By Jan Lucas, Penny McQueen and Ginny Shook
(with apologies to Charles Dickens). Artwork by Tanja Konstantaki.
Three years ago a group of friends decided to write a special version of The Christmas Carol as a gift for some of their HC friends. In the spirit of the season, here’s a gift to you, the newsletter reader! The great artwork at the right was created by Tanja Konstantaki.
December fell in Tucson like water hitting fire, temperature plunging as the sun hid behind mountains. The threatened rain stayed in overhanging grey clouds, changing to nightly fog, heavy and thick, leaving the air wet and chilling the bones. Men, hardened to scorching desert air, ached with the cold. “I’d rather face July and August put together,” Joe Butler complained, coughing so hard he dropped a card on the bunkhouse floor.
“Stop whining and make your bet,” Sam griped, eyeing his brother between swallows of whiskey.
“Eh, Wind, have you noticed,” Pedro said casually as he rearranged his cards, “every time amigo Joe has a good hand, he starts to cough? Mira – he is about to raise.”
“I do not cough,” Joe growled, pushing his dollars into the growing pile in the center of the table. He attempted to stifle the next explosion, cleared his throat loudly to mask the sound.
Wind pushed his money forward, looked at grinning Pedro, and pulled it back. “I fold,” he sighed.
Reno laughed. “You believe everything you hear, Wind? Just so you know, there ain’t really a man in a red suit and white beard bringing you presents on Christmas Eve.”
Impassive dark eyes stared across the top of fanned cards as the half-Pawnee considered. “My people believe the spirits teach us wisdom and truth, that seems more important that a sack full of material possessions.”
“That’s cause you ain’t got any,” Ira offered. “Mrs. Cannon had me helping her wrap presents this morning. Did you know you gotta put your finger in the middle of a bow to tie it? Big box, too.” He tossed coins onto the table. “I raise you five.”
“So Mrs. Cannon is Santy Claus?” Reno grinned.
“Joe has a cold is all.” said Sam suddenly. “Maybe he should drink less and sleep more.”
The younger Butler drank deep from the whiskey bottle. “Stop being my mother,” he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “’Course I’ve got a cold. It’s freezing outside and its freezing in here. John Cannon’s working us all into an early grave. Should be good enough to get the cows to the army when they’re due, but he’s gotta get them there early. I’m surprised he lets us get any sleep at all.” He fingered his cards in irritation.
“Your bet, Joe.” Wind’s eyes flickered with humor.
The poker players leaned forward as one.
“I ain’t going to cough!”
“All I know is, you have been coughing all night and you been winning all night.” Pedro said.
“He’s been coughing every night,“ Ira grumbled.
“You’re all loco. I ain’t coughing. I see your raise and here’s ten more. See? No cough. Next thing you’ll be saying I marked the deck.” A sudden explosion of a cough spattered blood on the cards in his hand.
The only one not complaining about the weather was Big John Cannon. There was no point wasting energy stating the obvious. When asked for the millionth time if there had ever been such a freezing day in the history of the world, he answered honestly that he didn’t feel the cold. If he was a different sort of man he might have admitted, at least to himself, that lately he didn’t really feel much of anything. But the army needed winter beef and feelings were a luxury he couldn’t afford. Scanning the ledgers, he saw a sound profit, but Army beef would push the ranch farther into the black. John kept a sharp eye on doing a job better than the next man.
As for the Chaparral hands, his sharp eye saw them doing everything but the job since Victoria started decorating the ranch for Christmas. Buck and Pedro were gone a day and a half riding into the mountains to fetch a tree. He discovered Ira hanging upside down from the roof, tying wide red ribbons around the wooden posts that rimmed the house. And in the middle of the day, John found Victoria teaching Reno Christmas carols in the living room.
No amount of persuasion or even commands could stop strong-willed Victoria’s enjoyment of the holiday season. She loved Christmas and was determined they all would celebrate to the fullest. Her happiness was infectious to everyone else. As the day drew near, John’s family and the ranch-hands became more foolish, smiling at nothing and singing for no reason.
“Juano! Feliz Navidad!” Manolito Montoya greeted his brother-in-law at the breakfast table on a morning that was greyer and colder than any before.
“Christmas ain’t ‘til tomorrow, Mano.” Buck’s face glowed like a child’s, as he stacked pancakes on his plate and added fried eggs and soused everything with sorghum thickly over the top. “Might save us some time if we open them presents of Victoria’s right after breakfast, don’t you think? No sense waiting until tomorrow, is there Mano?”
