The Yankee Christmas
Holidays aren't always easy
A small Merry Christmas gift to Laramie fans. Special thanks to Hired Hand for her ever excellent beta, and for the title….
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Jess Harper walked out of the kitchen and into the ranch house's main room, carrying his coffee cup in one hand and a half-devoured biscuit in the other. "What are you all smiles about, partner?" he asked of young Andy Sherman, surprised to see the youngster busily gathering up his heavy winter coat, scarf and gloves.
"We're goin' up on the mountain to cut a tree. You're comin' along, Jess, aren't ya?" Andy answered with a wide smile, excitement in his voice.
Jess scowled. "Slim and me cut wood for durn near two weeks last month. Don't tell me we're out'ta wood for the stove already?"
"We're not cutting *wood*, Jess, we're cutting a tree, a Christmas tree." Andy narrowed his eyes and looked closely at Jess, who had a rather perplexed look on his face. "You do know what a Christmas tree is, don't ya?"
"Course I do." Jess took a bite of biscuit so he wouldn't have to say any more and betray his lack of knowledge about the subject.
Slim, who had been listening to the conversation, stood up from the chair by the fireplace where he'd been pulling on his boots. He walked across the room to stand beside Andy, putting a gentle hand on the boy's shoulder. "Likely they don't have Christmas trees in Texas," Slim intervened, aware of Jess' discomfort. "Seems like there's big parts of Texas where there aren't many trees a t'all."
"Don't have Christmas trees? But, but…" the boy spluttered, astounded by the idea.
Jess threw a grateful look over at Slim. "Yeah, we didn't have any trees to waste."
"A Christmas tree ain't a waste, Jess, you'll see," Andy insisted.
"Isn't a waste," the boy's big brother corrected. "Andy, you go get the saw," Slim ordered. "Jess, c'mon out to the barn and help me hitch the team to the bobsled."
x - x
Slim had the team almost ready before Jess reluctantly appeared in the barn, still looking ill at ease. "You don't have to come with us if you don't want to, you know," the rancher offered, acutely aware of Jess' discomfort with the subject at hand, even if he wasn't sure of the reason for it.
Jess shrugged noncommittally. "Reckon I'm just not used to such a big fuss over Christmas."
"Celebratin' the holiday is a tradition around this ranch, Jess, especially having a tree. My ma started it. Seems like her family had celebrated that way back in the old country. I guess it's a regular thing where her parents came from, to bring a tree into the house and decorate it with candles and such." His voice turned wistful at the memory. "It meant a whole lot to her."
"A thing like that?" Jess asked incredulously, still not sure about the wisdom of bringing such a thing inside the house.
"Yeah, a thing like that."
"Women are strange."
Slim wasn't going to argue with Jess about that. "Reckon so. But the rest of us sorta enjoyed it, too. Even my Pa, though in his case it was probably just because Ma loved it so much, and anything that made her happy..." He let the words trail away, suddenly keenly feeling the absence of his parents.
The rancher sighed and looked up to see Jess studying him, a lost look on the cowboy's face. "We take Christmas day off, well, as much of it as we can around this outfit. We give each other gifts, nothin' expensive mind you, and have a good meal. I know you'll like that part of it, Jess," Slim added lightly, trying to brighten his ranch hand's mood. "Ma used to see to it we went to town for church services, if the weather was good," the big man shivered, pulling his coat collar tighter against the cold drafts that eddied through the old barn. "Don't reckon we'll get there this year, not with this cold spell."
"But we can make our own music, now that Jonesy's got a piano, thanks to Jess," piped up Andy, who'd just entered the barn, all bundled up and carrying the small saw. "And you know, Jess, Christmas is a *real* holiday this year, by order of President Ulysses S. Grant himself."
Slim was pretty sure he heard Jess mutter something that sounded like "Bluebelly president" but ignored it.
Slim, Andy, and even Jonesy, wrapped in their warmest coats and woolen scarves, quickly climbed into the bobsled, covering up with the heavy buffalo robe the old man had dug out of the closet, but Jess stood back, hesitant.
"C'mon, Jess," Andy called.
"Naw. I ain't going out there to freeze my ears off jus' to cut down some silly tree."
"It'll be fun, Jess, really," Andy cajoled. Seeing his friend still looked uncertain, "please," he added.
"This tree thing, that's for family," Jess countered.
"On this ranch, we're all family," Slim interjected, a teasing note in his voice. "Yeah, even a Texan like you who's never seen a white Christmas. Or a Christmas tree. So climb on board."
