Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Two)

Caleb McKenzie stood on the porch of the cabin that had been built by a great-great-uncle over a hundred years ago, and stared out into the stillness of the night. From somewhere in the pines beyond the cabin there was a dense rustling, and he wondered what manner of beast might be lurking in the darkness. There had been a time, once upon a time, when he would have recognized the night moves of the creatures who shared the mountain, but not anymore. He'd been gone too long, had spent too many years in the cities of the East. He wasn't even sure that he knew what inhabited the mountain these days, what had been driven out or endangered during the years since he had left Larkspur.

From across the rugged distance of the hills he could see the amber lights from the Hollister ranch, tiny bright candles in the night, down in the valley below. For a split second he had considered stopping there when he had driven past two days earlier. Hap and Catherine Hollister would have welcomed him, he felt certain. As the local Little League coach, it had been Hap who taught Cale how to hit and how to throw, how to field. Cale and Sky Hollister had been best friends back then, had played on the same baseball team, and had spent endless hours practicing on the makeshift playing fieldkbehind the Hollisters' barn.

They could have played on the field down in Larkspur–as a town boy, it had been a long, dusty bike ride out to the ranch in the merciless heat of those Montana summers–but Sky's home had all the warmth that Cale's had lacked. With a truck driver father who spent his infrequent sober times on the road, and a mother who had walked out on all of them years ago, Cale and his younger sister, Valerie, had spent more time in the homes of their friends growing up than they had in their own. Mrs. Hollister had always welcomed Cale to their table, and Coach Hollister, who had seen the extraordinary athletic ability latent in the boy, had spent endless hours coaching him, teaching him. By the time Cale was in high school, he knew that, barring injury, a career playing professional baseball awaited him. He wondered where he would have been had it not been for Coach Hollister's tutoring. Probably not, he reckoned, playing in the majors.

As a youth, he'd spent many a summer night there at the Hollister ranch. Sometimes the boys all slept in the barn, or in one of the old bunkhouses. As he grew older, Cale recalled, sleeping in the bunkhouse had held a lot less appeal than sleeping in the ranch house, where he could, if luck was with him, run into Sky's sister. All of the Hollister girls had been knockouts, from CeCe, the oldest, right down to Liza, the baby. But as a young boy growing up, there had only been one girl who had caught his eye and fueled his adolescent fantasies.

Cale could not recall a time in his life when he had not been in love with Quinn Hollister. In his eyes, she had been the most beautiful girl in the world. Tall and exotic, with long dark auburn hair and eyes the same pale, luminous green as the piece of sea glass an aunt had sent him from Florida one year, Quinn had been his first love, his only love. Even now, so many years later, Cale could close his eyes and see her riding that big palomino mare of hers across the hills, her bright hair glowing like a halo and flowing like a river behind her. Beautiful. Beautiful as the pastel glow of the sun he now watched slide that last notch behind her family home.

And the wonder of it had been that Quinn had loved him, too.

If he had worked hard to achieve honors status in school, it had been to prove to Quinn that he was worthy of her. If he had spent hour after endless hour practicing hitting and catching to perfect his skills, it was as much to secure his future with her as it was to fulfill his dreams of being a star outfielder in the majors. He had even forgone his last two years of college to accept an offer from the Baltimore Harbormasters professional baseball team so that he could support her in style.

Cale had been convinced that he was the luckiest guy in the world back then, when, on his twentieth birthday, he had signed his first major league contract and proposed marriage to the then seventeen-year-old Quinn and she had thrown her arms around his neck to accept. Coach and Mrs. Hollister, however, had taken a dim view of their daughter skipping college and jumping into matrimony. Despite Quinn's promise to her parents that she would attend and complete school in Maryland where Cale would begin his major league career, the elder Hollisters were adamant. As much as they cared about Cale, there would be no wedding until the bride had graduated from college.

Quinn had argued and cried, but had been unable to convince her parents to permit her to marry at so young an age. And so, Quinn had told Cale, they would have to take matters into their own hands. Chart their own course. Follow their own star.

On the day she turned eighteen, they would elope.

