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Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter One)

With her Land Rover happily eating up the miles in the afternoon sun, Quinn Hollister headed north on Route 191 about sixty miles outside of Billings, Montana, determined to be home before dinner. Praying that no unannounced storm would ambush her to slow down her progress, she depressed the accelerator and prepared to make tracks. Fumbling in her big blue nylon zippered bag, she rejected first one, then another tape of Christmas music until she found just the right songs to sing along with as she drove toward the small town of Larkspur, and, just beyond the town limits, the High Meadow Ranch, where her family would gather to celebrate the holidays.

Quinn had left Missoula literally at the crack of dawn, her car already packed and ready to go. She would have two weeks at home before returning to Montana State, where she had spent the first semester filling in for a professor who had been injured in an automobile accident and was unable to teach his scheduled creative writing course. In four more weeks the class would end and the regular professor would return for the second semester, but Quinn hadn't quite made up her mind whether to stay in Missoula or to come back to the ranch. As a writer and illustrator of children's books, she could work just about anywhere. Presently between contracts, she hadn't quite settled on which of her possible projects to pursue next. For the next two weeks, however, she planned to put work aside and simply enjoy being with her family.

No matter where their lives had taken them, all of Catherine and Hap Hollister's offspring came home to spend Christmas with the family. Not that any of them had ever wanted to be anyplace else for the holiday. The High Meadow Ranch was home, and home was always filled with chatter and memories and wonderful things to eat. The old log and stucco house would smell like Christmas, like fresh-cut pine, like cinnamon and vanilla and ginger, and would look like a magazine photo, with greens draping every window and doorway. Claret red poinsettias, for which a special trip to Billings would have been made, would stand massed under the big dining room windows overlooking the valley. Catherine's Christmas village would grow from the flat plain of the piano in the great room, and the lights from the tiny porcelain houses would twinkle like tiny stars. On Christmas Eve, they would all gather in front of the fireplace, and whoever's turn it was that year would read "The Night Before Christmas" to the rest of the family. The beloved faces would glow in the firelight, and for a while, even the sibling bickering and baiting inevitable in a large family would cease. Just thinking about it kinked the corners of Quinn's mouth into a smile, and she unconsciously pressed a little more firmly on the gas pedal.

In her rearview mirror, the Crazy Mountains, where the Crow Indians once summoned the spirits, rose unexpectedly from the flat broad prairie, and up ahead, to her right, the isolated Snowy Mountains lifted toward the clouds. At Harlowtown she crossed the Musselshell River and passed the sign for Martinsdale, where, in recent weeks, many a Montanan would have sought the Hutterite colony to purchase their Christmas grain-fed goose from the German-speaking communal farmers who had fled religious persecution in Russia and Austria in the late 1800s. The Hutterites were as much a part of the Montana landscape as were the Amish in Pennsylvania Dutch country, and as well known for the quality of their produce and livestock. Quinn knew that family tradition dictated that the Hollister Christmas buffet would boast at least one fine Hutterite goose, and more likely than not, some specialty relishes as well. One fat goose… a roast of beef with Yorkshire pudding… a dining room table that would truly be a groaning board of holiday specialties to share with family and friends. The Dunham cousins from the other side of the mountain would be there, perhaps a few neighbors, and whomever else any one of the Hollisters might have added to the list this year. It was all part of Christmas at the High Meadow.

Tapping her fingers on the steering wheel to the Little Drummer Boy's "pa rum pa pa pum," she glanced at the clock. She had made excellent time. One never knew at this time of the year what the weather might do. The sun was just beginning its slow drop toward the hills as she took a right off the highway onto the last leg of two-lane paved road that would lead into Larkspur. Passing the district high school on the outskirts of town, she slowed down to reminisce, as she always did. On the playing fields behind the school, her brothers had won all-state honors in baseball and football. Around the perimeter of the football field ran the track, where Quinn had competed in the long-distance events and her sister Susannah–Sunny for short–had been a sprinter, and farther back beyond the boys' playing fields were the diamonds where the girls could play Softball, The youngest Hollister, Elizabeth–Liza–had made the girls' all-state teams three years running. It all seemed so long ago.

