“I’m fine,” Rose Bassi told her sixteen-year-old daughter. “You and Logan go and have fun.”
“You’re not fine, Mom. You haven’t been fine for days.”
When had Allison become so observant? Rose gazed out the window at their newly adopted home of Aztec, New Mexico. “I need to be alone.”
“It’s Christmas Eve. ‘Alone’ is the last thing you need to be.” Allison’s voice turned whiny. “Come on. Everyone in town will be at Las Posadas.”
The neighborhood was decked out in the same types of Christmas decorations as back in their native Pennsylvania. Tinsel. Strings of lights. Reindeer and Santa figures. Nativity scenes. But set against a backdrop of adobe houses without a towering pine or spruce tree to be seen—except for the cut ones imported for sale—she felt homesick. She missed the pungent fragrance of pine, the heavily wooded hillsides…
She missed Ted. This would be her first Christmas without him. And in a couple of weeks, she’d face the one-year anniversary of the night he’d died.
“Miguel will be there.” Allison replaced the whiny voice with a lilt. “Emily’s going to lead the procession through town.”
The mention of Miguel Morales, the San Juan County deputy sheriff who’d become a good friend, almost brought a smile to Rose’s heart. The thought of his five-year-old daughter taking part in a tradition Rose had heard so much about succeeded in lightening her mood. Briefly.
Miguel had been working a missing person’s case. Poor old Mr. Alvarez with his full white beard had gained the nickname Santa, not only because he looked the part but acted it as well. And not just in December. Mr. Alvarez had been known to deliver meals to the homebound, pay an outstanding bill for families about to have their power cut off, or bring toys to kids whose parents couldn’t afford them. He’d disappeared two days ago. No one had seen or heard from him. He wasn’t answering his phone.
Making matters worse, the weathermen on the TV station out of Albuquerque were calling for a huge snowstorm to hit the Four Corners that evening.
“Are you listening to me?”
Rose blinked. “I’m sorry, baby. What’d you say?”
Allison gave an impressive eye roll. “Never mind. I’m gonna go talk to Logan. Maybe he’ll pay attention.”
Rose watched her daughter stomp off in search of her brother and breathed a sigh. Thank goodness her kids had each other. And thank goodness she had them. She knew they ached from losing Ted too, but somehow, they handled it better.
Her doorbell rang, snapping her out of her reverie. She caught a glimpse of the green Sheriff’s Office SUV through the window before she opened the door to her favorite deputy. “Miguel. What are you doing here?”
He stepped inside, out of the cold dry winter air. “I was in the neighborhood.”
“Right,” she said sarcastically. “Can’t you be more original than that?”
“I’m serious. I had to question one of your neighbors on the next street, who thought they spotted Mr. Alvarez.”
From Miguel’s expression, the news wasn’t bad. “You know where he is?”
“No. She said he was over by the Ruins. We’ve had a couple of reports of sightings over there, but apparently, they hired a Santa to entertain the kids. I’ll follow up, but I’m pretty sure that’s who she saw.”
“Oh,” Rose said, disappointed.
“Are you coming to Las Posadas tonight?” Miguel asked.
“Aren’t you working?”
“Yes. But you and the kids can go without me.”
She lowered her gaze. “Allison and Logan will be there. I’m not feeling very festive this year.”
Rose felt him studying her. “That’s exactly why you should go,” he said. “Besides, I want you to experience our customs. This is your first New Mexican Christmas.” He curled a finger under her chin to tip up her face. “When in Rome…”
A rush of longing surged through her. She could so easily fall in love with this man. But she still felt like she was cheating on Ted by even admiring the shape of Miguel’s lips. “I’ll think about it.”
“Think hard.” He brought his face closer to hers as if going to kiss her. Then he backed away, tugged his cap back on, and glanced toward his vehicle. “You have more company. And I have to get back to work.”
She looked past him to the old extended-cab pickup and the dark-haired young man who climbed out.
Miguel waited as the Navajo approached “Yellowhorse. How are you?”
Billy “Pony Boy” Yellowhorse touched his belly where he’d taken a bullet a little over a month ago. “I will live.”
“Glad to hear it.” Miguel lowered his voice. “By the way, I meant what I said. You’d make a helluva sheriff’s deputy. I’d be happy to put in a good word for you.”
Billy gazed into the distance. “I am giving it consideration. I have filled out the application for your police academy.”
“Have you located the white-bearded one?”
“I will watch for him.”
Miguel nodded at him. “Appreciate the help.” With a glance back at Rose, he strode toward his vehicle.
Billy bowed his head in greeting. “Hello, Flame Woman.”
Rose smiled at the name he’d given her in honor of her red hair. “Please come in.”
He frowned. “We should go. We don’t want to be caught out on the Rez when the snow comes.”
“On the Rez?”
