“Don’t you dare lift your leg on that tree, Rascal!”
The Labrador dropped the leg in question and sauntered up to the next rotund Douglas fir, readying to test his luck a second time.
“I’m not fooling around, Rascal. You’re gonna sleep on the porch if you insist on pushing it. I’m in no mood for your shenanigans today, dog. No mood.”
Deacon Winters clucked his tongue and spurred the buckskin horse beneath him further down the hill.
Hundreds of firs hemmed them in, a prickly barricade that sloped and meandered into the valley of their Northern California Christmas tree farm in rivers of deep green. While Deacon took a visual inventory,
Rascal did figure eights between the horse’s legs, doing his level best to trip up the mare. Luckily, at least
one animal had a mind to obey its owner. Bella moseyed on without giving the dog even an ounce of the attention he so desperately sought, her hooves clacking a melodic beat that felt like a song.
Deacon noted the shiny green needles fanning out on the thick branches surrounding them, an indicator of healthy, well-cared-for trees. Forty-seven weeks of watering, pruning and tending to led to
only one loss. While that was an overwhelming success in the grand scheme of things, it was still news he’d rather not break to the Browning family. Year after year, they’d been good fosters of their rental tree,
always following the directions on the tag to keep it alive and thriving during the holiday seasons. Still, despite Deacon’s best efforts, that particular fir tree bit the dust. Even though he had a beautiful
replacement selected for the family, he felt the disappointment of that failure in his chest like a stubborn bout of heartburn.
“Let’s head back up to the house,” he said to his animals after making a mental note of the few trees that would need a little extra care the following day. “I bet supper’s already on.” Deacon collected the
worn, oiled leather reins that had once belonged to his grandfather and swiveled around to angle Bella back up the mountainside. Without looking over his shoulder, he hollered, “Don’t even think about it,
Rascal!” and the little grunt of frustration from the retriever confirmed he’d been caught in another act of disobedience. That dog sure took every opportunity given to do precisely the wrong thing.
It was half-past-six when Deacon finally got Bella unsaddled, groomed, and settled into her stall for the night, a pile of hay and an oatmeal cookie as her reward for clocking in another hard day’s work on the
tree farm. Though everything in him wrestled against it, those rounded, pleading puppy eyes that blinked his direction turned Deacon into a bundle of mush. He chucked a cookie at Rascal and grimaced.
“Don’t go getting any ideas that you actually earned that,” he warned as he heaved the rolling barn door shut, the dog trotting haughtily on his heels. “I catch you trying to relieve yourself on another one of
our trees and you’ll be eating nothing but broccoli for a week. You hear me?”
Rascal waggled his floppy black ears.
“Hmph,” Deacon grunted. His big body hugged close to the side of the barn as he trudged toward the main house at the very crest of the hill. It had started to snow, delicate little flecks sprinkling from the
heavens that stuck to the wide brim of his cowboy hat and dusted the shoulders of his tan, canvas jacket.
They dissolved only seconds after they appeared, like the popping of tiny bubbles on the surface of a still pond. This was the kind of snow Deacon tolerated. He preferred it over the dumping they’d received the
week prior, the one that caused once-sturdy branches to bend and sag under a heavy, wet accumulation of slush. He knew their trees could easily withstand the temperamental winter weather—they were native to
these parts, after all—but deliveries were slated to begin the following week. He needed their Christmas trees at their absolute best when they showed up on their customers’ doorsteps. Nothing less would do.
The Yuletide Tree Farm was over seventy-five years in the making and Deacon would not be the Winters to tarnish that hard-won heritage of excellent service, superior quality trees, and homegrown
tradition. Plus, it had been his idea to add living tree rentals to their farm some five years ago. At the
time, it was a suggestion met with more than one speculatively raised eyebrow. No one had even heard of such a thing. But when Tuff Winters, the farm’s patriarch and Deacon’s beloved grandfather, passed away
one starless summer night after a valiant fight with cancer, legacy traded hands.
Deacon was now the owner of the farm. In the end, it was his decision—and his only—to make. Every year that went by, Deacon prayed he’d made the right one.
Shrugging out of his snow sodden coat as he stepped over the threshold and into the farmhouse,
Deacon nudged the front door closed with a broad shoulder. Christmas music played quietly from his mother’s antique radio that popped and crackled due to the poor mountain reception. Even with the
overlay of white noise, the familiar carols brought about as much warmth as the cozy temperature of the home. He’d been chilled to the bone to the point of numbness, yet could feel himself gradually begin to
thaw with each step further into the house.
Deacon followed his nose toward the mouthwatering aroma of roasted carrots, savory pearl onions, and buttery Yukon potatoes like a hound on a scent trail. As he hoped it would, it led him to the dining room in
the back of the house where his mother and brother gathered around the rustic, wide-plank table he’d built with his dad nearly a decade earlier using only timber found on their land.
“What is it? Pot roast?” Deacon lowered his hat to his chest before bending to place a kiss on his mama’s cheek, then refit it where it belonged. He drew in another hearty breath and could almost taste
the meal before him, the spices so delectable his stomach began to rumble.
“Close. Beef stew.” Marla Winters took her eldest son’s jacket and folded it over the crook of her arm, then gave him a firm poke in his side with her free hand. “I’m glad you finally decided to grace us with
your presence. Cody’s ready to dig in. Told him we’d give you ten more minutes before starting in without you.” She placed the jacket over the back of an empty chair and cut Deacon a stern look before adding,
“We expected you before sundown, Deacon.”
“Got caught up checking the trees.”
“Nothing that couldn’t wait until morning,” she insisted. She wiped her palms on an apron that had holly berries embroidered across the fabric. “You need to at least take your phone with you. What if I had
to get ahold of you?”
“Then you could send Tilly out to fetch me.” Marla snorted. “That old dog is half deaf, all blind, and completely senile.”
“And still, she’s a more useful dog than Rascal.”
As though he could comprehend the defamatory conversation, Rascal lifted his head from his curled up position next to Marla’s dog in front of the pellet stove and let out an indignant groan.
“Not everything needs to be useful to be worthy. Rascal’s a fine dog. Jenny sure loved him.” The hairs on Deacon’s neck stood on end like he’d rubbed them with a static-covered balloon. Ignoring
the unpleasant sensation and his mother’s equally unpleasant statement, he scraped the dining chair out from underneath the table and plopped down with a huff.
“I’ve got the new farmhand coming tomorrow.” Marla switched subjects, passing off a filled bowl of steaming, hearty stew and then gathering another to prepare one for herself. “Need you to see to it that
the barn loft is tidied up and good to go. Clean sheets are in the dryer and extra TP is in the basement.”
“Another one of the Carlton boys?”
Every holiday season, the tree farm would employ a few extra hands to help out during the inevitable rush. Deacon appreciated the additional support and hoped to have a returning worker join them again
this year. Training someone entirely new often proved to be more trouble than it was worth.
“Not exactly.” Marla’s voice pitched an octave.
“What does ‘not exactly’ mean?” Deacon didn’t like the knowing glint in his mother’s eye. He studied her with scrutiny but her expression didn’t give away much.
“Nothing.” She shrugged as she took her seat across the table and collected her sons’ hands, readying to say grace. “But it might not be a bad idea to spruce up the place a bit. You know, make it a little more
“Why would it need to be inviting?” Marla’s mouth spread into a slow, steady grin before she shut her eyes to give thanks for their meal. “I
think once you meet this particular farmhand, you’ll understand.”
“Don’t you dare lift your leg on that tree, Rascal!”