Word count: 4,415
Thanks to Cat for the beta!
#4 in the Johnny and Holly series, which is best read in sequence.
He didn’t know exactly when it started but, as the end of October rolled, around Johnny began to think of the upcoming holidays. The first two Christmases at Lancer had taken some getting used to as Johnny’s previous holidays consisted of the happenings at whatever saloon he’d be in that night and following day. Having been on his own since a small child, things like that tended not to mean much as far as family doings. He had no family… then. But now, he was beginning to realize how important it was, how important it was to be a part of a family and how good it could feel.
The first Christmas at Lancer, he had been very uncomfortable, not knowing what to expect or what was expected of him. He’d come through the holiday alright, he guessed, but immediately started to wonder about next year. Could it get any worse than this one had been? Then, the next year brought a surprising revelation, one that seemed to walk right up and smack him right between the eyes, almost shocking him into going to confession, which he never did. He never had anything to hide. But the second Christmas brought about a change, one that was a blatant reminder of what he had missed all those years of growing up alone and a vow to not dwell on the losses of the past but get on with what he had now. Family. He’d never known what that meant before. So, he found himself putting a little more thought into the gifts he would present to his family and the hopes that it would make this day very special for them all.
Now, as he sat on Barranca and watched the cattle at the stream, he found himself wanting to do something for his family that they wouldn’t expect. Something to let them know what they meant to him and… how much he loved them. He thought long and hard and made himself a promise that he would come up with something that would make this Christmas one that none of them would soon forget.
Two weeks later as they sat around the fire in the great room after dinner, Murdoch mentioned that he received a letter from an old and very dear friend in Denver. They had kept in touch for many years but visits were very far and few between these days. James and Mary Monahan had both just gotten over a bout with fever but were now well and back to their normal lives. The sickness had been a scare but everything was fine and they were now back on their feet.
“How long has it been that you’ve seen them, Murdoch? Any time recently?” asked Scott as he listened to Murdoch talking about his old friends.
“Not in many years, Scott. Too long. And after hearing about their illnesses, it makes me wonder if I’ll ever see them again. Life tends to get too short. Time speeds by, and soon it’s too late,” Murdoch responded remembering others that had slipped on into the next world all too soon, without the chance to say goodbye, with a melancholy tone that spoke volumes.
“Isn’t that the truth?” Teresa voiced her feelings. “Aunt Maggie, in San Francisco, isn’t getting any younger and I have been thinking a lot about her recently. I need to write her a
nice long letter. I think I’ll go do that right now!” She got to her feet and went upstairs to her room.
The three men watched her go and fell into their own thoughts, the mantle clock ticking away the minutes, time slipping by with no possibility of calling the time back.
Scott sighed deeply. “Yes, time can be the enemy. I have known for a long while that a friend from the war has settled in Butte County just north of Sacramento and I’ve not made contact with him. We went through a lot together, couldn’t have made it through the war without the other and I need to get in touch with him. His name is Cody Justice. Last I knew he married and opened up his own law firm up there.” Scott smiled thinking about Cody’s last name and becoming an attorney and how very appropriate that was!
The evening passed with thoughts of old friends and good times they’d shared together but both Scott and Murdoch seemed a bit subdued and also somewhat depressed. It hit Johnny like a lightning bolt, so sudden and vivid he seemed to jump out of his normal slouched posture. Murdoch looked at his younger son with concern and wide eyes.
“Johnny, are you alright, son?”
Johnny laughed softly. “Yeah, ‘m fine, just a twitch. ‘M alright, honest,” came his reply, trying with every ounce of control to hide his grin. This would be the perfect gift for all of them, if he could pull it off. But he couldn’t waste any time, he had to make the plans now. His heart beating wildly in his chest, he quickly drank the tequila in his glass and went to his room. As he mounted the stairs both Scott and Murdoch watched him go then exchanged looks, both shrugging. You never knew what to expect out of that boy!
Once in his room Johnny began to plan, taking the pencil and paper out of the top drawer of the dresser and made a list. Sitting on his bed he wrote things that he would need to do. Dios! Wonder if I can get it all done! Sure is a lot of stuff here….
