A Cowboy to Keep - Chapter 4
The icy water numbed her bare foot. Bethany splashed the second foot into the water and carefully hurried across the tiny river, which was barely five feet wide. She placed her hand on the small branch blocking her view and pushed it aside. The dappled gray horse lifted its graceful head and stared at her. It seemed to be judging her. Seeing if it could trust her. Seeming to make up its decision, the animal slowly took a hesitant step forward, then another. Bethany stood, rooted in place until the horse reached her. She felt like she was in a dream. This never happened in real life. She held out her hand and the Arabian pressed his velvet nose into the palm of her hand. Remembering the small treats she always carried in her pocket, she fished one out and offered it in palm of her other hand. He deftly whiskered it up in his big teeth. Maybe she could just place her hand on his neck. The animal quivered, but stood still at the slight pressure on his skin. She gently turned and the animal followed. Maybe he would follow all the way to her horse. When she reached the river, the animal halted, and then pawed at the water. Water splashed and Trigger, on the other side, whinnied. The large horse next to her jerked his head up, and then plunged right into the frigid water. She plunged right in next to him. After crossing the river, Bethany slipped her socks and boots back on and then unclasped the rope from Trigger’s halter and approached the horse.
A slight noise caught Buck’s ear. He turned Gunsmoke towards the sound and came upon a fresh trail. Following the marks was easy and soon turned a corner. The sound of a river met his ears. He wondered if Bethany was nearby. He hoped so. She needed to hear what was going on with her dad. He rounded another bend and there she was. She was tying a rope around the neck of a horse he’d never seen before. The animal pranced around her, making her job difficult. She finally seemed satisfied with her work, turned and reached for Trigger’s reins, and stopped. Their gazes met and the single tear that slide silently down her cheek sent a dagger through his heart. Did he cause that tear? No. She was worried about her father. That was all. Well, he was here to deliver the news. He calmly dismounted and gently ambled over to where she stood.
Bethany swiped at tears on her face and marched to Trigger. She wasn’t going to let this man get to her. The gray Arabian reluctantly pranced behind her. Why was she tearing up again? Am I that worried about my dad? Then she remembered the last few sleepless nights. She was just really tired. I have to get more sleep. She planted her hand against Trigger’s warm back and was stopped.
“Bethany.” Why did his voice pronouncing her name always cause such a tremor within her? She had to make it stop.
“I don’t want to hear it.” She knew she sounded harsh, but what was she to say?
“I think you do.” His voice was gentle. It sounded like he really cared. That sent another pang to her heart. Why wouldn’t he just leave her alone?
“Just, go. Please.” She forced the tremor from her voice. “I’d rather hear about my father’s death sentence from his own mouth.”
He was coming closer. She could feel it. And then she heard his boots crunch on the leaves. His arm snaked up beside hers on Trigger’s back. She knew now he was close enough that if she backed up, she would run into his capable chest.
“You’re father did not receive a death sentence.” His quiet words washed over her like a soothing balm.
“I-I don’t…” Her words trailed off. Was it true? Had her dad received good news? A slight turn of the head gave her view of his hazel eyes, deep and full of empathy.
“A-are you sure?” She forced her voice to work. She hoped, no prayed, that he would affirm the question.
“Mmhm.” He nodded his head and the corner of his mouth lifted in a lopsided smile. Relief and peace filled her. She gently allowed her face to curve into a small smile. His eyes grew soft and Bethany stilled. How comforted she was by his protective presence. She relished in the moment and then it was over. He drew away and retreated to his horse. What has happened? Bethany closed her eyes. She’d felt such pain earlier. Perhaps the reason the pain was still there was because of who she’d left at school. And maybe, what she’d brought home from school. An aching heart from a broken relationship. Lord, I don’t want these old feelings anymore. I want to enjoy this new friendship without having to remember the past. A warmth puddled in her toes and rose up to fill her to the top. It seemed as if God was giving her a hug. She was brought back to the present by a nudge to her arm and a pull on her shirt. The young Arabian shoved her again and she pried her tee shirt hem from Trigger’s mouth.
