SPECIAL CHRISTMAS EXCERPT
“I’m so sorry. Let’s go inside, and I’ll open the box.” A playful expression lit up Hannah’s face.
Ivy’s face showed less enthusiasm. Alice focused on tamping down her anger, thinking something wasn’t right about this scenario. Nevertheless, they went back inside the cabin for the unveiling of the box’s contents.
The coyote pup Shadow and Little Charlie danced around. They seemed delighted to be in the presence of the box. Alice had to admit that the suspense was a pretty good distraction. She hadn’t worried about the men for almost one whole minute. Without lifting the makeshift lid, Alice had figured out what was about to spring from the box. “The cats,” she whispered.
“What was your first clue?” Hannah asked, toying with her future mother-in-law.
Alice put on her best, though fake, thinking expression. “Let me see. Hmm. The meowing. Yes, definitely that.”
The canines stuck their noses over the box’s edge to take a closer look. The unusual symphony of yipping and meowing delighted the listeners. Billy had a blast and joined in with his version of howling. Curious, the animals turned toward him, stared, and became silent for a moment, but only a moment. The canine-feline troubadours continued.
“Are these going to be Christmas presents?” asked Billy, excited to see the kittens again. The smile left his face, and he frowned. “Oh, no. There’s only three, and that isn’t enough for everyone.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll work it out.” Alice smiled at the young boy and admitted to herself that he was a cute kid.
“Yeah! We can share them, huh, Grandma?”
She had no intention of divvying up the cats, then bit her tongue to keep from saying, don’t call me grandma.
Ivy quickly changed the subject. “Hey, I thought the reason you hung back was to do something with flares.”
“You’re right, and I did, but then there they were, the cat and her kittens, looking at me with sad little eyes. I couldn’t leave them at that old abandoned cabin. What if no one came back?”
Though something was off with Hannah’s story, Alice chose to leave it alone for now and sipped a little more of the wine she’d left on the end table.
The young women put together a large pot of chili, anticipating the return of the men. They set the burner on low so the pot wouldn’t need watching and moved into the living room to keep an eye on the fire and finish decorating for the coming holiday. It was the only way to stay sane while they waited for news.
“Come on, Alice. We’ll need your ideas.” Together, they all pretended the festive activity kept their minds off the dangers the men, Oatie, and the horses faced. Traditional Christmas music played on the boom box, and the fire crackled in the woodstove, warming the room. Evergreen garlands added a festive, piney scent to the cabin, and strings of tiny white lights draped from the rustic ceiling’s beams twinkled like stars in the heavens. Bright red velvet bows went up on every interior door.
“It will likely be dark when our men return, but come tomorrow, we’ll send them out to cut down a tree for us to decorate.” Hannah’s words, along with their tone, seemed optimistic, but her eyes told a different story.
Billy, the pups, and even the cats managed to lighten the mood now and then, but an undercurrent of fear and worry was ever-present. Alice, thinking about her sons risking their lives to save Clint, stared into the flames and, with a heavy heart, waited…
Clint had only two choices: ride or die.
Fed up with his life and the cards he’d been dealt, he almost turned around and drove home thinking, why bother? Why pretend day after day to be something I’m not? The question his physical therapist had asked on that dreaded first day of rehab came to mind.
“What’s your goal, Clint?”
He’d replied, “I don’t give a damn about goals. I just want to ride my horse.”
“Okay, then. That’s your goal.”
If only it were that simple.
* * *
“Let me give you a hand, Mr. McAllister.”
The stable manager’s words pulled him from his downward, spiraling thoughts. “Not today, Gill. I’ve got this.” His own unexpected words jarred him, too. “Just bring my horse around.” Clint, using his strong arms, lowered himself from the van down to his chair and waited to greet Millie, the one thing in his life that kept him going. His feelings for this horse went beyond words.
Raking his fingers through his salt-and-pepper hair, heavy on the salt, he remembered the day the horse was born as if it were yesterday. The mare had struggled. Something was wrong, and she needed help with the birth of her baby. Clint heard her squeals. He rushed in and, on his hands and knees, pulled the new foal from its mother’s body. That little filly grabbed Clint’s attention, his heart, too, like no other had ever done.