It never failed to amaze Cale that, so many years later, the pain had barely diminished. His heart still hurt, his head still pounded, every time he thought back to that day, when he'd waited for her right here, in the very spot where he now stood on the porch of the old cabin where they had agreed to meet. And waited. And waited until the sun had begun its soft descent into the pastel hills and he knew there was no longer any reason to wait. Had he really believed that a girl like Quinn would give up everything that she had for the son of a hard-drinking truck driver from the wrong side of town? Cale had taken the plane ticket from his pocket–the one he had bought for his bride–and ripped it into a hundred pieces before climbing into the cab of his old black pickup and slamming the door. The truck had screamed down the gravel road and past the Hollister ranch as he had fought the tears of loss, of humiliation, and headed for the Gallatin Field about eight miles west of Bozeman. If he drove fast enough, he'd still make his flight to Denver, and from there, he'd fly to Baltimore. Alone.

Cale had gone on to fame and glory in the majors, but he never went back to the Montana hills or the cabin where he'd left his dreams of happily ever after with the only woman he'd ever really loved. Until now.

Cale rubbed his shoulder, as if to rub away the injury that plagued him, the injury that had, on a hot August night in Cleveland, ended his career. He had watched the film of the midair collision of the two men in the outfield almost dispassionately, as if it had been happening to someone else. Over and over he had played it, hoping against hope that the two bodies would not crash into each other, would not fall, one badly angled, to the earth. But each time it ended the same way. Each time he watched, he could feel the ground beneath his shoulder, could hear the crunch as bone gave way to turf. Two surgeries later, he had begun to regain his strength, but not his mobility. He would never play ball again, and that was that.

So here Cale stood, on the porch of an old mountain cabin, looking off into the dark night, wondering if it had been such a good idea to come here after all. Over the past year, his sister had hired a crew of contractors to rebuild the structure that had been for so long little more than an abandoned shell. The renovations having been completed in the fall, Val had spent two months here alone, escaping from the big city life she had never really adjusted to, seeking a haven from the demands of her modeling career that sometimes threatened to overcome her.

Although Cale and Valerie had grown up in town, they had spent many a summer day in the hills, and had been as proud of their connection to the old, dilapidated cabin as they had been of the legends that had grown up over the years surrounding its original inhabitant, Jed McKenzie. Surely the changes Val had made to the cabin would have mystified and amused their bachelor great-great-uncle, an early conservationist, who had spent most of his adult life here alone, and had died here alone years ago. Valerie had discovered that nothing really restored her the way a trip back to the hills could do, and this year she managed to convince Cale that some time up in the hills, would be as good for his soul as it had been for hers. She had stocked the freezer and the pantry before leaving right after Thanksgiving, and had planned to meet her brother and his sons here for Christmas.

"It'll be great, Cale, you'll see," Valerie had promised. "Just you, me, and your boys. You'll wish you'd come back sooner…"

Cale doubted that, especially since he was beginning to wonder if Val's plane would make it to the airport in Lewistown before the storm that threatened to blow down from the mountains would arrive and close not only the airport but the roads as well. And he could do without the memories being in this cabin brought back. Banging his feet on the step to shake off the snow, he went back inside.

The warmth from the fire greeted him like an old friend, and he sat on the chair near the door to pull off his boots. In thick woolen socks he crossed the old pine floorboards as quietly as he could, lest he waken the twin sleeping devils who were his sons. Eric and Evan slept, one at each end of the sofa, each a four-year-old lump under the big black and tan hand-knitted afghan that their next-door neighbor, Mrs. Lindley, had made for Cale when he had left for college in Bozeman. Cale stoked the fire, then added another log, wondering if he should wake the boys for dinner. Clearly, they had been totally tuckered out from their hike in the deep snow that afternoon. Cale had been tempted to nap for a while himself, but his nights had been so restless lately that he feared an afternoon snooze would just be an invitation to one more long, sleepless night. He went into the small kitchen and boiled some water for coffee, hoping that, this time, he'd get it right. Spoiled by all the conveniences that money could buy, he'd forgotten how to perk coffee on the top of the old stove, although this morning's efforts had been a big improvement over yesterday's. Funny, Val had modernized so much of the cabin, but had yet to replace the old stove. There was, she had told him, something about the way food tasted when she cooked on it that she wasn't ready to give up just yet. It made her feel like she hadn't quite lost that pioneer spirit. Just one of Val's little quirks, he figured. We all have them. He poured a little milk into his cup and tasted the hot, dark brown liquid. Better. He'd get it just right before too much longer.

