How many times had he done this; sat in front of the fire drink in hand? Hours spent staring into the flames, trying to imagine what they looked like, what they were doing, remembering too the women, how he had loved them and how they had hurt him in such different ways. Time spent teetering between pain and despair on the one hand and dreams of the future on the other.
He took a sip, savoring the scotch for a moment before letting it slide down his throat.
He felt the tree’s looming presence at his back, the smell of pine filling the Great Room mingling with the pungent fragrance of cloves and the tang of citrus. Didn’t need to see the garlands of popped corn or the red ribbons or the delicate glass ornaments from far-away Boston that had somehow survived the tossing seas or the woven straw figurines in their colorful bits of cloth to remember the one Christmas he had been privileged to witness through a child’s eyes, his child’s. He remembered the wonder reflected in the wide blue eyes as they took in the tree with its flickering candles and gingerbread men and the gaily wrapped gifts peeking from under its branches. He shared no such memory with his eldest son; one more regret to add to an ever lengthening list.
He could admit now how close he had come to giving up. How tired he had gotten of fighting; whether it was Garrett’s machinations or the frustrating lack of information on Johnny’s whereabouts or the numerous threats to the ranch. It had changed him and not for the better. A wall had gone up, keeping others at arm’s length, a shield against further hurt and disappointment.
What had kept him going; pride, stubbornness, sheer determination?
Swirling the liquor in the crystal tumbler, he took another sip.
Yes, hope; a little battered and a tad frayed but still intact, a silver thread weaving together past and future. Hope that one day his boys would find their way home. Hope they could become the family they were always meant to be.
“You okay, old man?”
He saw his youngest hazard a glance over his shoulder at his brother when he didn’t immediately respond, the two of them little more than shadowy figures in the hall outside the Great Room.
It was more than a polite inquiry into the state of his well-being, there was concern and he felt oddly grateful.
The muted chime of spurs accompanied Johnny’s steps into the Great Room, the firelight sparking off the concho’s of his calzoneras. Scott, hat in hand, a half-step behind his brother.
He lifted his hand, waving them off. “I’m fine; just lost in thought. Sorry if I worried you.”
Scott perched on the arm of the sofa, his gloved hands fingering the brim of his hat. His hair was longer than when he first arrived and lighter, bleached by the sun.
“As long as you’re all right. Not waiting up for us, were you sir?” No anger just amusement.
“I believe you both are more than capable of looking out for each other.”
A grin lurked at the corner of Johnny’s mouth as he sat on the ottoman. He swore he could feel, could smell the cold rolling off the boy.
“Well I don’t know about Scott here, he takes a lot of looking after. I’m plum wore out.”
He didn’t try to contain the chuckle.
“In that case you two had better be off to bed; tomorrow will be a busy day.”
“And you as well, sir. Teresa has, I believe, invited half the valley.”
“I’ll be up in a few minutes. Good-night, boys.”
“Good night, sir and Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, son.”
Not a question but he felt Johnny’s hesitancy. He smiled in gentle reassurance.
“Bueno noches, mi hijo. Feliz Navidad.”
It was a few minutes before he heard the opening then closing of their respective doors. Apparently his sons had found one more thing to talk about before turning in. It felt good. He had not intentionally waited up for them but it felt good nonetheless knowing they were home.
Swallowing the last of the scotch, he deposited the glass on the table at his side and rose from the chair. Taking the iron poker from its stand he rested a forearm against the mantle as he stabbed at the fire banking it for the night. A log split, settling into its bed of fiery ashes. He worked the poker deeper, rocking the wood back and forth. The crack widened, releasing a spray of hissing embers.
Returning the tool to its stand, he straightened, taking a last look around the room. The glass ornaments glowed with captured light, light that turned the straw figurines to molten gold. All was in readiness, the gifts chosen and wrapped and under the tree.
No gift could equal what he had already been given—his boys home, safe once more under his roof where they always should have been. And tomorrow, tomorrow would be, God willing, only the first of many more Christmases together.