A Cowboy to Keep-Chapter 3
Bethany awoke with a start. She listened intently, but all was silent. What had woken her? Tiny beams of sunlight were beginning to warm the hardwood floor. She pushed the quilt back and silently slid out of her bed. She dressed as quickly as possible, though her chilly fingers struggled to button her jeans. She had to go find out what had roused her.
The rich, earthy aroma of coffee brewing met her senses when she padded down the stairs, boots in hand. When she glanced through the dining room, she noticed someone had lit the fireplace in the family room, its warmth starting to spread throughout the house. Then she glanced into the kitchen. Nobody was there, but it was apparent by the half empty coffee pot and fresh smell that at least one person was up.
I wonder who is up. Bethany didn’t fear robbers. Her dad locked the doors every night and, besides, why would a robber make coffee, anyway? She pushed away her shivery feelings and padded into the kitchen. She would make her own breakfast and have a cup of coffee before venturing out into the chilly morning air.
Buck swung open the heavy wooden door. Slim rays of sunlight softly filtered into the dark interior of the barn. He stepped inside with a determined stride and Mr. Holten followed. He still could not believe that he had landed this job. It was like a dream. A fantasy. With his past, why would anyone want to hire him?
Yet, Mr. Holten had taken pity on him and given him a job and a home. He pulled the cinch tight on Gunsmoke’s saddle, and then grabbed the bridle off the horn. He was so thankful to Mr. Holten for hiring him and to God for providing the opportunity to serve this wonderful family. Buck’s train of thought was then interrupted.
“You’re awful quiet this morning.” Mr. Holten’s voice came from the other side of Goliath, the man’s gigantic gray horse. Buck hadn’t intended to be quiet. It had just happened that way.
“I’m sorry. Not much of a morning person, I guess.” Buck gathered his horse’s reins and stood, waiting on Mr. Holten.
“You ready to move some cattle?” A glint of excitement sparkled in the older man’s eyes. He seemed to love this kind of work. Buck loved it too. If he’d had his childhood dream, he would have his own cattle ranch. God apparently had had other plans. They had included traveling around, looking for someone to hire him. He had struck out at most places, some hiring him for a couple days, but nothing had stuck. Then he had met Mr. Holten in the feed store in town. It seemed God had put him in the right spot at the right time.
“You waiting on something?” Mr. Holten pulled Buck from his thoughts again. He had to quit getting lost in thought. It was not polite. He shook the thoughts away and focused.
“No sir.” Buck replied. “I’m sorry, I’m ready now.” He started forward and followed Mr. Holten out of the barn.
Bethany sipped the last of the dark brown liquid in the bottom of her mug and then placed it and her plate into the sink. She would wash those when she came in after chores. Now, it was time to find out what was happening outside. She quickly padded into the mudroom and slipped her socked feet into her worn out cowboy boots. The screen door screeched as she pushed it open. That was what had aroused her. She hoped she had not just aroused her brothers. She slipped outside.
The barnyard was quiet. The cool air had a slight bite to it as her boots swished noiselessly over the wet grass. She entered the barn and noticed two stalls were empty. Buck and her father must be out with the cattle. She moved down the aisle and the horses whinnied as she walked by. She petted each of them, but she was looking for a specific horse. Finally, she reached him. Trigger stuck his nose over the stall door and nudged her arm. Bethany patted him, and then grabbed his halter off the hook. The screeching noise of rusty hinges on wood made her jump.
She turned to see Kyle and Tommy tumble into the barn. Bethany sighed. She had woken them up with the squeaky screen door. The two saw her standing near Trigger and they bolted down the aisle and ran into her, wrapping her in a double bear hug. She ruffled their hair.
“Hey, you guys. You wanna help me do the chores?” Bethany gave them a dazzling grin, hoping that would convince them.
