seepage that stained the bandage over Johnny’s wrist wound. The infection was getting worse.
The day passed into night and still the storm raged outside, mirroring the storm within Johnny. His fever dropped then spiked as if his body was just not strong enough to fight it. Scott made salt pork and beans and ate not because he was hungry but because he had to keep his strength up for his brother. He moved the lantern closer to Johnny’s cot and sat back to watch the steady rise and fall his chest. What kind of dreams did he wrestle with? For someone so young, he had a world of hurt on his shoulders. Scott noticed the flutter of long eyelashes and Johnny’s eyes opened.
“Hey, nice you could join me.” Scott leaned closer wiping Johnny’s brow with the cool rag. “Gets kind of lonely here by myself.”
“Any chance of getting these things off me now?” Johnny asked, tugging at the binding on his right wrist.
“Maybe tomorrow.” Scott promised. “Feeling any better? You look a little less peaked.” Truth be told, he was looking worse.
“Good. That’s a start. Here, drink this” Scott lifted his head high enough for his brother to sip at the cup of water. “Feel like eating anything? I got salt pork and beans.”
Johnny felt his stomach turn at the thought. “Thanks Boston, but I think I’ll stick with the water.” Johnny looked toward the ceiling, his mind wondering. “What do you think they’re doing at Lancer right now?”
Scott slipped from the chair to sit on the edge of the cot, gently wiping Johnny’s face and chest with the cool water, “Well, little brother, I would imagine Teresa is decorating the house right about now. Putting garland and holly berries around the fireplace and mistletoe in the doorways.”
“Mistletoe?” Johnny’s voice was so weak.
“Its tradition, Johnny. A sprig of mistletoe is hung in the doorway and when a man and a woman stand beneath it the woman is obliged to accept a kiss from the man.”
Johnny turned toward Scott, a small smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. “And she lets him?”
Scott nodded, “More times than not, it’s the woman who hangs the mistletoe.”
Johnny closed his eyes, “I hope Teresa hangs plenty of it at Lancer.”
“I’m sure she will.”
“Lets see…” Scott’s words caught in his mouth as Johnny’s body tried to wrench away from a stab of pain in his arm. “It’s alright Johnny.”
“What else?” Johnny gasped, desperate to hear Scott’s voice. He needed something to override the pain, to fill his mind with something else than the fear of dieing here in this shack, stranded in a blizzard.
“I’m not sure. I’ve never spent a Christmas at Lancer either. But if I know Teresa she’s hanging garland everywhere, up the banisters, around the windows. She’ll be picking out the best spot in the Great Room for our tree, polishing all the ornaments. And soon she’ll start the baking. Mincemeat Pie, Pumpkin Pie, Apple Pie…”
“I’m sure she’ll bake one especially for you little brother.”
“Johnny…” Scott found his next question hard to ask. “You don’t remember Christmas at all at Lancer?”
“I was too young.”
“And when you were with your mother?”
“She had to work.” He said bitterly. “There was no time for Christmas.”
Scott stared at his brother in disbelief, “You have no memories of Christmas as a child?”
Johnny shook his head then stopped, a memory from the past seeping into his mind. Was it because he was so sick that he remembered after all these years? “I was twelve, I think,” he began, his fever bright eyes staring at the ceiling, the memory flooding back, “it was a cold winter. I had no jacket… it was so cold…” his voice faltered, gripped by a spasm of pain. He rode it out, determined not to lose the memory. “I saw a jacket hanging on a clothesline and tried to steal it.”
“You were caught?” Scott continued to wipe his face and chest with the cool cloth.
“Her name was Mrs. Logan. She dragged me into the house and told me if I moved one inch she would spank my behind until I couldn’t sit for a week. And she could have done it too.”
Scott smiled at the thought of Johnny as a little boy confronted with the prospect of a spanking.
“She was dirt poor. She made just enough money ironing rich people’s clothes to put food on the table for her and her son. Joey…Joey was his name. He was almost my age.”
Johnny stopped again, waiting to regain enough strength to continue.
“Why don’t you tell me the rest later?” Scott urged, pulling the blanket over his chest.