Mounted on Trigger’s bare back, she realized Buck had left. Suddenly, a deep loneliness filled her. Where was that coming from? Why am I feeling this way? She directed the animals towards the main path. The sun glinted through the trees and fell on the packed dirt. And a hoof. She looked up. There sat Buck, waiting for her on the main path. He hadn’t left her after all! He was going to ride with her. He wasn’t just finding her and leaving. He actually cared enough to make sure she was all right and was coming back. She carefully guided the horses alongside Buck and Gunsmoke.
The gentle rocking motion and rhythmic pattern of the hooves on the soft dirt and grassy path filled her senses. Tender grass shoots waved in the gentle breeze. She wondered what would happen when she got back to the house. What is dad going to say? She had just run off without explanation. But she was worried. She dropped her head down and bit her lip as the casual breeze lifted her hair away from her face. What is actually wrong with my dad?
Suddenly, it felt like she was about to be pulled from her horse, her right arm straight as a board, muscles tensed! And then she came fully back to the present. The young Arab had spooked and now stood still, muscles and ears twitching, eyes wild. She whispered gently and ran a hand down his velvet coat. He slowly calmed, and then she caught Buck’s glance. It was full of compassion. She turned back to the two horses she was controlling and began moving forward again.
“Your dad asked me to tell you about the phone call.” Buck maneuvered his horse closer to Trigger. The horses brushed noses briefly and Bethany could almost touch his boot with her own. She shivered at the closeness.
“Ok. I’m guessing it’s good new based on your earlier statement?” She could hear the sarcasm in her voice, but she could stop it. She felt the spark between them, but she didn’t want it. Look what happened last time she was in a relationship?
“Your dad did have a couple very minor heart attacks.” No sooner had the words left his mouth, Bethany felt the fear rising back up in her throat.
“I thought you said it was good news?” Bethany couldn’t believe it. Had he lied to her to get her to come back?
“It is. Let me finish.” His words were gentle, no harshness or malice even tinted them. “Your father will have to take a pill to control his heart. But, as long as he obeys the doctor, he will be fine.”
“But, what about the ranch? Will he be able to continue working?” Bethany wondered if she and Buck and her mom would be able to do it without her father.
“The doctor told him to stay away from the work for a few weeks, but then he’ll be able to return to normal work.” He seemed so confident of what he said.
Bethany breathed a sigh of relief. Her dad was going to be fine. She’d overheard the doctor telling her dad the length of time until he could return to work. That was it. She felt a well of hope rise within her, all because of this young man here, who came to set her straight. She would’ve sat out there in the woods until dark.
“Thank you.” She breathed out the words. She felt like she was opening her heart. And it didn’t hurt. It felt good. Like a balm. She met his eyes again, and she was confused by what she read there. Compassion still resided, but uncertainty and something like disappointment laced behind it. He nodded stiffly. He didn’t talk the rest of the ride.
The barnyard soon came into sight, and Bethany dismounted and led the horses to the barn. Buck seemed to be operating on auto pilot as he took care of Gunsmoke. He soon disappeared to the house, leaving her to take care of Trigger and the new horse. She wondered what was bothering him. He was very kind, but she knew nothing about him. What has happened to make him so distant?
A flash of orange and black fur whisked by as Buck cracked open the screen door. The calico cat had managed to slip past. His defenses were not quite good enough. His thoughts returned to the person who also had managed to crack his defenses. The tearstained face rose in his memory. How vulnerable she’d seemed. And then, when they were riding, she’d opened up to him. And that scared him. No girl had ever opened up to him like that before. He had to replace his defenses. He had to harden them. No one must get that close to crack them again.
He carefully entered the kitchen and dining area. Bethany’s parents had moved away from the table and were no longer in sight. That was all the better. He didn’t want to talk to anyone anyway. A slight thumping on the stairs gave away that her brothers were soon approaching. Escaping to his room was the only option, so he quickly padded through the breakfast room. He felt a little bit guilty running away from the family after just returning a runaway, but what was he to do until his heart no longer felt exposed? But, he feared, his heart’s defenses might never be back to what they once were ever again.