“Yeah!” They both exclaimed in unison. They grabbed their ponies’ halters off the hook and ran to Flash’s and Champ’s stalls. Bethany turned back to her horse, scrubbed his forehead, then snapped the lead to the halter ring and opened the gate. She reached the end of the aisle and then thought of something.
“Hey, I have only a half day of work today at the vet. You boys want to go for a ride with me after lunch?”
“Yeah!” The boys hurried with their ponies so they could catch up to Bethany. Foxie, their calico cat, chased after them. She smiled. Home life was wonderful. She couldn’t wait to start her first day of work at the vet.
Buck and Mr. Holten rode on opposite sides of the herd of cattle. Dust billowed in the herd. Fortunately, it didn’t rise quite high enough to need a bandanna. He couldn’t believe how much he missed this. Riding alongside a herd of cattle in the early morning, the only sounds that reached his ears were hooves pounding on the dry ground, the creaking leather saddles, and the silent swish of the whips which kept the herd of animals on course.
A sudden movement on the opposite side of the herd alerted his attention. Mr. Holten was motioning him to turn the herd towards him. Buck shifted his weight in his saddle as he lifted his whip and snapped it next to the herd. The animals turned as one and followed Mr. Holten’s horse. Buck was now in the back of the herd as the gate to the back field came into view. After Mr. Holten had opened the pasture gate, Buck followed his instructions as the two of them guided the herd into the field. A feeling of satisfaction filled him as the herd successfully flowed through the gate by threes and fours.
The sharp knife slid smoothly through the strawberry from the tip down and the fruit fell into two even halves. Bethany chopped it up into bite sized pieces, and then scooped the pieces into the full bowl of mixed fresh fruit. The church picnic was this very afternoon. Her mother was now assembling the mini ham sandwiches. Hopefully the picnic was a success. Why was she thinking that? The picnics were almost always a success. And they were so much fun. They gathered at one of the ranches, where folding tables were laid out with an assortment of picnic party food. It was buffet style. Everyone grabbed a plate and dished what they liked from everything that was prepared. After the meal, different types of games were played. Some people set up volleyball while others tackled horseshoes. The really young children played with any barnyard animals, and often took turns with the tire swing, which every ranch owned. So why was she so worried? She knew. It was partly because of Buck. It was different having a new person in the house, and especially someone like him. But, she knew the real reason was because of her dad. Her dad had had another frightful attack a couple days ago. This time, her mother had been with them in the barn. She’d made him go to the hospital where they’d hooked him up to wires and monitors, and then just sent him home. He seemed fine, they said. The test results would reveal everything, but it would be a couple days before they were finalized.
“You lost over there?”
Bethany turned from the counter. Her mother had finished the sandwiches and was reaching for the bowl of fruit.
“Yes, I was.” Bethany confessed. “Do you need me to do anything else?”
Buck combed his hair into place, and then slid his feet into his sneakers. They felt weird on his feet. The last time he wore these… Nope, he left that behind. He was not going to think about that anymore. But, he felt a little guilty. He couldn’t keep hiding it. Somehow, it was going to come out; the horrible truth about his past. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as he thought, but he didn’t want to let everyone hear it. This wasn’t something you shared with everyone. Now, he must put it behind him, he had a picnic to go to. He walked out of the guest room and slammed right into Mr. Holten.
“Oh!” Mr. Holten raised his eyebrow and Buck answered with a turning up of the corner of his mouth, a halfhearted attempt at a reassuring smile. That was all the communication they needed, man to man. As they headed out to the car, Buck lingered behind the rest of the family. He wasn’t sure what to expect from this picnic. What would it be like? When he was little, he had never gone to any picnics. His family hadn’t really done those sorts of things. Things that made you feel like you belonged. Here, he felt needed. Don’t trust it, he warned himself. You never know when someone might turn on you. Buck eagerly climbed into the vehicle, hoping his slightly trembling fingers didn’t give away how nervous he was about going to this picnic. Or about having to sit next to Bethany, whose aloofness made it a little bit difficult to hold a conversation.