Jess threw Slim a look, then nodded at the boy. "I guess." And so Jess joined them but still, he mostly just watched silently while the other three sang Christmas songs on the way out to a nearby hill where many young pines grew. After searching through and studying dozens of firs, all of which looked alike to Jess, Andy finally chose what he declared was the perfect tree, Slim cut it down, and the men dragged it back to the waiting bobsled. The afternoon passed quickly amid laughter and joking back and forth between the brothers that warmed the cold day. By the time they got back to the ranch, the sun was setting and the air was sharply colder. Slim made a stand for the tree out of several short boards and carried the tree into the house, setting it near, but not too close to, the fireplace. The pungent scent of pine filled the room.
"We'll trim it tomorrow night, on Christmas Eve, just like Ma used to do," Slim announced. "Christmas morning we'll open presents and have a big dinner."
Everyone turned in and Slim, as usual, took a final look around the house, making sure the doors were tightly closed, the lanterns no longer burning, and the fire banked. As he knelt in front of the hearth, he heard quiet footsteps and turned to see his young brother approaching. "It's late, Andy. You ought to be in bed."
"I know, but I can't sleep."
"Something wrong?" he knew the answer was yes by the look on the youngster's face.
"Well," Andy was finding it hard to find the words, "I guess it's just, well, Jess doesn't seem to be enjoying Christmas. I mean, he went with us to get the tree, but he wasn't really with us, you know? He was there, but he sort of wasn't."
"Wasn't part of it?"
"Yeah, that's it." Andy looked up at his big brother, seeking an answer. "Christmas is supposed to be a happy time of year. Isn't that true everywhere? I reckoned by now he thought of this place as home, and he'd want to share with us."
"Mostly you're right, Andy, but you know Jess was on the drift a long time, and settling in here hasn't been easy for him." Slim sighed, thinking that having the patience to explain things to his younger brother was way too much like having the patience to cope with his short-fused, volatile ranch hand. "We don't know a lot about Jess' life before he came here. Sure, he's told us some, but there's a whole lot more he hasn't talked about. Maybe he will someday, and maybe then we'll understand him better. For you and me, Christmas brings back memories of good times; for Jess, it's different. But we both know, from things he's said, that he wasn't lucky enough to have the kind of upbringing and family life we had."
"So, times like this, he doesn't quite know how to act or what to do to fit in with us. He'll figure it out." If he sticks around long enough, Slim thought but didn't say. "Give him a chance. He'll come around," Slim added hopefully, knowing how much Jess meant to Andy.
Andy looked thoughtful. He wanted Jess to think of the Sherman Ranch as his home. "I hope you're right."
The tall man grinned. "Me too. Now come on, let's turn in."
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A night's sleep didn't improve Jess' mood. He was sullen at breakfast, wolfing down his food and heading quickly out to the barn to get to work on the morning chores.
Slim finished his meal more slowly, listening absent-mindedly to Andy's excited chattering about the tree, his speculations about what presents might go under it, and his anticipation of the dinner Jonesy was planning: goose with all the trimmings.
Having let Jess have what he reckoned was enough time to himself, Slim carried his dishes to the kitchen, put on his coat and hat and stepped out into the cold morning air. He strode quickly across the snow-covered yard and entered the barn quietly, getting right to work breaking ice out of the water buckets and filling them with fresh water from the pump.
"About time you got out here to help," Jess snapped.
Slim bit back a retort and kept working, fighting back his temper. There were times Jess Harper was near impossible to live with, and this was proving to be one of them. Christmas was a time that should be full of good cheer and a sense of fun, if not for himself, then for Andy. Jess ought to see that.
Finally, having had enough of Jess' brooding silence, the tall man decided to just flat out ask. "So what is it that's got you pricklier than a porcupine, Jess?"
Slim eyed his ranch hand across the barn, where the man was working steadily cleaning stalls. "Somethin' sure has. You ain't been this ornery since that new girl clerkin' down at the general store had eyes only for me…." The young lady had totally ignored Jess while fawning all over Slim when they'd gone to town for groceries, and at the town dance the following Saturday night, she had refused to even look at the dark-haired Texan. Slim had ribbed Jess about it for weeks.
Jess, this time, ignored his boss' jibe.
"Well, something's sure got under your skin. You might as well tell me." The dark-haired cowboy could be right obscure when he tried, Slim knew all too well, like Andy's pet turtle, ducking back into its shell and refusing to come out.
"It's something," Slim insisted. He was silent a bit, thinking. "I know Jonesy's mulligan does get tirin'."
"That ain't it."
Ahah! He'd just admitted it *was* something. "Andy ate the last piece of pie last night, didn't he?"
"Find some bedbugs in your mattress?"
"We're out of coffee?"
Jess shook his head.
"Is it still this Christmas tree business?"
The cowboy stayed silent.
Bingo, Slim thought. "Look, Jess, Christmas…."