“No…now. She…” he bit down as another spasm hit, damn it, he had to finish. It was suddenly important to him. “She said I could spend the night since it was Christmas Eve if I would chop firewood for the week. It seemed a good trade off. That night I ate with them. They shared their special dinner even though it meant there was less for them. Chicken and potatoes with gravy. I went to sleep that night with a full stomach and a warm bed. The next morning there was three presents on the table.” Tears welled up in Johnny’s eyes. “One said, Merry Christmas Johnny.”
Scott’s hand shook as he dabbed at a tear that ran down Johnny’s face. “What was it?” he asked, his voice cracking.
“The jacket I tried to steal.” He sobbed, a lifetime of hurt combining with the pain of his hand. “She said that they decided I needed it more than Joey.” Johnny turned to look at Scott, a wealth of pain in his eyes, “It was Joey’s only jacket.”
“Johnny, I’m sorry.”
“For everything that you didn’t have. For the life that no boy should have had to live”
“That wasn’t your fault.”
“It still should never have happened.”
Johnny smiled wearily, “But it did.” He closed his eyes, “now, tell me about your best Christmas.”
“Johnny, I don’t think…” How could he tell his brother that he had everything, and more, while he had nothing?
“I want to hear…please.”
Scott sighed, “Alright, little brother. On Christmas Eve…” he began as Johnny’s body relaxed into sleep. He kept talking, his voice a gentle hum as Johnny drifted off.
Johnny had lost complete track of time. His world had been filled with pain and the sound of roaring winds outside the line shack, tempered by Scott’s gentle voice, always there, always keeping him from sliding beyond the darkness that beckoned him. It would have been so easy to just relax into that nothingness. All the pain, all the worry would simply disappear. But Scott wouldn’t let go.
This morning he awoke to a new sound: silence. He looked out the window and saw blue sky and sun glistening on the snow. The storm was over. It was time for Scott to go home. He turned his head slowly, not wanting to disturb his left side. The pain had subsided for now, replaced by a strange numbness. He searched the cabin with his eyes and panic set in for a fleeting moment. Where was Scott? Had he left him alone to find help? He swallowed back the fear. If Scott had gone already it would make his job much easier, because in his heart he knew he would never make it down the mountain.
“Hey, little brother.” Scott barreled into the shack, his face aglow with color from the frigid cold outside. “It’s a beautiful day, perfect for a leisurely ride home. Got the horses saddled, Barranca is none too happy about hauling the tree, but he’ll survive. We can…”
Scott froze, his smile disappearing, “What do you mean, no?”
“You go…I can’t.”
“That’s not going to happen, Johnny.”
“It’s the only way.”
“Look, Johnny,” Scott sat down in the chair that he had spent so many hours tending to his brother, his voice tinged with anger, “I’m not leaving you here alone.”
“Scott,” Johnny licked his lips, his mouth almost to dry to form the words, “I’ll only slow you down, you can travel faster without me. When you get to Lancer you can send back help.”
“No!” Scott said emphatically.
“Listen to me.” Johnny gritted his teeth, closing his eyes against the pain and exhaustion that was dragging him back down again. “I can’t. I hurt Scott, I hurt so bad.”
Scott sucked in a long breath, “I know you’re hurting Johnny, but we can’t stay here and I’m not leaving you behind. There’s a break in the storm, I don’t know how long its going to last, but if we don’t take advantage of it now we could be snowed in for the winter.”
Why did his brother have to be so damn stubborn? He raised his head staring at the determined look on Scott’s face, “You’re a fool big brother.”
Scott grinned, “Takes one to know one. Now, let’s get you ready.”
Johnny let his head flop back down on the pillow, “How do you plan on doing this?”
“First we get that arm tied into place then we get you dressed. Think you can sit up for awhile?”
Johnny nodded, but when it came time to physically lift his body off the cot he found he barely had strength to lift his right arm.
“I figure,” Scott said as he gently wrapped his arm around Johnny’s back and lifted him to a sitting position, sliding his legs over the edge of the cot, “that we can make it down to the valley by night fall. With an early start in the morning we can be home by late afternoon. Now, hold on, this is going to hurt.” Johnny couldn’t contain the cry of pain as Scott maneuvered his arm across his chest until his fingers were at shoulder level then wrapped the splints tightly in place with the same bindings he had used to tie him to the cot. Scott held on tightly to Johnny as he swayed, fighting to stay conscious. “You ok?”
Johnny nodded, fighting back the nausea. He didn’t want to be sick again.