Bethany placed the plastic wrapped bowl of fruit on the long folding table. The warm sun kissed her face, but the cool breeze kept the afternoon comfortably warm, carrying with it the aroma of burgers grilling. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Young children had removed their shoes and were racing around in the soft grass, playing tag. The girls’ pigtails flying as the boys raced away from them, Tommy and Kyle included. She smiled as the warm spot in her heart grew larger for those dear children. A flying ball caught her eye as it sailed over the hydrangea bush. The teenagers and some people her own age were bouncing a beach ball over the volleyball net that her grandpa had most likely set up this morning. Apparently, the ball had decided to give them chase, as she watched the lively teenagers bound after it. Today, she would most likely spend the first part of the afternoon with the parents. She feared that exercising before the meal would likely decrease her appetite for food. The parents and the rest of the young, unmarried adults stood around, or brought lawn chairs from their cars for seats. Some had set blankets on the ground for the young children. As she moved away from the food table, a slight rustling of the grass and darkening of the ground in front of her gave away that there was a presence behind her. She turned to see Buck standing there with her mother’s covered plate in hand. He seemed uncertain as he gazed down at her, a question in his eyes. She reached out her hands for the plate.
“I can take that for you.” She placed her hand on the plate and he released it. He quickly walked away and joined her father, who was setting up chairs. She worried about her father. The doctor had said her dad showed symptoms of a heart problem. She hoped that wasn’t true. Could he possibly get a heart attack? She didn’t want to lose her dad! She pushed away those thoughts and thoughts of Buck returned. Why was he here in the first place? She remembered that he’d seemed a bit relieved to leave her with the plate. She was a little relieved too. She didn’t have to talk to him. Not that she wouldn’t talk to him, but he reminded her so much of who she’d left behind. No, she wouldn’t get that close to someone again. She couldn’t risk getting hurt again. She pushed the thoughts away. She would never think of that college boy again. He was gone from her life forever, so he was never to enter her thoughts again. As everyone seemed to have arrived, Bethany joined the parents and other adults. The children and teenagers were called for prayer and everyone joined in a circle as the pastor lifted his voice to God in thanksgiving.
Bethany waited her turn, and then slipped into line quietly. The younger children were already seated on the soft patchwork blanket Grandma had provided. She peered around the people in front of her, hoping to catch a glimpse of her brothers and her parents. They were almost to the food line, her brothers in animated conversation with her mother about something. As Bethany stood there wondering, a familiar shadow loomed over her head and fell at her feet. Buck. She slightly turned, and looked up. She was greeted with a pleasant, friendly smile, and she realized she’d been standing in one spot and was holding up the line. Embarrassed, she hurried forward and grabbed a paper plate from the top of the stack. There was a wonderful spread today. Besides the sandwiches and fruit her family had brought, there were hamburgers, chips, fresh vegetables, and many assortments of other delightful foods. She carefully chose her meal and joined her family. A few minutes later, Buck joined them. Chatter filled the air as people asked about Buck. Who was he? Why was he here? It was so great to meet him! Bethany threw away her premature prejudice and joined into the conversation.
Bethany pushed up with the balls of her feet and slammed the heel of her hand into the volleyball. The opponents stood in amazement as the ball pounded the grass at their feet. Cheers emitted and she was soon engulfed in a bear hug! She reveled in the amazing love of her church family as the opposite team ducked under the net and joined into the celebration. She joined the throng as they then disassembled the volleyball net, then departed to go find her mother. She was supposed to help put away the leftover food. She reached the food tables just as the men were taking them down. Her mother was carrying a bowl of chips into her grandparents’ farmhouse and Bethany ran to catch up to her on the porch.
