Word Count 1,155
The smell of pine from the decorated tree filled the great room. Candles placed carefully on the tree’s boughs cast a warm glow on the packages underneath it. Johnny sank deeper into the leather chair, legs stretched out in front of him. Cupped in his hands was a half-full glass of brandy. “What was the name of that story you read tonight?”
Scott picked up the book lying on the sofa next to him. “A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.” He held the book up for Johnny to see the front cover. “Did you like it?”
Like might have been too strong a word, but it had him thinking. “Some of it.” He swirled the amber liquid around in the glass and his brows knit together. “You think ghosts exist, Scott?”
Scott’s brows went up. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of ghosts?”
Johnny ran his fingers through his hair. “Not afraid…exactly.”
Scott leaned forward, rested his chin in his palms and watched the fire. “I’m not sure ghosts like the kind in the story are real, but I do believe in…I don’t know…spirits.” He sighed and turned to Johnny. “I’ve always thought, felt really, that my mother was with me in some way.” He turned back to the fire. “It’s hard to explain but…well, sometimes during the War…when things got really bad…”
“Like when they had you in that hellhole?”
Scott looked up, almost as if he’d forgotten Johnny was even there. He nodded, then frowned as if trying to remember. “I can remember it being so bad I wanted to—.” He pressed his lips together and shook his head. “Anyway, this one time I remember feeling something like a…a touch on my forehead? It was strange, but I felt calm afterwards. More importantly, it gave me hope.” He looked at Johnny with a shrug, a half-smile on his face.
“Sometimes I think my mama is watching over me too.” He picked at the buckle on his belt. “What about the bad kind of spirits though? Like…well, you know.”
“You mean like the devil?”
“I don’t know.” Scott inhaled slowly. “Part of me thinks hell is the daily struggle of living, not some fiery pit people are cast into when they die. And if there’s no hell, then I don’t see how there can be a devil.” He stood and made his way to the decanter on the table behind the sofa to pour himself a drink. “You know the book is a parable—a tool to teach a lesson—it’s not meant to be taken literally.”
“I know it’s just a story, but…” Johnny shrugged and took a drink of brandy. “I’ve been thinking about what that Marley ghost said to…Scrooge, right?” At Scott’s nod, he continued, “You know, ‘I wear the chain I forged in life.’” He breathed deeply then smiled at Scott. “Sure would be hard to get any peace with all that metal clanging.”
Scott moved back slowly to the sofa and settled in the center of it. “Yes, being shackled for eternity would be noisy at best.” He studied Johnny as if he was trying to see his soul. “I think it’s safe to say only truly evil people have that as their end though.”
Johnny looked down at his stockinged feet. Truly evil people. That could include…a lot of the men he’d known. His voice was low. “I guess some chains are nothing but guns, bullets and coins for killing men.”
“And others are stolen cookies and missing bottles of tequila.” When Johnny looked up, Scott winked at him, but didn’t even get a half-smile in return. He took a sip of whiskey then sighed. “Being a gunfighter was your job, not who you are. There’s a big difference.”
“Of course there is.” Scott’s voice was calm, but deliberate. “Doing what you had to in order to survive is a far cry from being the kind of person Marley was. He lacked basic human compassion and, despite having untold riches, never helped a single person during his lifetime. That’s not you.”
Johnny shrugged then turned to the fire.
“I can name several people you’ve helped in the last two years since we’ve been home. Charlie Poe. Andy and Dorrie Cutler. And that woman and her young son…the one you sold land to…”
“Jessamie and Grady.” He turned to Scott and smiled. “She was a handful, but Grady was a sweet kid.”
“Drove a hard bargain as well seeing as how she got Lancer land for $1.” Scott laughed.
“And biscuits.” Johnny wagged a finger at Scott. “Don’t forget the biscuits.”
Scott raised his hands in mock surrender. “My mistake.” He lowered his arms and leaned forward. “My point is that, in the short time I’ve known you, you’ve helped plenty of people—even when you had to put yourself at risk to do so.”
Johnny ducked his head. “I guess.” He swallowed hard and looked up at Scott. “You think that makes up for all the men I…” With a sigh, he finished his brandy, placed the glass back on the table and stood. “Never mind. I think I’ll just turn in.” He pointed at the book. “Mind if I borrow that?”
“Sure, but I’d like you to sit back down for a minute first.” Scott nodded at the chair Johnny had just left.
Johnny hesitated a few seconds then sank back down into the chair.
Scott picked up the book and flipped pages to nearly the end then read aloud, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” He closed the book and smiled at Johnny. “Brother, I’ve never met anyone who keeps the spirit of Christmas in his heart, every day, all year, more than you.” He stood and walked over to Johnny to set the book in his lap. “You learned the lesson of this story long before we met. You have nothing to fear from the future.”
Johnny smiled up at Scott. “Thanks.”
The grandfather clock chimed twelve.
Scott squeezed Johnny’s shoulder. “Merry Christmas, Johnny.”
“Feliz Navidad, Scott.”
Scott headed for the doorway, calling back, “Stay away from the presents. You can’t tell a thing by shaking them.”
Johnny chuckled as he watched Scott leave then turned to eye the gifts underneath the tree. His fingers drummed on the arm of the leather chair. With a sigh, he looked down at the book in his lap. Opening it to the end, he read the last line, “And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!” He didn’t know if Scott was right about the future or not, but he felt blessed to have him for a big brother. And he knew for sure that Christmas would forever be a cherished day now that he was home with his family. No, not just a day…a feeling he kept in his heart always.
~ end ~
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