Authors: Sweet Lullaby
To my sons, Brandon and Alex, who taught me that a child’s faith is unwavering and that a child’s belief in dreams is strong enough to make them come true
HE FLAMES FROM
the tiny candles flickered, sending illuminated fairy dancers through the paned glass window to perform on the thickening blanket of snow. The boy had been hunkered down in the middle of the yard that surrounded the white-framed house for some time now, close enough to see the beauty of the candles, but far enough away that he didn’t think he would be spotted.
Large flakes of snow continued to cascade down from the heavens but he paid them no heed, just as he ignored the icy pain beginning in his sodden feet where the snow had melted and soaked through the thin soles of his boots, just as he ignored the numbing beginning in his legs. In all of his eight years upon the earth, he didn’t think he’d ever seen anything as beautiful, and he was mesmerized as the candles sent their light out to play across the sparkling whiteness.
He fervently hoped his mother could see the candles. She had always enjoyed pretty things. He thought the sight before him now would bring a smile to her face, even in Heaven. And he had so loved her smiles.
A shadow darkened the window. The boy held his breath, waiting as the shadow quivered and was replaced by a boy older than the one hunched in the snow. The boy inside gazed out of the home, a fire burning brightly in the hearth filling it with warmth. The boy in the snow wondered if the boy standing by the window would tell his father what he saw. He released his breath knowing in his heart it would make no difference. The thick leather strap across his skinny backside for being where he was forbidden to be was worth the few moments he’d spent enjoying the movement of the candles.
The boy inside the house turned, puffing out each solitary candle while the boy outside watched the dancing flames slowly be put to sleep. When he had completed his task, the boy inside glanced back out into the blackness of the winter night. Then he disappeared.
Outside, the boy stood up, shards of pain racing up and down his legs as the blood was restored to his feet. He waited for the large man to come storming out the door. Leaving the scene now would be useless, for the man would not ask him if he had been disobedient; he would punish him based solely on the word of his son. And although this time it was the truth, other times it hadn’t been.
The snow continued falling around him, circling on the wind that was beginning to howl as the night wore on. Finally, with a slight shrug of his small shoulders, he turned and walked slowly towards the barn while the snow worked to cover his tracks.
He trudged to the last stall and sat down to remove his icy boots, setting them up carefully. He removed his wet socks, laying them on top, hoping they would be dry by morning. Tucking his chin into his coat, he brought the collar up high around his neck and went to the corner of the stall, picking up the blanket that he had folded and placed there with care that morning.
He ducked down under the wooden slats used to separate the stalls in the barn and crawled into the adjacent stall where he began rubbing the belly of the chestnut mare.
“Lay down, Lady. Please … it’s awful cold tonight. Please lay down.”
The mare complied as she always did to the soothing tone in his voice. Drawing the blanket up tightly around him, he lay down beside the horse, moving in close to her side. He was careful to place his frozen feet near enough to her for warmth, but not so near that she’d protest.
“They had a real purty tree, Lady, with candles. Bet it didn’t look as purty from the inside, though. Weren’t no snow on the inside.”
He snuggled in closer to the warm beast.
“Merry Christmas, Lady,” he whispered.
The mare nickered and moved her head in closer to the boy as he drifted off to sleep, the scent of hay and livestock surrounding them.
ITH THE EASE
of a man who has spent the better part of his life in the saddle, Jake Burnett herded the untamed horses into the waiting corrals. When the gates closed on the last of his rambunctious charges, he dismounted from his weary horse, walked to the watering trough, and poured a bucket of water over his head. His hair, the color of a muddy river after a rain, curled as it absorbed the clear liquid.
He turned to greet the foreman, his smile fading when he saw the expression on Bassett’s round face.
“Anderson wants to see you up at the house.”
Apprehension took root in the pit of Jake’s gut. Being called into the owner’s office usually was not a reason for rejoicing. The last man called up there had been fired, the man before that arrested. Jake rubbed his hands down his thighs. “What about?” It didn’t ease his discomfort any to see the stocky man’s eyes fill with sympathy.
Bassett had always liked Jake and he wished he could offer some encouragement to the young man, but he couldn’t. During the past three weeks, John Anderson had been in one foul mood: nothing was done correctly, even though it was being done exactly the same way it had been done for years. Anderson had criticized everyone and everything until yesterday evening when he’d barked out Jake’s name. Whatever the hell Jake had done, Bassett was certain the man would be off the ranch by sunset. He pulled off his hat and ran his weathered hand through his thinning blond hair. “Don’t know. He just said he wanted to see you as soon as you got back. Reckon you’re back. Reckon you’d best get yourself up to the house.”
