The Christmas He Never Forgot
by Michelle Palmer
The winter wind whistled through the bare trees on the ranch. As the sun peaked over the horizon, the animals began to wake up. Even their early morning noises made the air seem bitter. The land always looked dreary in the month of December. Lucas looked up at the blue sky, which made his mood even worse. Why did everything else look so grey while the blue sky stood out – deceiving everything around it?
Lucas shivered as he looked towards the barn. He needed to feed the animals and do the rest of his chores. As his shoulders slumped sadly, he made his way to the barn. As he was milking the cow, Mark came in. “Pa, I forgot to ask you something last night.”
Lucas kept milking the cow, not bothering to look up. “What is it, son?”
“Some of the kids are going to go look for pinecones today. We are gonna work on a special project in school for Christmas.”
Lucas’s head shot up and he turned towards his ten-year old son. “Why would you waste your Saturday on something like that, Mark? I need you here.”
Mark stared at his father. “Pa, what’s wrong? Why are you sore with me?”
“I’m not sore with you. I just want you to stay home and help me today, Mark.”
“Mark!” Lucas shot him a warning look. He saw the disappointment in Mark’s eyes and turned away. “Go do your chores, son.”
“Yes, pa.” Mark quietly left the barn, shutting the door. He turned to look at the closed door where his grieving father was sitting. It has started again this year. He was hoping it would be different this year, now that they are starting over. Didn’t his pa tell him there was no looking back when they first rode onto this land? It was two weeks before Christmas and Mark would be forced to grieve with his father again this year.
Lucas entered the house and started breakfast. Mark silently worked at setting the table, knowing anything he said would be twisted into something different inside his father’s grieving mind. Christmas was always so special before his mother died. It was one of the happiest times of the year. Now he wasn’t even allowed to talk about the sacred holiday – the holiday that celebrates Jesus’ birth.
“Sit down, son. Let’s eat.” Mark heard a sigh deep within his father’s spirit. He sat.
“May I bless the food?”
Lucas held his napkin in his hand and smiled a small smile. “I think that would be good, son.”
Mark bowed his head and blessed the food. “Please help Pa’s spirit,” he boldly added at the end.
Lucas frowned at Mark. He ate in silence. “I thought today would be a good day to give the house a good scrubbing. I’ll send you to town for the supplies we’ll need and for some items we are running low on. I don’t want you to doddle, though, Mark. While you are gone, I’ll clear out the living area so we can get started when you get back. The laundry needs done too. I know it’s a bit nippy but-“
“Aren’t you coming to town too, pa?”
Lucas sat back in his chair and took a sip of his coffee. Mark bowed his head. He couldn’t stand to look at his pa when he was like this. Even the sipping of his coffee was done sadly. “You know I won’t be going to town until all this is over.”
By “all this,” he meant Christmas. “Pa, we can’t forget Jesus’ birth!” Mark couldn’t help himself, even if Lucas’s words were harsh.
Lucas stood. “You best get started.” Mark let out a faint cry as he went to saddle his horse. Lucas put a gentle hand on his son’s arm as he crossed the room toward the door. “Mark, on December 25th, we’ll read the story from Luke as always.”
December 25th. He can’t even say the word Christmas. Mark thought as he got ready to go into town.
“Pa,” Mark grabbed his pa’s hands. “Pa, please don’t do this again this year!” Mark was pleading.
“Get going,” Lucas gave him a warning pat on his back side. Mark held his tears in check until he got out the door. On the way to town, he cried.
“Hi, Miss. Hattie!” Mark called as he came into the store.
Hattie turned around from stocking the shelves. “Well, there’s the young McCain himself!” Hattie smiled. “Where’s Lucas?”
“He’s back at the ranch. Here’s the list of stuff I’m to pick up.”
Hattie frowned. “You mean he sent you to town by yourself? It’s not like Lucas to stay at the ranch on a Saturday and send his young son to town by himself.”
“Well, Pa won’t be Lucas McCain until after Christmas.”
Hattie stopped and stared at young Mark. “Oh? Well then who is he?”
“A grieving man who just lost his wife.”
“Why? Didn’t your ma die four years ago?”
Mark nodded. “I’m not allowed to discuss it. It’s his own private thing. Pa told me not to doddle, so I need to hurry.”
Hattie nodded slowly. “Okay, Mark. I got some Christmas candy in. Would you like some today?”
“No ma’am. I can’t have Christmas candy.”
Hattie stopped gathering the supplies and bent down to Mark’s level. “Mark, how do you feel about all this?”
Mark looked around as if he was afraid his father was in the room. “My mother always made Christmas so special. It was one of the happiest times of the year. I was only five at our last Christmas, but it’s all still fresh in my mind. That’s how special she made it. I want to remember it, but I’m not even allowed to mention the word or discuss it in any way. I was hoping this year would be different.”
Hattie sat on the floor. A tear ran down her cheek. Mark laid a hand on her shoulder. “Are the supplies ready?”
Hattie wiped the tear and stood up. “Almost.”
Micha came into the store then. “Hello, Mark. Where’s your pa?”
Mark turned from him. “I really need to get back. Pa’s temper is short right now and I don’t want to upset him.”
Micha walked over to Mark. “What’s wrong with your pa?”
Mark repeated what he had told Hattie. “Pa goes somewhere inside himself that I’m not allowed to go. He makes me suffer this with him. My ma loved Christmas – she wanted us to celebrate Christmas. I know that my Ma’s crying in Heaven right now for us.”
Hattie held out the candy jar to Mark. “Take a piece of Christmas candy. Eat it on the way home, Mark.”
Tears came into Mark’s eyes and he began crying. Micha laid a hand on his shoulder and Hattie took him into her arms. She held him while he cried. “I gotta go. Just put how much my pa owes in the book. He’ll pay when he comes in.”
Hattie and Micha watched Mark walk out. His head drooped with a sadness that made their hearts ache. His shoulders sagged, as if he was baring a heavy weight. “I think I need to have a talk with his pa!” Micha declared. “He’s putting that boy through something terrible!”
Lucas sat down on the porch as he wrapped the jacket around him. The land was all so dreary. The animals sounded lonesome. But what was most lonesome of all was his heart. It ached for his sweet Margaret. He can’t believe this was the fourth Christmas they would spend without her. A tear entered his eye as he remembered back
He entered the cabin and could smell the pumpkin bread. A smile came to his face as he saw Margaret at the stove. Mark sat at the table making yet another Christmas picture for the wall. He tossled Mark’s hair as he walked by. Then he came up behind his wife and wrapped his arms around her waste, giving her a kiss on the cheek from behind.
