On a Snowy Christmas Night Online - Debbi Rawlins

1

THE BRISK DECEMBER air smelled like snow. None was forecasted for the next few days, but when it started getting dark this time of year, the Montana temperature invariably dropped.

Jesse McAllister pulled up the collar of his leather bomber jacket, hunched his shoulders against the cold and finished fueling his truck. This week he was using Leo’s gas station, which was situated at the edge of town. Next time he’d fill up at Earl’s, Blackfoot Falls’s only other station, five blocks north on the other end of Main Street. Jesse had gone to school with both men’s sons so he was careful to spread the business.

The multicolored Christmas lights twisting around the flagpole and arching over the tiny town square blinked on just as Jesse climbed behind the wheel. He smiled when the giant elm tree lit up and knew that it was Miriam Lemmon who’d flipped the switch. Tomorrow evening it would be Mabel’s turn. The elderly twins had been in charge of seasonal decorations since before Jesse was born.

The familiarity should have been comforting. But in the year and a half since he’d returned home, there’d been no solace. His family’s fourth-generation ranch was struggling. It didn’t matter that the poor economy was affecting everyone. Hell, he’d crossed an ocean to fight for his country, learned how to fly everything from large planes to small helicopters, and yet there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to pull the ranch out of the red.

He’d been eager to come home after his air-force duty, but since then it seemed he’d been nothing but dead weight. Sucking in oxygen yet contributing nothing.

Winter made everything worse. During the spring and summer months, with the calving and roundups and irrigation constantly going haywire, there didn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. But since the final cut of hay, work was sparse and they had a bunkhouse full of hands who needed steady paychecks. Like Cole and Trace, Jesse still pitched in, made himself useful the best way he knew how. But his brothers, they belonged here, not him.

Not feeling like heading back to the Sundance just yet, he decided to cruise down Main Street to see if Noah was in his office. Even three blocks away, Jesse could see the sheriff’s truck parked at the curb. That didn’t necessarily mean anything. Noah could’ve walked home or over to Marge’s diner for supper.

Jesse drove past the Cut and Curl, where his mother always got her hair done, past the hardware store, Ernie’s barber shop and the fabric store. He slowed to a crawl when he got to the second residential side street and peered at the third house down. No lights on, so Noah wasn’t home. The county provided the small two-bedroom house for him as part of the sheriff’s compensation. But mostly he spent his free time out at the Sundance, just as he had when they were teenagers.

Noah had always been part of the family, and sometimes it was easier for Jesse to talk to him rather than Cole. Even though Jesse was only a year younger, his brother had been the one to fill their father’s shoes when he’d died of cancer while Jesse was still in college. It was a McAllister tradition—the reins were handed to the oldest son...as they should be.

Jesse drove past the Watering Hole, where the usual Friday-evening crowd hung out after they’d cashed their checks. Then he saw Noah through the open blinds of the sheriff’s office. Roy, one of the deputies, was on his way out the door, so Jesse parked his truck at the curb.

By the time he went inside, Noah was standing at the window, looking out and frowning. “Where’s your Jeep?”

“Traded it in.” Jesse went straight to the half-filled coffeepot. The brew was dark, which meant Noah had made it. Reminded Jesse of some of the joe he’d stomached in Afghanistan. So strong you could use it for diesel. “This stuff fresh?”

Noah nodded. “Why did you do that? You loved that Jeep.”

Jesse hunted in the upper oak cabinet for a clean mug, found one and sniffed it for good measure. “It wasn’t practical.”

“Yeah, because you guys don’t have enough pickups at the Sundance.”

Jesse shrugged. “I got a good deal on the Dodge,” he said. “It’s secondhand but has only forty-two thousand miles.”

Noah eyed him thoughtfully, likely wondering what had brought on Jesse’s change of heart. He’d wanted a Jeep since before he’d learned to drive. The first thing he’d done