Deciding to take Maria, Lancer cook, housekeeper and healer into his confidence, Johnny’s plans got under way quietly and off to a great start. Val had been an asset, helping with a few issues and Johnny began to look forward to this year’s celebrations. He could only hope that no one would slip up and let the secret out. If it happened, it happened, it would still be a good time but if it remained a surprise, it would be better.
The letters were painstakingly written and mailed with instructions to reply to Sheriff Val Crawford in Green River as soon as possible. Arrangements would be made in town until the time came to reveal what Johnny hoped would be the best Christmas at Lancer yet.
Thanksgiving came and went in usual fine fashion. The Lancers celebrated with friends and family and a great time was had by all. It seemed as if Johnny could do nothing but smile. Scott became suspicious as he watched his brother and finally asked Johnny what he was up to. Something had to be up!
“Don’t know what you’re talkin’ ‘bout, Boston. ‘Course I’m smilin’, I always smile.” Dios, he had to stop! Couldn’t give it away…
“Yes, but this smile is different! You look like the cat that ate the canary!” Scott proclaimed.
“What the hell ya talkin’ ‘bout? What canary?” Johnny, shocked at never having heard
the saying before. What’s a canary got ta do with anything? He wasn’t eatin’ no damned canary! That brother can say the damnedest things sometimes!
“Hell, Scott, we just had turkey. They eat canary in Boston?” Shaking his head, Johnny left saying he needed to make sure Barranca was bedded down for the night before he ruined the surprise and mumbled all the way out to the barn.
The answers started to arrive addressed to Val. Reservations were made enough in advance so there would be no difficulties and Johnny purchased all the tickets and paid for the rooms. It was the middle of December and he felt just like a little kid. The excitement was getting to him and Scott’s suspicions were increasing. He sought out Murdoch, and decided to take this a step further. Spying Murdoch alone sitting at his mammoth desk, Scott approached.
“Sir, would you have a minute to talk?” Murdoch looked at Scott and put down the pencil he had been using to tally the columns of figures in the ranch ledger.
“Certainly, Scott, what would you like to talk about?” he asked as he sat back in the comfortable leather chair.
“Johnny,” came Scott’s blunt reply.
Murdoch smiled. “So you noticed it too?” and he laughed a bit. “It seems the closer to Christmas, the more secretive he’s getting.”
“Yes, the less he says the more that’s being revealed! What do you suppose he’s planning?”
“I’ve no idea but he seems to be having a pretty good time doing whatever it is he’s doing. He and Maria have had their heads together a lot lately, too. I was thinking, Scott… I would really like to make this Christmas special for him. Have any ideas?”
“As a matter of fact, I do, but I don’t think that you’d approve…” Scott left the statement hanging, staring at his father. Murdoch watched Scott for a moment, his eyes narrowing a bit, and then he knew.
“Holly….” was all Murdoch said as he shrugged and looked away.
“Yes, Holly. I want you to see what I’ve seen between the two of them. It’s real, Murdoch and it’s incredible! Nothing short of magic and it’s pure and breathtaking.”
“Scott, do you really think that this is the right time…”
“It’s exactly the right time. You’ve seen Johnny the last few weeks! You’ve seen how … how excited he is about this year! Why not make it special for him, too? Then you could see for yourself how it is with them, that is, if you’ll let yourself see it.”
Scott left the room before he said something that would make the situation worse. He would not jeopardize this beautiful and unique relationship between Johnny and the woman he so obviously loved just because Murdoch was too concerned about what others may think. Johnny had already pledged himself to this exquisite woman and she to him but, without the blessings of the church or the law. It seemed that Murdoch just could not get past that and Scott was about to take matters into his own hands.
Scott left the telegraph office and headed over to Val’s to clue him in. Maybe Val would have an idea about how best to handle Murdoch so he wouldn’t see red and ruin the entire holiday.
Christmas was one week away and Johnny had to draw on Madrid to help him out with this situation. He tried to find a reason to be gone or work in a different spot than where Scott had been working. He was definitely having a hard time keeping this a surprise. He’d never pulled anything like this off before, but then he’d not had a family before. This was all new… and fun.
