Summary: After the loss of his family, Joe finds a reason to go on.
Word Count: 1200
The fire took everything—my wife is dead, my house was burned to the ground. Everything I owned, everything I loved and everything I lived for was destroyed on that fateful afternoon. I have no purpose, no reason to muddle through another day. I’m lost and alone, and I don’t give a rat’s ass about the future. I force a smile when expected. I force a life that’s expected but the fire still burns within me.
Pa tried his best. He’s offered what he could. He presented ideas that might offset my longing for a different life, someone else’s life, any life other than my own. He mentioned an extended trip away from the ranch, but I snubbed the idea. Would the pain be any less in New York City, in England or Australia? I tried not to laugh at the prospect of traveling alone and convincing myself that life was to be enjoyed.
He bought me a gift, something I never expected, and I actually thought the beautiful black stallion had turned my mind around, that I could find a new direction, and for more weeks than I could count, I became distracted, even happy. But in my case, happiness is short-lived. The horse was stolen, and without a marking or brand, I rode away from the ranch in hot pursuit. Nothing had changed. The same fire burned within only this time, I wouldn’t come home a loser.
But life has a way of turning the tide when you least expect it. A boy was shot. He nearly died. The stallion performed a miracle, but the horse’s death added to my undoing. Tears filled my eyes. Pain filled my heart, and I stroked the velvety nose of my father’s heartfelt gift until the end was near. The losses continue to mount.
I turned toward the voice and laid the currycomb on the half-wall next to Cochise. I found myself grooming the pinto when there was no need, but the steady motion of running a brush over my aging horse gave me a few minutes of simple pleasure.
“There’s something I want to show you,” he said.
“I think so.”
There was an odd hesitation in Pa’s voice. We walked side-by-side back to the house, but the house was too quiet for my taste. No more bickering with older brother. No out-of-control laughter from Hoss. It was just Pa and me now, and a biting wind shooting down from the north that made me shiver.
“You shouldn’t be out here,” I said.
“You mean at my age?”
“That’s not what I said, but you just got over a cold and—”
“I’m perfectly fine, son, and a little fresh air never hurt anyone.”
“If you say so.”
Pa slipped his arm around my shoulder and gave a little tug. Of course, I worried; he knew I worried, but let’s face it. By birthright, I was the only blood son left on the ranch, and I had every right to air my concern.
The house smelled of pine. Just yesterday, Pa had a meeting in town, which gave Griff and Candy and me the entire day to ourselves. As a gift for my father, we hauled home the largest tree we could carry and hurried to decorate. Tearing through boxes of candles and bright-colored ornaments, Hop Sing popped corn and strung dried cranberries then busied himself cleaning the mess we’d all made.
Pa deserved the best Christmas I could give him, and I was truly satisfied with the results. He’d suffered losses too—a son, a daughter-in-law and the prospect of his first grandchild.
“Smells good, doesn’t it?” Pa said when he opened the front door.
“You bet it does. Just what this old house needed, don’t you think?”
“It’s perfect, son. Thank you again.”
Pa crossed the room to his chair. He turned toward me. “Brandy?”
“Sure. Why not?”
It was just midday. I drank too much after Alice’s death, but if Pa thought I could handle a glass of brandy without going overboard, then who was I to question my own father? He poured us each a glass and eased himself down into his oversized chair, a roaring fire at his side. He nodded to the end of the settee where he wanted me to sit.
“What’s this all about?” I asked.
“I found something yesterday. Actually, Hop Sing found it and brought it to my attention. I’d all but forgotten how she used to sit here with me while you were away and—”
I studied my father closely and when curiosity got the better of me, I questioned where he was going with all this talk of . . . her. “Okay, Pa. What are you trying to say?” The fire warmed the room. We’d left the icy chill outside, but the look in Pa’s watery eyes brought on a nervous shiver, one I couldn’t quite control.
He leaned over the far side of his chair and picked up a sewing basket, Alice’s basket. “I think you should see this, son.”
I was dumbfounded. Yarn and knitting needles? “I don’t understand.”
I pushed up from the settee and walked toward the stairs. “Why, Pa?”
“Please sit down, son. Please?”
I did as I was asked. Over time, I’d become a much more obedient son, but why was Pa doing this to me? Why would he want me to dig through Alice’s sewing basket? He sat it on the table. He waited.
I pulled out two needles and a ball of yarn. “Happy now?”
“Keep going,” he said.
I closed my eyes and grabbed what was inside. Knitted wool slipped through my fingers, and I looked down at my hand. Three rolled up Christmas stockings. Red, white, and green with names embroidered at the top. Joe. Alice. And a smaller, more delicate, stocking with no name as yet. I ran my fingers over the embroidery. Tears filled my eyes.
Pa clutched my left knee. His hand warmed my flesh. “She wanted to surprise you, son. She—she said traditions were important, and this would be a start.”
“I never knew.”
“I know, but they’re lovely, aren’t they?”
I nodded my head.
“Why don’t we hang them over the fire?”
“I’ll do it.”
Still fingering her name, I stood from the settee and hung each stocking from the mantelpiece where hidden nails had been pounded in years ago for Hoss and Adam and me.
A new tradition? It’s an old tradition, Alice, but the new, bright colors are an added gift.
“Perfect,” Pa said. “Better than your brother’s size 16, wouldn’t you say?”
“Considerably better.” I smiled at my father. It took a lot of courage for him to haul out Alice’s basket and press me to discover what was hidden inside, the only thing that remained after the fire. Like the largest tree I could find for Pa, the three brightly colored stockings were a much-valued Christmas gift for me. “Thanks,” was all I needed to say.
“Merry Christmas, Joseph.”
“Merry Christmas, Pa.”