Flurries whipped about in the gray sky, darting through the branches of the bare oaks. Still, they hadn’t amounted to anything more than slivers of white in rocky crevices and among the crinkled leaves blanketing the ground.
“Are you sure you’re gonna want to drag it back all this way? I’m not the one with the trick leg, you know,” Scott groused as they crunched along.
“Mom would like a spruce. I heard her talkin’ with Grandmother.”
“Not sure that warrants a crusade to the next county. There are healthy pines steps from the house. And what about those spruces over the ridge where you’ve been running off to?”
“You can head to the truck anytime. It’s what she wants. And as for the ones closer to home, they’re all too large. So this is it unless you know of some hidden stash, in which case I’m all ears.”
“Damn, Josh. I thought engaged fellas were supposed to be happy. You’re as sour as vinegar. And good luck hauling the tree after you chase me off.”
Joshua was poised to strike again but relented upon seeing his brother’s saucy grin. “I suppose you can stick around,” he muttered.
When Joshua had been eight, Dad had gotten the idea to find a red spruce for Christmas like the ones he’d known growing up in Vermont. The occasion had been a secret outing to cheer Mom, who’d been bedridden with some unexplained malady.
Joshua had been so eager he’d risen early to hook up the wagon by himself. The search for the perfect tree had always been a thrill. The prospect it might also boost Mom’s spirits had made him positively giddy.
He could recall Scott pouting on the porch as they pulled away, and the fear in his eyes when Dad halted Butterscotch.
Dad had bolted over. With uncharacteristic tenderness, he’d scooped up Scott. The universe had righted itself when Dad tossed him into the bed of the wagon, threatening to tan his hide if he made a single peep about being tired.
As it turned out, they were all tuckered out by the time the deed was done. The trek to the Laurel Fork had been long. Finding a suitable tree in the mist had proven tricky, with Dad eventually resorting to topping out a taller specimen. It had been nearly dark by the time they returned to the wagon.
Back home, Mom had scolded them something fierce, though seeing her on her feet again had made it all worthwhile. They’d all stayed up past midnight to decorate the tree.
It remained Joshua’s favorite childhood memory. He’d never seen his parents as happy together, before or after. So if Mom wanted a red spruce for Christmas, a red spruce she’d have, even if it took all day. Given the logging in the years since, he suspected it might.
“At least you didn’t bring the guitar,” he poked, still itching to retaliate.
“I thought about it,” Scott muttered.
Joshua shot him a scowl.
“Not up here. I’d have left it in the truck. What do you have against my playing anyhow? Why does it matter to you?”
“Cause I have to hear it,” he spat back.
Scott said nothing.
He’d struck a nerve. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
Scott brushed past him. “You got that right,” he growled, his eyes burning a line along the frozen ground.
“I was kidding . . . really. I just want to do this for Mom. She doesn’t ask for much.”
“You think I don’t want to help Mom?” Scott yelled over his shoulder. “I helped plenty while you were off fighting the noble cause. But not everyone can be a hero, I guess.”
Joshua started after him. “I didn’t mean . . .”
Scott cut him off. “I know what you meant. You think I’m stupid.”
Joshua shook his head, speechless. Scott got flustered at times. Reading had always been tough for him, so he struggled at school. But he wasn’t dumb.
Scott spun around. “Do you even care why I bring it everywhere?”
“I’d wondered,” Joshua lied, realizing he hadn’t considered it at all, so wrapped up in himself. “Why?”
Scott measured his words. “When I play, people . . . other people, that is. Well, they listen. You know I hate talking to strangers. Nothing ever comes out like I want. But with the guitar, it’s different. When I play, I don’t have to say anything to be heard. It comes natural.”
Joshua nodded. “You taught yourself. I could never do that.” He hesitated. “Maybe that makes me stupid.”
His brother stared into the woods for a moment, saying nothing. Then he looked over, throwing up his dukes playfully. “You’re not stupid, Josh. You’re my sparring mate.” He pointed at the patch of evergreens above. “Now let’s go steal us a tree from heaven.”
* * *
Later, after shaking the ice from the fresh cut spruce, they surveyed the hillside, contemplating the route down.
“I was telling you about my playing,” Scott said out of the blue.
Joshua looked over, noting his furrowed brow. “Yeah?”
“I wish I could play at home. Don’t know why Dad won’t let me. I thought maybe it was because it was his guitar, but that doesn’t add up.”
“Has Dad ever made sense?”
Scott kicked at the ground. “True enough. Guess I just thought he’d ease up about it eventually.”
Joshua shrugged. There was nothing to add. It had always been the blind leading the blind trying to figure out their father. He nodded toward the piles of slash over from where they’d ascended. “I say we avoid the forest altogether. Nobody’s out here anyhow.”
Scott nodded. “I’ll lift the trunk. Just carry the saw and guide the tip.”
Joshua began to protest, but stopped. His brother was right. It would go faster. Still, he needed to set one thing straight. “Scott?” he began.
“I’m not a hero.”
Scott looked baffled, but then cracked a smile. “If you say so. You’ll get no argument from me.” His laughter rang out across the hillside.