Jacob Morgendorffer, Esq.
Christmas Day, 1995
Loudoun County, Virginia
Jake followed his sister-in-law's husband Rafe outside into the fading light of the cold winter day. A sharp wind tugged at their overcoats as snow crunched beneath their boots but neither felt the chill bundled as they were against the season's wrath. A cardinal, its bright red plumage contrasting sharply with the deep green leaves of the cedar tree that he rested on, eyed them curiously as the pair walked silently across the back yard past the pond to the fence of posts and field wire. The large pasture beyond was empty. The goats, sheep, and horses that the Bonnejeans kept were safe and warm in the large barn.
Rafe swiped some snow from the top of one thick post then folded his arms over it. "I used to dream of winter days like this when I was in Viet Nam," he said after a moment.
"Had a vet, a medic who was stationed up near the DMZ for a year, tell me that he dreamed of canned pineapples," Jake replied. "I guess you guys thought about anything that wasn't there."
Rafe chuckled. "Pretty much. You come to appreciate the little things."
"Yeah, I guess you would" Jake agreed peering through the twilight. "You put in an owl house since I was here last."
"No, it was here last time you visited," Rafe said. "The boys and I put up three in February; that one there, one up on the ridge, and one down by the creek. There are nesting pairs in all of them. We put up some bat houses, too"
"I don't see how I could have missed it," Jake said.
"Probably the foliage hid it," Rafe said. "We had a blast building them and putting them in place."
"Beats having them play computer games all day," Jake responded.
Rafe shook his head. "Some of the kids they go to school with...I think they have a permanent case of carpel tunnel. They don't know jack about anything but can kill mutant aliens by the bushels."
"Do Ambrose and Trey play on the computer much?" Jake asked.
"No, mostly they rather be outside. If they're not running around the forest like their Iroquois ancestors they are playing baseball or soccer or riding their bikes," Rafe said. "If they're inside, they're generally reading books."
"You're part Iroquois, eh," Jake said. "I never knew that."
"Yep, on my Dad's side," Rafe acknowledged. "Seneca to be exact and one of my Mom's great-great-great grandmothers was Shawnee." He paused a moment before continuing. "Hearing other parents talk I guess I got lucky. Ambrose and Trey are good kids, regular Hardy Boys, smart, polite, obedient but still adventurous. Everything that you'd want in a son times two. It helped that Rita was already an experienced parent. Maybe it's just Barksdale genes. Erin has her head screwed on straight. I don't suppose that I can claim any credit for that."
"I suspect you can," Jake replied. "You're the one she calls Dad."
"Thanks," Rafe said with a wan smile. "I won't deny that I was nervous about becoming a step-father. Over the years I knew too many couples broken up because kids from previous marriages objected to mom or dad's new spouse."
"Yeah," Jake agreed. "Relationships are tough enough. You don't need any hostility within the family."
"Your girls doing all right?" Rafe asked. "How's Daria liking high school?"
Jake chuckled. "Bored for the most part," he said. "But she did manage to get me called for a 'consultation' within three hours of starting class."
"C'mon, you're joking," Rafe replied. "Daria's a good kid."
"She is," Jake confirmed. "But she can have a smart mouth at times."
"And that's what got her in trouble," Rafe guessed.
"Yeah," Jake began. "One of her teachers on the first day asked the students what were their plans for high school. Daria's reply was that she planned to leave behind the drug fueled sexual excesses of middle school and devote herself to the noble pursuit of pure knowledge in hopes of getting an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred Shot Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas."
He chuckled. "I was in the principal's office before lunch."
Rafe laughed loudly. "So instead of just saying 'you'll shoot your eye out', she got up on her hind legs. Bureaucrats have no sense of humor."
"It's more along the line of the principal, Dr. Li, wanting Lawndale High regimented to the nth degree," Jake replied. "Her ideal school runs like a piece of clockwork, everything standardized and efficient and students with all the individuality of Model T's."
"She'll fail in the end," Rafe answered as snow began to fall. "One thing I learned in business is what works for the army doesn't work elsewhere. You have to use different methods for different environments, different missions."
Rafe stopped talking. He took a long careful survey of their surroundings satisfying him that they were alone before slowly running both hands down his face as he took a loud, deep breath. "Jake, let's get to the reason I got you out here," he said quietly as his body sagged against the post. "I'm dying."