“Now, if you want this pumpkin bread, you best wash up and sit down!” Margaret declared, a deep smile of happiness on her cheeks. It was Christmas Eve. The tree had been decorated for three days. The candles were all lit – putting a glow in the cabin.
He walked over to the tree to inspect it. Beautiful hand-made ornaments hung all over the tree. The candles glowed brightly. He saw a new ornament – heart shaped with drawn pictures of a mother, father, and child. “Is this Mark’s ornament for this year?” he asked.
Margaret turned. “It is. He did it all by himself this year. Aren’t you proud of him?”
Lucas grinned from ear to ear and went to pick his son up. “I’m very proud of him!”
Mark giggled as his father bounced him in his arms. “Oh, pa!”
“I just wish you would be careful with the candles, dear,” Lucas said as he sat Mark back down at the table and started to wash up. “You know how dangerous lit candles can be on a tree that’s drying out.”
“Now Lucas, we go through this every year. I only keep them lit for half an hour and I don’t leave the room when they are lit.”
“I know, but one spark could-“ Lucas started.
Margaret put a finger to his lips. “When Jesus was born in that stable so long ago, don’t you think that stable was bright with the light of the Savior? That’s why I want our cabin to be light – we are celebrating our Lord’s birth.” Lucas opened his mouth to argue. “Now, sit down and eat your pumpkin bread.”
Lucas smiled. “Yes ma’am.” He knew he couldn’t argue with her, especially when she got that stubborn line in her forehead. Arguing with her would only add to her determination. She knew her mind, and there was no talking back!
After eating the pumpkin bread, they sat around and sang Christmas songs. Mark fell asleep, and Lucas gently carried him into his room, changed him into his night shirt, and tucked him in. Then he and Margaret sat up and talked as she wrapped Mark’s gift.
Mark came in from doing the morning chores the next morning. Lucas was busy setting the table, as breakfast was ready. “After breakfast, I’ll ride over the ranch and check the cattle if you want me to, pa. I promise I’ll be back in time to get ready for church.”
“We won’t be going to church today, son.” Lucas stated, not turning from the stove.
“The preacher gone?”
“Nope, we just won’t be going today. I’ll read from the Good Book when you get back. We’ll do our worshiping at home for the next few weeks.”
Mark bowed his head. There wasn’t much that kept his father from going to church on Sunday. “Can I go to church?”
Lucas’s head popped up from the stove and he turned toward Mark. “Seems to me like I have to threaten bodily harm on you to get you to church on Sundays, boy. Why the sudden interest?”
Mark shrugged. “I just want things to be as they were before…” he let the rest of the thought die.
Lucas sat the eggs on the table and bent down beside Mark’s chair. “Mark, I know this is something hard for a ten-year old to understand. This time of year is really hard for me, and I can’t be around other people.”
“So you make it hard on me and everyone else!” Mark shouted. “You let yourself go on grieving, and you make me do it with you!” Mark stood up from the table and ran to the bedroom, slamming the door.
Lucas came over to the door and opened it. He saw his son laying face down on the bed crying. His heart ached. This time of year was hard on both of them, he knew. He picked Mark up from the bed and cradled him in his arms. “Shhh…don’t cry. It’ll be okay.” He soothed. “Please come eat with me. I’ll try to smile.”
After breakfast, Mark went to check the cattle. When he got back, he saw the Bible laid out at the table. “Pa, we still have time to get ready for church.”
“We’ve discussed it, Mark. We’re not going.”
“Can I-“ Mark started. One look from his father’s eyes stopped him.
“Sit down. Let’s read from the Bible.”
Mark jumped on the bed. “Ma, pa, get up! It’s Christmas morning! There are presents under the tree.”
Margaret opened her eyes and smiled. “Why can’t I get you up this early on Sunday mornings?” she asked.
Lucas turned over and wrapped his arms around his wife. “Mark, why don’t you get dressed and go milk the cow, son?”
Mark rolled his eyes. “Pa, it’s still dark outside!”
“Oh,” Lucas said tiredly. “In that case, go back to bed!”
“Pa, it’s Christmas morning!”
“Stop hasseling our boy, Lucas!” Margaret smiled as she threw back the covers.
“Ma, guess what!” Mark jumped up and down on his pa, who was pretending to be asleep.
“God gave us a surprise last night.” Mark stated, still jumping.
Lucas groaned. “Will you stop that jumping!” Then he opened one eye and looked at his joyful family. “Okay, honey…the last time God gave us a surprise was when this little critter was born. It’s nothing like that.”
“No, not yet.” Margaret smiled. “Maybe next year.”
“Okay, okay. What surprise did God give us, son?”
“Snow, pa! Snow!” Lucas smiled. The family would indeed have a happy Christmas.
“Tell you what, son. You go back to your room while your mother and I get dressed. Then we’ll go to the barn together and hurry with the chores.”
“See that’s all you two do, Lucas McCain. Remember that no more work can be done today. The animals can survive one day without you.” She wagged her finger at her husband. “Today is spent like a Sunday afternoon!”
Lucas and Mark looked at each other and smiled. “Yes ma’am!” they said together.
“Pa, can I? Can I pa?” Lucas shook his head and stared at Mark. He had been milking the cow when his mind drifted off.
“Can you what, Mark?” Lucas’s voice was gruff as he started milking the cow again.
“Can I stay home from school today and help you? Wednesday is the last day of school until January and we are reviewing this week. Wednesday is our party.”
“No, you go today. I’ll let you stay home on Wednesday though.”
“Pa, I-“ Mark started.
“Go finish your chores. I’ll be in to start breakfast in a few minutes.”
“Go on, son.” Mark heard the warning in Lucas’s voice. He turned to leave, but turned back around.
Determination was in his eyes as he spoke these words: “You may not want to keep Ma’s spirit of Christmas alive, but I will. I will!”
Lucas stood up and turned around to face Mark. “Mark! I said go do your chores!” he practically screamed. He saw hurt cross Mark’s face. “Mark-“ Lucas reached out to grab him, but Mark had already ran off.
