Sixteen year old Brett Ashton Montgomery walked along a mountain trail heading east, away from California where he had lost his parents. He had found a few farms and ranches along the way where he could work for a few days in exchange for food. The days were growing shorter and the mountain air colder by the day. There had even been a sprinkling of snow, a harbinger of what was to come. The youngster knew he had to find someplace to stay for the worst of the winter that was coming upon him. He had kept track of the days and months by making a makeshift calendar on a piece of paper with a stubby pencil he had been able to have at one of his earliest jobs at a farm where he had worked mucking out stalls and caring for the team of horses for the plow. He had greased the wagon wheels regularly on the farmer’s supply wagon for the monthly trips that farmer and his wife made into town and other various and sundry chores that the farmer or his wife had found distasteful and more than happy to pass off to the teen in exchange for feeding him for a few weeks. Brett had just written the name of the month and then the date and each morning when he woke up added the date to it. He could see the dates were moving toward the beginning of November and he sighed. He shivered a little as he didn’t really have adequate clothing for the cold weather. He had put on a few shirts and a jacket to try to keep warm. He had acquired some pieces of clothing along the way as everything he had owned had been buried under the landslide along with his parents.
As he came upon a valley he saw a neat little farm house and a barn and fallow fields, the harvest having already been gathered this late into the season. There was smoke coming out of a chimney and the place looked peaceful. He didn’t have much hope of getting anything more than a meal, but this place looked like it would be nice enough to winter in if the people who lived here were willing to have him. He walked up to the back door and knocked.
Irene Hanover was bustling in her kitchen getting supper ready for her and her husband. He had gone to a neighbor to help out with a sick horse and she expected him home anytime. She looked up a little startled at the knock. Wiping her hands on her apron she went to the window and pushed the curtain aside to peek out at who was knocking. She saw a half grown boy in bedraggled clothes standing there looking cold and she guessed was probably hungry. She went over and picked up her shotgun and poking it out the door at the youngster asked in a hard voice. “What do you want around here boy?!”
Brett didn’t flinch, having been greeted this way before and knew it was the way of the people out here who lived miles from nowhere and wanted to be sure to protect themselves. He answered with an easy smile and in a soft voice, “I was hopin’ ma’am that you might have some work for me to do for a meal and maybe allow me to earn a little money?”
She regarded him. He wasn’t bad looking. His blue eyes were clear and she could tell he wasn’t one to drink and he didn’t smell of tobacco and his teeth didn’t seem yellow so he probably didn’t smoke or chew. She said, “My husband would be the one to make any deals in that regard.”
Brett nodded. “Can I talk to him?” He asked.
She eyed the youngster once more, taking his measure. The black curls were longish and although he could use a bath seemed okay. “You go to the barn. He’ll be there shortly.” She informed Brett.
The youngster nodded. “Thank ya Ma’am…my name’s Brett Montgomery.”
“I’m Mrs. Hanover. You go on over to the barn now.” She told him poking the shotgun a little further out the door.
Brett went to the barn as he was instructed.
Irene watched the youngster make his way to the barn and closed the door and put up the shotgun. She knew Trey would be home soon.
Brett made his way to the barn and went inside to wait for the man of the house to join him there. He wasn’t upset by this as it was again the usual way of things. He’d probably sleep in the barn loft if there wasn’t a bunk house for hired hands and he hadn’t seen one of those. It was warmer in the barn from the animals that were housed there. He saw horses that were probably the team used for plowing or wagon pulling. There was a corner where there were chickens scratching around in straw and a cow that mooed softly as it looked at him with large brown eyes.
Brett shook his head and didn’t touch the animals, not being sure of how they’d react to strangers. He thought to himself that although the woman had been firm with him she hadn’t seem overly so. He found a bale of hay and sat down. He saw that the cow probably needed milking, her udder was distended and from the odor coming from the horse stalls they also probably needed cleaning and perhaps the chickens may need new straw for their nests as well. He was glad for the relatively warm barn and to be out of the cold wind.
Irene Hanover after putting up the shotgun had checked the beef stew she had cooking on the stove. She thought about the youngster she had sent to the barn to await her husband’s return. She and Trey had lost their only child; a son about five years ago from what the doctor had said was pneumonia. His loss had been felt keenly by them and the boy who had shown up on her doorstep reminded her a great deal of Alec, with is bright blue eyes and black curly hair and that easy smile the youngster had given her. She missed him terribly and hoped that her husband would be amenable to the young man staying around for a while. They could use the extra help and the young man certainly could use the help…he reminded her so much of Alec…he had been about the same size and that thought brought her to the state of the youngster’s clothing. She might be able to help him out there too with a few alterations if needed. He seemed to be about the same size as their son when he sickened and died.
When the older woman heard the hoof beats coming into the yard she stepped out onto the porch. “Trey?” She called to her husband.
Trey looked up at his wife and smiled as she called to him and rode over to the porch. ”Yes it’s me.” He dismounted and tying his horse to the rail mounted the steps, went to her and pulled her into his arms and kissed her. “Missed me that much?” He teased.
