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Wade Stone stopped his pickup at the edge of Dry Creek, Montana, and peered through the icy windshield. The December sky was dark, as much from the storm clouds as from the slowness of the dawn. He turned his headlights off and could still clearly see the small town. A few weathered buildings with chipped paint and sagging porches lined each side of what passed for a street. Most people would travel through Dry Creek and forget all about it by the time they reached the state line. But not Wade.
Even though he had been gone for nine years, one look at this town reminded him of how much he missed it. He was weary of living out of motels and following the rodeo circuit. At twenty-six years old, he had yet to find a place that measured up to Dry Creek, and he was ready to settle down.
He glanced over at his mother, sitting so still in the passenger side of the seat. It didn't matter how he felt; he and his family were not welcome here. They couldn't expect to come back and pretend the past was wiped clean just because his mother had served her jail time. In a place like this, people took murder seriously. They wouldn't soon forget that she'd killed her husband.
By now, his mother must realize her desire to come back wasn't going to work. He should have said something earlier, but her request that he drive her to the cafe had caught him off guard. He'd only returned to the family ranch last night, and he hadn't thought through some of these things. But now that he had, he'd just turn his pickup around and leave before anyone knew they had even been here.
He was all set to do that when, out of the grayness of the dawn, a sudden flurry of hail came quick and hard. The tiny hailstones hit his windshield in a fast rhythm and, just when he became worried they'd actually do some damage, the storm stopped. Everything seemed strangely peaceful for a moment, and then a shaft of light came streaming right through the dark clouds.
Wade heard an indrawn breath and looked over at his mother again.
"That's God's message to methat light in the darkness," she said, turning to him with relief shining on her face. "I was right to come back. It's a sign from Him."
Wade held his tongue. He didn't begrudge his mother the faith she'd found in prison. After all, he knew people did what they had to do to survive in those kinds of places. He'd done some foolish things himself after her trial ended and he left the family ranch. He was seventeen and thought himself a man, but he bought his first packet of spearmint chewing gum just because the smell reminded him of that kiss he'd stolen from Amy Mitchell down the street from here. Sweet, golden-haired Amy. He'd never forget her.
Just having the gum had given him comfort in those early days when he had been sleeping in his pickup and trying to find his place in the rodeo world. The smell made him dream of a better life, even if he knew he'd never live it. He supposed it was like that for his mother and her newfound faith.
"It's winter. There's nothing unusual about this kind of day," Wade finally pointed out, trying to keep his voice soft. He understood her hope. He still had a packet of that gum in his shirt pocket.
The glow dimmed on his mother's face. By now, covered by more gray clouds, the light was gone from the sky, too.
"You think I'm wrong? To come back here?" she asked.
"No, I just meant" He scrambled to find words to explain his unease and then couldn't bring himself to speak them. He might not share her faith, but his mother had suffered enough. "It doesn't need to mean anything. That's all."
Strands of white hair ran through his mother's formerly all-black mane, and her nose had the slight hook inherited from her Cherokee grandfather. Wade didn't need to look any closer to see she was fragile. She might be only forty-five years old, but unless she smiled, she could pass for sixty. He wondered if she'd gotten her full hour of exercise each day when she'd been away.
She searched his eyes for a moment. "Is that why your brothers aren't here?"
"Did you send them letters, too?"
She nodded and then looked out the window. Her face softened as though she was dreaming. "You might think I'm foolish to be here, but once our ranch is back in shape, there will be room for all of you boys to come home and make a life for yourself."
After nine years of standing empty, the ranch house was in shambles. Wade had looked around with a flashlight last night when he'd arrived. At least one of the windows had been broken, and an animal of some kind had gotten inside. Dishes sat in pieces on the kitchen floor and chewed-up paper had been blown into the corners of the living room. He hadn't been able to see the fields in the dark, but he imagined they weren't any better. He hadn't come back because he felt he could change anything on the old place. He only wanted to do what he could to spare his mother any more pain and humiliation. He owed her that much.
"Don't worry about my brothers and me. We have lives." He didn't see the need to go into details. He wasn't sure that his mother knew about Jake's recent string of gambling losses in Las Vegas. And none of them had heard from Tyler in a couple of years, so Wade assumed his youngest brother was having a hard time, too. There hadn't been a place in Montana, so both of his brothers had gone to live in some kind of state institution for juveniles in North Dakota when their mother went to prison. Wade had been old enough to be given a choice about going with them, and he had refused. His emotions had been so raw back then that he wanted to put everything behind him, including his family.
He hadn't been able to, though. He'd thought of his brothers more than he had wanted, even if he hadn't known what to say to either of them when he'd called. He wondered if his brothers blamed him for not sticking with them, but he'd never asked. He felt bad enough about it on his own.
"The barn is tight against the weather. We can all stay there if needed until the house is ready," his mother continued, as if it was a plan she'd worked out in her mind some time agoand he guessed she probably had. She had been sleeping in the tack room off the barn for the few days she'd been back, and he figured that was mostly because the roof was good and there was an electrical outlet. She could plug in a lamp to read that Bible she carried everywhere with her.
