The Henderson family was so hospitable that not even their dog barked when William saddled the horse and led it out of the barn. He wasn’t a thief. The mare belonged to him, though it had been a yearling when his parents died and he had first come to live with his uncle’s family. Back then, all he had was the animal, a change of clothes and a mental picture of his grim-faced parents. Now, six years later, that was all he took as he left.
The black-and-white collie followed William to the gate.
“You can’t come to Idaho with me, Buck,” William said, swinging his leg over the saddle. “They need you here on the ranch.”
They need me, too. William brushed away the thought as quickly as a mare flicking away flies with its ears. He slapped the reins. The mare started trotting down the dirt path that led toward town.
Hank will need to hire a ranch hand to help with the calving come spring, he mused.
Too bad Hank and Hattie had three girls first. If their two boys were older, things would have been easier for them. Not that the girls were lazy. They cooked, sewed, tended the garden and schooled their younger siblings. But they weren’t the best ranch hands.
An awkward moment
Then there was Sarah and Paige. Paige was the baby of the family, though she was almost 6 now. She was the one who’d noticed that William’s last name—Hartman—started with an H, just like hers, Henderson.
Last week during dinner she had blurted, “William, if you change your last name to Henderson, your initials will be the same. W.H.”
An awkward silence filled the room. This wasn’t the first time someone had suggested he do this.
William stared at his plate. The Hendersons had included him as family from the start. But what good was family? At some point they’d leave him as his parents had.
Nana, Hattie’s Ma, had broken the silence. “Will should take my last name, Brasher. He should take my first name, too.”
Laughter had danced around the table.
William’s saddle creaked as his mare turned toward the church. He pulled on the reins.
“No,” he said. “Hank and the pastor are decorating the place for the Christmas service tomorrow.”
Earlier that day, when he’d packed food from the larder, the Henderson ladies had been making pies. Their apple peels and joy had filled the room. He had snapped a mental picture of them and tucked it away with the good memories they’d given him—birthday celebrations, laughter celebrating the harvest, and so many smiles.
The horse turned back toward the road. By the time William steered the mare around the drop-off, a few miles from the house, he found trouble.
Hank was dragging a fresh-cut Christmas tree behind his horse.
“Hello. Did you come to help?” Hank looked William in the eyes as he came alongside.
“I’m headed to Idaho,” William said.
Hank nodded. “Makes sense. Leaving in the dead of winter and heading across treacherous mountain ranges to pan for gold.”
“I didn’t say anything about gold.”
“Didn’t have to.”
William stored away another picture in his mind of his rosy-cheeked uncle dragging a Christmas tree to church. He had collected so many mental pictures of Hank—teaching him to ranch, singing at church, treating his wife with respect. The cold that was seeping beneath Will’s coat wasn’t from the weather.
Will wanted more, but what was the more? He had wanted it from the beginning.
Friends. A place at the table.
Hank took off his hat and pointed at the saddlebags on the mare. “I hope you took some food. I don’t want anyone in my family going hungry.”
William gave a single nod.
Hank smiled. “Good,” he said. “Merry Christmas to you, Will.”
William shifted in the saddle. “Merry Christmas, Uncle,” he said in a low voice.
The older man adjusted his hat and continued, “I’m headed back to the church. If you change your mind, you’re welcome to join me.”
“I can’t. I’m not like you,” William said.
“Maybe not,” Hank said. “I’ve chosen to be your family. But you haven’t chosen me or my family yet.”
Hank urged his gelding forward. “If you ever do, we’ll be here. Waiting.”
William watched his uncle slowly ride away. Then he urged his horse forward. He had wanted to strike out on his own for so long. He was 18 now, and it was time to leave grief and sorrow behind.
His place at the table
Over the miles, all the pictures of his life with the Hendersons rose in his mind. In many of them, he had been laughing with the family. Why hadn’t he noticed? Had he been too focused on leaving to see he’d been healing? To see he had a place at the table?
William turned his horse around. The ride home was easier than he’d anticipated and the cold no longer felt as harsh. As soon as he’d taken the saddle off his mare, Paige burst into the barn.
“Where’d you go? I looked everywhere for you!” she said, stuffing her hands in her wool coat. “The pies are done. There’s a piece for you.”
He put a hand on Paige’s shoulder. “I’m glad,” he said. And he meant it.
They walked together toward the house.
* * *
Read more about William’s new family and find out what the Henderson women were doing, as shown in Morgan Weistling’s painting “Family Traditions.” Then learn more about Morgan Weistling’s painting “Family Traditions.”