Buck carefully maneuvered his way through the garage doorway. The bulky, long table almost scraped the doorway as he lifted it towards the rack that, as he’d been told, held the tables for all these occasions. His thoughts wandered to the young woman who had entered the house right as he passed by. He recalled how her blond hair had flown as she’d made the winning blow. And how her family and friends had gathered around her to congratulate. His heart swelled at the love and compassion this church held for its members. He couldn’t ever remember experiencing this type of family before. Steps treaded on the concrete behind him, and he turned to see Bethany’s grandfather standing there with two more tables.
“I’m so glad you have come to help the Holten’s.” The old cowboy’s eyes glinted with approval as he handed Buck the last two tables. “They have been in a hard spot for a long time. You are an answer to prayer.”
Buck didn’t know quite what to say. He felt so accepted by this old gentleman. By the entire family. Even Bethany seemed to have dropped her uncertainty and accepted him as a friend. Grandpa turned and Buck followed him out to the front of the farmhouse. The family had gathered on the lawn. As they made their goodbyes, Buck felt a part of this family, but he knew he couldn’t stay long term if he didn’t share his long hidden secret. He felt a little detachment at that thought. He wanted to stay with this family, but he was very uncomfortable at the thought of opening his heart. Especially with the uncertainty of Mr. Holten’s health looming in the air.
Early morning rays slit through the kitchen window and pooled on the floor. Bethany snagged her boots from the mud room and slipped out the screen door, letting it softly bump closed behind her. The cool morning air greeted her. She breathed deeply, drawing in the sweetness. Voices wafted towards her from the direction of the barn. It seemed Buck and her parents were already up. Buck had been so kind yesterday afternoon. He’d helped with the tables and the grill, filling in wherever he was needed. He seemed just the right sort of man. A really good guy. Bethany pushed open the barn door and a sense of foreboding settled over her like a dark cloud, threatening to disturb the peace. She carefully crept towards the office, where she could hear her mom and dad’s voices. It seemed her dad was on the phone. His voice was low, which made it hard to hear. She tiptoed closer…
“Oh! Wow! Three weeks is not that much time. You’re sure the time it will take is that short? Okay. Thanks, doc.” Her dad’s voice drifted off and Bethany felt fear creep into her stomach. What was wrong with her dad? Was he going to die? She pushed away the thoughts and crept away from the door. Perhaps she had heard wrong. She knew that people with heart problems did live. They just had to take a medication. But others could not be helped. People died from heart problems. She took a deep, ragged breath and combed her fingers through her hair. Her limbs felt numb and heavy as lead, but she forced herself to move. She had to get her chores done, Trigger taken care of. As she neared Trigger’s stall, she saw a black tail disappear out other barn door. Buck was out here too.
Bethany shoveled the last pile into the wheelbarrow. The fears that had crept in now balled in her stomach and threatened to rise up to her throat. What was she to do? Had she possibly just misunderstood? She didn’t think so. Her dad’s words pierced back into her soul. Three weeks is not that much time. The ball of sorrow started to rise, but she refused to give in. She quickly turned and faced the door. And Buck. There he stood like a solid wall, a protector. If only she could lay her face on his capable chest. Why was she thinking this way? She slowly moved towards him, hoping to get around him to empty the barrow. But he was immovable. What was he doing? She looked up into his face, and there she saw empathetic and questioning eyes. They pierced down into her soul, and she froze. He reached out an arm towards her. Peace unwillingly washed over her. Her eyelashes fluttered closed to keep the tears at bay.
“Bethany.” The single word jolted her as his gentle touch on her arm felt like fire that singed her cool skin. She jerked away.
“I c-can’t.” The tears filled her eyes as she grabbed Trigger’s bridle, halter, and rope from the stall door. Bethany bolted out the barn door. Maybe he wouldn’t follow, but that was too much to hope for. She ran to her horse and got the bit in his mouth. She could hear Buck’s boots on the packed dirt behind her. She hurried. She had to get away before he reached her. She quickly swung herself up on Trigger’s bare back.