Wade had unrolled his sleeping bag in one of the old stalls last night. He didn't need a light to read anythingreligious or notbut he had lain there until midnight, watching the moonlight shine through the frost on the side window and wishing he could wipe away the past with a big, black book like his mother seemed to be doing.
He finally dozed off and managed to sleep for several hours before a spasm in his leg woke him. It was almost dawn and bitter cold, even inside the barn. When he stood, the cramp went away, but his leg was stiffer than usual. The rodeo doctor had said Wade would limp for a long time after his last fall, and it seemed that he was right.
"We'll talk about all of this later," Wade said now, keeping his voice gentle. His mother had her own wounds from the past, and he didn't want her to worry about any of his. "Let me take you home so you can rest."
"It won't get any easier." His mother pressed her lips into a severe line as her fingers gripped the edge of the metal bowl she held in her lap. "Besides, I've come to buy eggs. The cafe will surely sell me some."
He noticed with a start that she still had her gold wedding band on her finger.
"I told you I don't need breakfast." He wondered if her knuckles were swollen, and that's why she hadn't taken the ring off. The round band had been cheap thirty years ago, and it had worn so thin since then that a wire cutter could slice through it like it was butter.
Just then, his mother's chin lifted, and he saw a glimpse of the woman she used to be. "It's your first morning back, and I intend to make you a sausage-and-egg scramble, like I did when you were a boy. We need to start living a normal life sometime."
He studied his mother for a long minute before suddenly realizing she probably hadn't even tried to remove that ring. She was stuck in the past. She didn't understand how things had changed.
"Come to Idaho with me," Wade urged suddenly. He'd competed in a rodeo there a couple of years ago, and he liked the state. It wasn't Dry Creek, but it had open spaces, and it would do fine. "I'll build us a nice, big house. One of those with a wraparound deck and maybe a sunroom just for you. Whatever you want. You like the sun."
She shook her head and smiled slightly. "Have I told you how proud I am of you? But you need to save your rodeo winnings for your own future. I have a home that suits me fine."
Wade knew better than to press her. No one in his family talked about their emotions with any ease, especially not with each other. "At least let me pay someone to help get the house in shape. I'll have my hands full with fixing the barn and corrals before I need to leave."
He'd started driving to Montana the day after he got her letter, but he didn't plan on staying so long that he missed the National Finals Rodeo next month. If he stopped riding for too long, he'd never get back on a horse again. That tumble he'd taken eight months ago had almost killed him. Since then, the other riders had decided he'd lost his nerve, and they had started circling his championshipthe one he won every yearlike buzzards in the dead of winter.
"I want to do the house myself," his mother said, dragging Wade's mind back to the conversation. "I need to get things ready for Christmas."
All thoughts of the championship fled Wade's mind. "Why would you" He stopped when he saw his mother stiffen in protest. Then he tried again in a more reasonable voice. "I mean, that's less than a week away. Next Thursday, isn't it? There's no need to bother with a tree or lights or anything like that. It's too much work. And we never"
"I know your father didn't celebrate Christmas," his mother interrupted with a quiet dignity. "But this year, I thought " Her voice trailed off; she was probably lost in her own memories.
Wade shook his head. Saying his father didn't celebrate Christmas was like saying a rodeo bull didn't make a good household pet. The man had been vigilant about maintaining his ban on Christmas decorations. No holiday lights were allowed. Nothing red or green or gold was to be placed anywhere. No candles or pine cones were to be left on the fireplace mantel. Why, his father had once ripped the whole December page off the only calendar in the house, just because it had a small nativity scene on it.
"You always loved Christmas," his mother finally whispered.
Wade shrugged. His last words with his father had been angry ones spoken the day after Christmas nine years ago. "I make out fine without it."
Holidays were like the sweet visions that came to mind when he smelled spearmint gum. They were fine for other people but not for him. "Maybe I did like it back then, but you've got to remember that was a long time ago."
The argument with his father made Wade feel guilty every year when he heard the carols on the radio. Disagreements about Christmas had ruined what family he had. So now he never paused to admire a tree in a mall or a hotel. He sent no cards and got none in return. He wanted to forget all about December 25.
"You wanted to drive the sleigh. Remember?" his mother asked.
"I was just a boy."
He no more got the words out of his mouth than the memories came flooding back, whether he wanted them to or not. He could still see that red sleigh in his mindthe one that Charley Nelson used when he hauled hay to his range cattle during the big snowstorms that came up almost every winter in the eastern part of the state. Each Christmas, the man transformed that farm sleigh into a fairy tale worthy of the most fanciful child's dream. He painted holly sprigs on it one year and dancing elves another. And he always tacked the same string of sturdy iron bells along the sides, so people could hear it coming for miles around. "You used to love that sleigh," his mother persisted. Wade could only nod. He guessed he had, at that. He had disobeyed his father every single year to go see it. Charley used a team of horses to pull the sleigh to the church around dusk on Christmas Eve. When he rang the bells, people came from all directions to fill it with presents for the annual children's gift drive. Then the sleigh sat there waiting while everyone walked over to the old barn at the edge of town to watch the nativity pageant. After that, Charley drove the sleigh around to deliver all the gifts.
Back then, the presents had been simple, handmade things, often wrapped in a brown grocery bag and tied with a single strip of red ribbon. No one had money for store-bought toys or fancy paper.