A chinook wind, long known as the snow-eater by native tribes, swept across the vast Montana plains. Its breath was warm, melting the wintry white blanket that covered the land's rich grasses.
Over the undulating land of the high prairie it raced and soon invaded the headquarters of the famed Triple C ranch, swirling around the many buildings that gave the place the semblance of a small town. Inevitably the chinook swung up the hillock and tunneled through the tall columns lining the porch of the big white house that held a commanding view of the ranch yard. Its next target was the smoke curling from the chimney, flattening it off and carrying it along on its race over the land. The source of the smoke was the fire that blazed in the den's massive stone fireplace. Its heat was a concession to the Triple C's aging patriarch, Chase Calder. He sat in his usual chair behind the room's big oak desk, his cane hooked on the edge of it. The years had taken much of his vigor, just as it had shrunken his big frame and carved a network of deep lines in his rawboned face. But nothing had dulled the sharp gleam in his deep set eyes. Old, Chase Calder might be, but only a fool would think that age had diminished his awareness of the things happening around him.
His glance wandered to his widowed daughter-in-law. Jessy Calder sat in one of the wingbacked chairs facing the desk. Dressed in typical ranch garb of cowboy boots, jeans, and a shirt, she still possessed the boy-slim figure of her youth. Only the attractive age lines around the eyes and the slight silvering of her nut-brown hair revealed that Jessy, too, had grown older. Currently the reins of the Triple C were in her hands. That she held them with ease spoke both to Chase's quiet tutelage and to her own innate ability.
Like many other ranch hands, her roots were sunk deep in the land. She'd been born on the ranch, and her early years spent as an ordinary cowhand before marrying Chase's only son. Her solid knowledge of the cattle business and her abiding respect for the land that supported it, coupled with her own quiet strength, provided the basis for a sound leader.
Of late, Jessy had turned more of the responsibility for the ranch's daily operations over to her son Trey, preparing him for the day when he would take control just as Chase had prepared her. It was this freedom from the day-to-day minutiae that allowed Jessy to relax in the den and enjoy a mid-morning cup of coffee with her father-in-law.
A particular strong wind gust briefly rattled one of the window panes. Automatically Jessy glanced in its direction, pausing in the act of raising the coffee cup to her lips.
"I like the sound of that," she remarked idly. "It means we won't have to hay the cattle. The longer they have good Calder grass to graze, the better off our bottom line will be."
Even as the glimmer of a confirming smile deepened the corners of Chase's mouth, the tall lanky cowboy standing by the fireplace sent a sideways smile in Jessy's direction. "Spoken like a true cattleman." The observation came from Laredo Smith, a suggestion of a drawl in his voice that pegged him as coming from someplace well south of Montana. "Now, me, I was thinking about how muddy the ground would be at the Boar's Nest. When this ground thaws, it turns to gumbo."
The Boar's Nest was the name given to an old-line shack on the Triple C that Laredo called home — and where he and Jessy had stolen many pleasurable moments.
An amused chuckle slipped from her, its warmth matching the gleam of love that was in the look she gave him. "After all this time, we still haven't made a real cowhand out of you, have we, Laredo?"
"Not for the want of trying." His blues held an answering twinkle.
It was the kind of look that was exchanged between lovers. Just for a moment, Chase had the feeling he was intruding. At the same time it reminded him of the way his late wife Maggie used to look at him. She'd been gone from this world for half a lifetime, but the love he felt for her was as deep and strong as ever. It was something Chase never talked about, abiding instead by the unwritten code of the Old West that insisted a man's grief was a private thing.
Outside the telltale rumble of a vehicle's engine made itself heard in the den. Chase lifted his head in mild curiosity. "Sounds like someone just drove up."
Turning, Laredo glanced out the front window. "It's a state patrol car."
"Really. I wonder why they're here." It was curiosity rather than concern that prompted Jessy to stand and absently set her cup down.
"I'm guessing you'll soon find out," Laredo replied as the muffled thud of a car door closing penetrated the den. "I'll go make sure there's a fresh pot of coffee brewing in the kitchen."
Chase watched the long-legged cowboy make his exit from the room. "He's never broke the habit of playing it safe, has he?" he remarked to Jessy.
"I doubt he ever will." She made the matter-of-fact response with a shrug of her shoulder and exited the room to greet the arriving officer at the front door.
The exchange was a rare acknowledgment of their mutual awareness that the man they knew as Laredo Smith had a past that didn't bear close scrutiny. Their lack of concern was another example of the old western codes in play, specifically the one that insisted a man be judged as he stood before them and not for what he might — or might not have done — before they knew him.
From the front entry came modulated voices exchanging pleasantries. It was soon followed by the sound of two sets of footsteps approaching the den. Jessy walked through the doorway accompanied by a uniformed trooper, his heavy jacket unzipped but not abandoned, a sure sign his visit would likely be a short one.