Allison bounded into the room wearing her coat and carrying Rose’s. Logan trailed behind, also bundled for the outdoors. Allison shoved Rose’s coat at her. “Here. Put on your boots.”
“What’s going on?” Rose looked to Billy for an answer. His face was unreadable, but she noticed the twinkle in his dark eyes.
“We’re going to take gifts to Pony Boy’s grandmother,” Logan said. “I told you the other day. You must’ve not been paying attention.”
Rose glared at her eighteen-year-old son. He most definitely had not told her.
Allison forced Rose’s coat into her hands. “You can’t back out now, Mom. That would be rude.”
Rose studied the three faces staring back at her. She knew a conspiracy when she saw one. But she also recognized the honor being bestowed upon her.
They headed south to Farmington and turned west toward Shiprock. The landscape became more desolate. Miles of nothing but rock, sand, and a few scrub trees.
Billy slowed the pickup. “Look.”
A pair of San Juan County Sheriff’s SUVs were pulled off the road next to an old, battered station wagon.
“That is Mr. Alvarez’s car,” Billy said.
Rose leaned over, gazing out the window. “And there’s Miguel.”
Billy parked clear of the official vehicles and climbed out. “Wait here.”
Rose ignored him as did her two teenagers. They piled out and trailed after him.
Miguel spotted them and approached, cutting them off before they reached the station wagon. “You need to stay back.”
Rose looked at the car. She dreaded what she was thinking. “Is Mr. Alvarez—?”
“The car’s been abandoned,” Miguel said. “His phone’s in the glove box. Otherwise, there’s no sign of him.”
Rose’s relief didn’t last. She looked around. Not a house or a business to be seen.
“How can I help?” Billy asked.
Miguel shook his head. “Air One is on its way. More units are en route. If he’s out there, we’ll find him.”
Billy faced the direction they were headed. “We are on our way to my grandmother’s. The white-bearded one had been very kind to her and our people. I will ask if anyone has seen him.”
“Please. That would be a big help.”
Overhead, the thwap, thwap, thwap of the county’s helicopter rotors grew louder.
“Gotta go.” Miguel started to turn away, then turned back. “Be careful. This storm is moving in fast.” He looked from Billy to Rose. “You have precious cargo with you, you know.”
“I will protect them with my life.”
Miguel slapped Billy on the shoulder. “I know you will.” He strode away as two more SJCSO
cars approached from the east.
“Poor Mr. Alvarez,” Allison said when they were once again in the pickup. “I hate to think of him out there in the cold and snow.”
“Yes.” Billy’s voice was solemn. “The Rez is not a good place to be in a car. It is much worse on foot.”
Almost an hour later, under a darkening gray sky, Billy pulled into a rutted dirt driveway leading to a small, plain house. A spindly bush had been decorated with colorful Christmas balls and topped with a wind-battered star that appeared to be homemade. A small herd of sheep grazed on the sparse clusters of grass in a nearby pen. A black and white dog ran to Billy’s truck, barking.
“Do not worry. He will not bite,” he told Rose. “Unless you are a coyote.”
A woman stepped out of the house and gestured for them to come. They piled from the pickup, and Billy spoke to the dog in Navajo. It quieted and raced back toward the sheep. He and Logan reached into the pickup’s bed to retrieve a large cloth sack of Blue Bird flour and three bundles wrapped in colorful paper. Billy slung the flour over his shoulder and directed each of them to take a package.
The old woman’s smile widened as they approached. “It is good to see you, Grandson. And you as well, Helper Boy.” She wrapped Logan in a hug.
The affection shown by this woman toward Rose’s son warmed her.
Billy gestured toward Allison and Rose. “Grandmother, do you remember Helper Boy’s sister? And this is his mother.”
“Little Sister, yes. Welcome.” She nodded at Rose. “Your son is a good man. He has done much work to make my home comfortable.”
They stepped inside the house to a room warmed by a fireplace.
“I’m afraid we cannot stay long,” Billy said.
“Yes.” Grandmother nodded. “The sky promises snow. A blessing. But not when you must drive.”
She noticed Rose gazing at the woven rugs and tapestries covering the floor, the sofa, and hanging on the walls. “My grandson and his cousins try to make me comfortable,” Grandmother said. “They built me this house.”
“We wanted her to move into town.” Billy’s lips pressed into a frown.
“I do not belong in town. Who would take care of my sheep? I use their wool to make rugs. I could not do that in town.”
Billy shook his head and deposited the sack of flour on the kitchen table.
His grandmother eyed the other packages, her dark eyes gleaming with the delight of a child. “What have you brought this old woman?”
Logan nudged Allison, who carried the smallest package. “Give her yours first.”
Grandmother accepted the gift and ripped off the wrapping to reveal several bags of sugarless candy. “My favorite.” She added her thanks in Navajo.
