Meldrick has not had the easiest year in the world. First, his husband left him for someone barely legal and just out of high school. Then he had to take over the management of the family farm in Chino Valley after his elderly parents were no longer able to tend to it. As if those life events were not taxing enough, his 8-year-old son announces that his wish for a gift from Santa Claus is to have a white Christmas—in Arizona.
When Evan makes the wish, Meldrick knows he needs to find a way to make it come true, knowing that the boy has suffered just as much as he has during the year. The problem is that Arizona is in the middle of an extended drought, and there’s no expectation for rain for the holidays, much less snow, but Meldrick vows to find a way to make it happen, and he soon finds a partner in crime through his new ranch hand, Jesse.
Together, Meldrick and Jesse vow to make the Christmas wish come true, even though they have no inkling how to change the weather. As they figure out a way to give Evan what he really wants, the pair discover that the desire for snow is not the only wish that needs fulfilling this holiday season.
Meldrick took off the yellow leather gloves he’d been wearing and stuck them in his pockets as he started walking toward the house. Charlie was right about Evan being a valuable part of Meldrick’s life. There was something about a child looking up to you that made you realize that life can’t possibly be all bad. It had been four months since Meldrick and Evan had made the move back to the ranch, and the father found reasons every day to believe in the goodness of life.READ MORE
It took him six minutes and twenty-three seconds to make it back to the house, but the bus must have been running slow, because Meldrick was still able to meet the bus as it pulled to a stop out front. The bus door opened with a puff of decompressed air that sent some dirt floating away, and a skinny boy with blonde hair and green eyes stepped off, carrying his red and black backpack on one shoulder and holding a piece of paper in his right hand. As soon as he saw Meldrick standing there with arms outstretched, a smile formed on the boy’s face and an amazing leap into Meldrick’s arms followed.
“Daddy!” Evan’s arms wrapped tight around Meldrick’s neck. “How was your day?”
Meldrick chuckled. Ever since Evan’s first day of kindergarten, he would always come home and ask how Meldrick’s day was before Meldrick could ask the same question to the boy. Meldrick figured it was from seeing him and Sterling interact and ask about the important events of the day. Evan was very intelligent, learning to read when he was a few months shy of four years old and learning to tell time sooner than that, always enjoying grabbing his father’s wristwatch and checking to see what the time was.
“It was very good. It was a little lonely without you around, but I had Charlie to talk to. We got some of the fencing up. You want to see?”
Evan’s jaw dropped in delight. “And then can we go ride the horses?”
“Horses?” Meldrick acted like he didn’t know what Evan was talking about while keeping the slightest hint of a grin on his face. “I didn’t know we had horses here! I thought we were a cattle ranch with moo cows and the like.”
Evan folded his arms and gave Meldrick the “I don’t believe you” face, trying to look very grown up. “You’re silly, daddy. You know we’ve got horses out back behind the house, and you promised to take me out on the trails today. Are you getting old?”
Meldrick then faked an indignant expression. “Old? Old? I’ll show you who is old around here! Old guys can’t tickle little cowpokes like you!”
With that, Meldrick stuck a hand under Evan’s ribs and twitched his fingers to make the boy giggle and thrash about. Meldrick set Evan back on the ground so he could continue the attack with both hands. Evan convulsed with delight as he laughed and eventually fell to the ground, his hands futilely getting his father to stop.
Meldrick stopped the tickling and sat down on the ground next to Evan, who was still letting out a random giggle as he rolled to look at his father. “So, kid, do you still think I’m getting old?”
Evan thrust the piece of paper he’d managed to hold onto during the tickling toward Meldrick. “My teacher says you have to read this.”
Meldrick took the piece of paper and held it to his breast as he gave Evan a faux suspicious look. “You didn’t get suspended, did you?”
Evan shook his head as he sat up. “Noooooo.”
“Are they wanting me to buy more class pictures, because we already bought enough to wallpaper Grandma and Grandpa’s retirement home.”
“You’re being drafted, aren’t you? They’re going to put you in the Army and send you to Germany just like your great-great-grandfather did in World War II!”