It was long ago, she mused.

She slowed down as she approached the town limits, which were distinguished by the fifteen-mile- an-hour speed limit sign that was posted right there on the corner of Hemlock and Spruce. The tidy storefronts were all as familiar to her as the ranch she'd grown up on five miles outside of town. Rows of colored Christmas lights lined either side of the wide street that marked the business section. There, across the street on the first corner, stood Hiller's General Store, which served as both food market and pharmacy. Next came the Jewel Cafe, which was as close to fine dining as one was likely to come across for the next fifty miles or so and was also the only spot in town where one could purchase newspapers, magazines, and paperback books. Directly across the street from Jewel's one would find Chambers Sporting Goods ("Outfitters for the Sportsman Since 1874"), which was certain to be doing a booming business this time of year, and next to it, the little white clapboard complex that served as municipal building, library, and post office. Doc Bellows, the local veterinarian, had an office on the next corner, and across from him was the small medical building that served the town's human population. Down that same block was The Corral, Larkspur's only nightspot–that is, the only establishment open after ten p.m. The Towne Shop–a clothing store that prided itself on the variety of jeans it carried–and Tilstrom's, which had for generations sold farm equipment, pretty much rounded out the town of Larkspur, Montana, population 3,127.

On the other side of the business district lay the residential area, five blocks of neat streets lined with equally neat houses, many dating from the days when Larkspur was a boomtown, when the gold, lead, and silver mines had been active, and the sapphire mines had yielded some of the finest clear blue gems in the world. When the mines had settled down a bit, the region turned to cattle or sheep ranching, and many, such as the Hollisters and their close relatives on the other side of Blue Mountain, the Dunhams, had made their money in ranching as much as in mining. Down two blocks on Alder, off Main, were Larkspur's architectural treasures, the homes of those early men of foresight who had left the mining fields with their pockets full and moved into town, where they established themselves in trade, building fine mansions for their families and contributing much of their fortunes to the betterment of their growing community.

On a whim, Quinn took a left, slowing down to take in the sights of the large houses, each more elaborate than the one before it, all elegantly festooned for the holiday season. Quinn grinned to herself, recalling a time when she had been twelve or so and could not understand why the Hollisters had to live so far out of town, on a ranch, when so many of her friends lived amid the quiet splendor of Alder Lane. The fascination with living in town was a brief one, and she had never really regretted her country upbringing.

Once past Alder, each new block saw the houses growing smaller and smaller, less and less significant architecturally, until the last small streets, with their tiny bungalows and narrow one-story houses of concrete block, led down to the lake that served as the northernmost boundary of the town. At this time of the day, Quinn knew, the frozen lake would be thick with skaters. Unable to resist the pull, she allowed the Land Rover to drift down toward the tiny parking area just there on the right, where she turned off the engine and rested her arms over title top of the steering wheel for just a moment before getting out and following the frozen path to the lake.

Standing half-hidden by the row of small white pines that the Russell's Lake Improvement Committee had planted two summers ago, Quinn shoved her gloved hands into the pockets of her jeans and watched the late-afternoon show that had been running on this lake every winter since blades were first strapped to the bottom of the human foot here in the valley. The ice was deeply grooved in spots, pocked just enough to make the skating a little dicey for those who weren't watching where they were going. A line of teenagers passed in front of her on the ice, a boisterous whip being cracked across the center of the lake. Quinn watched, amused, as the boy on the very end of the whip appeared to hit a groove in the ice, sending his feet flying out from under him and his butt on a steady descent toward the hard surface of the ice. It hurt, she knew, but he laughed anyway, gleeful at having taken with him a goodly portion of the skating chain as many young bottoms skidded across the lake. Quinn took a step back into the shadow of the pines, smiling as she recalled many a cold afternoon spent engaged in exactly the same activities that this most recent crop of Larkspur teens enjoyed–skating, having fun, flirting, freezing their butts off, but laughing and yes, most definitely, flirting. Many a relationship had had its start right here–why, Quinn's own father had first courted her mother here, and Quinn herself had been chased around the ice by her own high school sweetheart, just like… just like that.