He named her Milagro that first day but called her Millie for short. He equated the bonding, the connection with the new horse, to having a first child. He took on the initial responsibilities of the young horse’s training, which typically was handled by the head wrangler at his ranch. His ranch, the McAllister Ranch nicknamed the Big Mack. The words were music to his ears, though he no longer resided there. Instead, he and Alice lived in a condo just outside of Golden, Colorado. A condo, for heaven’s sake! He thought he’d always live on the ranch. Amazing how everything can change in a matter of seconds, and he had no one to blame but himself.
The sound of hoofbeats pounding on the hard, packed dirt advanced rapidly toward him, leaving Gill behind in the dust. No need to be led. The horse knew the routine.
“How’s my favorite horse today?” The beautiful, sturdy Palomino lowered its head and puffed out a breath, ready for what would follow. Clint reached up, stroked Millie’s neck, then offered her a handful of salted peanuts. The horse ate them, shells and all, then wiggled her lips, showing her teeth, which always brought a smile to Clint’s face and a few more peanuts to the horse’s mouth.
“You’re gonna ride today?” Gill asked with a skeptical tone and a furrowed brow.
Not pleased with Gill’s question, Clint shook his head. “What do you think? Don’t I always ride when I drive out here to visit my horse?”
“Yes, sir, but it’s colder than usual today. Nobody else is riding.” He rubbed his gloved hands together as if trying to start a fire. His breath resembled fog floating across a snowy meadow.
Clint’s impassive look was all the confirmation Gill needed. There was no point arguing with the man.
“If you’re sure.” Gill shrugged and grabbed the horse’s lead rope. “I’ll saddle her up and send her right back to you.”
Clint rolled closer to his made-to-order van, and with the push of a few buttons, he brought out his custom, all-terrain chair. He hated the damn thing, but if he wanted to keep riding his horse and saddle up with minimal help from anyone else, he needed it. He shifted his body from the rolling chair onto the high-tech, all-terrain chair, ready to flip the switch that would raise the seat up level with the saddle. Today, as Millie trotted back toward him, he was determined to position himself on that saddle with no help at all. And that is exactly what he did.
Gill wasn’t a chatty guy — Clint liked that about him — but today, out of the blue and before he’d taken too many steps toward the horse barn, he turned and asked, “You seen your boys lately?”
While bending down and using his hands, Clint guided his boots into the stirrups and said, “Saw Troy, my oldest, briefly. Went out to Trace’s place a while back. We’re not close. Never have been. I doubt my boys are close with each other. They’re too busy workin’ their ranches.”
“That’s too bad. I’m sorry to hear that.” Gill turned to see his young, exuberant grandkids rushing up to him.
“Grandpa, grandpa! Come on.” They each tugged at one of his gloved hands. “Wait ’til you see what we did.”
Looking up at Clint, he shrugged. “Family comes first, but I’ll be here for you when you get back. Have a good ride now.” He tipped his hat and followed the two youngsters to the main house where he and his wife resided.
More often than not, riding Millie triggered a spark of self-worth, if only temporary, and pleasant memories of past abilities. High in the saddle was where he belonged, where he felt whole. However, those intense and vital feelings failed to show up today. Instead, he felt hollow and without purpose, the same way he felt when sitting at home in his condo rather than on his ranch. If he were honest with himself, he’d have to admit to feelings of loneliness, too, in spite of having a wife and two grown sons.
No! Hell, no! He caught himself. He’d never admit or give in to such a ridiculous weakness. As the senior McAllister rancher, it was time he took the bull by the horns and claimed that role again. He’d let his reputation slide over the past fifteen years, but not anymore. It was now or never. Will the real Clint McAllister please stand up? The irony of his statement provided the heavy dose of motivation he needed, though he hadn’t a clue how to turn such a drastic incentive into reality.
Gill’s words haunted him the entire ride. He’d said that family comes first. Did Clint put family first? He had moments when he did, though they might have been few and far between. He’d had several huge ranches to run and his wife Alice to keep the family together, so why had Gill’s words caused such an uneasy feeling in his gut? At this point, his thoughts turned into a monologue delivered to a non-judgmental, captive audience — his horse.
“The way I see it, Millie, the ranch and my family are one and the same, so I’m not such a bad guy after all.” Who was he kidding? His horse? Convincing himself that he was a good guy failed miserably, but he gave it another shot. “Alice does her part, and I do mine. At least, I used to.”
