Word Count 3,330
*Inspired by the song ‘Christmas on the Line’ by Michael Martin Murphey (link to the song: Christmas on the line – Bing video
**The story photo was done by the talented Marilyn Handt.
** Thanks to Alice Marie for helping with the Beta
Cold leather saddles creaked as Scott and the vaqueros mounted up and rode away from the corral.
Scott raised the collar on his coat, fighting a shiver in the predawn hours. He was used to the cold, but California cold was a whole different animal than Boston cold, and the crisp wind whipping off the snowcapped Sierra Nevadas gave new meaning to the word.
Although he’d been told it never snowed in the San Joaquin Valley, there was a feeling of it in the air, and secretly he wished for a white Christmas.
Pulling his hat down to shield his face from the biting December gusts, Scott glanced over his shoulder to see Murdoch standing at the large window in the Great Room. He wasn’t sure if his father was sorry he wasn’t going or if he was happy to stay behind. Somehow, he thought the older man was content to leave this work to his sons.
For two hours they rode in silence. Their only company was the sounds of horses blowing against the cold air, tack rattling, and the north wind howling high up in the timber.
By the time they reached the main herd, the stars were beginning to blink out.
Long before seeing the shadowy figure riding out of the morning mist, Scott heard the faint sound of bells ringing. The jingle reminded him of the silver bells that adorned the sleighs and Christmas trees in Boston.
This time last year, he’d been in Boston, celebrating with his grandfather. A twinge of nostalgia swept over him, and he longed to see the city where he’d grown up. The old town came to life during the holidays with brightly colored decorations and gas lights and garland lining the streets and bridges.
He could almost hear the carolers as they strolled along cobblestone streets, singing songs to welcome in the season. At each home, they were offered warm cider seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg before moving on to the next door.
Smiling faintly, he remembered the sound of bells on horse-drawn sleighs as they skimmed across snow-covered hills and skating with friends on frozen ponds. The center of attraction in the Garrett Living Room was always a tall pine tree, decorated with red bows, dangling ornaments and, of course, silver bells.
Not for the first time, Scott wondered what this year would bring. How would this new family of his celebrate the season?
Although the tree was up and the house decorated, there was still no true feeling of Christmas at Lancer. He wanted the warm, glowing feel that marked the spirit of the season and the same giddy feeling he had in Boston in anticipation of Christmas day.
As the lone rider drifted closer, the sound of bells grew louder. Scott thought for a moment, then knew what he was hearing was the jingling of spurs, Johnny’s spurs.
Wearing a heavy coat, a woolen scarf around his neck and hat pulled down, the rider stopped directly in front of the arriving men.
Johnny nodded to the vaqueros as they moved past him, heading toward the already partially gathered herd.
“Glad to see you finally gettin’ out here, Boston. I’m about to freeze to death.”
“What time did you get here?”
“Early, real early. The moon was still up when we rode out. Figured the sooner we got this done, the sooner we’d get back. I’m looking forward to getting warm again.”
“Who rode out with you?”
“Walt and Frank. They’re back over the rise.”
Johnny shifted in the saddle, his spurs jingling again. The sound brought a smile to Scott’s face.
“What are you grinning about?”
“Nothing. Just remembering.”
“Yes, remembering Christmas in Boston. Your spurs have a unique sound, like Christmas bells; the ones we had back home.”
“Did Teresa put bells on the tree here at Lancer?”
Scott shook his head. “No, I don’t think she did.”
Johnny leaned forward in the saddle, crossing his arms on the saddle horn.
“You missing Boston?”
When Scott dipped his head, Johnny tried not to let the slight frown on his face show. He’d caught Scott’s meaning when he’d called Boston, not Lancer, home.
“Maybe we should get her to… you know, put some bells on the tree. Might make you feel some better about being here.”
That got a smile out of Scott. “I’d like that.”
“Well, you ready to get this done?”
Scott nodded as Johnny reined Barranca around and followed the vaqueros.
The sun was rising now, and the tops of the snow-covered mountains looked like angel’s wings, standing like sentinels against the blue sky. The feather-light frost lying on the ground sparkled like diamonds before starting to melt away.