“Good. Then let’s get you dressed.”
Johnny quietly endured the humiliation of having to be dressed like a baby. Scott had worked up a solid sweat by the time he finally pushed Johnny’s boots on. He studied Johnny’s face and worried. The younger man’s color had gone from white to gray. He was beginning to wonder if this was the right thing to do. He took a deep breath, whatever the out come; Johnny was not going to die in a lonely line shack in the middle of nowhere. He threaded Johnny’s right arm through his jacket sleeve and buttoned it across his chest leaving the left sleeve dangling.
Johnny smiled weakly, “Would it matter if I wasn’t?” he whispered.
“No. Let’s get this show on the road.” He began to gently lift Johnny into his arms but the young man protested.
“I can walk.” He snapped.
“No you can’t. Now you listen to me Johnny Lancer, we have a long hard trip ahead of us; you are going to need every ounce of strength you’ve got. Let’s not waste it on pride.”
Without letting Johnny get in a comment he lifted the smaller man into his arms and stepped out into the frigid mountain air.
Scott was nearly exhausted by the time he had managed to lift Johnny into the saddle and jumped on behind him. After wrapping him in several blankets he carefully wrapped his arm around his brother’s stomach to avoid his injured hand and kicked Charlemagne lightly. The horse began its slow trek through the four-foot snowdrifts, back home to Lancer.
Johnny sagged back against Scott’s chest; each step the horse took bringing renewed pain to his left side. But the cold, fresh air had revived him mentally and he needed to hear Scott’s voice again. He needed something to center his mind on. “Tell me more about Christmas.”
Scott sighed heavily, “Let’s see,” he began, letting his mind drift off to a happier time. “A week before Christmas the carolers would start visiting each house singing Christmas songs. Johnny, if you could have seen Boston as I did. Every block you’d find a vendor roasting chestnuts. Garland was draped over every lamppost. Storefronts were decorated with bright red bows. Houses smelled of gingerbread cookies…Johnny, you ever tasted gingerbread cookies?”
“Then we’ll have to have Teresa bake you some.”
Johnny’s head lolled forward onto his chest and Scott gently lifted it up to rest on his shoulder, his hand brushing the long black bangs from his forehead.
“I’d like that.” Johnny whispered.
“And,” Scott spoke close to his ear, his voice soothing the angry pain in Johnny’s arm, “there was eggnog and hot toddies, mulled apple wine with cinnamon sticks. Everything tasted so warm and sweet. That’s what’s waiting for us at Lancer, Johnny.” Scott felt Johnny’s body go limp against him and knew he had lost consciousness. He would let him rest for a few minutes, then awaken him again. The cold was just as much a concern as the fever.
Hour after hour they moved through the snow. Charlemagne never seemed to tire, as if the horse knew the precious load he was carrying. Scott was near exhaustion himself, it was becoming harder to hold Johnny in the saddle. The lapses of consciousness were becoming fewer and far between. An hour ago Johnny had begun to shiver despite the layer of blankets Scott had wrapped around him. Scott was beginning to think that it was just a matter of time now. He glanced back at Barranca surprised how docile the horse was. Under normal circumstances he would never have allowed someone to tie a rope around his saddle and force him to drag something as heavy as the tree through the snow for so many hours. But he was Johnny’s and there was a connection between horse and rider that there was no denying.
Scott looked up at the sky and a new dread seeped over him. Slowly the blue sky was being replaced by heavy snow clouds. If there were a repeat of the last storm they would both be lost until the snow melted in the spring.
Scott jerked his head up. He had drifted off. Cold snowflakes stung his cheeks. “No!” he screamed at the sky. “No! Damn you.” He felt Johnny begin to slide out of his numb arms and pulled him back. “Why? Hasn’t he had enough? What do you want from him?” Anger, like he had never felt before, surged through his body. It was not his life that was slipping away, but his precious brother’s. A brother he had just found. He couldn’t live without him in his life now. He brought a new meaning to everything. He was the cornerstone that made him strong, that helped in every way to live in this new land. He didn’t know if he had the courage to stay here without him.