Mark ate his breakfast, stood up and grabbed his books. Lucas stood up. “Have a good day at school, son.” Lucas didn’t like letting such an intense argument hang, but neither of them knew what to say to the other, so it would be settled tonight.
Mark turned from the door. “Pa,”
Lucas looked down at him. “Pa, I-I’ll see ya.”
No sooner had Mark left when a horse and rider rode up. It was Micha. He rode up and jumped off his horse. “We haven’t seen you in town lately, Lucas Boy.”
“Morning, Micha. Want some coffee?”
Micha sat down at the table. “Everyone was wondering if you or Mark was sick yesterday.”
Lucas poured the coffee into Micha’s cup. Then he refilled his own and sat down. He slowly took a sip and studied the coffee intensely.
“Nope. We’re all fine. I just got Mark off to school.”
“Was there a problem at the ranch?”
“No problem.” Lucas took another sip then looked up at Micha, who was watching him closely. “Now Micha, this matter doesn’t concern you, so don’t ask me. We did our worshiping at home yesterday and will next week as well.”
Micha sat down his cup and cleared his throat. “I have a few things to say to you, Lucas Boy. You are going to listen to me, then if you want to throw me out, you can.”
Lucas sighed. “All right, Micha. Go ahead.”
“Well, I think you know that Mark is like a grandson to me, and I think he feels the same about me.”
Lucas nodded. “Granted.”
“These are the facts as I know them: First of all, a little boy comes into Hattie’s store on Saturday, tears in his eyes. He’s upset because he’s not allowed to celebrate something that is not only very important and special to him, but also was very important to his mother and father. Before he left Hattie’s store, he was in tears because he couldn’t even have a piece of Christmas candy.
“Second of all, your wife died four years ago. That’s a terrible thing, and I’ve been led to believe up to this point that you’ve dealt with that grief and moved on. It’s obvious though that you aren’t allowing her to die. You are forcing Mark to stay in that grief with you. You won’t allow a single person inside this grief to help you. Meanwhile, year after year you make Mark suffer, thinking Christmas is to blame for his mother’s death.”
Lucas slammed down his cup on the table. Micha held up a hand, stopping him from standing. “I’m not done yet, and you will listen to me!” A look of shock entered Lucas’s eyes at his best friend’s tone of voice. Micha had never spoken to him in that way before. Lucas sat back in his chair and listened.
“Now, that son of yours is like a grandson to me. I don’t want to see him hurt because of your stubborn unwillingness to deal with something very painful. You are tearing him apart, Lucas. I won’t stand by and allow this to happen.”
“You have no choice, Micha.” Lucas said quietly. “Now leave.”
“Lucas Boy, talk to me.”
“I can’t.” Lucas said quietly. He fought back the tears. He couldn’t cry until Micha was gone. “Now go. I’ll be back in town in January.”
Micha stood up. He couldn’t reach him. “Well, I hope you don’t regret how you are treating Mark. I’ll be praying for you, Lucas.”
“You do that, Micha.”
Five O’clock. It was five, and Mark had still not come home. Lucas saddled up his horse. He had to go into town to look for his boy. With each passing moment, Lucas grew more worried and angry. Where could his son be?
He rode his horse on the path Mark should have taken on his way home. He entered the schoolhouse yard, but didn’t see anyone. Hurrying to Billy’s house, he asked if he’d seen him leave. His words were like a knife jabbed through his heart. “He wasn’t in school today.”
Lucas sucked in his breath. “What do you mean? He left this morning with his school books. He was on his way to school!”
Lucas jumped on his horse and raced into town. He went straight to Micha’s office. Micha stood up from his desk, a look of surprise on his face. “I thought-“ Micha started.
“Have you seen my boy today, Micha?”
“Well, no. Didn’t he come home today?”
Lucas shook his head. “He never made it to school this morning.” Lucas buried his face in his hands. “Oh, where could he be, Micha?”
“Don’t you worry, Lucas boy. We’ll find him.”
“If someone hurt him-“ he started.
Micha sighed. “Well, let’s not jump to that conclusion yet. How about this: things have been pretty intense at home. Could he have run away?”
Lucas’s head shot up. “The boy and I have an understanding that we always talk out our problems. We don’t hide things from each other and we always talk things out.”
Micha cleared his throat. “Hmmmm….well, why should he stick to his end of the bargain if you don’t?”
A look of understanding crossed Lucas’s face momentarily. It was quickly replaced with denial and anger. “Now look, Micha-“ he started.
“I think we should go to the ranch and look for a note.” Micha stood up and grabbed his shot gun. “Let’s go.”
They raced back to the ranch together. A million thoughts went through Lucas’s mind. If this was some sort of joke he was playing, that boy was in a lot of trouble. If someone hurt him, he would hunt down that person and make this the sorriest day of his life. But if he was hurt-
Lucas jumped off his horse and ran into the house. He ran into the bedroom and saw it – a note sat on the dresser. He had come in earlier and not seen it. He lifted the piece of paper up and read his son’s words:
I went to celebrate Christmas like ma taught us to. I won’t stay and be punished for something I didn’t do. I won’t watch you punish me or yourself anymore. I will be back after Christmas.
I love you,
Lucas crumbled the note in his hand and heaved a deep sigh. Tears flooded his eyes. Micha placed a hand on Lucas’s shoulder. “He’s run away. I made this happen. I yelled at him this morning. No, I screamed at him this morning! Oh God, please help my boy!” He cried.
Mark slowly woke up from sleep. His head pounded and his whole body ached as if he had just been through a fight. As his eyes began to focus on his surroundings, he realized that he was laying in a strange bed. The room was decorated with stitched pictures all over the wall. The lace curtains in the window blew with the wind. A wash bowl was on the stand next to the bed. He saw a fancy lantern across the room, dimly lit. He tried to sit up, but his head spun.
Suddenly, the door opened and a grey-haired lady peaked in. “Well, you are waking up.”
Mark stared at her. He had no idea where he was or who she was. He didn’t understand why he wasn’t at home. As he thought on it, memories came back. He had run away because of his father’s grief. When it got dark he was unable to see very well and slipped into a ravine. This lady must have found him there and brought him here. He had gotten lost and was scared.
“Where…” Mark said quietly.
“I’m Mrs. Angel. My husband saw you fall. He brought you back here. That’s an awfully bad bump on your head, and you’ve been out for quite a spell.”