"This is Trooper Van Fleet," Jessy told Chase by way of an introduction, then addressed the patrolman. "I believe you know my father-in-law, Chase Calder."
"Of course. Good to see you again." Gloveless, the trooper reached across the desk to briefly shake hands.
Chase came straight to the point. "Is this a business or social cause?"
"A bit of both," the man acknowledged, then added wryly, "At least, it's business of a sort. I know we're still a couple days away from Thanksgiving, but we're trying to get an early jump on Christmas. You see, this year we're joining with the Marines in their Toys for Tots campaign. Naturally we'd like to enlist the support of the Triple C if we can."
"It's a worthy cause," Chase stated. "Especially now when so many people are having hard times."
Sidetracked by his own comment, Chase thought about all the economic down-turns — some more severe than others — that the Triple C had survived in its nearly century and a half existence. He had no doubt it would weather this one as well, thanks to the careful management of the woman in charge, but that didn't make him indifferent to the hardships of others.
He nodded ever so slightly at his daughter-in-law. As always, Chase delegated any final decision to Jessy, confident she would readily agree to have the Triple C participate in the toy drive.
After taking a seat in the second wingback chair, the trooper proceeded to explain everything from the ultimate goal to the timetable and logistics of the campaigning. Such mundane yet essential details failed to hold Chase's attention, even less so when he recognized the light footfalls outside the door. Mere seconds later his daughter Cat entered the den, an insulated coffee carafe and extra cups balanced on the tray she carried.
Petite in frame, Cat was the image of her late mother, possessing the same green eyes and midnight dark hair. She wore her hair shorter than Maggie had. When Chase had once commented on the haircut Cat had been quick to assert it was easy to care for and chic. Privately Chase acknowledged it was flattering and made her appear much younger than she was.
Chase watched with a father's pride as the trooper promptly stood upon Cat's entrance. "Mrs. Echohawk." He spoke her name with open respect. "It's a pleasure to see you today."
For a short moment, Cat's gaze made an examination of his face. Then a faint smile of recognition touched her lips. "We met at the sheriff's office," she recalled. "Trooper Van Fleet, isn't it?" "Yes, ma'am." He looked pleased that she remembered his name.
Her smile widened. "Welcome to the Triple C." She set the tray atop the desk and picked up the insulated serving pot. "Would you like some coffee? It's fresh."
"I've never known a man in uniform to turn down a cup." Cat smiled as she handed him a full one.
"True enough," he admitted, hesitated, then added a bit self-consciously. "I had the pleasure of working with your late husband on several occasions. Logan was a good sheriff and a good man."
"Thank you," Cat replied, but this was a household that didn't talk about personal grief.
Before the moment could become awkward, Jessy spoke up, "Trooper Van Fleet is here on behalf of the Marines' Toys for Tots campaign."
"I was hoping this was a social call," Cat admitted, then smiled a little ruefully. "Christmas — it's not very far off, is it?"
"Just over a month." Cup in hand, the officer returned to his seat in the wingback.
"And that will go by fast," Cat murmured, then turned to Jessy. "Want a refill?"
"Sure." She held out her cup and waited while Cat poured more.
"Might as well top mine off while you're here." Chase pushed his cup forward.
"Sorry, Dad, but this is the real stuff," Cat informed him. "I'll come back with your decaf."
"Save yourself the trip to the kitchen and just fill my cup with what you've got in the pot," Chase stated.
"Now, Dad," she began.
But Chase cut across her words before she could complete her admonition. "My daughter likes to think she knows what's best for me." He directed the comment to the officer, the coolness of his voice clearly indicating his opinion of it.
"You know you're supposed to cut back on the caffeine, Dad," Cat reminded him.
"There are a lot of things I'm supposed to do that I don't. Now, fill my cup." The latter statement had the familiar bark of a man accustomed to being obeyed.
Lips pressed tightly together in disapproval, Cat poured coffee into his cup, then attempted to reassume her role as hostess by turning to the trooper. "I didn't ask whether you take cream or sugar. I have both on the tray."
"Black is fine," he assured her, then took several folded together papers out of an inside pocket and handed them to Jessy. "I printed out everything you'd need to know. We really appreciate you signing on. The support of the Triple C will mean a lot."
"Glad to help," Jessy replied and laid the papers on the desk. "I'll read them later."
With all the curiosity of her nickname, Cat snuck a look at the papers. "You're partnering with the Toys for Tots this year. That's good to hear."
"No one likes to see kids go without — at any time of year." Something in his tone implied that he'd seen more of it than he wanted.
Chase didn't allow the conversation to get mired in the current economic troubles. "Every time parents have to tighten their belts, Santa's bag just gets bigger — like it will this year."