Cold and exhausted, he felt himself start to sway in the saddle. His back and arms ached from holding Johnny. He needed to rest but he was afraid if he got down now he would never be able to get Johnny back in the saddle again. He glanced back at Barranca hauling the tree and made a decision. He pulled Charlemagne to a stop and whistled for Barranca to come up beside him. “Good boy,” he soothed, “don’t you worry, we’re going to get Johnny home.” He pulled his knife out of his pants pocket and cut the rope to the tree. “I know, boy,” he said, “I know, all this and we leave it behind. But I’m not going to be able to hold Johnny the rest of the way.” He pulled the rope until he had a long enough section and cut it free of the tree. He was suddenly filled with a feeling of melancholy. They had struggled so much for that tree.
Taking the rope he began wrapping it around his waist and Johnny’s, tying it to the saddle horn. Johnny’s body was limp and boneless. The only sign that he was still alive was the tell tail puffs of smoke as he breathed the cold air. “Hang in there, Johnny.” He whispered in his ear. “Please, hang in there.”
He clicked his tongue twice and Charlemagne began a slow easy walk through the snow again. It wasn’t long before the snow began to turn to freezing rain as they made their way further down the mountain. And so, hour after hour the two horses slowly walked, both aware of the need to reach home, no matter how tired they were. The sky turned dark and still they walked, Charlemagne careful not to falter on the uneven ground. The rain fell throughout the night. Neither rider aware of it any longer.
The dark gray skies mirrored the feelings of the three people who sat quietly in the Great Room. Jelly kneeled by the fireplace, watching the new piece of wood he had just thrown on the fire ignite with the other logs, it’s warmth somehow hollow. Teresa looked at all the Christmas decorations she had lovingly hung around the room. But somehow there was no joyous feeling here. The bright garland and red bows seemed only a sad reminder that the house was empty of the two most important people. Teresa swept at a tear that made its way down here cheek. This was to be a very special Christmas: A Lancer Christmas. The first one Murdock and his boys would spend together. She glanced toward Murdock and her heart sank. He stood before the massive wooden desk staring out the window at the steady rain, his stance so unlike Murdoch’s usual proud pose, now his shoulders seemed stooped. Of all the wars he had fought for this land, the one loss he could not accept was the loss of his sons.
Murdoch sighed heavily as he watched the rain. It had been falling steadily for days now, turning everything to mud. He glanced toward the corner that had been made ready for the tree the boys were bringing home. A very special tree Scott promised. But that was days ago. Five to be exact. And as every hour passed his heart grew heavier with despair. Word had come down from the mountain that a blizzard had hit. A complete whiteout. If the boys had not found shelter…He would not let himself fall into that trap, not until he knew with certainty that there was no chance of them returning. But the overwhelming burden of knowing what happened in the high country when men were caught unawares left him little hope.
He turned to Teresa, her sadness tugged at his heart. He took a deep breath and tried to smile, after all, life had to continue, no matter how impossible that seemed at the moment, it would continue, but it would never be the same. “Teresa, honey, why don’t you start lunch?”
Jelly jumped up, “Sounds like a good idea to me.” He said, “Come on Teresa, I’ll give you a hand.”
She looked at Murdock and her bottom lip began to quiver, “How can you think of food now, when…”
He made his way across the room and drew her into his arms. “I know. It’s hard. But we have to keep hoping. You know those boys… If anyone…”
“Senor Murdoch!” Murdoch spun around to look out the window at the sound of Cipriano’s excited voice. “Senor Murdoch!” Murdoch gasped at the sight of Charlemagne standing motionless in the pouring rain with Scott, head bowed low over his chest, and Johnny sagged forward over the saddle. Barranca nudged up beside them, nuzzling Johnny’s leg.
“Dear God!” He was out the door, racing through the pouring rain before he realized he had even made a move. “Cipriano, send someone for the doctor.”
“Already done, senor.”
Teresa and Jelly fell in behind him. “No!” Teresa screamed. What happened?”
Murdoch’s heart skipped a beat at the sight of his two sons, drenched in the pouring rain. Johnny sagged over the saddle horn, his head resting on Charlemagne’s wet mane, wrapped in a bundle of soaking wet blankets, his face hidden by his mass of sopping wet hair. Scott sat behind him, his arms linked around Johnny’s waist, and both of them tethered to the saddle horn.
“Untie them.” Murdoch ordered.
His hands shook as he reached up to steady his youngest son as the ropes were removed. The jostling woke Scott and he looked down at Murdoch, his expression blank.