Evan threw up his hands. “Nooooo, silly. The school’s taking us to see Santa Claus!”
Meldrick had to do a double take as he looked at the piece of paper, which was a permission slip asking for the school to take the third grade students to see Santa at Memory Park. He hadn’t realized that Christmas was getting so close, but this was the first week of December, so it made sense that Santa was already making the rounds. Meldrick realized he must have been so focused on keeping the ranch going and not thinking about his ex that he’d lost all track of time. The chilly weather today should have made it obvious what time of the year it was, but somehow it flew under Meldrick’s radar.
“Santa Claus? The school’s taking you to see Santa Claus? Aren’t they too busy throwing fractions and the human circulatory system at you?”
Evan frowned. “You’re not going to forget to sign the slip, are you? Remember last year.”
Meldrick remembered last year all too well. Sterling had promised to take Evan to see Santa Claus at the mall down in Tucson, but he kept putting it off and putting it off. Meldrick had been working a lot of hours at school as semester finals were approaching, so he had asked Sterling to take on the responsibility of taking their son to Santa for the rattling off of the present list. What wound up happening was a rush by Meldrick to the mall on Christmas Eve when a panicked Evan pointed out he still hadn’t been able to tell Santa what he wanted, only to find out Santa has closed up shop less than an hour before they’d arrived. Evan had cried himself to sleep that night, and Meldrick had slept on the couch because he couldn’t stand the thought of being in bed with someone as careless as Sterling. On retrospect, it was probably a sign that Sterling’s attention had been shifting to somebody else, but Meldrick was still caught flat-footed a few short weeks later when he found his two-hundred-fifty-pound husband in bed with a teeny bopper half his age and half his weight.
Meldrick knelt down and gave his son a genuine, determined look. “Don’t worry. I’m going to sign the permission slip right now. In the meantime, why don’t you get out of your school clothes and put on your riding gear? We’ll go check out the fence, and then we’ll go saddle the horses. How does that sound?”
Evan jumped up and sprinted into the house. Meldrick chuckled as he picked up his kid’s backpack, which had been discarded during the tickling attack, and carried it into the house. He grabbed a pen and signed his name to give Evan permission to frolic with North Pole types, and then he opened up the large flap of the backpack to put the slip in, so it wouldn’t get lost. That way, if Evan didn’t get to see Santa this time, it wasn’t his dad’s fault.
Meldrick walked into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. It was cold, considering the pot had been made about eight hours earlier. Meldrick made a sour face as he reacted to the temperature and stuck it in the microwave for about two minutes to heat it up. As he waited for the appliance to work its magic, he gazed out the kitchen window and saw pigs, chickens and ducks wandering around the yard. Looking at the tranquil scene, it didn’t seem possible that Meldrick had left home, gone to college and started a family. It felt like he’d always been here.
“Daddy, I don’t think my hat’s fitting right. Did you shrink it in the laundry?” Evan walked into the kitchen with a black Stetson cowboy hat that was clearly on backwards. Meldrick had to stifle a big belly laugh to keep his son from being too embarrassed.
“Well, son, sometimes cowboy hats change their shapes so that the people who wear them can shift things around. I’ll tell you what. Why don’t we flip it?” Meldrick grabbed the hat by its brim and spun it around before plopping it back on Evan’s head. “Oh, that looks much better. Why don’t you go take a look for yourself?”
Evan scurried back out of the kitchen to find a mirror to confirm what Meldrick had said. Meldrick recalled doing something similarly silly with his own cowboy hat when he was Evan’s age, so the scene that had just taken place was both hilarious and nostalgic. For a moment, he wished Sterling was there to see it, but that thought quickly went away as he remembered all too well why Sterling wasn’t there anymore.
Meldrick grabbed his own Stetson off the top of the hutch that held all of his mother’s old dinner plates and placed it on his head, taking care to make sure he had it the right direction, too. His jaunt down memory lane continued as he remembered when he got to see Santa as a child, what a magical time that was to realize that, if he behaved for his parents and didn’t do anything bad, then a guy in a red suit would make sure to bring him presents on Christmas Day. Granted, he knew today there really wasn’t a Santa Claus, and it was only a matter of time before Evan learned the truth, especially being as smart as he was. Then the magic would be gone, so it was important to Meldrick to treasure these remaining times with his son. With Sterling out of the picture, it didn’t seem feasible for Meldrick to adopt any other children, so Evan was his one and only shot to be a dad, so he’d better make the most of it.