The men drifted along behind the herd as it moved south along the fence line. No one had the time or inclination to talk, so the only sounds that day came from the animals, the wind blowing through the pines, and the comforting sound of Johnny’s spurs jingling. When they finally got the cattle settled in their new home, there was a sense of both relief and accomplishment.
As they started back to the ranch, the brothers rode together, letting the vaqueros ride ahead. Scott bowed his head against the ever-present wind.
“The first thing I’m doing when we get back is to soak in a hot tub.”
Johnny held his tongue. There was only one tub, and he wouldn’t begrudge his brother using it first, although he was about frozen himself. He’d been meaning to talk to Murdoch about adding a second tub. He’d guessed there hadn’t been a need for more than one before he and Scott came home, but having another one sure would be nice.
For now, he figured a stiff drink and a warm fire would hold him until Scott saw fit to let him take his turn.
“You can have it, Boston. I’m going to settle next to the fire with a glass of tequila. When I do get the tub, I can take as long as I want.”
Scott laughed, but when he turned to look at Johnny, he could see a blue tinge to the boy’s face. Thinking about his announcement about taking the tub first, he decided that he’d let his brother go ahead of him. Johnny wasn’t used to cold weather and it was obvious he was in greater need of a hot bath than he was.
When they reached the house, both men stiffly stepped down from the saddle.
“Let the hands take care of the horses, Johnny, and you take the tub first. I believe you’re more in need of it more than I am.”
Not even thinking of arguing, Johnny nodded his thanks.
Two vaqueros hurried from the barn to take the horses. Scott and Johnny gratefully handed over the reins and headed straight for the house.
“Murdoch,” Teresa called out as Scott and Johnny hurried into the house, slamming the front door behind them, “the boys are home.”
Both men hung up their coats and gun belts and went straight to the fireplace. Rubbing their hands together and stomping their feet to get the circulation going again, Johnny’s spurs sang.
Scott smiled, knowing he’d never again hear those spurs jingling without thinking of Christmas in Boston or hear a silver bell ring without thinking of his brother.
Blowing on his hands, Johnny turned his back to the fire and rubbed his backside.
When Scott heard Murdoch coming down the main staircase, he also turned his back to the fire, mirroring his brother.
“How did it go?”
Johnny moved to the drink cart and poured himself the promised glass of tequila before answering, “We got them moved.”
“All of them?”
Scott shook his head. “No, sir, there were a few stragglers we’ll have to pick up, but the majority are in the south pasture now.”
Murdoch’s scowl told them he wasn’t happy.
“Don’t worry, sir. We’ll get the rest right after Christmas.”
Johnny knew when he saw the look on the old man’s face that until the job was finished Murdoch would fret over it. The job had to be finished, or there would be no peace. He’d learned his lesson months ago on that score.
No, tomorrow morning he’d ride out and get it done.
That night after dinner, Johnny found Teresa alone in the kitchen. Looking around to make sure Scott wasn’t anywhere near, he tapped her shoulder.
“Teresa, can you come out to the garden for a minute.”
Nodding, she followed him outside.
Once in the garden, Johnny pulled her to the side and looked around.
“Teresa, this morning I was talking to Scott, and he mentioned that back east he always had some kind of bells on the Christmas tree, silver bells. I think he misses not having them here. Do we have anything like that?”
Teresa smiled. “I did find a box with a few silver bells, but there weren’t enough to hang on the tree, so I put them away.”
“Well, can you get them and maybe hang what you’ve got. He’s missing Boston and it might make him feel better about being here.”
“Wait right here; I’ll get them.”
Within minutes Teresa was back with a square box. Opening it, she showed Johnny the contents.
His eyes fixed on the small objects. Hesitantly, Johnny reached in and picked up one of the seven silver bells. Holding it between his finger and thumb, he shook it.
Closing his eyes, he smiled when he was greeted with a sound almost identical to the one his spurs made. A memory, brief but defiantly a memory grabbed hold of him; that of a smaller hand grasping the bell and ringing it.
“Are you alright?”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah.”
He quickly handed the bell back to Teresa and shook himself.
“Can you put those on the tree?”
“I’ll do it first thing in the morning.”
It was Christmas Eve and for the first time, there was a feeling of Christmas in the air.