He laid a gentle hand on Scott’s leg, “Scott…?”
Scott’s head moved almost imperceptibly.
“What happened son?”
“Johnny…broken hand…infection…” he murmured.
Murdoch tried to pull Johnny away from his grip but Scott held fast.
“Scott!” Murdoch tried to pry his fingers free, “you’re home, son. We can take care of Johnny now. You just have to let go.”
Scott held on, as he had held on for some many hours, so many miles. To let go was to lose Johnny.
Murdoch forced Scott’s hands apart and the blonde slid from the saddle into the arms of Jelly and Cipriano. He grabbed Johnny around the waist easing him off the saddle. He held the boy in his arms, his body lifeless.
“Jelly,” he ordered, “you and Cipriano get Scott in the house. He needs a hot bath and dry clothes.”
“No.” Scott struggled to stand on his own, his senses coming back. “I need to be with Johnny.”
“You need to take care of yourself so you can help your brother later. Now do as you’re told.” He ordered. He turned to Teresa but no words were necessary. She was already running for the door, preparing everything they would need to treat Johnny.
“Clear the dining table, we’ll remove these wet clothes before putting him to bed.”
Murdoch carefully laid Johnny on the table and began unwrapping the soaking wet blankets, discarding them in a heap on the floor. He quickly unbuttoned his jacket. “My God Johnny, what happened?” He blanched at the sight of the splint tied in place across his chest. Teresa was by his side pulling Johnny’s boots off. “He’s so cold.” She said, her voice shaking with fear.
“I know. There’s no use trying to save these clothes, fetch your sewing scissors and we’ll cut them off. And tell Maria to prepare the warming stones.”
“She’s already started.” Teresa called as she ran out the room.
They worked as quickly as they could. Once Johnny was wrapped in fresh warm blankets he was carefully carried upstairs and put to bed awaiting the doctor. Murdoch looked down at the discolored bandage beneath the splints on his left hand and decided to wait for the doctor. He found he couldn’t stop trembling. Johnny was so still, his complexion nearly gray. He was as close to death as any man could be. And he was helpless to do anything but warm him and speak softly to him.
“Stop your complaining.” Jelly barked. “The sooner ya warm up the sooner ya can go to your brother.”
Scott bristled at the old man’s ministrations. He only wanted to be by Johnny’s side.
“What you two been up to this time? I thought you was only going for a dang Christmas tree.”
“We were,” Scott closed his eyes against the memories of the longs hours at the line shack. “We found the perfect tree, Jelly. But the rope got tangled around Johnny’s hand and…”
The pain in Scott’s voice made Jelly wince and he began scrubbing Scott’s back and chest harder, trying to warm his near frozen body.
“We had to leave it behind yesterday.” He said, his voice filled with anguish, “I needed the rope.”
Jelly sucked in his breath, what must have gone through Scott’s mind as he had to tie his unconscious brother to him, knowing the chances of reaching home in time were almost none existent.
“We were so close,” Scott whispered. “It was going to be Johnny’s first Christmas tree.”
“You don’t worry about that now. I got clean clothes right over here for ya and ya can go see him.”
Scott grabbed Jelly’s wrist, “Thanks, Jelly.”
“Ah…” the old man sputtered, “let’s hurry now. Johnny’s waiting on ya.”
It seemed like hours before the doctor’s buggy finally drove beneath the Lancer arch. Murdock and Teresa had done all they could for Johnny. The warming stones placed on the blankets next to his body had warmed him. But with the warmth came the fever. Scott sat by his side reverting back to the same routine he had at the line shack, gently wiping Johnny’s face and chest with the cooling cloth.
“You know,” he said, as Murdoch and Teresa paced the floor. “Johnny never even had a Christmas tree when he was growing up? He never had any of the things we all take for granted. I wanted this one to be so special for him. I wanted…”
Dr. Jenkins rushed into the room. “What has the boy done this time?” he asked, setting his bag down next to Johnny’s bed and pulling the covers back to expose the injured hand. “How long ago did this happen?” he demanded, staring at the discolored bandage beneath the splint.
Scott had to think, one day had merged into another. It seemed a lifetime ago that they were laughing and teasing each other about the merits of a perfect tree. “Five days, I think.”
