Holiday Journey 18

“This tree is more than two hundred years old,” Plum said, as he walked up from where the cowboys built a fire and got out what they had for supper.  One cowboy kept an eye on the reindeer to make sure they did not wander off into the forest that began a hundred yards off to the right.  The forest looked dark under the storm clouds, like a place even the Christmas lights could not brighten.

“It is tall enough, and bright enough with all the lights,” Merry said.

“It is very Christmas-like,” Chris agreed, but hesitated, before he added, “But something seems to be holding back the joy—the merry and bright—the Christmas Spirit.”

Merry took Chris’ arm and let out a small sound that suggested her heart might have broken.  “Missus Claus passed away a few years ago,” she confessed.  “And Santa has gotten very old.  It is not the same, but we try not to notice.”  She sniffed, and Chris slipped his arm around her to pull her in close.  Chris imagined one of the lights moved.  His mind said the wind, but there was no wind to speak of at the moment, like the calm before the storm.  Before he could look closer, someone called.

“Over here,” Roy’s voice sounded out in the snow.  “Mister Shepherd.  Merry.” Chris and Merry went to see.  Roy and two of the cowboys had gotten the evergreen out of the wagon and stuck it in a hole that Chris had not noticed.  They had spades to cover the roots, and Plum stood there admiring the tree.

“Looks nice,” Chris thought a compliment was in order.  “Looks bigger than I thought.”

“It is as old as you are,” Plum responded.  “It is your tree.”

“My tree?” Chris asked.

Roy nodded, and Plum spoke again.  “You need to touch it to bring it to life.”

“I what?”

“Go on,” Merry said, and held his arm out toward the tree.  “Think of your Christmas tree at home.  Think of both trees, and all the love that went into them.”

Chris hesitated, but trusted Merry. He reached out and touched a branch of the tree, and at once the tree became strung with lights and ornaments.  The lights stayed lit, even though they had no place to plug them in.  The ornaments, he recognized.  His mother loved to decorate, and she kept those ornaments as well as she could through the years.  They looked worn, but lovingly clean, and… yes, he saw the ornaments he bought over the last ten years for his artificial tree. Chris dropped his face into his hands and held back his tears.  He mumbled for Merry.

 “Lilly would love this tree.”

He decided this game had gone on long enough.  He needed to find Lilly.  He needed to know she was all right.  He turned on Merry, took her by her shoulders, and said, “Tell me about Lilly.”

A dark wind blew through the camp.  The wagon shook.  The horses neighed.  The fire flickered, and the cowboy by the cooking pot yelled.

“They are stealing the reindeer.”

“All hands-on deck,” Plum yelled, and people rushed for their horses.

“Stay here,” Merry told Chris.  “You will be safe here, and I promise to tell you everything when I get back.”

Roy came up, trailing Merry’s horse.  She mounted and they rode in the direction the wind had gone, soon disappearing in the darkness beyond the lights of the trees.

Chris did not know what to do.  He sat down by the fire, left alone in the wilderness.  He stood and retrieved a blanket from the wagon and went to sit again, pausing only to assure the two big draught horses that they were not forgotten.  He poked at the beans that were cooking.  He sighed and felt grateful for the light from the tree behind him.  He refused to look at his own, personal tree.  There were too many memories there, and not all happy ones.  He supposed he felt grateful for the light from that tree as well.  Being alone, in the wilderness, at night, in a storm would be spooky, no, it would be frightening in the dark.

It began to snow great flakes of white, and soon, it began to snow hard.  The wind picked up, and Chris found his mind taken by the wind.  He remembered a day he did not want to remember.  Ricky was there.  He looked young.  Mama was there, too, weeping.  It was the day his father got buried.  They were at the graveside.

Chris sniffed.  He hugged his Mama and wept with her.  He tried to hug Ricky, but Ricky did not want to be hugged.  He looked out over the graves, and saw an angel there, in the snow. It did not appear a clear image; just an outline.  But Chris felt comforted.  He knew his father would be all right.  It was the promise of Christmas.

But it did not snow at his father’s funeral.  That happened in the summer.

Chris paused to gather his thoughts.  He looked again, but saw no image of an angel.  He stirred the beans in the pot and tried to wait patiently for the others to return. He looked at the fire and saw something he did not want to see.