Evan came back with a big grin on his face. “It worked! I look like a cowboy again!”
“You sure do. Shall we go see the fence that Daddy’s been working on?”
“Can I help with the fence sometime?” Evan took his dad’s hand to be led out the back door.
“I don’t know. I guess we could work on it a little this weekend or something. Maybe once your chores are done.”
Evan’s face widened even more with happiness. “Could we get up real early, do the chores and then go build the fence? I’ll bet we could get it all done in a couple of hours.”
Meldrick smiled as he realized that was quite impossible. Still, he told Evan, “We’ll see.”
Evan picked up a stone and skipped it on the ground. He had seen Meldrick do it once just shortly after the two of them had moved to Chino Valley, and now Evan took every opportunity to skip a stone, something to break up the quiet of the country life. Meldrick wondered if Evan might choose to follow in the family footsteps, as he seemed to be taking fairly well to the rural existence.
“Daddy, what story are you going to read to me tonight?”
“I don’t know, Evan. What story do you want me to read? Do you want me to read you one of the shorter stories, or do you want me to continue reading you that Redwall book?”
Evan looked deep in thought as he was deciding. He really liked Redwall, a story written by British author Brian Jacques in the nineteen-eighties that Meldrick had read as a child after being introduced to it at school by one of his teachers. The story was about a group of mice and other meadow creatures that had to protect a sacred church abbey from Cluny the Scourge, an evil rat determined to dominate the entire land with an iron fist.
That wasn’t the book Evan decided on, though. “Daddy, can you read me a Christmas story?”
Now it was Meldrick’s turn to look deep in thought. He had quite a selection of books to read to Evan, but he couldn’t remember if any of them were Christmas stories. If nothing else, he and Evan were supposed to have dinner with Celeste tonight, so she might be able to lend him something—maybe Twas the Night Before Christmas. Yeah, that story would be perfect for Evan, something that would really get him into the holiday spirit, not that the boy needed any help in that department. Evan had been begging Meldrick to put up a tree and hang decorations since early October. Meldrick had had to remind him that the world still had to get through Halloween and Thanksgiving, even though he secretly desired to keep Christmas memorabilia up year-round.
“Sure, Evan. We can read a Christmas story. I’ll have to see which one is best for tonight, but you will get a Christmas tale for sure.”
“Yay!” Evan leaped into the air. Meldrick half expected the kid to linger in place like some of the cartoons he watched where the heroes would leap up in triumph and seemingly not come back down again. While it was silly to believe that—just as silly as when his parents would say his pouty looks would cause his face to freeze in that position—Meldrick still wondered if it would happen.
Meldrick and Evan walked up to where Charlie was fiddling with the fence. The hired hand looked a little perturbed at the fence.
Charlie sighed. “You know, being a Navajo, I’m taught to respect the beauty above me, the beauty below me, etc. etc. However, I’m having a hard time finding the beauty of this cement mixer going kaput thirty seconds after you departed, boss. Cement must have gunked up the controls or something because it’s not working anymore. I’m afraid I won’t be able to make any additional headway on this project today. What can I do instead to keep this place humming?”
“Go ahead and call it a day, Charlie. We’ll get the equipment fixed or replaced tomorrow, and if we can’t get that done right away, there’s always some other thing we could be working on. That’s the joy of living the agricultural lifestyle.”
“Hey, Charlie!” Evan interrupted. “Daddy’s going to read me a Christmas story tonight.”
Charlie smiled, in spite of the equipment failure, as Evan’s enthusiasm was more infectious than the coronavirus ever was. “That’s awesome, little man. I guess the mice of Redwall Abbey are taking a needed holiday.”