“Alright, I want you out of here.” He looked back at Murdoch, “I’ll do my best.” He promised. “Now, everyone out, except for you, Teresa. Tell Maria I will need plenty of hot water and some good strong coffee.”
Murdoch nodded and pulled Scott toward the door.
An eternity passed by as the grandfather clock slowly ticked away the minutes. Scott looked around the room and suddenly realized he had not seen Jelly for hours. “Where’s Jelly?”
“Don’t know.” Murdoch poured another cup of coffee and handed it to Scott, “He said something about an errand and he and Cipriano headed out. He should be back soon. Scott,” he held the cup for a long moment letting Scott’s fingers touch his, “You did everything you could for your brother. You have to know that.”
Scott bowed his head, “Knowing and believing are two different things.”
The sound of footsteps on the stairs brought their attention to Teresa standing at the top landing. “Doc Jenkins is ready for you.”
Murdoch and Scott bounded up the steps. They found the doctor still bent over Johnny tying off the last of the wrappings around his hand. He had splinted Johnny’s arm from fingertip to shoulder. “You did a fine job, Scott,” he said as he stood up, kneading the kinks out of his back, “if you had not set the bone he could have lost the full use of his hand.”
Murdoch crossed the room to look down at his sleeping son, he lay there as still as death. “How is he?” he asked, his voice trembling.
Doc Jenkins motioned for them to follow him into the hallway.
“The truth.” Murdoch ordered, steeling himself for what he didn’t want to hear.
“You know I’m always straight forward, Murdoch, no matter what.” He glanced back at Teresa hovering over the bed, trying to make her patient more comfortable. “There is no medical reason why that boy should have made it down the mountain in his condition. The fever alone should have killed him. Add the infection and the frigid conditions,” he shrugged his shoulders. “I’d call it a miracle. You have a hell of a fighter on your hands.”
“What’s the bottom line,” Scott pushed.
“If he makes it through the next twenty-four hours, he has a chance. And I mean, a chance. Anyone else lying there in that bed I would say it’s a foregone conclusion. But, not with that boy. Keep him quiet if he wakes up before I get back tomorrow. I’ve given Teresa some powders to give him if he wakes, and some Laudanum.”
“Johnny doesn’t like…” Scott began to protest.
“I don’t care what Johnny likes or dislikes,” he snapped, “When he wakes up he is to be given the Laudanum.”
Murdoch nodded, “We’ll see to it.”
More hours passed and Scott sat next to his brother’s bed washing his face and chest with cool water. He longed to see just one bead of sweat, something to tell him that Johnny was still fighting. But he remained motionless, the fever burning his skin, his breaths labored. Memories flashed back to his first encounter with the brash young cowboy with the quick smile and the undeniable aura of danger. Even to this day he found Johnny an enigma. Half Johnny Lancer, half Johnny Madrid. He wondered what persona had kept him alive so far. He could only hope that it was Johnny Lancer and his love for his new family.
By late afternoon Johnny’s fever had come down a bit and Teresa was able to coax a few mouthfuls of water mixed with the medicinal powders down the young man’s throat. But like the other times, Scott feared that the fever would return with a vengeance next morning.
Outside he heard a commotion of horses and men yelling. He quickly moved across the room to the bedroom window and saw Jelly and Cipriano sitting atop two of the biggest horses from the Lancer stable with the tarp covered Christmas tree in tow.
“Jelly!” Scott slid the window open, ignoring the rain buffeting his face and chest, “How…?”
“Couldn’t have a right fine Christmas without the proper tree, could we?” Jelly grinned up at him.
Scott looked from the tarp-covered tree to Johnny lying so still in his bed, not moving a muscle since they arrived. The doctor had said twenty-four hours, but Johnny seemed to have lost all his fight.
“Teresa!” He slammed the window shut and raced out the room.
“Scott!” Teresa ran into Scott, sure that something had happened to Johnny. “What is it? Is he all right? Is Johnny alright?”
“Yes, he’s all right. There’s been no change.” He grabbed her by the shoulders, leaning down to look her straight in the eyes. “I want you to start baking.”
“Everything. I want you and Maria to start baking everything. Cookies, cakes, gingerbread men.” His eyes suddenly sparkled with excitement.
“Scott, I can’t. I have to tend to Johnny.”