Quietly placing the cup on the battered maple table, Cale pulled the old wing chair–his great-uncle Jed's favorite–closer to the fire and opened the book he had started the night before. You could hear a pin drop in here, he thought. There was no quiet as deep as that which you find in the hills. It both comforted him and made him jumpy. He'd been away too long to feel at home, but was discovering that he still had enough sense of the hills that the silence was a familiar one. He sighed and leaned back, and started to read the new legal thriller everyone was talking about. The top log thumped dully against the back of the firebox, and he quietly rose to replace it. Eric stirred softly, his little foot in its little white sock pushed out from under the blanket. They were so cute when they were sleeping, Cak mused. And such little demons when they were awake. He wondered ruefully if perhaps the secret to raising two such children might not be lots and lots of exercise, much like the hike they'd taken that afternoon. Without wanting to, Cale's mind trailed back to last Christmas, to the big fancy house his wife, Jo Beth, had talked him into buying outside of Baltimore. As big as it was, as expensive as it had been, it had never been enough for her.

Jo Beth Wilkins had pursued Cale McKenzie from the night she first met him till the night he finally married her. Even then, in the midst of the ceremony, he had had the sinking feeling that he was going to regret it. But Jo Beth had been insistent and he had been tired of dodging the marital bullet, tired of discussing it. Tired of being asked about it. In a weak moment he had agreed to marry her, and it seemed from that moment on there'd been no turning back. She had been totally annoyed to have found herself pregnant, but once she found out she was having twins, she had come to accept the fact that if she had two at once, her job would be done and she'd never have to do that again. As soon as the boys were born, she hired a nanny, joined a spa, and set about the business of being a professional baseball wife again. She had been good at that, he'd give Jo Beth that much.

On the day it had been confirmed that his playing days were behind him, she'd packed and gone back to Tennessee–with a quick stop at a Nevada divorceatorium–leaving Cale with the boys, the nanny, and the house, which he promptly sold, sending her a check for exactly half. She'd sent him a copy of the divorce decree in his birthday card, and he hadn't heard from her since.

Waking in her old room–the room she had shared with CeCe as a girl–never failed to bring Quinn face-to-face with the past. At dawn she had yawned and stretched and turned over, hopeful for a few extra hours of sleep on this first day of her Christmas vacation. But every time she closed her eyes, another memory would call itself forth. In this room she had written poetry and love letters and long wordy pages –alternating between bliss and despair–in a diary. When she was twelve, she had argued with CeCe and divided the room in half with an imaginary line neither of them had dared to cross for weeks. Later that same year she and Sunny sat on the edge of this very bed and watched as CeCe transformed herself from ranch hand to princess as she dressed for the sophomore dance at the high school down in the valley. Two years later, Quinn herself had been dressed in a flowing dress of palest lavender and had put her hair up and had felt very much the sophisticate on the arm of Caleb McKenzie.

That had been their first real date, after months of casual "hi" exchanged in the hallways at school or at the ball field where Quinn had trailed behind her father and brother, ostensibly to watch Sky play, though Quinn couldn't have said what position Sky played. She'd never taken her eyes off Cale. When he'd shyly asked her to be his date for the big dance at school that spring, she'd thought the heavens had opened up and dropped the most precious of gifts into her waiting arms.

The dance had been everything a first big dance should be. Quinn and Cale had danced and talked and danced and talked, and finally–finally!–had kissed in the backseat of the car Billy De Witt had borrowed from his big brother for the occasion. Later Cale had admitted that the only reason he hadn't wanted to double-date with Sky–who was, after all, his best friend–was because he'd been afraid that Sky would have decked him if he'd caught him kissing his little sister the way Cale had been planning to. They had been inseparable after that, Quinn recalled. Quinn and Cale. For his remaining two years of high school, and his first two years of college, she and Cale had been desperately in love and the very best of friends. They had known each other's secrets, each other's dreams. Cale had been her first and best and biggest love. It had never occurred to Quinn that they wouldn't always be together. They had planned such a wonderful life, and she couldn't wait to begin it.

Though Cale had been hounded by professional teams from the time he'd been a junior in high school, he'd accepted a scholarship at Montana State down in Bozeman because it was close to home, and to Quinn. By his sophomore year, he'd known he couldn't wait much longer to marry her. As young as she and Cale were, Quinn had been confident that her parents would support them in their wedding plans–after all, her mother hadn't been much older than Quinn when she'd married.

