Christmas at the Ranch

By Ann Wortham

Hannibal Heyes gave an exaggerated shiver and hunched up his shoulders as he pulled shut the door of the barn. “That wind is something. I didn’t think it got this cold in this part of Texas.” He glanced sideways at Kid Curry, who was looking uncharacteristically thoughtful. He’d had a strange look about him for days now and Heyes wasn’t quite sure what was going on with his cousin and longtime partner.

Curry shrugged. “Big Mac says it’s colder than usual this year but it sometimes happens, even further south in Texas.” He headed into the little room where they stored the feed for the horses. “At least it ain’t snowing. Yet.”

Heyes gave a halfhearted grin. “That’s something, I suppose. Although with that howling wind and the temperature dropping, I wouldn’t be surprised at anything. I guess we’ve had enough of white Christmases up north in Wyoming and such.”

“Not to mention being constantly on the run,” Curry said.

“Yeah, there’s always that.” Heyes glanced at Curry again. “Is something bothering you? You seem … different lately.”

Curry shook his head. “Not really bothering me. I guess I’m just getting used to this whole amnesty thing still. Not being on the run constantly. Actually having a place to spend Christmas with other people and not have to worry about someone recognizing us.”

Of course, it helped that they were surrounded by friends here in Red Rock and even a form of family, with Big Mac McCreedy telling everyone they were his nephews and Big Mac’s wife, Carlotta, welcoming them into the “family,” as well. Even the ranch foreman, Blake, had become their good friend.

Blake and the other ranch hands had gone into Red Rock for the day and evening on Christmas Eve for some fun and celebration while Heyes and Curry had volunteered to do the evening chores for them so they could all have some well-earned time off. They’d all be back to partake of the magnificent Christmas Day feast Carlotta and her helpers were preparing. Heyes just hoped they weren’t too hungover to appreciate it because if they were, he didn’t want to be around for the wrath of Carlotta. She’d been planning for days and the house was already full of the delicious aromas of holiday baking. She had her heart set on everyone being together on the big day, ranch hands included.

In the meantime, Heyes and Curry were feeding the stock. Heyes sort of knew what Curry was feeling, though. It was odd to not have to constantly look over their shoulders and wonder if they’d have to run for their lives at any moment. In fact, he couldn’t really remember the last time they’d had a peaceful Christmas, free from worries. Maybe when they were little kids? And even then, war had been brewing and then their folks were murdered and it all went downhill from there.

He studied Curry while they went about tending to the horses in the barn. “I think I understand,” he finally said.

“I figured you would,” Curry didn’t look up. “Sometimes I still don’t believe it’s real. That we really got our amnesty. That we actually have a place to stay and put down roots if we want to. It’s just hard to get used to. Not moving around all the time.”

Heyes nodded. Then smiled. “But nice.”

Curry nodded back. “Yeah. It’s nice.”

The ranch house was warm and cozy inside when they got back, a huge fire blazing in the living room, which was resplendent with a gorgeous big Christmas tree with presents wrapped in brown paper surrounding it. Carlotta had insisted on a tree so Heyes, Curry, Blake and some of the ranch hands had found one to cut down and haul inside where Carlotta and the cook had had a fun time decorating it. Big Mac had played supervisor from his favorite chair, sipping on a brandy. Carlotta had mellowed him somewhat but he was still, at heart, Big Mac McCreedy, lord of his domain.

Heyes had to admit that the tree was beautiful and definitely added to the festive spirit. They’d never really had a Christmas tree before, not even growing up, although he remembered their families getting together for a big meal and exchanging little gifts they’d made or penny candy. A few times over the years they’d been staying somewhere where there was a Christmas tree, but it was definitely not something they’d experienced in a home. Then again, they weren’t usually staying in a real, honest to goodness home at Christmas, either.

One side of the room was lined with books and comfortable furniture and it was relaxing to sit there in the evenings, share a drink with friends and just wind down from a hard day of work. He was finally starting to slowly relax and get used to life on the ranch instead of on the run.

“Come on in and warm up, boys,” Carlotta said, smiling and setting down a tray with an elegant tea set of teapot and cups. “We’re going to open some presents before dinner. It’s a Christmas Eve tradition in my family. And I made some special hot tea with cinnamon. It’s my mother’s recipe.”

Big Mac was already happily sipping at a cup of hot tea although Heyes suspected he’d spiked his with a little bonus.