“Yeah, but I think Evan will like it once we get further in the book with the bigger battles and discoveries and stuff. Keeps his young mind humming.” Meldrick pulled the front brim of Evan’s hat over his eyes, and the little boy quickly pushed it back up with an annoyed expression.
Charlie chuckled. “I guess I’ll go see how many people Robin made happy with flowers today. Have a good ride, boss. You, too, Evan.”
Meldrick watched as Charlie walked down the hill toward the main barn, a green building with white trim where the cows and some of the equipment resided. Meldrick was really lucky to have good workers like Charlie who knew what they were doing and didn’t need handholding. Meldrick could probably go into early retirement himself and not have to worry about the business staying afloat, but he preferred keeping hands on. It not only kept him humble, but it also kept him from thinking about Sterling. It also gave him an opportunity to teach Evan about agriculture and how farmers and ranchers help to feed everyone in the world.
“Well, Evan. Shall we go to the horse barn and saddle up? I know you’re dying to get up on Trailhand again and go exploring.”
“Sure am, Daddy! Can we go ride by Ol’ Hulk Manners?”
“Sure can,” Meldrick replied with a laugh, tickled by Evan’s misinterpretation of Old Home Manor, an area owned by Chino Valley’s town government that had some development on it but was mostly open space begging to be used. There was a horse arena, a couple of baseball diamonds and the agriculture center for the community college. Meldrick wondered if Evan didn’t intentionally pronounce the name wrong just to give his dad a laugh—not to mention the chance to be a teacher again, even if it was to a classroom of one.
Meldrick walked into the horse barn, a dark blue building with no trim, and he grabbed a small saddle that he helped Evan put on a paint horse named Trailhand. Meldrick’s parents had owned Trailhand for many years, and his mother liked to work with the horse, keeping him gentle and easy for children to handle. The first time Evan had been on a horse was when he was five, when he and Meldrick were spending a few days up in Chino Valley visiting. Meldrick beamed with pride as he thought about the horse going to his son and being able to go out on the trail more than when his mother worked with the gentle stud.
“Okay, Evan. Make sure you cinch the saddle tight enough so it stays on Trailhand, but not too tight, as you don’t want to hurt him. This horse is your partner, and you want to make sure his comfort is just as good as yours.”
“Daddy, Jason Corbin said he rides his horse without a saddle, says it’s called bareback.”
“That’s right, Evan. However, I bet Jason doesn’t ride his horse long distances. To ride a horse bareback, you’ve got to have excellent balance, and little children like Jason don’t always have the best balance in the world. Maybe in the future we’ll work with riding Trailhand bareback, but for now, we’ll stick with the saddle. Is that cool?”
“Uh huh.” Evan nodded his head so hard that he looked like a bobblehead. Meldrick had to bite his cheeks to keep from laughing out loud.
“Okay, buddy. Let’s get you up on the horse.” Meldrick picked Evan up just enough so that the boy could get his foot in the stirrup and pulled himself on the rest of the way.
“Hey, Daddy! Which horse are you going to ride today?”
Meldrick scratched his head as he tried to decide between the Appaloosa named Fricke, the horse that he’d ridden occasionally during visits from Tucson to Chino Valley, or the American quarter horse called Bandit, a favorite of his dad’s. After some pondering, he grabbed his saddle and put it on Fricke. It was better to ride the horse he knew, although he had worked with Bandit a couple of times before. Once Fricke was ready, Meldrick opened up Trailhand’s stall and led the horse just outside the gate before climbing on his horse.
“Ready to go exploring, buddy?”
Evan did the bobblehead nod again. “I can’t wait! What animals do you think we’re going to come across today?”
Meldrick cracked the reins to get Fricke to move forward out of the barn, and Trailhand followed suit. “Who knows? We might see some cactus wren or rabbits, maybe a prairie dog.”
“Do you think we might see any javelina?”
Meldrick bit his lip before answering, knowing that the wild pigs were unpredictable with their poor eyesight and their tendency to charge anything that was considered to be a threat. “It’s possible, but we might not. Don’t forget that some wildlife tries to stay away from people for fear of being hurt, so don’t be disappointed if we don’t see any javelina.”
“Think we’ll see any penguins?”