“Only if you wish to retain your scalp, my friend.” Manolito sampled his eggs, then sipped coffee. “My sister is worse than a priest about keeping the rituals of the season, hombre. Violate one and,” grinning, he slid a finger across his throat.
“Very funny, Manolo. Perhaps I will take your present to the children at San Xavier del Bac, at least they will appreciate one more gift from us.” Carrying an urn of coffee from the kitchen, Victoria continued, “I suppose you do not even wonder what I have for you?”
“Something too expensive,” John snapped. “And no one is doing any celebrating until the herd is brought up to the south ridge. I don’t care what day it is. ”
“You certainly will care if you are late to my special supper,” Victoria said. “Supper is at 6:00 and you will all be washed and dressed nicely and at my table not one minute later.”
“We will get it done on time, my sister, I promise you,“ Manolito interrupted John.
“Sure thing, Victoria, don’t you worry. I’ve been smellin’ those wonderful smells you’ve got coming from the kitchen. I’ll be sitting at this here table at 5:00. And I’m gonna eat until I pop some buttons,” Buck grinned around a mouthful of eggs.“ You making those little apple pie things? Blue Boy sure loved those. ‘Course he loved all your cooking but he really…”
“Can I just eat my breakfast in peace, please?” John roared.
A heavy silence followed. Suddenly Buck slammed his hand down on the table. He pushed his chair back hard and stomped out of the house.
“What the devil is wrong with him?” John grumbled.
Mano rose, considering John for a moment. “He does not like your new rule.”
“I don’t have time for your fool jokes, Mano. What rule?”
“That we are all to pretend that Blue does not exist.” He placed a hand on his sister’s shoulder. “Victoria, thank you for the delicious breakfast.” And Manolitio was out the door before John could say a word.
“Fools, the pair of them,” he muttered. He stole a look at his wife, waiting for her to defend them. Victoria was silent until he stood.
“Do not go yet, John. There is something I want you to do.”
“Victoria, there is no time for…”
“It will only take a moment.” She reached into a drawer in the living room table and then placed something in his hand.
“Will you put it on the top of the Christmas tree for me?” she smiled at him.
John stared at the ornament. The large china star was painted in delicate colors, flecked with gold.
“This was Annalee’s” he said, both surprised and cautious as he fingered the worn edges. “We always had it on our tree in Virginia. How did you…where did it come from?”
Victoria smiled happily. “I found it in Blue’s dresser. You asked me to remove his things, remember? This was in the bottom of a drawer. Do you think Annalee hid it there? Or was Blue saving it for the proper moment? Please put it on our tree, John, you’re the only one who can reach the top. Is it not beautiful? Annalee had exquisite taste.”
John remembered. He had a sudden memory of hoisting little Blue up to his shoulder so he could put the star in its place, and hated the sour knot of grief growing in his throat. John set the star down on the table.
“This doesn’t belong on your tree,” he said, grabbing his jacket as he opened the door to the frigid morning. “Put it away. I don’t want to see it again.”
Slamming the door behind him, John squinted at Manolito. His lanky brother-in-law relaxed against a support post, back to bracing wind, keen eyes and tight mouth belying casual posture. “Whatever’s on your mind, spit it out and mount up. You’re burning daylight,” John said, marching toward the bunkhouse as Mano fell in beside him.
“I was just thinking. The sky today, gray as the beard of my father.” Glancing at the clouds above, he smiled. “A ruthless and often cruel man, the old lion. Yet never did he close the door on his disappointing son. Seguro, he disinherited me, but never did he disown me.” Tone low and compelling, he clasped John’s shoulder and stopped walking. “What is between fathers and sons, often complicated, eh?”
“And what’s between me and mine is just that, between me and mine. You finished?”
“No.” Sweeping his arm from bunkhouse to ranch-house, he said, “What affects you affects everyone, especially my sister. The first Christmas without Papá, Victoria wants something like Nativity fiestas at Hacienda Montoya. This she does to honor the Christ Child and the memory of our father.” Fierce eyes betraying the grin on his face, Manolito faced John. “Amigo mio, if you honor my sister, you will not begrudge her this. Entiendes?”
“Or what, the first bullet’s for me?” John jabbed a finger into Mano’s chest. “Your sister, who also happens to be my wife, can pay homage to Don Sebastian any fool way she wants, but I won’t have her interfering. Do I make myself clear? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a ranch to run.”
Turning on his heel, heading for the bunkhouse door, he heard Manolito mutter, “Ay-yi-yi, Big John, always the rancho. But if you have no son, who is it for?”
Click here to read the rest of The High Chaparral Christmas Carol