"Dying," a disbelieving Jake repeated blinking as an errant snow flake landed on his eye. "Dying!"
"Yeah," Rafe slowly drawled. "I haven't told anyone else and I don't want anyone to know until after the holidays but I'd like to review my will. I know that you're good at your job but I just want to be certain that all the i's are dotted and all the t's crossed."
Jake shook his head several times trying to absorb the shocking news. "Yeah, sure, Rafe," he stammered in turmoil. "Just name the time."
"Thanks," Rafe said. "As you know we're heading for the Caribbean tomorrow for a week. I'll give you a call after we get back to set up an appointment."
Jake glanced back at the sprawling nineteenth century farmhouse. Light flooded from each ground floor window but no one was watching them. "When are you going to tell Rita and the kids?" he asked.
"After we get back," Rafe told him. "I just want everyone to have some good memories first."
"Old Hoss," Jake said sympathetically. "You've given them years of good memories."
Rafe shook his head. "It's not enough," he said forlornly. "It's...it's...I don't want to say unfair because I got a lot of years some of the guys I served with didn't but...I don't want to go. I want to grow old with Rita. I want to see my sons become men. I want to walk Erin done the aisle. I want...I just want."
"In my line of work, I've heard more than one say the same thing," Jake sympathetically replied not bothering to hide his tears. "How long are we talking about?"
"Spring, maybe" Rafe replied standing straighter. "I should to be around for Valentine's Day but how far beyond that I just don't know. The doctors tell me that the cancer is unusually aggressive and too far gone."
Jake wiped at his eyes. "Aw, dammit, Rafe," he said huskily.
"Yeah, well, that just about sums it up," replied Rafe his own eyes welling with tears. "We are taught that we go to a better place and I believe that but God knows I don't want to leave. The boys are only nine and ten. And Erin, I could not love that girl more if she were my own. And Rita... I cannot begin to tell you how happy I've been since she came into my life."
He glanced over at Jake. "You know," he began. "I don't think that I ever thanked you for introducing me to her."
"You're welcome," Jake replied. "Although to be honest, I didn't expect you two to get married. I was thinking maybe a couple of dates or so. Rita needed to get away from babies for a few hours and you struck me as a standup guy."
"I picked the right university to get my MBA after I retired," Rafe quipped then sighed. "All things for a reason, I suppose."
"So we're taught," Jake replied echoing Rafe's earlier words.
Rafe nodded then pointed out toward the pasture. Jake's eyes followed to where a Whitetail buck and three does were cautiously making their way to the pile of hay and salt licks that Rafe and his sons placed out to help wildlife through the long winter. Both men remained silent lost in thoughts and memories as the small herd ate.
Daria with her coat, hat and boots on came out to the back porch. She spied the vague dark masses of her father and uncle in the distance. She studied the snow that was beginning to fall heavily from nearly black sky but decided that crossing the vast backyard would not put her in danger of following Captain Oates into legend. Stepping gingerly from the porch she carefully picked her way toward them by stepping into their tracks in the otherwise deep unbroken snow.
Hearing the snow crunch beneath Daria's hesitate steps, the deer looked toward her, their tails wagging in instinctive warning. There was no wind to bring her scent to them and no moon to illuminate her but the amount of time between paces told them that whatever she was she was too far away and too slow to catch them. Deciding that she posed no danger and having eaten their fill the herd leisurely made their way back into the forest beyond the meadow.
"I hope that you've had a good Christmas, Daria," Rafe said jovially when she finally made it to the fence. "Even if you didn't get the Red Ryder BB gun."
"So Dad told you about that," She laughed. "But even without getting the air rifle I had a great time, Uncle Rafe," she continued. "I always like coming to your farm. It's peaceful out here."
"The commute to work is a hassle but it's worth it," Rafe said. "Some people hate to be anywhere that concrete isn't underfoot but I get a sense of peace out here that I can't get in a city."
"I know what you mean," Daria replied. "Maybe I ought to start saving so I can buy a place like this as soon as I'm out of college. So what have you two been talking about out here?"
Jake snaked an arm around his daughter "The joy of being fathers," he said not untruthfully trying to match Rafe's nonchalance.