Mark stared at her as she came closer. She sat down on the side of the bed and smiled down at him. “You are about 30 miles north of North Fork. Where do you live?”
“Just south of North Fork.” Mark answered quietly.
“Well, it looks like you weren’t happy with where you lived, sonny. But we’ll talk about that later. First, how about some soup? I just finished fixing a big pot of vegetable soup.”
Mark smiled. “Can I have some water too?”
Mrs. Angel helped him sit up. Then she gave him a glass of water. “My husband will want to know you are awake as well.”
Soon they both were standing in the room. They watched Mark eat his stew in silence. Mark wished that they would leave while he ate, but he couldn’t ask them to – not after everything they’ve done to help him! Mark finished his milk and thanked the kind couple for the nourishment.
“Now, young man,” Mr. Angel said. “What is your name?”
“What’s your last name?”
Mark hung his head. “Sir, if you don’t mind…I can’t go back home until after Christmas. I don’t want to stay here and be a burden to you. But I just…I can’t go home. So if it’s all the same to you, I’ve got to keep going.”
“Your folks are probably worried sick, son,” Mrs. Angel exclaimed.
“My ma died. My pa doesn’t care right now. The only thing he can think about is how much he hates Christmas and wants me to hate it.” Tears filled Mark’s eyes and he buried his face in his hands.
“Oh my, little one! What on earth is wrong? Do you not have nice folks to take care of you?”
Mark’s head shot up. “Oh, my pa is the most wonderful pa in the world! I am very happy with him. Only…” Mark looked towards the window. “He’s not himself at Christmas time.”
“Why the grief?” Mark explained to them the problem as his ten-year old mind could understand it.
“Grief is a powerful thing. Your pa needs the Christmas gift.”
“My pa won’t even allow me to eat a piece of Christmas candy. I don’t think he would allow me to give him a gift.”
Mrs. Angel smiled. “He needs a special Christmas gift. The kind that’s not in this world.”
The men met back in town outside the Marshall’s office. Though they’ve searched all day, there was no sign of Mark. Lucas punched the door to the Marshall’s office. “I can’t believe this! Why would he do this?” Lucas closed his eyes, as if trying to regain his composure. “If only there was some sign as to where he was.”
Micha laid a hand on Lucas’s shoulder. “I’m sure he’s safe. You’ve taught him how to survive.”
“He’s my little boy, Micha!” Lucas started for his horse. “I’m going home just in case he came back. You men rest up and go back to searching.”
Lucas rode like the devil to his house. The whole way he prayed to God that his boy had come back home. It was now Tuesday afternoon, and there was still no sign of Mark. He had lost his tracks earlier and had no idea where he was now.
Lucas entered the house, but found everything the way he left it. He changed into fresh clothes after freshening up. He stood outside. If only he had some sign! He glanced at Margaret’s picture on the desk and picked it up. “I’ve lost our boy, Margaret.” Lucas sat down, tears filling his eyes. “What do I do now?” Suddenly, he felt an inspiration to dig out his wife’s journal from the trunk. She had stopped writing in it the day of their last Christmas. He couldn’t stand to read it, but he had to. In fact, he had never read those last two entries: Christmas Eve’s and Christmas Day’s. He found the journal and opened to the entry on Christmas Eve.
I have never been happier. Lucas is the most amazing husband any woman could have. He takes such good care of Mark and I. I love just sitting down and watching Lucas and Mark together. There is a love so deep between those two, and I don’t think there is anything that will ever separate them. Mark is becoming a little man already. He’s learning how to be a rancher just like his pa, and I’m doing my best to make him into a gentleman.
I don’t know why, but tonight Lucas and I had a serious talk before retiring for the night. There’s something deep inside me that told me we needed to talk about it, and Lucas fought it. I won’t write the words here because the words were too private. I know, though, that Lucas will always remember them.
Lucas closed the journal. He leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes, remembering back to that Christmas Eve night. They had been sitting around the table talking about their hopes and dreams for the future when Margaret suddenly got quiet. “What are you thinking about, sweetheart?” Lucas had questioned her.
Margaret smiled and laid a gentle hand on Lucas’s hand. “There is something deep within me that I must talk to you about, Lucas. I don’t know why the Lord is placing such a burden on my heart, but I must tell you.”
Lucas eyed her in confusion, trying to understand what could be so important. “Lucas, I know that you and Mark have something special. There’s a bond between the two of you that can never be broken. I know he loves me, but there is something special about the two of you together. I want you to always protect that bond.”
“Margaret, honey, you will always be included in that.”
Margaret shook her head slowly and smiled. “I may not always be with you. Things happen sometimes, you know? “
“If something ever happened to you, I’d-“ Lucas started.
“No, don’t say that. You will keep on living for Mark. He would need you so much more, Lucas. I’ll always be right here in your heart.” She placed a hand on his chest and looked deeply into his eyes. “You and Mark are intertwined. Lucas, please keep that bond going, even if I’m not here. Please don’t turn bitter because I’m gone.”
Lucas stood up and went to the window, looking out into the darkness. “Well, this is a ridiculous conversation to have anyway!”
“I told you it’s something deep within me that I feel we have to talk about.”
“Okay, we’ve talked about it.” Lucas turned around and saw determination in his wife’s eyes. He went back to her and took her hands, lifting her up. “Listen, honey. If anything were to ever happen to you, I will still make sure Mark grows up to be the man you want him to be. I’ll do right by him.”
Lucas looked around the house. She kept it so inviting and cheery all year round, but there was something more cheerful about it at Christmas. “Always keep Christmas special. Christmas is my favorite time of year, Lucas. I want him to remember that the greatest gift was given to us at Christmas – the savior.”
Lucas jumped up. He had promised his wife that Christmas would always be special for Mark. She understood the bond between him and Mark, but she never understood the bond that existed between Mark and her. He picked up her picture. “I’m sorry! I don’t know how to handle this anymore. I need you so badly right now.”
Lucas remembered the day he buried her. His heart was full of bitterness. He wanted to die. It wasn’t long before they moved away from that place. He packed only the things they needed, but left everything else behind. Mark cried. He wanted to take her Christmas decorations, but Lucas never wanted to celebrate Christmas again and he wouldn’t allow him to either.