“Bethany, wait!” He really sounded urgent, but she didn’t care. She had to get away. The tears fell fast as she galloped towards the riding trail. She swiped at them angrily and bit her lip to stem the flood.
Buck slowly pushed the empty barrel into the tack room. He knew what Bethany had overheard. He’d overheard it too. That’s why he had gone to Trigger’s stall. He’d hoped to comfort her. To show her that he cared. But she didn’t care for him and she’d let him know. Pain dulled in his heart. That’s what he got for lowering his defenses. He should’ve known better. Women always let you down. Isn’t that what previous experiences had already taught him? He shouldered the stall door open and sawdust and woodchip mixture tumbled onto the mat in a pile; just like his heart had dropped a couple minutes ago.
“Buck!” He jumped when Mr. Holten’s voice reached him. He dropped the rake he’d just picked up and hurried towards the barn office. He wondered what he was going to hear. Would it be bad news like it seemed from the snippet of conversation he and Bethany had overheard?
Coarse hair gently caressed her cheek as Bethany buried her face in Trigger’s mane. The tears had subsided, and she released the reins. They hung loose about the gelding’s neck as he picked his own way on the trail. Her father’s words still pounded in her head. Was that phone call her father’s death certificate? Would she lose her dad? What would happen to the farm? She breathed out a shaky sigh and tightly gripped her horse. The quiet breeze gently lifted wisps of her hair and fanned her hot face. Then, suddenly, a branch slapped against her forehead! She sat up quickly. Where was Trigger going? The trees still looked familiar, but the path her horse had found definitely was new. What had made this little trail? She slowed Trigger to almost a crawl. Tiny twigs and old leaves crunched under his feet. He made so much noise! They would probably scare it away! Running water soon blended with the other sounds in the woods. Suddenly, something caught her eye on the ground. She stopped the horse to inspect the mark. After removing the leaves, she gasped! A fresh hoof print! The animal must be somewhere close by! She grabbed the reins and led her horse around the bend of trees towards the river, and a beautiful sight hit her gaze.
The breeze cooled his neck as Buck purposely strode towards the house. Bethany’s gentle face filled his thoughts, her eyes full of sadness and uncertainty. He wished he could wash the sadness away. But, what could he do? His past history proved he couldn’t even keep his own family and fiancée. How could he gain the trust and love of someone else? But he’d already gained someone’s trust, hadn’t he? Hadn’t Mr. Holten shared his news with him first? Besides his wife, of course.
Foxie curled around his legs as he attempted to ascend the stairs without stepping on the calico cat. He bent and picked her up. The animal nuzzled his face and began to purr. If only Bethany would warm up to him as fast as her cat had. He gently set the animal down and entered the house. Mr. and Mrs. Holten were sitting at the table, deep in conversation. Not wanting to interrupt, he quietly reached into the cupboard for a glass. But, Kimo and Rex had other plans. The two began to bark when his boot knelled on the wood floor. Mr. and Mrs. Holten turned and smiled when they saw Buck.
“Oh! I thought Bethany would come in with you.” Mrs. Holten rose from her chair.
“Nope. Last I saw her, she rode off on Trigger.” Buck winced. He’d seen how upset Bethany had been and then had not said anything to her parents. Now they most likely knew and wondered why he hadn’t said anything earlier.
“I’ll go find her.” The instant the words left his mouth, he wished he hadn’t said them. She didn’t want to see him. He’d seen the look on her face when he’d reached out to her. What would she say when he showed up to bring her back to the house? But, she had to know the truth about the phone call. And her dad was in no shape to ride off to find Bethany.
“That would be great if you would.” Her mother’s words relieved him. He’d said the right thing. He turned and left, the screen door banging behind him as he took the steps two at a time and loped to the barn. His heart thumped in his chest. He was still worried about how he’d be received. Would she run again? Or would she finally accept him as a friend who cared? He pushed away the thoughts and grabbed his saddle. Now was the time to find out.