Meldrick couldn’t keep the laughter back this time. “Penguins don’t live in Arizona, you silly boy! What kind of stuff are they teaching you in school?”
“Lots. The other day, Jason Corbin told me that boys have penises and girls have kitties.”
“Did he now?” Meldrick’s smile fell, knowing that “kitties” likely wasn’t the term that Jason Corbin had used to describe a woman’s private parts. He made a mental note to talk with Jason’s parents the next chance he got, as he was really not planning to tell Evan about the birds and the bees until his son’s age was well into double digits. Kitties, indeed!
“Uh huh. Jason Corbin knows a lot. Do you think I could invite him for a sleepover sometime?”
“We’ll worry about Jason later. Let’s just focus on riding, little man.” The thought of having a boy who was eight years old going on twenty-one staying at the house and having Evan’s rapt attention for more than a few minutes at a time was not one that Meldrick needed rattling around in his head right now. He couldn’t figure out how he was suddenly in a battle to save Evan’s soul—or at least his childhood innocence.
Meldrick and Evan rode to a hillside where they could see much of Chino Valley laid out before them. Meldrick remembered when he was Evan’s age riding out to this point and seeing mostly farms and open desert space. Now, much of the open space was gone, filled with homes as the community’s population had almost tripled in the last quarter-century and turned the town from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it community to a noticeable hub of people. The sprawl had not spread so much to the eastern part of Chino Valley, so the Stazenski cattle operation was not in any danger of being overrun by California beatniks and other relocated city slickers, but Meldrick recalled being able to walk along any road in town, even the state highway that ran through the middle, without worry of being hit by a car. There were very few sidewalks and no traffic signals, but now there were not only concrete walkways all over and red and green lights as far as the eye could see, the town government had even seen fit a few years ago to install roundabouts, traffic circles that some folks just could not navigate no matter how much instruction they received. While much of the unincorporated areas of Chino Valley were still rural, the town’s boundaries continued to expand at times, and when they did, a flurry of homes would follow. Still, Meldrick loved his small town and hoped it would stay small for as long as possible.
One area of town that was still relatively untouched by urban dwellers seeking rural getaways was the Peavine Trail. At one time, it had been a railroad line leading some of the early settlers around much of Arizona, going through the east side of Chino Valley and even stopping at a ghost town once known as Jerome Junction. Now, the tracks were gone, but the trail served as a place where folks could walk, run, travel on bicycles or go horseback riding. It was truly a peaceful stretch—one that Meldrick wanted to share with his son.
Meldrick and Evan had only ridden their horses a few hundred feet on the trail when Meldrick heard a noise that made his blood run cold. It might have sounded to the average person like a baby’s rattle, but Meldrick knew all too well that the rattle was not making noise at the hands of any human. He quickly grabbed the reins of Trailhand, surprising his son, as he brought Fricke to an immediate halt. About forty feet in front of the horses was a diamondback rattlesnake. While the serpent made for a beloved mascot for Arizona’s baseball team, it was one of the venomous snakes in the state, and the last thing Meldrick wanted to do was have to put a horse down in front of his son because it got snake-bit.
After a few minutes, the rattlesnake slithered elsewhere, leaving the trail clear to be ridden again. Meldrick looked at his son, whose face appeared more inquisitive than frightened.
“Daddy, was that one of the bad snakes you told me about?”
Meldrick nodded grimly. “That was a rattlesnake, Evan. Promise me that if you see one of those critters at the ranch, you’ll stay clear of it. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Daddy. I don’t want to get any venom in me. Does this mean we have to turn back?”
Meldrick realized he must have looked like a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder just then, and he forced a smile onto his face to reassure Evan. “Of course not, son. There’s still a lot of riding to do before the sun goes down. We always have to be observant in nature and the countryside, but we’re not going to let a snake stop us from having fun. You are still having fun, aren’t you, buddy?”
Evan’s grin returned as he nodded. “Saddle up, Daddy! We’re heading into God’s country!”
As the boy beckoned his horse forward, Meldrick couldn’t help but wonder who had told Evan that this was God’s country. Maybe it was Jason Corbin.COLLAPSE