Lucas gasped, remembering something Mark has stated: He would keep his mother’s spirit of Christmas alive. Never before had he looked in the box that belonged to Mark. He went into the bedroom and opened the box near Mark’s bed. He gasped at what the box contained. At the top of the box was a piece of paper. The paper had words written in his deceased wife’s handwriting. It stated, “Merry Christmas, Mark McCain.” There was a picture drawn of an angel. Under the angel were these words: “Peace on earth, Goodwill to men.”
Lucas closed his eyes and allowed the tears to flow. He stared at what was in the box. His dear, sweet son at the age of six had chosen to disobey his father and stay loyal to his mother. He had filled the box with special memories from Christmas. Lucas picked up ornament after ornament out of the box. His hand stopped in midair as he saw the ornament Mark had made that last Christmas. It was well worn, as if Mark had held it in his hand – to sleep with, perhaps. “Oh, Margaret, what have I done?” Lucas whispered. He stared at the ornaments in his hands, remembering the sparkle in his eye when they shown on the tree. He remembered how happy they all were that last Christmas.
“Silent night, Holy night…” Lucas whispered softly. “All is calm, all is bright…” His voice trailed off as he was overcome with emotion. If only he knew where Mark was. If only there was a sign.
A sign! Lucas picked up the picture Mark had drawn of their ranch house in Oklahoma. “He’ll keep the spirit of Christmas alive! He went to celebrate Christmas like his ma had taught him!” Lucas gasped. “He went home!”
Lucas rushed out the door and jumped on his horse. “He went north!” Lucas raced back to town as fast as he could. He passed Micha on the way. “Micha, he went north towards Oklahoma! He was trying to go home!”
“Oh Lucas, he’d never be able to find his way,” Micha declared.
“Don’t you think I know that, Micha? It’ll be dark soon. I need to get started.”
Micha shook his head. “It’ll be too cold. We’ll have to wait until morning.”
Lucas turned toward Micha in his saddle. “Do you think I’m going to wait until morning to find my son when he’s out there somewhere? I’m going now! I’m going alone. I think I know how to find him.”
Micha tried to stop him, but Lucas raced off.
Mark watched the couple talk quietly to themselves. It was now Wednesday. Christmas was in a week, and he needed to be home by Christmas Eve. Not home in North Fork, but home in Oklahoma. He explained to the Angels where he was headed and why he had to go there, but they were still concerned about his family.
Mr. Angel came in and smiled. “Well, are you still wanting to make that trip to Oklahoma?” he asked with a smile. Mark nodded. “What town was it, son?” Mark told him the name of the town.
Mrs. Angel came into the room. I packed a good hearty meal for you. You should be able to make it by Christmas Eve if you hurry. Now, I’ll be praying for your safe journey.”
Mark gasped. “You mean, you’re going to let me go?”
Mr. Angel laughed a hearty laugh. “I’ll be keeping you company. It wouldn’t be right to let a young lad like you go off by yourself. Now, let’s get your ready on and we’ll get going! We’ll be able to make it to a hotel each night.”
“Oh, but I don’t have the money, and my pa wouldn’t like you paying for it!” Mark declared.
“Don’t you worry about that, sonny. I think this Christmas will be special for you and your pa.”
Lucas saw a farm house up ahead. It was off the path, and he couldn’t imagine Mark stopping there, but he had to ask everyone. Lucas made his way to the house and slowly dismounted. There was something different about this place. He didn’t hear the sounds of animals. The house had a hand-painted sign on the door that stated “Miracles start here.” He knocked cautiously on the door, a bit leery at what he would find.
A grey-haired woman opened the door and smiled a bright, cheery smile. “I’m Mrs. Angel. Welcome to our home.”
Lucas swallowed hard. “You’re who?”
“Mrs. Angel.” She smiled.
“I’m Lucas McCain.” Lucas stared at her. There was something special about her, but he wasn’t sure what it was. “I-I’m sorry to bother you, but…I’m looking for my son.”
“That must be Mark.”
Lucas sucked in his breath. “You mean he’s here?” His heart was racing, and he was breathing heavier.
“No. He’s on his way to Oklahoma.”
“You mean you let him go? He’s only a child!” Lucas declared.
Mrs. Angel never stopped smiling. “Mr. Angel is with him. Mark wanted to be at his old ranch home by Christmas Eve.”
Lucas’s eyes filled up with tears. “How long ago did they leave?”
“They’ve been gone for about two hours. They’ll be stopping in the town of Peace tonight.”
“Peace on earth,” Lucas mumbled.
“What was that?”
“Miracles start here.”
Mrs. Angel smiled. “You have a wonderful son, Lucas. Margaret is proud.”
“Is, ma’am?” Lucas stared at her. “Who are you?”
“I’m giving you a Christmas Gift. You need to spend Christmas with your son – make it special.” With that, she closed the door without another word.
Lucas entered the town of Peace. It was small. He saw the General Store, closed for the night. He noticed an old shack that served as a doctor’s office, and a small boarding house. Lucas made his way for the boarding house. After tying up his horse, he went inside and approached the lady at the desk.
“Hello ma’am. I’m looking for an old man and little boy that should be here.”
“You must be the boy’s father,” the woman smiled. “He’s in there eating.”
Lucas smiled and made his way to the room. He opened the door just a crack and saw Mark sitting there. His heart leapt as he watched his boy eating heartily. His own stomach rumbled, but he wasn’t quite ready to reveal himself yet. “Listen, ma’am, I’m going to go take my horse to the livery. Could you point-“
“I’m sorry, we don’t have a livery. But we do have a barn out back you can bed your horse down for the night.”
Lucas noticed that Blue Boy was still tied up outside. He took both horses to bed down. Then he waited to see if his son would come out. Suddenly, he heard voices. “You best go bed down your horse, son. I’m going across the street. I’ll be right back.”
Lucas stood inside the barn as he saw Mark make his way for where he had put Blue Boy. When he noticed him gone, he opened the door to the barn. “Well, looks like you are having yourself quite the adventure, son!” Lucas declared.
Mark whirled around. He smiled. Then he frowned. Then he smiled. Lucas opened his arms to Mark. Mark walked into them and threw his arms around Lucas’s neck. “Oh, pa, I just love you so much!”
“And I love you!” Lucas could feel the tears on his son’s cheek. Tears filled his own eyes. He took his son’s head in his hands and stared into his eyes. “Mark, I’m…” Lucas couldn’t speak, his throat was full of tears.