Curry had that thoughtful look on his face again and reached down to pick up a small wrapped box. He handed it to Heyes with a sly grin. “I made something for you.” He went to sit down on the couch.

Heyes unwrapped the present and held up a little wooden carved horse, staring at it in bemusement. Well, now he knew what Curry had been whittling the last few weeks. He’d thought it kind of odd since Curry had never demonstrated a love of whittling in the past but he’d dismissed it as just something new to pass the time in the evenings. “Uh, I don’t know what to say,” he said. It was the kind of toy they might have been given when they were children back before the War. “Thank you?”

“It’s the thought that counts,” Big Mac said with a loud laugh, slapping his hands on his thighs.

Curry nodded. “That’s right.” He opened the present Heyes had handed him and smiled at the bottle of imported premier whiskey. “Oh, this is nice.”

“I had them ship it in special,” Heyes said, still staring down at the little carved horse and turning it around and around in his hands. Was Curry trying to send him some sort of subtle message with this gift? No, his cousin wasn’t stupid but he was rarely “subtle.” More blunt and to the point than anything.

The sound of horses approaching and a neigh interrupted his reverie. Surely Blake and the others weren’t back already? His heart was automatically in his throat. Old habits died hard and his immediate response was fear. “Who’s that coming?”

Carlotta’s eyes sparkled. “It must be my brother at last! I hoped he’d get here in time for Christmas Eve dinner.”

Heyes relaxed. Of course. Senor Armendariz, Carlotta’s brother, was coming to stay with them for the holidays. He and Curry had already wondered just how that was going to work out, given the longstanding feud between Big Mac McCreedy and Armendariz. They could only hope that now that the two men were brothers-in-law, they’d managed to bury the hatchet. And not in each other’s backs!

He traded a look with Curry. Strangely, Curry looked excited. Was he expecting there to be fireworks between the two old enemies who were now family?

They all headed for the door to greet the travelers.

Armendariz and his men were just dismounting from their horses and Carlotta ran to embrace her brother. McCreedy extended a hand to his brother-in-law and they shook hands, eyeing each other only a little warily.

“Mi casa es su casa,” McCreedy said in his thick Texas accent, obviously coached by Carlotta. But the sentiment appeared to be well received by Armendariz.

After greeting his family, Armendariz suddenly turned to Curry and said, “I brought what you requested through my sister. I hope you are pleased.”

Curry stepped forward. “I appreciate it, Senor Armendariz.”

Armendariz snapped his fingers and one of his men appeared leading a gorgeous prancing chestnut horse. The setting sun seemed to bounce off the colors of his coat and set them on fire. “From the finest Spanish bloodlines. One of my best.”

Curry took the reins and handed them to Heyes. “Merry Christmas.”

Heyes was speechless. This horse was magnificent. Far beyond any horse he’d ever owned although he’d sometimes dreamed of having such an animal one day.

“I figured since we weren’t moving around all the time and didn’t have to worry about losing our horses or having to sell them, you’d like this fellow,” Curry said. He cocked his head. “I don’t think my carving of him really did him justice.”

Still speechless, Heyes just nodded, petting the nose of the gorgeous horse. He’d thought his fancy imported whiskey was a great gift for Curry but somehow it now seemed completely inadequate.

“Cat got your tongue?” Big Mac said.

“There’s a first,” Curry added, laughing. “Big Mac and Carlotta helped pay for him. And Senor Armendariz gave us a discount.”

“A big discount!” Armendariz emphasized and they all joined in the laughter.

“I just don’t know what to say,” Heyes finally choked out. “He’s beautiful.” He couldn’t believe that Curry and Carlotta and Mac and Armendariz had conspired to do this for him. He looked up at them gathered there on the porch of the McCreedy Ranch, smiling and happy that he loved their gift to him, and realized that he and Curry, for once, truly had a home and a family for Christmas.

That was really the best gift of all.

Author’s Note: This story is a little bit more sentimental than my usual. Hopefully, you’ll forgive me. It’s Christmas time. I don’t think you have to have read my novel “One More Last Chance” to understand what’s going on, but just in case, in that novel, Big Mac and Carlotta offer a home to Heyes and Curry as Big Mac’s “nephews” since they have no children of their own and no heirs. I’d like to thank my friend Montana who once again made the gorgeous artwork to go with my little story.

Artwork by Montana