It had to be at least a twelve pointer.
Johnny dropped smoothly onto his haunches confident the animal was unaware of his presence.
The buck paused in midstride suddenly wary. Its muzzle lifted, testing the air. Johnny froze, holding his breath as the animal’s ears flicked nervously back and forth, keenly alert to any sound.
Slowly its head swung in Johnny’s direction, ears pricked, breath steaming in the frigid air.
Neither party moved eyes seemingly locked onto the other.
Time seemed to slow then stop. The air felt charged, ripe with expectation. It was almost like waiting for something to be born.
One long tapered ear swiveled back then snapped forward.
Lungs burning, Johnny hazarded a breath. The biting cold set his nasal passages to tingling, the smell of pine so thick he could almost taste it.
Suddenly the buck pivoted on its hind quarters taking flight. It stalked across the clearing, its high-footed gait carrying it rapidly toward the safety of the tree line.
Johnny remained crouched long after the buck had disappeared, poised on the balls of his feet, reveling in all too rare moment of solitude.
It was beautiful here; peaceful. A man could get lost in the quiet.
He missed that, the quiet. Since coming home he never seemed to have a moment to himself. Somebody was always wanting something; wanting some piece of him.
And now the holidays and a whole new set of expectations he wasn’t sure he could live up to.
A sigh escaped him, his breath frosting the air as he ducked his head. An unexpected splash of color beside his right boot garnered his attention. Shedding a glove he reached down, the tip of one finger lightly tracing the leaf’s saw-toothed edge. The hoarfrost gilding its veins vanished, melting under his touch.
He glanced about curious as to where the leaf had come from, having seen nothing but pine for the last few miles. Apparently some random wind had chanced to blow it here, depositing it among the scattered pine needles and winter blasted grass.
The meaty thwack of metal biting into wood startled him out of his revelry.
Johnny cocked his head, a lop-sided grin tugging at his lips. Seemed old Boston had finally found that “proper” tree.
Johnny didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. One tree looked pretty much like the next in his opinion but Teresa had been real specific about what she called a “proper” Christmas tree. It was important, she said, having the right tree, this being their first Christmas together as a family and all. Even Scott had put in his two cents worth, sharing what Johnny suspected were a few carefully selected holiday memories.
That was one thing he and his brother had in common, secrets. Scott was good at not giving much away.
Johnny had holiday memories of his own but wasn’t ready to share them just yet. Some were a bit hazy, like those of shadowy corners redolent with the pungent fragrance of incense and the gentle glow of candlelight reflecting off gold-washed vessels and snowy altar cloths. Others were all too vivid; of laughter and raucous shouts of encouragement beneath twirling clay pińatas, of cinnamon and cloves and the sweet tang of orange and of a small boy observing in secret because a half-breed child was neither wanted nor welcome.
Johnny got to his feet, his eyes automatically taking note of his surroundings. He readjusted his hat, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun before working his hand into its glove.
He didn’t believe in fate but knew he had been given a gift few men were offered; the gift of a second chance. What he chose to do with it was up to him.
It wouldn’t be easy, going against the habits of a lifetime, instincts that warned against letting anyone getting too close, of not letting himself care. Of believing he was living on borrowed time.
He wasn’t sure if he was brave enough or maybe foolish enough to take up that offer. Could be the past had too firm a hold on him to ever let go.
But Johnny also knew he no longer wanted that life, wanted to be free of the pain and the guilt that went with it. That he wanted a place where he belonged, a place with these people who cared about him and accepted him despite his past.
The steady rhythmic thud of an ax at work echoed eerily around him.
Johnny gave his glove a final tug, flexing his fingers.
And here was a memory in the making, the first of many if he were lucky. A special one to be sure; of the day he and his brother had gone hunting for their first Christmas tree, a memory to be shared by just the two of them.