As the week wore on Teresa noticed Maria making more than the usual amount of food but didn’t think too much about it as friends would be dropping in all during the Christmas holidays. Whatever she was planning was certainly going to be special! Teresa made extra efforts in decorating the estancia. Fresh cut evergreen boughs tied with bright red ribbons and large, perfect pinecones covered every tabletop and an enormous tree with candles, ornaments and strings of garland occupied an entire corner of the room. The house was truly a thing of beauty and Johnny was thoroughly convinced that this was going to come off without a hitch.
The food was being prepared and looked superb; he couldn’t pass through the kitchen without a wooden spoon across the knuckles after pilfering a morsel. Tomorrow night would prove the best yet to come.
After dinner, sitting in the great room, again, with drink of choice in hand, Johnny started the conversation. “So, Boston, what’d ya do on Christmas? How’d ya celebrate?” He sipped his tequila and watched Scott as it seemed he was being taken back to another time.
“Well, we’d have grand dinner parties with wine and gifts; we would find a frozen pond and slide on the ice…” Johnny thought his brother had just admitted to going completely daft. Slidin’ on ice, huh?
“Then we’d go Christmas caroling…”
“What’s that?” Johnny asked, with a puzzled look on his handsome face.
“That’s when everyone gets together and sings Christmas songs outside in front of someone’s house, and then they invite you in for hot chocolate and cookies.”
“Wait, wait, ya go stand out in the cold in front of someone’s house and start ta sing?” Johnny asked, eyes wide in disbelief.
“An’ ya don’t end up in jail?” Johnny asked, totally shocked.
“No! You don’t end up in jail! It’s just something we did. It’s a tradition.”
“Boston, I’ve heard ya sing, you shoulda gone ta jail!”
Murdoch sniggered at the banter. Teresa was trying to hide her watering eyes and hold back her laugh. Suddenly, Scott turned a forlorn face downward.
“Scott, what’s the matter?” Johnny asked alarmed.
“I’m sorry, Johnny. I didn’t mean to make light and embellish what I had, when you…”
“Hey, brother, I asked ya what ya did. Not like you were rubbin’ my nose in anything. Can’t let it bother you. It’s done an over, can’t change any of it so deal with it an’ move on. I am!” Johnny said with his dazzling Johnny Madrid Lancer smile. It positively lit up the room.
Scott snaked an arm around his brother’s shoulders. “So what did you get me for Christmas, little brother?”
“Can’t tell ya, but I think ya might like it! What’d ya get me?”
“Well, I can’t tell you, either, but I know you’ll like it!”
Christmas Eve arrived and the house was a flurry of activity. Johnny could hardly contain himself as the moment he’d been planning for weeks was near at hand. Dinner was cooking and they were dressing for the occasion.
Standing in front of the opened wardrobe, Johnny had difficulty selecting an appropriate shirt. His usual shirts with the Mexican stitching would be too casual and he’d been trying to please Murdoch, he wanted even this small detail given his attention. With all the preparations he’d made so far, he thought Murdoch would appreciate a little more effort and thought invested for Johnny to dress for the festivities. Finally he pulled out the white shirt with a black string tie. It would soon be four o’clock, the designated time for the surprise to be given. Assembled in the great room they awaited the family feast.
They all heard it at the same time. Bells jingled from a harness and they heard … singing! The bells grew louder then stopped as laughing and talking all mixed together and a loud pounding on the front door interrupted what had been a quiet evening.
Johnny dashed to the front hall. “Come on!” he yelled to his family.
Murdoch hung back. “Scott, I really regret not going along with you…”
“Too late for that, Murdoch! Come on!” With that, they all gathered together as Johnny flung the door open to reveal James and Mary Monahan, Aunt Maggie and Cody Justice and his young wife, Marcie. Val stood behind them all grinning like he’d masterminded the whole thing.
Murdoch stammered and couldn’t believe the dear friends that he thought he’d never see again were here, in his house, going to share Christmas with him. Scott stood in absolute shock at the sight of his friend, the friend without whom he would never have made it through that horrible war. Teresa shrieked as Aunt Maggie hugged her then dabbed her eyes.