Logan’s bundle contained a heavy winter coat.
“My old coat has many holes,” Grandmother said and draped the new one over her bony shoulders. She accepted the final package from Rose and unwrapped it to reveal a beautiful Pendleton blanket. “This is so lovely. It will keep me warm at night.”
Billy folded his arms. “Are you sleeping in your bed now?”
“Yes.” She grinned.
“I bought her a mattress,” he explained, “and for a year, she still slept on the floor.”
“The bed makes my bones weak,” she protested. “My grandson argues with me, so to make him happy, I sleep on it now.”
Billy grew serious. “Grandmother, have you seen the white-bearded one?”
“Not for several days. My neighbors have been worried. It is not like him.”
“You know Mr. Alvarez?” Rose asked.
Grandmother nodded. “He offers rides to town for our people. Or brings supplies to the old ones who do not wish to make the trip. Has something happened to him?”
Billy handed the bag of candy to her. “Do not be concerned. I am sure he is fine.”
Her grandson’s words and bribe of candy didn’t appease her. “It is not a good night to be away from your people.”
Once off the Rez, they regained cell service about the same time the first wind-driven snowflakes started to swirl.
“Mom, call Miguel and ask if they’ve found Mr. Alvarez,” Allison said.
Logan half-turned from the front seat and fixed Rose with the same imploring gaze as her daughter. Billy’s dark eyes reflected in the rearview mirror completed the trifecta.
Rose pulled up Miguel’s number.
His voice carried an edge when he answered. “Sergeant Morales.”
“It’s me. We were wondering if you’ve—”
“No. We haven’t located Mr. Alvarez. Did you find out anything on the Rez?”
“Billy’s grandmother said no one’s seen him. We’re on our way back to Aztec. Is there anything we can do?”
“Keep an eye out for him. His car was out of gas. One of the locals reported it’d been there for a couple of days, but no one saw him walking along the road. And no one at the nearest gas station has seen him.”
Rose tried to not sound disappointed when she asked, “Are you going to miss Las Posadas
“Afraid so. Unless Mr. Alvarez turns up alive and well.”
The winds died down by late afternoon, but the snow continued to fall in fat flakes. Rose, Logan, and Allison joined the Aztec community in the church parking lot.
Allison spread her arms and did a pirouette. “I feel like I’m in a snow globe.”
Rose searched the crowd for familiar faces, especially Miguel’s or Mr. Alvarez’s. While she recognized some of her neighbors, her favorite law officer and the missing man weren’t among them.
Billy’s pickup truck rolled into the lot, pulling a small stock trailer. Allison drifted in his direction.
Logan slung an arm around Rose’s shoulders. “You okay?” he asked.
Had she become that transparent. She forced a smile. “It’s Christmas Eve, and I’m with both my kids. Of course, I’m okay.”
The look he gave her said he wasn’t buying it.
“Come on. Let’s catch up with Allison.”
Billy had climbed out of his truck. He opened the latch on the trailer’s door and swung it open. A small brown and white burro stepped out as he caught the lead rope attached to its halter and looped over its neck.
Allison let out a squeal and clapped her hands. “Can I ride it?”
“It is for the girl selected to play Mary,” Billy replied.
Logan draped his other arm around his sister’s shoulders, drawing both Bassi women close.
“Hey, Dweeb, you can’t ride a burro anyway. Remember Donkey Basketball?”
“Shut up,” Allison muttered.
“Faceplant right there in the middle of the gym floor,” Logan said and laughed.
“I said, ‘shut up.’”
Rose smiled at her kids’ good-natured bickering.
Children and parents pressed in around them, reaching toward the burro. Small and large hands touched its thick coat and scratched its long ears.
Allison tugged on Rose’s coat. “Hey, Mom. Look over there.” She pointed.
Rose gazed in the direction Allison indicated and spotted a small, dark-haired girl dressed in white, wearing wings. “It’s Emily.” The five-year-old held hands with her father. Miguel.
Logan gave Rose a gentle push. “Go. We’ll catch up to you.”
She gave her kids a smile and weaved her way through the crowd.
“You made it.”
Miguel spun toward her. “And so did you.” He scooped up his daughter. “My ex got called to work at the hospital. Emily’s had her heart set on leading the procession, so I decided to head up the search here in town.”
Rose straightened the girl’s angel wings which brought a giggle. To Miguel, Rose said, “No sign of Mr. Alvarez?”
“None.” He grew somber, looking skyward. “They’re saying this might be the biggest snow we’ve had in a decade. I hate to think of that old man out there.”