Irene smiled. “I always miss you Trey when you’re gone…it gets awfully lonely at times.”
Trey saw the shadow cross his wife’s blue eyes and he hugged her tight. “I know…I’m sorry darlin’.” He told her softly.
The woman nodded, snuggling into her husband’s strong warm arms. “How’s Harvey’s mare?”
Trey said, “She’s out of trouble now. She’ll be all right.”
Irene smiled. “I’m glad. It’s always a blessin’ when a life can be spared.”
Trey nodded. “Yes, it is.”
Irene looked up into her husband’s dark blue eyes and brushed back his dark hair. “I have somethin’ to tell you dear…a youngster showed up a little bit ago lookin’ for work in exchange for food and hoped he might even earn a bit of money…Trey…he reminds me of our Alec. I sent him to the barn to wait for you to talk to him.”
Trey’s blue eyes widened a little and he nodded. “All right…I’ll go talk to him. If he seems to be all right I’ll see what I can do.”
Irene smiled and kissed his cheek. “Thank you dear.”
“You’re welcome darlin’.” Trey responded and squeezed her once more and kissed her quickly before letting her go and untying his horse strode to the barn to see the boy who had shown up unexpectedly at their door step.
Brett had heard a horse come into the yard. He was a little nervous; he always was when he was meeting a man who could be a perspective employer for the first time. He was never sure if he was going to give him a chance to earn food and a bit of money or run him off. He peeked out of the barn and saw a tall, well-muscled man with dark hair on the porch with the woman who also had dark hair and blue eyes. For a moment he bit his lip as the couple together reminded him of his parents. He shook the memory away quickly. When he saw the man leave the porch, untie his horse and lead it toward the barn he ducked inside, not wanting them to see him watching. He sat on the hay bale and waited for the man to enter.
Trey led his horse into the barn. He stepped inside allowing his eyes to adjust to the dimness and then saw a boy about sixteen or seventeen he guessed sitting on a bale of hay looking at the floor and seeming to be waiting patiently. He saw him glance up at him and was struck by the resemblance to his own son and just shook off the feeling. He spoke to him. “Son…I understand you’re lookin’ for work in order to eat and earn a bit of money?”
Brett fidgeted a little as he heard the man come in. He had been looking down at the earth packed floor of the barn, but when he heard the footsteps and the hoof beats stop he glanced briefly at the man. He heard him ask him if he was looking for work. He met the older man’s blue eyes with his own and said with an easy smile which he knew would get him a lot further with people than a sullen look or a frown, stood up and said, “Yes Sir, I am.”
Trey studied the boy for a moment, and then asked, “What’s your name boy?”
Brett answered, “Brett Montgomery Sir.”
He asked, “How old are you boy?”
Sixteen Sir.” Brett replied.
“Where are your parents? Did you run away from them?” The man asked sharply.
Brett’s blue eyes widened at the thought and he turned his head for a moment, then said quietly, “No Sir…they were killed in a landslide on the trail to California…I’m on my own.”
Trey studied the young man for a long time, and then satisfied he was telling the truth nodded. “I’m sorry.” He said. “My wife thinks I should give you a chance and I’m inclined to agree. If you work hard there will be food for you and although I can’t pay much a bit of spendin’ money.” He told Brett.
Brett met the older man’s eyes steadily as he studied him and replied, “Thank you Sir. I appreciate it.”
Trey nodded. “I need to get my horse groomed and settled. Do you know how to milk a cow?” He asked.
Brett nodded. “Yes Sir…I know how to do all the barn chores. I used to live on a farm.” He explained.
Trey nodded. “All right. I’m Trey Hanover and my wife is Irene.” He put out his hand and Brett took it and shook it. “Glad to meet you Mr. Hanover and you won’t regret lettin’ me stay on.”
Trey shook the boy’s hand and said, “I’m goin’ to hold you to that mister.”
Brett nodded. “Yes Sir, I understand.”
Trey nodded. “Good. The cow’s name is snow and if you’d take care of the milkin’ we can take care of the rest of the chores together. With both of us workin’ at them it shouldn’t take long and the missus has a beef stew and biscuits waitin’ for us when we’re finished.”
Brett’s stomach growled noisily at the mention of the food and Trey smiled. “Well a bit of hunger was always an incentive for me to get my chores done when I was your age son.”
Brett smiled. “Yes Sir.” He went to get the milking stool and the milk pail and tend to his first assigned chore.
As Brett went to milk Snow he thought about the man who had just given him work. He had almost squirmed under his scrutiny. In some ways the man had reminded him of his own Papa trying to see if he was telling a lie or the truth when he had pinned him on something. He was glad the man hadn’t found him wanting and had trusted him enough to let him work for him. He watched Mr. Hanover out of the corner of his eye as he took care of his horse. By then Brett had finished the milking expertly and asked, “Do you have a spring house…or where do you want me to put the milk?”