“But that’s it. Don’t you see? Doc Jenkins said that it was a miracle that Johnny made it down the mountain, right?”
Teresa nodded, still perplexed by Scott’s odd behavior, a little worried in fact.
“I want us to make a miracle of our own. I want Johnny to wake up Christmas morning to everything he never had. I want this to be the Lancer Christmas we all dreamed about.” Scott grabbed her hand and pulled her into to Johnny’s room. “He needs more than this,” he said, gesturing to all the powders and Laudanum Doc Jenkins had left behind. “He needs something to fight for.” He looked down at her, his eyes imploring. “Please, I know this is the right thing to do.”
Teresa looked down at Johnny, his face so pale, his body so still. Scott was right, there was no fight left in him. It was as if he used every ounce of strength to reach home, and now… “All right.” She took Scott’s hand and squeezed it tightly, “Johnny will have that special Christmas.”
“Thank you Teresa.” He hugged her tightly and kissed her tenderly atop the head, “we’ve going to have Johnny back with us. I promise.” They stayed like that for a long moment, using each other’s strength. “Now,” Scott said, pushing her toward the door, “we have two days, you have a lot of work to do. And, tell Cipriano to have his wife gather all the women and children. They have a Christmas tree to decorate.”
Teresa nearly flew out of the room, filled with the kind of hope she had not had in more than a week.
That evening Johnny began to sweat. His fever dropped considerably and he began fussing beneath the covers. Someone was always there, sitting next to his bed, wiping the sweat from his face and chest, talking to him. They didn’t know that he heard every word. That despite the fact that he was too tired to open his eyes, their voices surrounded him, made him strong. He felt Murdoch’s huge hands lift him as gently as a baby to adjust his pillows, his rough weather-beaten hands lightly pushing his sweat damp hair from his eyes. He couldn’t remember those hands as a baby. How he wished now that he could have known the man before he became Johnny Madrid. How different life would have been.
Scott eased himself into the chair next to Johnny’s bed. The day had gone by in a rush. “You’re looking much better, little brother.” He said, wiping at Johnny’s sweat covered face. “It’s about time you opened those eyes.” He sat back in his chair and memories flooded his tired mind. So many things had happened, he had learned so much about Johnny in just that short time. It hurt him to the core to think that Johnny had been denied the simplest things in childhood, like the joy of Christmas morning. Then he remembered Johnny’s tale of the jacket and realized that maybe he was the one who had never really experienced Christmas. He had always had too much.
“You know, Johnny, I never did tell you my favorite Christmas, did I?” he asked, bending forward to prop his elbows on the bed, “Well, I’ve been thinking long and hard about it and you know, I realize now that the one year that sticks in my mine the most was when I had no Christmas morning at all, at least not in the sense I was used to. I was seventeen and Grandfather was in Europe for five months. That left me alone for Christmas. We always had the most talked about Christmas party in Boston, but with Grandfather gone it would not have been appropriate for a seventeen year old to host a party like that. But I decided to have one of my own. I invited thirty of my best friends from school. For the first hour I was king of the house. I was the envy of every one of my friends. Then more and more people started showing up. People I had never met. The servants tried to control the situation but it was soon out of hand. The party turned into a near riot and the police were called. Before I knew it I was handcuffed and hauled off to jail. I spent the night with people the likes of I had never met before. Some were cold and frightening, but others, they had stories of times and places I had never heard of. Christmas memories I could only wish I had had. Because even though they were not privileged, they had a wealth of memories money could never buy.”
“Scott…the jailbird…” Scott jerked his head up to see shiny blue eyes staring at him.
“What did Harlan think?” Johnny’s voice was a raw whisper, but he was awake and talking.
“He was none too happy.” Scott grinned. “In fact I don’t think he has ever forgiven me. How do you feel?”
“Johnny!” Teresa bounded into the room. “You’re awake.”
“I knew you would wake up in time. Tomorrow morning’s Christmas.”
“Tomorrow? How long…”
“Don’t worry about that now. You just rest easy.”
Teresa was ready with a glass of water mixed with the doctor’s powders. “Here,” she said as Scott gently lifted his head so he could sip at the water, “you need plenty of water. You had us all so worried.”
“No need to be sorry.” Scott said, then Teresa was about to slip a teaspoon of something in his mouth.
“No,” Johnny tried to pull his head away, “not that.”