As Scott made his way to the kitchen, his senses were assaulted by all the smells of Christmas he was used to. Teresa and Maria were chattering away as they baked, and the aromas of gingerbread, cinnamon, oranges, and cloves filled the house.
“Sit down; I’ll get your breakfast.” Teresa filled a plate and set it on the table in front of Scott. “There’s so much to do before tomorrow.”
“Thank you. It smells wonderful. Everything smells wonderful.”
“I just love this time of year, don’t you? Last year we’d just lost Daddy, and well, Murdoch was still recovering from being shot.” Teresa wiped a tear from her eye. “This year is going to be different. You and Johnny are here and it’s our first Christmas as a family.”
Teresa rushed back to the stove as Murdoch entered the room and took his place next to Scott at the table. She set his breakfast in front of him.
“He must have gone out already. Maria and I found the coffee already made and an empty cup in the sink when we came in.”
“He’s probably in the barn seeing to Barranca. I don’t think he went back out last night after we came in,” Scott answered, taking another bite of his breakfast.
It was midafternoon when Murdoch asked again about his youngest son. Scott had been working in the barn all day and reported Barranca had been gone when he got there.
“Do you know where he went?”
Scott shook his head.
“I haven’t seen him. Have you talked to Cipriano?”
“He’s not back yet.”
Murdoch walked to the French doors and looked out. ‘Where are you boy?’
It was another hour before the Segundo rode back to the ranch and told them Johnny had gone out before dawn to round up the cattle they’d missed the day before.
Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand that boy. The few that were left could have waited until after Christmas. Scott saddle my horse; I’m riding out there and bringing him home.”
“Sir, he saw the expression on your face last night. He knew you wanted them all moved. I believe he only wanted to please you. Call it part of your Christmas gift.”
“Scott, I already have more than I could have hoped for this year with both of you home. Come on, let’s go get your brother. He’s been out there all day by himself. He must be frozen by now.”
He’d spent more than one Christmas alone, drifting from one border town to the next; just him, his horse, and the sound of his spurs.
Stopping, Johnny looked down at the silver spur on his right boot. What was it that made the sound so important to him? Sure, it was the last thing many of the men he’d faced heard before taking his bullet, but there was more. He just couldn’t put his finger on it.
Slipping his boot out of the stirrup, the spur jingled. Smiling, he remembered what Scott said about his spurs jingling and silver bells ringing. He hoped Scott liked the bells Teresa would be hanging on the tree. It wasn’t much, but maybe his brother wouldn’t miss Boston so much if he had a part of it here. Maybe, he’d feel like Lancer was home now.
Barranca moved under him, bringing him out of his musings. Best to keep his mind on what he was supposed to be doing. Resetting his foot in the stirrup, he tapped Barranca’s sides and got back to business.
The light was starting to fade when Murdoch and Scott reached the south pasture. There hadn’t been much sun that day and what few beams cut through the clouds revealed islands of light and warmth in a sea of gray.
Murdoch pulled up, cocked his head, and listened. The faint sound of bells ringing caught his ears.
Scott reined up next to his father, smiled, and summed up the sound in one word. “Johnny.”
Over the rise, the first of the cattle came into view, and a few minutes later, a lone rider followed close behind.
“What are you two doing out here? It’s too damn cold for you to be riding out here, old man.”
Murdoch gave his son a faint smile. “We’re looking for you, Son, and I’m not that old.”
Johnny returned the smile. “No, I guess you’re not.”
Scott looked at the cattle Johnny had gathered. “So, little brother, did you get them all?”
“I got ‘em.”
“Good work, John, but know you didn’t have to come out here today. You could have waited until after Christmas.”
“I know, but I also know you wanted them all moved. It’s done now. If you two want to make yourselves useful, help me get them over to the main herd.”
Without another word, they joined Johnny in pushing the two dozen strays forward.
Murdoch nodded his satisfaction when the cattle joined the main herd.
“Let’s go home. I think you’re right, Johnny, I’m too old, and it’s too cold.”
Johnny laughed as they turned for home.
Scott rode on Murdoch’s right, and Johnny took his place to the left. The sun was all but gone now, leaving behind a cloudless night sky. The stars that had blinked out earlier that morning were now winking in one at a time.