Mark saw something in his father’s eyes. “I can’t believe you found me! How did you find me?”
“Your mother helped me, son.”
“Ma?” Mark questioned.
Lucas swallowed. “Your ma is still very much alive inside us, Mark. She’ll always be alive.” Lucas smiled. “Mark, I’m so sorry! So very sorry.” Suddenly, tears flooded Lucas’s eyes and he cried out loud as he held his son.
“Does this mean ma’s spirit of Christmas is back inside you?” Mark asked.
Lucas couldn’t talk. He just held his son and cried.
Mark sat and watched his pa eat. “Are a lot of people looking for me?”
Lucas nodded. “The lady at the desk said the telegrapher will be here in the morning. That’s the soonest we can get word to them.”
Mark looked toward the door. “I don’t know where Mr. Angel went. I wanted you to meet him before we go back.”
Lucas smiled. “Well, son…I have this feeling that that “man” you met won’t be back. I think he had to move on.”
Mark stared at his father. “You mean, he really WAS an angel?”
“Well, we’ll never know. God definitely played a part in this.” Lucas took a drink of coffee, wiped his mouth and stood up. “Let’s go to bed. We need to get an early start tomorrow.” Mark took his pa’s hand. Lucas looked down at Mark, a big grin on his face. “We have an important task waiting for us in Oklahoma.”
“You mean we really are going?”
Lucas stooped down to Mark’s level. Mark saw that his father’s eyes were still very sad. “Son, you are being more of an adult right now then I am. I know running away from the problem solves nothing. I need to face this, and it needs to be done in Oklahoma.” Lucas brushed the hair away from Mark’s eyes. “Son, I need to apologize to you. I screamed at you the other day, and I didn’t mean it. I was mad at myself for treating you so poorly.”
They stopped on the crest of the hill and looked down at the ranch. It didn’t look any different from when they left. Lucas was a bit surprised that after four years it remained unoccupied. A neighbor had bought it before they left, but he was planning on using it to drive his cattle on. He owned the adjourning ranch as well and lived there. Still, Lucas was sure someone would use it.
Mark bent down and looked at the cross that marked his mother’s resting place. “Merry Christmas, ma!” he cried.
Lucas dismounted his horse and bent down behind Mark. He placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. “It’s been a long time, Margaret, but I’ve found your Christmas spirit. We both love you so very much!”
Her two men shed a few tears before making their way down to the ranch. Mark jumped off the horse and stared at the door. “I wonder if anyone’s been in there since-“
“I don’t know.” Suddenly, they heard an approaching rider. It was Mr. Morrison who now owned the ranch. Lucas smiled as the familiar face ran towards him.
“Well, Lucas McCain! It’s been a long time!”
Lucas smiled. “Well Mark decided we needed an adventure. You still don’t have anyone living here?”
Mr. Morrison shook his head. “I haven’t needed to use it. The inside looks just like it did when you left it, Lucas. You left so much behind that I couldn’t bare to touch it.”
Mark gasped. “You mean all that stuff we left is still in there?”
“I put a lock on it the day you rode out of town. I’ve never been inside.” Mr. Morrison declared.
“Ted,” Lucas tethered his horse to the hitching post. “The truth is that I ran from something that I had to come back and reclaim. Mark helped me to see it, so now here we are. You remember how much Margaret always loved Christmas?”
Ted nodded his head and smiled. “Oh, my…Christmas in this town just isn’t the same without dear, sweet Margaret! Her Christmas spirit filled this whole town!”
“Yes, well that’s what I’ve been running from. I’ve come back to reclaim it.”
Mark jumped in, wanting to be a part of this important conversation. “Could we see our old house?”
Ted bowed his head. “The misses and I always wondered what happened to you. When we saw all the stuff you left behind, we knew that your spirit was broken. Something told us to leave this house alone. Are you ready to move on?”
Lucas looked towards the house. “Ted, if you will allow us to stay here through Christmas, I guarantee you that when we leave, you can claim the house as your own.”
Ted smiled. “Then let’s see if we can get this lock off the door. I believe there are some old tools in this shed.”
“Can I water the horses, pa?”
Lucas nodded. Go check out the old pump, son. If it works, fill up the trough and let the horses drink.”
“I’ll bring up some hay so you can bed them down in the barn later to, Lucas,” Ted announced.
Lucas suddenly heard a clank. He turned to find the cut lock laying on the ground. Lucas and Mark looked at each other. “Well,” Ted mounted his horse. “I’ll make sure some hay gets down here tonight. I’ll see if the missus can spare some grocery items for you as well.”
“Oh no,” Lucas held up a hand. “We can …”
“No,” Ted stopped him. “You have more important matters to attend to. I’ll make sure you have everything you need. There might even be some pumpkin bread.”
They watched Ted ride away. Lucas took Mark by the hand and slowly turned to the door of the house.
They made their way through the cobwebs. Lucas found the broom in the kitchen and started sweeping out the cobwebs. “Son, get that lantern lit!” he called.
Mark lit the lantern and looked around. “I don’t really remember this house, pa. Why can I remember Christmas with ma so well, but not this house?”
Lucas smiled. “I don’t rightly know, Mark. But I do know that we’ll need some firewood. I’m going to go get some while you sweep the cobwebs out.”
Mark started on the task. Lucas and Mark worked together clearing out cobwebs and dusting off the furniture. Soon, a warm, inviting fire was burning in the fireplace. They looked around. Mark walked over to look at a sewn picture on the wall. “Did ma do this?” he asked.
Lucas nodded. “She was always doing things like that. Sewing, cooking, baking, washing…she took good care of us.” Luke stared at the picture for a moment. He and Mark turned away and headed toward the kitchen. It was getting dark and they needed to clean the beds so they could sleep tonight. Mark and Lucas looked first at the door to the bedroom where Lucas and Margaret slept. Then they looked at Mark’s bedroom door. “What do you say we head out to the barn and bed down the horses?”
Mark opened the door to his bedroom and walked in. He saw sheets still on his bed. As he made his way through the cobwebs, memories nagged at the corner of his mind. He remembered his mother sitting on the edge of the bed, bending down to kiss him goodnight. He remembered his pa standing behind her, grinning at him. “Have a good sleep, son,” he would say every night. Then he would blow Mark a kiss and put an arm around his mother as he closed the door behind them. He remembered having the flu once. He was awfully sick, but his ma sat beside him throughout the night, rocking in her chair and singing until her voice grew hoarse. He remembered his pa coming in and standing behind her, reassuring her everything would be okay.