She watched in fascination as one of the girls fairly flew past on thin silver blades, the hat snatched off her head by an eager young man who raced off with it. The shrieking girl chased after him, her long auburn hair trailing behind her like a veil, her face flushed with the chase. Overcome with a sense of nostalgia, Quinn sighed. Hadn't she once been the girl who had streaked determinedly across the lake in pursuit of the boy who had challenged her to ignore him, knowing full well she would chase him until he permitted himself to be caught? And would not the chase end in one of the more remote spots where the boy could steal a hurried kiss, branding her with cold lips before leading, her back to the chain that was reforming, where they would replay the same scene over and over until dark? Oh yes, Quinn knew the drill quite well.

Quinn wondered where her old skates might be, and if she could possibly talk her sisters into joining her on the lake one afternoon over the holiday week. It would be fun to soar across the ice again, she thought, as she dug into her jacket pocket and fished out a crumpled dollar bill. She walked the rock-hard ground to the little refreshment stand, where an acne- pocked girl sold hot chocolate under a green and white painted wooden sign that announced All Sales Benefit Larkspur Youth Groups. Quinn held up one finger and the girl poured a cup of steaming liquid, the top of which she zapped with a fat dollop of whipped cream before slapping a lid on and nudging it across the narrow counter to Quinn.

Late afternoon was rapidly fading into dusk, and several of the skaters had come to the edge of the lake to take those first awkward steps onto the snow- packed ground. It was getting near time for the young skaters to head home before dark. Several of the teenage girls called to their younger siblings, bending over to untie skates or to help the small ones with their boots. The girl whose hat had earlier been snatched, who had laughed and flirted while retrieving it, now leaned down to assist her little sister. The scene was so achingly familiar. It could have been Quinn there, leaning over to help a struggling Liza, so many years ago…

There were some things that never seemed to change.

It was time for Quinn to head home, too, and she turned her back on the lake and walked the short distance to her car, her hands warmed by the hot drink. She shivered as she got into the car and turned on the heater. It was a cold day, and the temperature was dropping rapidly along with the failing sun. She made a U-turn onto Russell's Lake Road and paused briefly, her eyes locked on the little green house that was set back from the road. That same little green house she'd been trying to ignore since she had decided to stop at the lake.

The shabby garage that had once stood at the end of the gravel driveway was gone, as was the family that had once lived there, the boy and the girl and their grandmother, and sometimes their father, when he remembered where he had left them. Quinn had been to the house only once, when the grandmother had died. Sixteen years old and totally in love with the boy, Quinn had arrived with flowers and a cake, much as she had seen her mother do when there had been a death in a neighbor's family. She had stood on the cracked front steps and knocked on the door feeling very grown up. The boy had opened the door just enough for Quinn to see that the house held little furniture, and that his father had passed out in the one old chair in the dingy living room. The boy had seemed embarrassed that she had come, and had not invited her in. Later, at the old woman's funeral, Quinn had stood between her father and mother, watching the boy's face twist with loss, with pain, as the light coffin was lowered into the ground, all the while aching to put her arms around him and comfort him.

Well, Quinn reminded herself brusquely, that boy is long gone, and so is the girl I was when I loved him.

Quinn completed her turn crisply and headed back toward town and the road that would take her home.

The Land Rover crunched effortlessly over the occasional patch of dirty, compacted snow that covered the five miles of narrow gravel road leading toward the Big Snowy range. Just to the left of the slight bluff about half a mile ahead Quinn could see the lights from the ranch house burning yellow against the snow-covered hills. She could almost smell the pot roast her mother had promised to make for dinner, the cranberry-raisin pie there would be for dessert. Her mouth watering, she headed for home.

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