Instantly both Scott and Murdoch knew the reason for Johnny’s strange behavior. He had arranged all of this for them, for his family. They exchanged stares, Murdoch regretful but Scott’s grin exploded, and his eyes held a secret. A secret for his brother. They were all talking at once and hearing nothing until Scott asked for attention from everyone.
“Friends and family! Welcome to Lancer and we all want to thank Johnny for arranging this very special day for us. But there is a surprise for you, too, little brother!” Scott motioned Val aside and Holly stepped into the foyer, beautiful beyond belief. The air left Johnny’s lungs in a whoosh, but he was soon breathing hard in absolute shock. He grabbed her, hugging harder than he ever intended to, but Holly laughed and kissed him solidly in return. Scott looked to his father. Murdoch stood watching the reunion unfold; finally, he began to realize what Scott had tried to tell him before the guests settled into the house. And he was humbled to his core. He’d caught just a glimpse of the fascination and charm of these two young lovers.
Johnny couldn’t believe what had happened! All his planning to surprise his family and the biggest surprise had been for him. This was the Christmas he would remember for as long as he lived.
“Come on in, everyone! Sit by the fire and get warm!” Murdoch called to all the guests. He walked over to Holly, still wrapped in Johnny’s arms.
“Miss Vasquez, Holly, welcome to Lancer and Merry Christmas!” Taking her from Johnny’s embrace and with a caring arm around her shoulders, Murdoch walked her into the great room with the warmth and tenderness of a cherished relative and friend, with Johnny close behind, his head still spinning and reeling from shock.
They all assembled into the great room, introductions were made and drinks were being served. People were talking all at once, Scott and the Justices were deep in conversation while Teresa and Aunt Maggie chatted, thankful for this long over due visit. Murdoch still could not believe he was looking at his friends, friends that he’d been sure he’d never get to see again, that is until they walked through his front door.
Quietest of them all rang the ‘loudest’ from Holly and Johnny as they stood off to the side of the magnificent fireplace, their arms wrapped around the other, their bodies touching from head to toe. Murdoch glanced over to see this questionable behavior but decided that this was not the time to tangle with his younger son. The sight of them seemed to have captured the attention from all of them. Secretly, the others in the room also saw this but their reactions and thoughts were entirely different from the Lancer patriarch.
Scott watched and was again amazed at this special couple, just how much they expressed through their actions, the ‘aura’ from them tangible. Both Cody and Marcie Justice were reminded of their courtship and thought it sweet. Aunt Maggie was reminded of a suitor she had once been engaged to and who had been taken from her in a tragic accident. A tear or two had been shed for him as she also discreetly watched the tenderness.
However, out of them all, James and Mary Monahan had been the most affected. Mary nudged James in the ribs and nodded to where the young couple stood completely oblivious to all the others in the room. Mary’s sweet smile was from another time and place as she remembered butterflies in the belly from being near the person you loved, the person you knew would be the center of your life. James saw it, too. My, they are a handsome couple! Murdoch must be so very proud! he thought.
Soon they were called as dinner was served and they sat together at the large table filled
with all the traditional holiday foods, and some not so traditional, but it was all delicious and enhanced by the company. Wine was served, the food consumed and Maria was toasted for her expertise and praised by them all. Dessert would be taken in the great room with after dinner drinks and they all settled around on the comfortable furniture, once again, Holly and Johnny a bit off by themselves and sitting very close.
Murdoch rose from his chair as James and Mary conversed with Scott, Cody and Marcie, and quietly stepped out onto the patio. The night was clear and the stars were spectacular in their display. A full moon had risen over the mountain peaks with a thin streak of cloud running across its center. Murdoch’s thoughts were tumbling in his head. He’d made the first step, he had welcomed Holly into the house… but he was still having difficulty with the situation. How was he going to deal with this?
He leaned forward to rest his elbows on the adobe wall and continued to watch the stars as if expecting to see a sign from the heavens to help him with this… problem. Somehow it was soothing the turmoil that rolled around in his heart. The door opened and Murdoch knew he was not alone but didn’t know who it was that joined him until he heard James’ deep rumbling voice.
“Are you alright, Murdoch? You look troubled,” James inquired, concerned for his old friend.
