JD sat outside the hotel, watching folks preparing for Christmas. He shook his head. Christmas without snow. Made him homesick sometimes for back East, and the Christmases at the mansion where his mother had been a chambermaid.
His most memorable Christmas was when he was twelve. Presents under the tree, some dangling from the branches like ornaments: a watch on a chain, a fancy pocketknife, and other gifts for the family and their friends. JD knew that his own Christmas would be much simpler: some nuts and fruit, or maybe a new prayer book if he was lucky. That didn't bother him much. What he bothered him was that he couldn't get his mother something she really needed, like a new winter coat.
A few days before Christmas, JD was called into the study to see the Old Man (as the servants called him). His mother was there, too, looking sad.
"One of the gifts on the tree is missing, JD," she said softly. "A pocketknife."
"I didn't take it," JD said hotly. "And if someone said that, they're a liar!"
"Are you calling my son a liar? Think carefully, boy. You were seen. "
That's when JD saw The Brat, sitting in a chair, grinning. He was JD's age and the Old Man's only son. He delighted in trying to get JD in trouble. Once he had taken one of the horses for a late night ride. The animal was brought back injured, and the Brat had been quick to blame JD. JD had been beaten for that.
Now JD's eyes were riveted on the Old Man, who doled out punishments in the household. JD watched as the man retrieved a long switch from behind an armchair.
"I want my knife," whined the Brat. "Make him give it back."
The Old Man looked at JD sternly. "I'll give you one last chance."
"I didn't do it," JD said, through clenched teeth.
The caning was brutal. JD winced and his eyes watered but he refused to cry out. Through his tear-blurred vision, he could see the Brat, still grinning.
The Old Man finally paused when a footman opened the door.
"Begging your pardon, sir, but one of the upstairs maids found this under your son's bed." The footman opened his palm. It was the fancy pocketknife. And it was broken.
The Old Man looked at his son. "We'll discuss this later. It seems we were mistaken," he said, putting a hand on JD's shoulder. "Why don't you help yourself to one of my son's presents as compensation and we'll have no more about this incident."
JD could scarcely believe it. Yet he knew the Old Man would never punish his precious boy. Was he supposed to be bought like this? This was how the Brat was often dealt with. JD wanted to tell the Old Man 'no', but when he saw his mother's frightened expression, he knew he would have to accept something. He thought a moment, looking for something useful, a symbol of prosperity: something his mother had never known.
"I'll take the pocketwatch," he said reluctantly.
"No!" The Brat howled in protest. "That's MINE!"
"Be quiet," his father said sternly, as he took the pocketwatch from the tree and handed it to JD.
JD accepted it silently and left.
A few days later it was Christmas. Dinner was over and the servants were preparing their own small celebration. JD and his mother were in her room, a mother and son sharing a few private moments.
"This is for you," JD smiled, handing her a large box.
She opened it with trembling fingers. In it was a long woolen coat. His mother stared at him quizzically at first, then with growing realization. "Your pocketwatch?"
JD smiled. "Consider it a gift from the Brat and me."