By five o’clock, Las Posadas began. Emily Morales carried a candle and led the way. A teenaged boy portrayed Joseph led the burro. Unlike the bucking donkey from Allison’s basketball game, the animal plodded along with “Mary” astride. The crowd carried candles and followed. Rose caught sight of Allison linking arms with Logan on one side and Billy on the other. Miguel kept one eye on his daughter while remaining vigilant, searching the faces in the crowd. As they approached the first house, the group began singing carols.
Just as in the Christmas story, the “innkeepers” at the first stop told the teenagers there was no room for them. They continued down the street, through the snow, lifting voices in song. House after house, they were told the same thing. No room at the inn.
Rose marveled at how the entire town came together to stage Las Posadas, the designated stops, the songs. When they started singing the strains of What Child is This, Rose’s heart ached. Ted’s favorite carol. He would have loved being here.
By the time they reached the final stop at the town’s largest church, more than an inch of snow covered the ground. Emily led the way into the parish hall followed by “Joseph” and “Mary” on the burro. Inside, straw had been spread on the floor. A pair of sheep flanked a manger. Rose watched in awe as the group surrounded the living nativity and sang their final carol, Away in a Manger.
When the song ended, the party began. Church parishioners wheeled out carts of treats and urns of hot chocolate. Billy and Logan collected the burro and sheep and led them outside.
Miguel had disappeared into the crowd to collect his daughter, leaving Rose alone to take in the celebration.
Miguel had disappeared into the crowd to collect his daughter, leaving Rose alone to take in the celebration.
She looked up as Allison approached with two steaming cups and a plate heaped with what looked like sugar cookies.
“Wasn’t that awesome?” She handed one of the cups to her mother.
“It was beautiful.”
“Are you glad we talked you into coming?”
“Yes, I am.”
Allison held out the plate. “Have some bischochitos.”
Rose gave her a questioning look.
“They’re the official cookie of New Mexico. Take some. They’re really good.”
Rose bit into one and had to agree with her daughter. “They remind me of shortbread but taste a little like your grandma’s pizzelles too.”
“Um-hmm,” Allison mumbled around a mouthful of cookie.
Miguel returned, carrying his angel, who pointed excitedly at the men hanging a piñata. “I see you’ve discovered my favorite part of the evening,” he said, nodding at the plate.
Allison offered it to him and Emily.
“What do you say, mija?”
“Thank you,” Emily replied shyly.
“I’m gonna get some more.” Allison bounded away.
Miguel edged closer to Rose. “How do you like our New Mexican Christmas?”
She gazed around the room. The Nativity. The treats. The kids eager to take a crack at the piñata. Familiar enough to feel comfortable. Different enough to ease the ache of what was missing in her life. “Very much.” She looked up at him. “I think I could get used to this.”
He leaned over, brushing his lips over her cheek, and whispered in her ear, “I’m glad.”
The children in the room had turned toward the door. “Look!” someone said.
“Ho, ho, ho!”
Rose turned to see Santa shuffling into the hall. His voice wasn’t as robust as most of the Santas back home. And his red suit hung on a gaunt frame. But the white beard was the real thing. Billy and Logan trailed behind him, smiling broadly.
“Well, I’ll be da—” Miguel caught himself, glanced at his daughter, and said, “darned. It’s Mr. Alvarez.”
Rose looked from Miguel to Santa. And laughed. “Yes, it is.”
Billy and Logan jogged over to them as Santa Alvarez was swarmed by kids. Emily squirmed in her father’s arms.
He set her down, and the little angel raced off to join the other children.
“Did you see who I found?” Billy asked.
“Where’s he been?” Miguel asked.
“His car broke down, so he walked cross-country all the way to Bloomfield where he has a friend. He has been there until today. He said he did not know anyone was looking for him.” Billy grinned. “He said he was not lost. He knew exactly where he was.”
Miguel chuckled. “I guess I better call the Sheriff’s Office and tell them to call off the search.” He excused himself and headed for the door.
“I am going to get some bischochitos,” Billy said.
“Bring me a plate,” Logan told him.
“You could have gone with him,” Rose said.
Logan draped his arm around her shoulders again. “I’d rather stay here with you.” He eyed her.
“Are you okay?”
Why did people keep asking her that? “I’m fine.” She smiled at the children, some of whom gathered around Santa Alvarez, some of whom were taking turns being blindfolded and swinging a stick at the piñata. “This is—” Her voice broke and a rush of unexpected tears flooded her vision. Maybe she wasn’t so fine.
She shook her head. “Nothing. I just…” She brushed a hand across her eyes. “I wish your dad was here.”
Logan hugged her tighter. “Mom, don’t you know? He is here.”
Rose slipped both arms around her son’s waist and rested her head on his chest. She closed her eyes, picturing Ted’s smile as he watched over her and their family. In that moment, she felt the warmth of his love and acceptance fill her heart and knew he’d approve of this new life they’d made. “You’re right,” she said to Logan. “He is.”