“Doctor’s orders, Johnny. Murdoch’s too.” Scott didn’t wait for any more protests and drizzled the liquid down Johnny’s throat. “Now, you try to get some sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”
Johnny glared at them before his eyelids slowly closed, and he fell into a deep healing sleep.
Christmas morning dawned crystal clear. Scott and Teresa couldn’t contain their enthusiasm any longer and ran upstairs to Johnny’s room.
Scott looked down at Johnny as he slept, gone was the gray waxy complexion, replaced by a hint of color in his checks. In a couple more days his fever would be gone completely and he could start the long road to recovery. And this morning was the beginning.
“Merry Christmas, Johnny.” Scott gently nudged his brother’s shoulder, “You plan on sleeping the whole day away?”
Scott watched the azure blue eyes open and struggle to focus before a smile played across Johnny’s face. “Mornin’.”
“You feel like taking a walk downstairs?” Scott asked.
Johnny nodded, and for the first time noticed Murdoch standing in the doorway. Teresa stood by with blankets and they gently lifted him into a sitting position. The pain was almost too much and he saw the room spin and turn dark.
“Are you sure about this?” Murdoch asked, his face shadowed by worry and fatigue.
“I’m sure.” Scott wrapped the blankets around his brother and made ready to lift him when he felt Murdoch pushing him aside. With hands so gentle that it brought a lump to Scott’s throat he watched his father lift Johnny into his arms.
“Johnny…Johnny…Merry Christmas.” Johnny heard Scott’s voice from somewhere far off. He felt a strange euphoria, partly brought on by the Laudanum and something else he didn’t understand. As his senses returned, he was aware of new things, sweet smells of cookies, and cakes, his chocolate cake, pine needles and the warmth of a roaring fire nearby. He opened his eyes to a kaleidoscope of colors, greens and reds and gold’s that soon coalesced into a vision he had never seen before.
Johnny opened his mouth to speak but no words came out. A tree stood in the corner, every limb decorated with shiny balls and bright red ribbons. At the very top, a gold star caught the light from the fireplace. Presents of all sizes sat beneath the tree wrapped in green and red paper.
“Merry Christmas, son.” Murdoch’s heart nearly exploded with happiness and sadness at the same time. How many years had he been robbed of seeing his son’s face light up at the sight of a Christmas tree.
“Merry Christmas,” Teresa leaned over the sofa kissing Johnny lightly on the cheek. “Maria and I baked you everything you could possibly want. There’s cakes, cookies, pies, gingerbread men, mulled apple cider…and tonight turkey with all the fixing’s. And…” She pointed to the small bundle of leaves tied with a red ribbon hung beneath the archway, “that mistletoe stays there until you can give me a proper kiss.”
Johnny couldn’t find the words to express what he felt at the moment. Never had he felt so wanted or loved. That they had all gone to all this work for him. All the lonely years seemed to melt into the background. He felt Scott sit down beside him. He found he couldn’t take his eyes off the tree.
“Merry Christmas, little brother.” Scott laid a hand on his knee. “Our Christmas tree,” he beamed. How does it look Johnny?”
“It’s just about the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen,” he smiled, “but…” he slowly looked around the room at the faces, all glowing with warmth and happiness, his father, Teresa, Jelly, and standing near the fireplace, Cipriano and Maria with their children, “but not as pretty as all of you.”
The pain of the past week seemed to fade away as he nestled deeper into the blankets, listening to the crackling of the fire and the laughter of family and friends surrounding him. At last, he knew what Christmas was all about. He reached out and clasped Scott’s hand, “Thank you.”
Mulled apple cider was handed around to everyone as Murdoch stood before the tree raising his glass in a toast: It’s been many years, but at last, I have my family back. Merry Christmas to all of you.”
A cheer went up around the room and Teresa leaned over to Scott motioning him to look toward Johnny, “I think,” she smiled as they watched his glowing face, “we have our miracle.”
Merry Christmas to everyone!
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4 thoughts on “The Christmas Tree by LindaB (Kona)”
This is one of my favorite Christmas stories. I like the relationship of the brothers.
I just found this story. This will always be one of my favorite Christmas stories. Thank you!
Scott wasn’t totally honest about the way Johnny was injured, but all and all this is a great read thanks
Oh my! What a heart warming wonderful story.