Trey had been watching the boy as he worked and nodded. “Bring it up to the missus at the house, then come back and we’ll finish the rest of the chores.”
Brett had done as he was instructed and returned to the barn to work hand in hand with the older man. When they had finished they went up to the house where Irene had set out their meal for the three of them. Trey blessed the food and Brett dug in hungrily.
Irene watched the youngster tuck into his food and smiled happily at her husband.
Trey returned his wife’s smile.
When a few weeks had gone by Brett began to feel nervous. He hadn’t stayed anywhere more than a few weeks and was now waiting for Mr. Hanover to approach him any day to tell him they didn’t have anything more for him to do and that he should be on his way. Thanksgiving had come and gone and he had been pleasantly surprised to be invited to share in their dinner with a few of the neighbors who had also been invited. He had worked hard to make himself useful, even cutting up vegetables in the kitchen for Mrs. Hanover. Now…he looked at his makeshift calendar and realized it was getting closer to Christmas. He hadn’t hoped he’d be able to stay on through the holiday, but it was snowing a bit every day and there had been a couple of significant storms. Most of the snow had stayed in the mountains surrounding the valley, and Brett had been given mittens, a hat and a warmer coat to wear as Irene had dug them out of the attic telling Trey the boy needed warmer clothes if he wasn’t to get sick. She and Trey had also insisted he moved into the room that was now a spare room, but had been Alec’s, which Brett hadn’t known for him to stay warmer. Each room had a small fireplace and Brett was very grateful. He hadn’t been this cozy since before they left for California a little over a year ago now.
As the days grew closer to Christmas Irene began to bake holiday goodies, cookies and cakes. Some she was donating to the church in the small town to distribute to the elderly and those families who had many children and whose supplies were stretched as it was and nothing to spare for treats as they barely made the necessary meals.
Brett came in from the barn and smiled as he placed the milk bucket on the counter. “What are you bakin’ today Mrs. Hanover?”
Irene smiled. Oatmeal raisin cookies.” She replied. “I’m also going to make several custard pies. I’ll need the milk and thank you for bringing the eggs earlier.”
Brett smiled. “You’re welcome. It’s no trouble. I like to help.”
Irene smiled back. She pulled out a tray of fresh cookies to cool. “As soon as these cool I need a tester to see how they are.”
Brett smiled. “I’d be happy to be your tester.”
When the cookies had cooled and she had poured a glass of milk, setting two large cookies on a plate Brett sat down and ate them. “Perfect!” He declared with a grin, cookie crumbs stuck to his mouth.
Irene smiled. “Good.”
The days passed by like this and Brett began to think as the holiday drew nearer that his first Christmas alone wasn’t going to be as bad as he had feared it would be.
On Christmas Eve Trey got the sledge and they all went out to find the perfect Christmas tree. They brought it to the house and Brett helped to put it up in the living room.
“Mr. Hanover…I think that’s the best tree I’ve ever seen.” He commented.
Trey smiled. “I think you may be right Brett.” He told the youngster as he nailed the cross slats of wood to the bottom of the tree trunk he had just sawed off. Trey had been enjoying the young man’s company. He hadn’t seen his wife this animated during the holiday season since their son’s death and realized this was the first Christmas since that terrible day that they were both enjoying The holiday preparations and that the young man who was in their midst was a good part of why.
Brett watched the older couple as he worked and could sense that there was something different in the atmosphere. While decorating the tree Brett had seen some handmade ornaments that reminded him of the kind he had made for his parents while he was growing up and wondered a bit at them. He had begun to suspect that the couple had once had a child, but for some reason that child was not at home.
As Irene and Trey helped decorate the tree they smiled at Brett helping and it felt right to the older couple to provide a Christmas for this waif who had been cruelly put out on his own.
When all was finished Trey took out the Bible and read the Christmas story. He turned to Brett, exchanging a look with his wife and said, “Brett…we are very glad you are sharin’ our Christmas with us this season. It’s the first time in about five years we’ve had an enjoyable time because we’ve opened our home and our hearts to you…we lost our teen aged son to pneumonia. Your presence here has helped us through our first Christmas we’ve been able to celebrate since his death.”
Brett was moved by the sharing of the older couple’s loss and said softly, “Thank you both for making my first Christmas without my parents feel like home I won’t forget your kindness.” To his horror and embarrassment he began to cry.
Trey and Irene each hugged him from either side their own tears of joy mingling with Brett’s.
The next morning Brett received warm clothes and other necessities for weathering the winter.
Brett had handmade some gifts for the couple as well and was gratified by their smiles and exclamations of joy over the gifts.
The best gift of all in Brett’s mind was the joy he had brought to the older couple and the next best one was they invited him to stay as long as he wanted. Brett had stayed the rest of the winter, but once spring came got the wandering urge and wanting more than what the old couple could give him moved on. Little did he realize he’d end up getting mixed up with an outlaw gang, becoming an outlaw himself and then end up meeting the love of his life, Sheriff Jalen Christopher Brooks and finding a permanent home with the people of Diamond Springs.