Everyone smiled in agreement, and the talk centered around the current campaign. Once the trooper finished his coffee, he didn't linger, pleading other stops to make. Cat saw him to the door.
"I'll spread the word about the toy drive — and make sure it's posted at the ranch store," Jessy said, idly speaking her thoughts. "Mom would be good at organizing this. She was complaining the other day that she needed some kind of project."
"Stumpy will appreciate that," Chase commented, referring to her father. "He told me just the other day she was turning into a royal nag."
Laredo returned to the den in time to hear the latter remark. "Are you talking about Cat again?"
"The shoe does fit her too, but in this case, we were referring to Jessy's mother," Chase answered.
"I think I'll just forget I heard anything." Laredo helped himself to another cup of coffee and glanced in the direction of the front window as the patrol car pulled away.
The verifying glance didn't escape Chase's notice. But he didn't comment on it, just as he didn't say anything about Laredo's return coming on the heels of the trooper's departure. Instead he simply took a sip of his own coffee. Cat paused in the doorway, drawing his glance.
"Did you want something, Cat?"
As she opened her mouth to reply, the quiet of the house was shattered by the sound of boot-clumping feet and a little boy's voice calling, "Greypa! Greypa!"
"In here, Jake," Chase called out needlessly as his four-year-old great-grandson charged into the den, nearly mowing Cat down in the process.
Chase swung his swivel chair around to face the young boy who came barreling around the desk to him, his chin jutting out to match the fixed look of determination on his face, an expression almost shockingly familiar to the one that Chase had been known to wear in the past. Bending forward, Chase ran an inspecting glance over the scarf-like head covering the boy wore. It sat slightly askew despite the encircling black band that was intended to hold it in place.
He fought back a smile and asked, "What's the problem, son?" "It's Mom," Jake declared and clamped his mouth shut in a mutinous line.
As if on cue, his mother Sloan entered the room. A mingling of amusement and exasperation rippled across her face when she located her son behind the desk.
"What about your mom?" Chase wanted to know.
"She says I can't wear my cowboy boots in the Christmas play. She says I have to wear sandals. I don't, do I?" Jake insisted, confident he had an ally in his great-grandfather.
"You're supposed to be a shepherd boy, aren't you?"
His brow furrowed in an unhappy frown. "Yeah, but ..."
"No buts, Jake." Chase held up a silencing hand. "Let me explain it this way, if Jesus had been born here on the Triple C, cowboys would have come to worship Him in their cowboy boots. But Jesus was born in Bethlehem. So shepherds knelt before Him, and they wore sandals."
"Sandals are for girls, Greypa," Jake protested, using the name he had coined for him when he first began to talk and couldn't wrap his tongue around a mouthful like great-grandpa.
"Girls and shepherd boys. Right?" The single-word question challenged the boy to agree.
Jake heaved a big, disgruntled sigh. "Right."
From the doorway, Sloan marveled, "I don't know how you do it, Chase. I've gone around and around with him over this issue of the sandals. You say a couple things to him and it's a done deal."
"Dad has always had a way with young children." Cat smiled widely in a mix of pride and approval.
Chase sliced her a quick look. "It's the older ones that give me trouble."
Laredo chuckled and hooked a leg over one corner of the desk. "Tell me, Jake, have you started making a list of what you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?"
Brightening visibly at the change of topic, Jake turned to him. "Yeah, I gotta lot of things I'm putting on it."
"I need chaps and a belt and a rope —"
"You already have a rope," Laredo reminded him.
The response was a quick wrinkling of the nose. "That rope's for babies. I need a gooder one."
"My mistake." Laredo struggled to hold back a smile.
"Do you think Santa would bring me a saddle? I sure could use one," Jake added with an adult like nod of emphasis.
"And you could use jeans, a winter coat, socks, and underwear," Sloan inserted. "He's outgrown just about everything he has."
"You have been shooting up like a little weed." Laredo gave the top of Jake's brown hair a playful ruffle.
Jake started to protest the mussing then suddenly remembered, blurting, "And an ATV of my own."
Laredo laughed outright. "Now there's a modern cowboy for you. Why walk when you can ride an ATV."
"Santa would bring me one, wouldn't he?" Jake sought confirmation from Chase.
Out of the corner of his eye, Chase caught the negative movement of Sloan's head. "Something tells me Santa will wait on a present like that until you're older."
"How old?" Jake wanted to know.
Chase shrugged. "You'll have to ask Santa that one."
Jake thought about that for a second and nodded, then gave Chase a bright look. "What do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas, Greypa?"
"Yes, tell us," Cat urged.
"I'm already getting what I want — all my grandchildren are coming home for Christmas."
Jake frowned. "That's not a present."
"Sometimes the best presents don't come all wrapped up in a pretty package," Chase told him.