By mid-afternoon, riding had finally ignited pleasant memories of his younger years and allowed him to escape from his current, disabled reality for a while. With the custom seatbelt attached to the saddle and keeping him firmly in place, he threw caution aside.
“I know it’s been a while, Millie, but let’s see if we can ride like the old days.” When they came to a flat and broader portion of the trail, he gave his horse the verbal cue to canter. The horse, however, slowed to a stop. “So that’s how it’s going to be? Did you forget my signals? Or are you telling me what I can and can’t do, too?” He gave the cue again. Millie hesitated, stomped her front hooves, then took off like the wind. Clint rode faster and farther than he should have, returning to the stables later than usual, exhausted but exhilarated.
Gill set down the bale of hay he was carrying and met up with Clint just as the horse came to a complete stop. “Alice called to see if you were on your way home. I told her you got off to a late start today so that she wouldn’t worry. Hope that’s okay with you. You might want to give her a call. Ease her mind, you know? Women worry.”
“I’ll do that as soon as I’m off the horse and back in my van.”
Gill stepped closer to offer Clint some assistance as he’d done for many years.
“Don’t want your help today. Stand back. I’ve got this.”
“Suit yourself, Mr. McAllister.” He sighed, kicked some dirt, and looked the other way.
Once Clint was seated in the van, Gill loaded up his boss’s mechanical horse and attended to Millie. With the horse’s lead rope in hand, he headed to the barn where he’d remove her saddle, feed her some oats, and put her up for the night.
Clint lowered the van’s driver-side window and, raising his voice, called after Gill. “Your comment about family first got me thinking and gave me an idea.” The window went up, and the van peeled out, leaving a trail of dust.
Clint took the long way home. Without a doubt, he was on a mission, and he needed a few extra minutes to mull over his ideas. First, he told himself he wanted nothing more than to bring his family closer together, and he’d begin with his two sons. Trace, his youngest, ran the Big Mack Ranch in Colorado, and Troy had transformed the property in Montana into the Lonely Horse Ranch. Clint’s thoughts swirled fast and furiously. The inception of a brilliant plan, a challenging adventure, began right then and there. The central premise and a few details were lodged firmly in his brain by the time he reached the front door of the condo where Alice stood waiting for him.
“A long ride today, huh? I’ll bet you’re worn out,” Alice said, although, between the two of them, she was the one who was worn out. Years ago, the sparkle in her beautiful, green eyes had been eclipsed by worry.
He’d tell her all about today’s wild ride, but first, he felt an obligation to share with her his initial germ of an idea. That was the right thing to do.
Alice listened, sitting on the couch facing Clint.
“Let me get this straight, dear,” she said, her head tilting. “You’re going to ask Trace and Troy to ride over one hundred miles through the Wyoming wilderness in the middle of winter? On horseback? Alone?” Her voice was shrill, and every word was louder than the last.
“It won’t be the middle of winter. Winter won’t even start for several weeks.”
With an audible sigh, she removed her reading glasses that rested on the tip of her nose and gave him a rarely used, disapproving glare — the one she specifically saved for special occasions such as this. “Clint, sweetheart, I love the fact that you want to bring the boys together again. That’s a wonderful, long-overdue idea, but this challenge you’ve invented is way over the top, even for you. It’s utterly crazy and, without a doubt, dangerous.” Alice paused. “Did you start drinking again?”
“Don’t go there, Alice. You know better than that.” His dark blue eyes resembled cold, hard steel.
“All right, I won’t, but that’s how insane your plan sounds to me.”
Deep down, Clint had the utmost respect for his wife even if he didn’t let it show — more often than not, her judgment and women’s intuition was correct — but today, she refused to understand or acknowledge the importance of this first McAllister Men’s Reunion. This was a big deal, a chance of a lifetime for his boys. Maybe she needed a little more information and time to calm down. The specific rules of the challenge were still a work in progress.
“I think when you see the final version of my plan, you’ll give it two thumbs up. You might even be envious and wish you’d thought of it yourself. In the meantime, I respectfully request your patience, and perhaps you could uncross those arms of yours.”
When Alice uncrossed her arms and then firmly planted her hands on her hips, the discussion came to an end. Well, at least for today.