“Oh, I guess it’s all the excitement of the day. I had no idea Johnny had planned all this. It certainly was a shock, but a very pleasant and appreciated one!”
“Yes, that Johnny is surely something special, Murdoch, arranging all of this. Both of your sons are fine young men. You should be proud! And Holly is perfect! She and Johnny are an absolute delight to watch! The room just brightens up when they are in it!” James was smiling but Murdoch was not and James sensed Murdoch’s unease.
“What is it, Murdoch? What’s wrong and don’t say nothing. You and I have been friends for far too long and I know when something’s bothering you.” James said firmly, letting Murdoch know that he wanted an answer.
“James, I don’t know what to do. About Johnny. And Holly.” Murdoch’s head hung between his shoulders and his knuckles were white as they gripped the top of the adobe wall.
“What about Holly and Johnny? They are wonderful!” James beamed as if it were his son they were talking about.
“James, they are not going to marry… ever. I can’t abide this… this relationship without the bonds spoken before God. I love my son but I think he is wrong. The whole thing is wrong…”
James watched as Murdoch looked at the ground and he remembered another time when Murdoch had been so disturbed. Looking out over the darkened landscape, over the moon shadowed grazing land and glorious mountains beyond, he spoke softly.
“I remember what you went through when Maria left, Murdoch, how torn to pieces you were at the loss of that boy. From what I hear, he had a pretty rough time of it, too. But the fact that he found his way back to you is nothing short of a miracle. Don’t push him away
now, don’t make him choose between you and that girl. Just trust him and trust yourself and embrace his life, Murdoch, they are so special; please give them your blessings,” James said as he settled himself against the wall next to Murdoch.
“Every man has to decide for himself what’s right and that’s between him and God.” James looked at Murdoch with raised bushy brows and chuckled. “Seems to me you did enough of your own ‘deciding what’s right’ when you were younger. And if you’re worried about what others will think, to Hell with them! You never cared for what others thought before! Why start now? You take that boy for what and who he is and he will make you more proud than you ever thought possible. He’s your blood, Murdoch, and let him know you accept him… for who and what he is.” James clamped a hand on Murdoch’s shoulder, then turned and left Murdoch alone, leaning on the wall. He hadn’t said much while James spoke, but he had listened and listened hard. He looked up at the midnight blue velvet of the sky and the stars were winking at him.
No one had missed the sparkle in their eyes or the way their smiles seemed to glow and one could physically see the love in their touch. Even Murdoch saw it and his resolve started to crack.
He silently entered the great room as the conversations were still bubbling over with the excitement of the evening. He spied Johnny with his arm around Holly’s shoulders, engaged in discussions with James and Mary. The four of them chatted as if they’d known each other all their lives. At one point Mary took Holly by the arms and pulled Holly to her in an embrace that signified the affection that was Mary. Murdoch smiled at this. He was finally beginning to see what the others had already picked up on. Johnny had given his heart to
this woman and she was a good woman, and Murdoch finally realized that he could live with that. Approaching the two couples, Murdoch winked at James then wedged himself between Johnny and Holly, putting his arms around their shoulders and pulled them to him with a tender squeeze.
He turned to Johnny and looked him in the eyes. “Thank you Johnny, thank you, son!”
It was late and their guests had been shown to their rooms. Val had left with the large carriage and headed back to town. Passing in the hall on the way to their own rooms Scott caught Johnny’s arm and whispered in his brother’s ear.
“When everything calms down in a day or two, I stocked the north line shack with all the supplies you’ll need, tequila, too! Take a couple of days with Holly; I’ve got your chores covered.”
“You’re a hell of a brother, Boston! Thank you!” Johnny said, his voice thick with emotion.
“So are you, little brother! So are you! And Merry Christmas!” Turning to go to his room, Scott began to hum the first few bars of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” as he walked, then as he reached his room he loudly belted out the words to the whole next verse, horribly out of tune and enjoying every sour note of it. Johnny visibly cringed at the raucous braying coming from Scott’s room and shook his head to help clear the rasping, wheeze-like noise that made his brain hurt. Wonder if Val is very far away yet? He could come back an’ haul Scott’s miserable ass inta jail. Cody an’ Marcie can visit him there…..
to Dead Center
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