Mark turned to the closet. He opened the door and cried out. “Oh!”
Lucas hurried in. “What is it, Ma-“ He stopped in mid-sentence. “Oh!”
“That’s the Christmas present ma made for me our last Christmas. Oh pa!” Mark threw his arms around his pa and cried.
“She worked on it for so long until it was perfect. She said it would keep you warm in those winter months. She said she put as much into your coat of many colors as Joseph’s folks did.” Lucas sighed a deep sigh. He can still picture his sweet Margaret going all throughout town asking various friends and neighbors for scraps of material so she could make a colorful coat for her one and only son. He remembered her staying up late into the night after Mark went to bed sewing on it as she hummed happily to herself. He remembered that Christmas Eve when she sat at the very table in the next room and wrapped it in the beautiful paper as they talked and drank coffee together. “She said that each piece of material held a special memory to a special person and she wrote it down. I never asked where.”
“Why’s it here, pa?”
Lucas turned to leave the room. “Let’s go before it get’s dark, Mark.”
“There’s something we have to get.” They walked out the door and to the shed. Lucas looked for an ax. “It’s not too sharp, but it’ll have to do. Let’s go, son.”
They walked in silence. Mark saw the tears on his pa’s cheeks. He hated to see his father cry. His father was so strong and brave – not much could make him cry. “Watch yourself here, son.” Lucas grabbed Mark by the elbow and helped him over a fallen tree. Mark heard the sadness in his pa’s voice.
“Pa,” Mark started.
“Well, let’s sing it!” Lucas said suddenly. “Ready?”
Mark looked at his pa. “I don’t rightly remember it…”
“It was your mother’s favorite song outside of the sacred songs,” Lucas declared. “It’ll be hard for me, but I’ll do it.”
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your branches green delight us.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your branches green delight us.
They're green when summer days are bright;
They're green when winter snow is white.
O, Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your branches green delight us!
Mark laughed. “Pa, how about her favorite verse?”
“Oh, you do remember!” Lucas exclaimed. They both sang out loud and strong, their Christmas spirit renewing.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
Thy candles shine out brightly!
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
Thy candles shine out brightly!
Each bough doth hold its tiny light,
That makes each toy to sparkle bright.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
Thy candles shine out brightly!
They smiled at each other. “How about this one?” Lucas asked.
Mark nodded. “Ma would love it! You remember how she had the candles and ornaments out when we got back with the tree?”
Lucas nodded. “I’ll look for the candles when we get back, son.” He placed a hand on Mark’s cheek. “You were only five, yet you remember like yesterday.”
“That’s cause ma made it so special!”
“Yes she did, son. Let’s get to chopping!”
“How’s that look now?” Lucas asked after he set the tree in it’s stand.
Mark looked up from the candles. “Over a little that way, pa!” Lucas turned and glared at his son. Mark laughed. “That’s what ma would say.”
Lucas nodded. “Your ma made me move this blame thing ten times before she was satisfied. But, she would always settle on this spot. I just went along with her to keep her happy.”
“Can we light the candles, pa?”
“Only for a half hour and we have to watch them.” Lucas started putting the candles on the tree. Mark looked through the box and found the things he needed to make a new ornament. “Pa, can I make one?”
“I wouldn’t stop you, son. Oh, and if you look in my saddle bag, you may find a few more to add to the tree.”
Mark hurried over to the saddle bag. He opened it and found the ornaments from his box. Tears filled his eyes. “You told me I couldn’t take them, but I had to have them,” he said quietly. “I held this one some nights when I missed her so much. I held them at Christmas when you told me I couldn’t-“ Mark’s voice trailed off.
Lucas came over to his son. “I know. Mark, I’m sorry. I was so wrong.”
They hugged. Mark looked up into Lucas’s eyes. “Thank you for bringing them.”
Lucas looked over toward the table, almost expecting his sweet Margaret to be sitting there. “Oh, give that boy a kiss, Lucas!” He kissed Mark on the cheek. “I love you, son.”
Mark smiled. “Let’s hurry! I want to eat our pumpkin bread before I have to go to bed.”
Mark wiped his mouth on his napkin. “Time to turn in, son. I have your bed all cleaned out for you.”
Mark nodded. “Will Santa Clause find us tonight, pa?”
Lucas sighed. “Well, I don’t know about Santa Clause, but your ma will be looking down on us, I’m sure.” He smiled. “Now, go get ready for bed and I’ll come tuck you in.”
“This is a blessed Christmas, pa.”
Mark got ready for bed. Lucas came in and sat down next to him on the bed. “Go ahead. Say your prayers.”
He listened with a smile to his young son pray. Then he bent down and kissed Mark on the cheek. “Have a good sleep, Mark.”
Mark grinned and without another word, he closed his eyes and went to sleep.
The Final Chapter
“Pa, wake up!” Mark was saying. Lucas groaned. He could not believe his ten year old son was jumping on him. “Pa, it’s Christmas!”
Lucas opened one eye and groaned. “Mark, you are no longer a small five-year old!”
Mark laughed. “But pa, there’s a surprise!”
Lucas opened his other eye and stared at his smiling son. “Now, don’t tell me it snowed.”
Mark nodded and started jumping up and down again. Lucas groaned and playfully pushed his son off of him. He rolled over and pretended to go back to sleep. Suddenly, Mark looked around the room. “I can’t smell her anymore.”
“Ma had a sweet smell. I could still smell it when we left after she died. I can’t smell it anymore.”
Lucas sat up. “Mark, your mother is still here. She’s in your heart and your memories. Nothing can erase that.”
Lucas watched Mark stand up and walk to the window. He thought back to the night before when he had forced himself to walk into the bedroom. He had waited until he was sure mark was asleep, because he knew that emotions would take over. Opening the door, he too felt the loss of her smell. He felt overwhelmed and shed tears over the absence of that special lady from this room. The pictures she had sewn were still hanging on the wall. The quilt she made from Mark’s baby clothes and her old dresses was still spread over the bed. The two fancy shirts she had made for him and given him that last Christmas were still hanging in the closet. Their bed was still standing there. Lucas had cleaned the bed off so he could sleep in it. He dusted off the mattress and cleaned off the sheets. Then he laid awake for a long time.