No one had been more surprised than Quinn when her parents were appalled by their seventeen-year-old daughter's announcement that she and Cale would be getting married the week following her high school graduation. But she had it all worked out, she had told them tearfully when they flatly refused to give their blessing to her plans. She and Cale would both go to Montana State, and when he graduated in two years, she would simply transfer to a college in whatever city he'd be playing professional baseball.

"Quinn, for heaven's sake, you're only seventeen," Catherine had sighed. '

"Mom, I love Cale____"

"I'm sure that you think you do, sweetheart. But your father and I really believe that you're simply far too young to make a decision like this. Quinn, you've barely been out of Montana. You need to see more of the world–go places and do things."

"The only place I want to go is to Bozeman with Cale. The only thing I want to do is marry him."

"Quinn, listen to me." Catherine had sat on the edge of her daughter's bed. "Give yourself a little more time. At least wait two years…"

Two years! They might just have well as asked her to wait two lifetimes.

And so Cale had contacted the coach for the Baltimore team who had been pursuing him and the deal was struck. He would leave Montana, but he'd be taking Quinn with him. They'd get married as soon as they hit Maryland. Hap and Catherine would come around, Quinn had promised. She would enroll in a college nearby while Cale tried to make his mark in professional baseball. Life would surely be wonderful.

Quinn had never stopped wondering if, in fact, life would have been as blissful as those dreams, if he hadn't stood her up.

She had waited at the cabin that day until after dark, until she could no longer deny the fact that he had decided not to take her with him after all. She had gone home and forced herself to inquire casually if Cale had called. He had not.

Quinn had slowly climbed the stairs to her bed in the second-floor loft and, as quietly as she could, cried until there were no more tears left to be shed. The next day she had ridden out into the hills and, in a gesture her seventeen-year-old heart had thought suitably dramatic, threw his high school ring off the side of Boldface Rock, and had vowed never to speak his name again unless she had to. Too embarrassed to tell her family that she had been stood up, she had pretended that she and Cale had broken up following an argument, and she had refused to do more than mutter a vague reply or shrug noncommittally when asked about him. Eventually, the questions stopped, and as far as her family was concerned, the entire episode was past history. Which was exactly what Quinn wanted them to think

Of course, over the years it had been impossible to avoid knowing that he'd made his mark on the sport he loved. Quinn had stopped watching the game altogether and never read the sports pages. She didn't want to know where he was playing or how he was doing, but, of course, the local paper followed his every move, complete with photographs, from every game-winning play to his marriage to a former beauty queen from some Southern state a few years earlier.

"Looks like Cale finally settled down," her mother had told her tentatively on the telephone. "Saturday's paper had a picture of him and his bride right on the front page."

"How nice for Cale," Quinn had replied flatly, then inquired after the health of one of Sky's mares that had been sick the week before. Later she had hung up the phone and licked her wounds in private, as she had always done.

From time to time, Quinn caught a glimpse of him as he was being interviewed on television, and for that one moment, time would stand still, and he would still be her Cale, but only for a moment, only until she collected her wits and changed the channel. Oh, if hard-pressed, she'd have grudgingly admitted that she was proud of him, proud for him, that he'd managed to overcome an uncertain start in life and had followed his dream. On the other hand, she'd never been able to forgive him for letting her give her heart so completely, only to break it.

And she'd never once, in the twelve years that had passed, awakened in that bed in her old room without thinking of him and the nights she had spent crying for him. And somehow, all these years later, the memories still had the power to hurt.

I guess he just didn't know how to tell me that he'd changed his mind about me, she thought as she threw her legs over the side of the bed and reached for her robe.

It would be really nice if, just this once, I could get through a holiday season without having to hear about him.

She sighed, knowing that was unlikely. Cale McKenzie was the only bona fide, home-grown celebrity to come out of Larkspur, Montana. Sooner or later, over the next two weeks, someone–more accurately, lots of someones, family and friends alike –would be certain to bring up his name.

It's okay, she reassured herself as she rummaged through her suitcase for her jeans and a clean sweatshirt, I can handle it. I always have.

As if to convince herself, she forced herself to whistle a merry Christmas tune as she headed off down the hall toward her morning shower.