“Look at that.”
Johnny stood in his stirrups and pointed to a lone star hanging on the horizon.
“Polaris, the North Star,” Scott responded.
“It sure is bright tonight.”
“It’s not the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius is, but tonight….”
Murdoch settled back in his saddle and sighed. “Tonight, it’s as bright as the Christmas star that led three wise men all those years ago.”
Johnny still had his eyes on the star. “You think if we follow it, it will lead us home?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised, son. What do you think, Scott? Will it guide us home?”
Murdoch looked at Scott. He knew his son was longing for Boston and hoped the day had finally come that he considers Lancer his home.
Scott looked at the star and his breath hitched, knowing he only had one home and it was here at Lancer.
“Yes, sir, I believe you’re right. If we let it, it’ll guide us home.”
Johnny shifted in his saddle, and his spurs jingled.
Scott glanced at Johnny as they rode along.
“Teresa added bells to the tree this morning. You didn’t have anything to do with that, did you?”
Dipping his head, Johnny hid a grin. “I might have mentioned something to her.”
“What are you two talking about,” Murdoch asked, looking from one son to the other.
“I noticed yesterday the jingling of Johnny’s spurs sounded like the bells we had on the sleighs and Christmas trees in Boston. He had Teresa put a few on the tree at Lancer.”
“We had the same tradition in Scotland and here at Lancer when you were… you were a baby.” Murdoch stopped his horse and stared at Johnny. “That’s it.
“What’s it?” Johnny asked.
“Now I know why I’ve always liked the sound of your spurs. They remind me of when you were little.”
Johnny swallowed and bit his lower lip.
“Murdoch, did you…did I…?”
“Did you what, John?”
“Did I ever play with one of the bells? I mean, when I was here before?”
At the memory of his dark-haired baby playing with a silver bell, Murdoch closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“Yes. You loved the bells and the sound they made. On your first Christmas, you were only two days old and hadn’t stopped crying since Sam slapped your backside. We were at our wit’s end.
“Your mother found the box of silver bells and started hanging them on the tree. She shook one at you, and you stopped crying. There were only two things that would stop your tears back then, me holding you and the sound of that bell. We finally made one into a rattle for you.
“The next year, you crawled under the tree, grabbed one, and wouldn’t let it go. You went from crawling to running almost the same day and into everything. We don’t know how you discovered where they were stored, but one day we found you sitting in the middle of the Great Room with the bells all over the floor. I’ll never forget the look of pure joy on your face when you made them ring.
“The next thing we knew, you were trying to eat the darn things. We were afraid you’d swallow one, so we hid them away. That’s the last time I saw them until this morning when I saw Teresa hanging them on the tree.”
Now it was Johnny’s turn to smile.
“I just realized…that’s why I like these spurs, why I had to have them. The moment I put them on and heard them ringing, they reminded me of something, but I couldn’t figure out what.
“Every pair of silver spurs has its own sound, what word did you use Scott, unique… that’s it. They have a unique sound, and mine are like a silver bell ringing.
“Murdoch, do you think I remember them…the bells, do you think I remember from back then?”
“I’d like to think so. I want to believe something of that time survived in you, even if it was nothing more than the memory of the sound of a bell.”
As the men drifted along, following the bright star on the horizon, Johnny’s spurs jingled again.
They looked at each other and smiled, knowing they each had memories of Christmas that would forever be with them. Memories of silver bells ringing.
Christmas on the Line
By Michael Martin Murphey
It’s likely that you can remember a corral at the foot of the hill
Some morning… long in December when the air was so cold and so still
When the frost lay as light as a feather and the stars had just blinked out and gone.
Remember the creak of the leather as you saddled your horse in the dawn.
That old north wind, howling high up in the timber
The only choir that I remember,
I was riding on the line
One lone star hanging over the horizon
Like the one that led the wise men
As they followed heavens sign
Like the angels in their glory
Seemed to sing the ancient story
As the wind blows through the pines
Drifting along to the sound of spurs jingling
Like silver bells ringing
Christmas on the line
Silver spurs a jingling
Christmas on the line
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