So much had happened in this room and in that very bed. Mark had been created in that bed. Mark had been born in that bed. Margaret had died in that bed.
Lucas saw Mark run back into the room fully dressed. He was buttoning up his coat. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
“I’m going to go play in the snow!”
Lucas laughed. “We are going to have breakfast first, young man!”
Mark sighed. “Yes sir.”
“Do you remember what your ma always fixed for Christmas breakfast?”
Mark thought. “I don’t reckon I do, pa.”
Lucas smiled as he thought back to that last Christmas morning.
“Now you two sit yourself down and get ready for a hearty breakfast. We have a busy day ahead of us and I want my men eating a hearty breakfast!”
Margaret sat the big plate of sausages on the table. She began cutting the omelet up to divide it among the three of them. “Lucas, will you say the Christmas prayer before we all starve?”
Lucas had bowed his head and prayed. Then Mark, wanting to be just like his pa, had prayed something similar to his pa’s. Margaret smiled and said, “My two men! God is smiling down from Heaven saying he has never made two finer men.”
Lucas came back to reality and said, “Well Mark, your mother always fixed her special cheese omelet with sausage on Christmas morning. After breakfast, I would read the Christmas story. We can’t eat an omelet – we’ll have flap jacks for our breakfast. But we’ll read the Christmas story.”
After breakfast, Lucas grabbed his Bible. He was glad he had remembered it before he left home. Mark stood up and stopped him. “Pa, you have to sit in the chair,” he pointed to the rocking chair.
“Well, you remember that part to.”
Mark nodded. “I always sat on your lap when you read the Bible. I reckon I’ll take ma’s place in the other chair today.”
Lucas laughed. “No indeed! You can sit on my lap, my boy!”
“Pa, I’m too big-“
Lucas pulled him down onto his lap anyways with a chuckle. He began reading from Luke. Mark laid his head on Lucas’s shoulder and closed his eyes. As he read, Lucas could almost see Margaret sitting in the chair, her face aglow as she thought about what that first Christmas in the stable looked like. “Peace on earth, good will to men.”
Mark sat up in the pa’s lap and opened his eyes. “Pa, do you think ma’s here listening to us right now?”
Lucas smiled at his son. “I think she is.”
“Merry Christmas, ma.”
“Merry Christmas, darling!” Lucas said breathlessly.
Lucas and Mark bundled up and went to play in the snow. They played like the three of them had played that last day. Margaret had made snow angels in the snow – all three of them had. They had a snowball fight, Margaret and Mark on one team, Lucas on the other. Lucas still won hands, down. Margaret teased him that being the Rifleman put the two of them at a disadvantage. Lucas chased his wife who giggled as he tackled her in the snow. Mark ran over to the two of them and jumped on top of them.
Then the three of them went back inside for hot cocoa and fresh Christmas cookies. Margaret stood in the background watching her two men argue over who was the best fisherman and Lucas let Mark win out in the end. There was no doubt that it was all done in fun.
Their last Christmas day had been busy. Margaret got Mark ready for bed and the three of them bent over Mark’s bed in prayer and thanksgiving. Then Mark snuggled under the covers and listened to his mother sing “Silent Night.” Lucas had stood in the doorway watching the sweet interaction. By the end of the second verse, Mark was sound asleep. Margaret bent over and kissed his forehead. Then she walked over to Lucas who placed his hands on her shoulder. They stood and watched their son sleep before closing his door. Then she sat down and wrote in her journal for the last time.
“Pa, this day was just like that last day of Christmas with ma, except ma was missing. “ Mark started to get in his bed when Lucas placed a hand on his arm. “Let’s do the Christmas prayer, son.”
Mark kneeled down beside his bed, Lucas at his side. They folded their hands together and Mark prayed. “Jesus, thank you for giving my pa his Christmas spirit back. Tonight, may there be peace on earth and may all the children have a warm place to sleep. Give ma a kiss from me and pa.” Lucas smiled after the prayer ended and Mark crawled into the bed.
“Can we do this every year?” Mark asked.
Lucas bent down beside Mark’s bed. “No, son. This is the last Christmas for us in Oklahoma. It’s time for us to close this chapter of our life.”
Lucas put a finger to Mark’s lips. “We needed this. God gave us this special day to help me put your mother to rest. I thought I had done that, but I was still looking back every Christmas at what I was missing. Today, I’m laying your mother to rest and we will look ahead – not back. If you remember, Mark, I told you that a long time ago when we rode onto our ranch that there will be no looking back. I followed that advice except for at Christmas.”
Mark sighed. “Well, I’ll miss not having Christmas this way.”
“Next Christmas, we’ll begin our own traditions and memories. We’ll keep some of your ma’s like the pumpkin bread, reading from Luke, and decorating the tree, but we’ll also make our own memories. We’ll be happy, son.”
Mark smiled. “Is that what ma would want us to do?”
Lucas nodded, thinking back to the last Journal entry of her journal he had read the night before.
It’s time for me to close this chapter of my life. There’s nothing else to write about. I feel as if something has come to an end. I know it’s hard to explain, but I feel so at peace with my life. If my life were to end next week or even next year, I know that I have accomplished what God put me on this earth to do. I’ve taught my two men the most important lesson of all. I taught them that no matter what life brings us, the Lord is right there, holding our hand.
In Mark’s prayer tonight, he thanked Jesus for holding our hand. Mark told me that he loved me more and more each day and that the memories of Christmas would always stick with him. He promised me to do his best to make those memories stick with Lucas as well.
Oh, Lucas is a wonderful father and I have been blessed. I don’t know why I’m feeling such a closure in my heart, but I do pray every night that if something were to happen to me, my dear, sweet husband will be able to move on and make new memories for him and Mark.
It’s not good to hold on to the past. These Christmas traditions are our traditions – our memories. But if I leave this earth, Mark and Lucas will have to make their own Christmas memories and traditions. That’s the way I would want it. My prayer is that they are happy in their lives no matter what comes their way. The two of them will always be a team. They will always have each other.
Peace on earth. God will to men. I love you two men with all my heart! Take care of each other and always remember me. But when I’m gone, bury me and move on. Look ahead, not back. Know that I’ll be in heaven, looking down on my two men!
The McCain Ranch
around the McCain Ranch