Jake nodded before beginning the long walk to the two-story house. He’d just returned from three weeks of gathering horses for the Lazy A. He certainly hadn’t done anything while he was gone to warrant a meeting with John Anderson. It had to be something he’d done before he left, something Anderson didn’t know about until he was on the trail. But what?
It didn’t help matters to see Anderson’s personal servant open the door for him before he arrived at the steps.
“Mr. Anderson is expecting you,” Giles said.
As Giles escorted him down the long narrow hallway Jake wondered if the whole damn ranch knew John Anderson wanted to see him. Giles rapped gently on an oak door. Anderson bid him to enter. Jake removed his hat and stepped into the paneled library. The door closed quietly behind him, making him feel like a trapped animal.
Anderson stood before the window, gazing out on the corrals. As always he was dressed in what Jake would call his Sunday best—a brown jacket matching his brown pants, his white shirt pressed straight as a board. His silver hair was the only indication that he was aged. He stood slender, straight, and tall, his movements those of a man who had earned his place in the world.
“Well, Jake, appears you got some good horses in this lot.”
“Yes, sir, we did.”
“Fine, fine,” he commented absently as he turned from the window. “Have a seat, son.” He indicated the brown leather chair in front of his massive oak desk.
Jake sat without hesitating, not removing his eyes from the man before him, trying to judge his mood, finding the task impossible.
“Would you care for something to drink after that long drive?” “No, sir.”
“Hope you don’t mind if I have one.” He didn’t wait for a response but went to the small table set in the corner and poured himself a liberal glass of whiskey. He downed half of it, refilled it, and then sat down behind the desk.
“Tell me, Jake,” he said, studying his glass as if it contained all the answers to life’s immense problems. “What do you think of my daughter, Rebecca?”
“Yes, Rebecca. Do you think she’s pretty?”
Relief coursed through Jake’s body. First, Anderson mentioned the horses and now Reb. He obviously wanted to discuss the stallion Jake had promised he’d break for her.
“I think she’s about the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Anderson stopped studying the glass and began to study Jake. “Do you like her?”
“Oh, yes, sir.” Under Anderson’s intense perusal, Jake forced a smile. “Reb, uh, Rebecca is the kindest person I’ve ever met.”
Anderson’s eyes narrowed. “She’s pregnant.”
Jake came up out of the chair, knocking it over, sending it crashing to the floor as he stumbled back. “I swear to God! I’ve never laid a finger on her, Mr. Anderson! I danced one dance with her at the last barn raising, but other than that, I swear to God, I’ve never touched her!”
Anderson stood up, shaking his head in disgust. “I know you’re not the father. Sit back down.” He walked to the window, draining the amber liquid from his glass on the way.
Jake righted the chair, and sat back down on the edge of the seat. His fingers unconsciously worked the brim of his hat as he wondered why the hell Anderson was telling him all this.
“I know who the man is,” Anderson said quietly. “She thinks he loves her and that he’s going to come back for her, but he doesn’t and he’s not. He did this to spite me.”
Going to come back for her? That meant the man wasn’t here now. She hadn’t looked pregnant when he’d left to round up the horses so she couldn’t be very far along. Three men had left within the last two months. Willie Thompson, who had the mind of a child; Daniel Wright, who was old enough to be John Anderson’s father; and Brett Meier, tall, coal black hair, sparkling blue eyes, and a smile that flashed white teeth, straight and true. He was a gentleman cowhand, all right.
Jake wondered if Anderson wanted him to kill the man who had defiled his daughter. But Jake would have to talk to Reb first. She wasn’t one to give herself lightly. If she loved the man, Jake wouldn’t want to kill him. On the other hand, if the man had taken advantage of her, Jake wouldn’t hesitate to deliver a just punishment.
Anderson returned to the chair behind his desk, his eyes hard on Jake. “There’s no way in hell I’m going to let Rebecca bring a bastard child into this world. I’m not going to be put to shame in this community.”
So Anderson wanted him to locate the man and bring him back. He could do that, but again only after he had talked with Reb.
“I’ve thought long and hard about it,” Anderson said. “When I die, Rebecca will inherit this ranch. She needs someone I can trust to help run it, someone young enough to be here with her in later years.”
Anderson got up, refilled his glass, drank the fiery liquid, and then turned to face Jake. “I’m asking you to marry her.”
Jake caught himself before he came back up out of the chair. Lord, marry Reb? Beautiful, wonderful Reb as his wife? Sweet Jesus! He had dreamed someday he would find a woman willing to marry him, but not even in his wildest dreams had he dared hope she would be someone like Rebecca Anderson. Hesitantly, he asked, “How does Rebecca feel about this?”