He saw Ricky in full battle gear, carefully and quietly climbing the steps to the roof, clutching tight to his rifle.  The village was on fire, but sniper shot continued to come from the roof.  They could not call in air or artillery against innocent civilians.  They could not complete their mission under fire.  He came around a corner in the staircase. He faced a boy—barely a teenager holding an AK-47.  Ricky hesitated to kill a child. Triggers got pulled at the same time.  The boy collapsed.  Ricky got riddled full of bullets.

“No,” Chris yelled and covered his eyes.  He prayed for Ricky.  He prayed for Lilly, and Serissa, whom he never met.  He prayed for that boy, and wept some more.  He wiped his eyes, stirred the beans once, and stood.  It started getting too cold to just sit and wait. He put another log on the fire, and dreaded what was to come.

Chris turned to stare at the big Christmas tree set out in the middle of nowhere.  Indiana Territory, 1812, or actually, 1811, Christmas eve.  He imagined the lights were moving again.  It had to be a trick of the wind, the snowfall, and the ice in the branches.  The moving lights looked hypnotic.  He began to cry before he saw.

He held his mother’s hand when she died.  He wept then.  He wept again in the face of the tree.  He heard a voice then, or perhaps now.  It may have been the nurse.  He always thought it was an angel.

“She is in a better place now.  There is no more pain and no more suffering.”  Poor Chris went out the door to Lilly.  He held her and wept all over the little girl, and she wept with him.  They were all that remained, but at least they had each other. They had each other, Chris thought. He needed to blow his nose, but he heard something that took all of his attention.

“Uncle Chris…”  Chris turned toward the dark woods.  He thought the call came from there.  “Uncle Chris. Help me.”

Chris ran across the field and entered the woods without a second thought.

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MONDAY, Tuesday and Wednesday, Christmas Day, the final chapter in A Holiday Journey:  Chris confronts the real Santa Claus, but it does not turn out the way he expects.

Until Then, Happy Reading

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Holiday Journey 17

When Chris got up in the morning, he found himself dressed in his clothes from home. He recognized the little hole in his jeans and the stain at the bottom of his flannel shirt.  His down jacket was not from 1812, but he assumed the hay and the barn he sat in were, so he figured he did not go home in the night. Besides, back home, Merry would be in her own apartment, and not laying comfortably beside him.

“So, this has not all been just a dream,” he mumbled.

“Like a dream come true,” Merry whispered before she opened her eyes and said, “Good morning.”

Chris leaned over and gave her a small peck on her lips before he said, “Morning. Plum said Lilly was in this place. Stick close, I have a feeling things may get weird before we get there…weirder.”

Plum came from the fire.  “We got bacon, eggs, and whiskey soaked beans for breakfast,” he said, and let out a big smile.  “We got a long way to go to reach the tree, so eat up.”

“Weirder,” Chris repeated.

Merry took him by the arm.  “I have no intention of leaving your side.  Not ever, if you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind,” Chris said, and let out a little smile.  “But you could wait until I ask.”

“Yes…” Merry said, and added, “Just practicing.”

Chris nodded, dropped her arm, and got a plate of breakfast.  Roy found some real coffee, and Chris blessed him before he thought to put Plum on the spot.

“She is still in this time zone, near as I can tell,” Plum said.

“Near as you can tell?”

“She is. She certainly is.  I would know if she was not in this zone.  The thing is, she is at the far end, and she might slip away at any time.  That is a long way to go.  We should get moving.”  Plum did not want to say any more.  He appeared afraid of once again saying too much.  Chris did not push the issue, as long as they had a chance of catching up with Lilly by nightfall.

Merry came up, riding on the back of a horse.  She looked like she knew what she was doing, while Chris never rode a horse before.  Chris quickly looked around.  He figured he might manage a motorcycle, but he felt unsure about going on horseback. Fortunately, Roy got his attention and pointed.  They had a wagon pulled by two of the largest horses Chris ever imagined.  A mount appeared tied to the back of the wagon. Chris assumed that was Roy’s horse, in case he needed it.  He took a deep breath and climbed aboard, and slid down to let Roy get up.