"It's just another day, far as I'm concerned. Same as any other," Jess answered. There was a moment of silence before he continued in a quieter voice. "We didn't have us a tree in the house or no big fancy meal or no presents neither, 'cept maybe a new shirt Ma sewed for us." If she had the money for cloth. And thread. And buttons. The Harpers had led a hardscrabble existence, with too many kids and too little income to support them. There was no time or money for presents and celebrations.
Ah, so that was it, Slim thought and answered in an even voice, "Folks celebrate different in different places, I expect."
It was at times like this that Slim tried but couldn't understand the bleakness of Jess' life, the sense of always being an outsider looking in; of years of being rootless and adrift. Slim had always had a home and a family to go back to, even if it wasn't always a perfect place. And though he'd often chafed at the responsibility it put on him, it had been an anchor, steadying him through the bad times. "That doesn't mean you can't start now."
"Slim, I just ain't much for all this Christmas folderol, puttin' trees in the house and gift givin' and such. Why, next thing you'll be Bible readin' and hymn singin'."
The blonde man grinned wickedly. "Actually, I was kinda thinkin' we'd do some of that on Christmas mornin'. That was somethin' my Ma and Pa always did."
Jess rolled his eyes. "Another family thing," he muttered.
Slim recognized the same bitterness he'd heard in Jess' voice when he'd uttered similar words the day before. He didn't know much about Jess' family, only that Jess was touchy on the subject and, from the few things he'd said, not very proud of them. "Look, Jess, I know you don't have family here; most of mine isn't with us either anymore. Yeah, it was my Ma who was the one who made a big fuss about Christmas, and she is gone, but doin' this is one way I can honor her memory, by carryin' on the things that were important to her, and makin' sure Andy knows about 'em, too."
Jess' voice softened, and his expression, too. "I didn't mean no disrespect."
"I know that."
Jess raised his gaze to look up at the tall man. "It's… Slim, I…."
"I know Andy got you a present."
A look of surprise crossed Jess' face, and for just a moment, Slim thought, one of joy and then, clearly, one of alarm. "I don't have.…"
"Don't tell me you haven't got any money to get him something in return. Or did you lose all your wages in that poker game last Saturday night?" Slim sighed. "Well, it's not much more'n a week until payday. I suppose I could advance you a couple of dollars until then. You know it doesn't have to be nothin' much for him; it ain't like I've got money for things we don't need."
"It ain't that," Jess denied. "I got money."
The lantern sputtered. The barn was full of the soothing rhythmic sound of horses eating their hay.
"I don't aim to butt in where I ain't wanted… on your family thing," Jess finally said.
Slim did his best to hide his exasperation. He'd thought Jess was over his uncertainties by now, would know he belonged, but it was obvious he still needed reassurance that he had earned his place here. "Now where ever did you get that idea?"
"How long have you been here, Jess?"
"Closer to six," the tall man stated flatly. "And how many times in those six months have you rode out of here, and then came back?"
Another shrug. "A couple. Wasn't countin'."
"Well, it was a bunch a' times. Just like it's been a bunch of times you've called this place home. And you know, even if it was only six days instead of six months that you've been here, you'd still be part of celebratin' this holiday with us. You're livin' and workin' on the Sherman Ranch, Jess, and that makes you one of us." He paused, taking a step closer, into Jess' space. "And as boss of this outfit, I'm tellin' ya that there's no actin' like a wet blanket around here an' makin' Andy unhappy at a time a'year when a boy ought to be happy. And as your friend," he drove the point home, "I'm also tellin' ya' that there's not so many of us Shermans left that we don't need some help celebratin' the holiday. So it's Christmas, and you," he pointed at Jess and used his sternest voice, "are going to enjoy it."
"Or what?" Jess asked sharply, a cocky grin momentarily finding its way onto his face before he quickly banished it, replacing it with what he hoped was a fierce scowl.
"Or…," Slim flustered, "…or I'll make you."
"You and what army?" Jess retorted smartly, then tossed a handful of hay at his boss before turning back to his work to hide the grin on his face.
"And Jess? Soon as we're finished with these chores, you take the wagon to town for supplies. Jonesy's got a whole list of stuff he needs for makin' Christmas dinner."
"Dadgum Slim, it's a cold day to be drivin' all the way to town."
The rancher frowned at his hired hand, wondering how obvious he had to be. "You know Andy's been eyeing a new jack knife down at the general store…"
"I know which one," Jess suddenly agreed, "the one with a fancy carved handle."
"He doesn't need something fancy, serviceable'll do around here."
Jess' answer was low. "A kid ought to have somethin' special at Christmas, Slim."
Their eyes met and both nodded in understanding.
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And it was good, that Christmas, the one that Jess would always remember as a Christmas full of firsts: his first Christmas tree, his first white Christmas, and his first Christmas at home in Wyoming.
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Historical note: The first official proclamation of Christmas as a holiday in the U.S. was made by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870.