Chris looked in the back of the wagon, and along with all of his things—their things, he saw plenty of blankets, pots and pans, and another bag of beans beside a slab of bacon.  He shrugged. He imagined there were not many options for food they could carry across country.  The curious thing was the evergreen.  They carried a young tree, its roots tied up neatly in burlap.  Chris wondered what it might be for, when Roy shouted, and the horses began to strain.  The wagon jerked, before it settled into a slowly increasing pace.  Chris figured they would never go fast.  He imagined most of the day would be spent going across country.  Still, he would not have minded a seatbelt, and maybe a cushion for his seat.

Chris noticed they picked up a few fellow travelers.  Three men on horseback drove a dozen cows into the wilderness.  He looked close.  One looked like the German officer from the World War One time period. The other two looked like the British soldiers that followed him out of the trench; though one might have been the sergeant.  Chris shook his head.  No matter what they looked like, he imagined they were Christmas elves of some kind. No doubt there to give some colorful backdrop to his journey.

Chris turned to Roy, who seemed to concentrate wholly on driving the team of horses.  He felt glad Plum did not drive the rig.  Plum would have talked his ear off all day and not said anything worth hearing. Roy, by contrast, seemed a man of few words.  Chris feared it might be hard to get the man to talk at all.

“So, where exactly are we headed?” Chris asked.

“The Clausen Christmas tree,” Roy answered readily enough.

“Clausen? Santa Claus?”

“Clausen,” Roy nodded.  “Old Dutch family out of New York.  They first settled in New Amsterdam around 1660.  They remembered Sinterklaas, though Kris Kringle carried the Spirit of Christmas in those days.  Since 1600, I believe.  I was rather young at the time.”

Chris had to think about that before he asked, “What happened?”

“After the French and Indian War, when things settled down on the frontier, the family emigrated to Pennsylvania.  Then came the Revolutionary War, and in 1811, when it looked like another war on the horizon, Mister and Missus Clausen emigrated down into Indiana Territory. They thought to escape the war. They did not count on all the trouble with the Shawnee Confederation.”

Chris shook his head.  “Why can’t people live in peace?”

Roy shrugged.  “The Clausens went west, and on Christmas eve, 1811, they ran into a massive snow storm. That should happen tonight…” Roy shrugged again.

Chris asked no more.  He did not dare.  He got down when they stopped for lunch, and tried to smile for Merry while he rubbed his sore bottom.  Merry, at least, appeared to be thoroughly enjoying herself.

“You could ride with me,” she offered, but Chris shook his head.  He would only get hurt trying to ride a horse.

“You enjoy yourself,” he said.  “Just say a prayer for my bruised backside.”

“Oh, poor baby,” she said, honestly enough.  She returned his kiss from earlier before she let go and got them some lunch.

Chris spent the afternoon looking for the Clausen Christmas tree, not having the least idea what that might look like.  The temperature dropped, and he saw the clouds pull in overhead.  Then he saw something that surprised him for all of a second.  He decided he really should not have been surprised.  The cattle being driven by the three cowboys were not cattle at all. They were reindeer, and Chris wondered why there were twelve and not eight, and they did not look too tiny.

Chris looked at Roy and saw the slightest grin on Roy’s face.  “You should see the tree soon, if the clouds give a break,” Roy said.  “No sunset tonight behind the clouds, but the tree should brighten things up nice until the snow starts to get thick.”

Chris nodded.  Nothing should surprise him at this point.  He was going to find Lilly, safe in the hands of Santa Claus—Clausen.  He fell madly in love with an elf—a Christmas elf. And there were three elf cowboys presently herding a dozen reindeer.  “Seven of us,” he said to Roy.  “There are seven of us on this journey.”  Roy nodded, and Chris continued.  “The magnificent seven,” he said, and squinted.  There appeared to be a light in the distance.  He expected it would be the most magnificent Christmas tree ever, and somehow, he knew he would not be disappointed.

 

Cue: O Christmas Tree

A Holiday Journey, The London Symphony Orchestra

conducted by Don Jackson.  Ó℗CD Guy Music Inc., 2001

 

When Chris got down from the wagon and stretched his back, Merry dismounted and ran to him.  She threw her arms around him and spouted, “It is beautiful.  It is so beautiful.”  The tree certainly was, with all the lights and ornaments up to the star and angel on the very top.  Chris could not exactly see the top from where he stood, being up close, but that did not matter.  He looked at Merry, and thought she was beautiful.