Bethany slipped in the screen door and slid her feet from her boots. Pain knifed through her temple, the after effects from her roller coaster emotions. Relief still rushed through her veins. Buck had come for her. He had been so compassionate, but then he’d pulled away. His distance confused her. Is he that way with everyone?
A slight noise banged in the kitchen. She peeked around the corner. The breakfast dishes were scattered over the top of the island, Foxie standing in the center scrubbing the top of the stack with her sandpaper tongue. Bethany felt a light chuckle rise as she gingerly removed the cat from the dishes and placed her outside. She returned to the kitchen and began filling the dishwasher with the plates. The serious tone inside her returned. Her father was going to be fine, but what was going to happen with what she’d just found on the property? What do I tell him about the new animal that I just put in the barn?
Padded footfalls on the stairs reached her ears and Bethany stilled. Her heart beat an erratic rhythm in her throat as she turned to face her father. She met his gaze uncertainly and he smiled. Relief flooded her and she rushed into his arms. She felt so secure. But, she had to tell him about the horse.
“I-I have something to tell you.” Bethany pulled away. Her dad gave her a quizzical look, so she explained.
“I brought something home with me.” Her words came out breathless. “It’s out in the barn.”
Bethany shoved the heavy door open and moved down the barn aisle. Loud thumping noises rose to her and her father’s ears as they reached the extra stall.
“What have you got in there?” Her father slowly pulled open the top door to the stall. A delicate, dappled nose poked through before the door was all the way open. Then, the Arabian pulled back, snorted fiercely and went back to pacing around the large box stall. Every now and then, it would stop, prick its ears at Bethany, then snort again and continue pacing. Bethany turned to her father.
“Where do you think he came from?” Because the animal had allowed her to touch it and lead it home, he must have had some contact with humans.
“I’m not sure. None of our neighbors have a horse like this.” Dad scratched his slightly graying dark hair.
“We will have to put up signs.” Bethany turned back to the horse, which had stopped pacing. It now stood, listening to them. Its ears flicked back and forth. “Whoever lost him will want him back. He’s such a beautiful horse.”
The Arab, seeming to know he was being praised, cocked his neck and pranced around the stall, every now and then snorting and jumping away from the stall door.
“We’ll get those signs printed, and then you and Buck can take them to town.” Her father turned and snapped a picture of the Arabian. Bethany returned to the house to start working on the sign just as Buck entered the barn with Gunsmoke.
At the breakfast table, Bethany plugged the black cord into the USB port on her laptop. As soon as she got the picture from her dad’s phone, she could finish the poster. I wonder who this animal belongs to? She slipped the cord from her computer and rose from her chair. Boots knelling on the floor behind her caused her to pause.
“You ready to head to town?” Buck moved closer and placed a hand on the edge of the table. Bethany willed the butterflies away and managed a smile.
“Almost. I just need to return this to dad.” She held up the Smartphone.
“Bethany! Where were you all day?!” Tommy bounced through the kitchen. Kyle followed close behind.
“I found something in the woods.” Bethany opened the picture on her dad’s phone and showed her brothers the photo of the Arabian.
“Is that out in the barn right now?!” Kyle exclaimed.
“Yeah, but Buck and I have to go hang up signs in town. His owner might be looking for him.”
“Oh.” Tommy’s face hung, “I thought we were gonna keep ‘im.”
“Hey, cheer up. How would you feel if your horse got lost? Wouldn’t you want him back?” Bethany ruffled the little boy’s hair.
“Yeah! So, his owner wants him back?” Tommy posed the question.
“That’s what these signs are going to find out for us.” Bethany reached over Tommy’s head and clicked print. Several sheets flew out of the printer. She gathered them up and headed for the door. Tommy followed right at her heels.
“Can we come with?” Tommy and Kyle asked in unison.
“If Dad says it’s ok.” Bethany gave the boys a reassuring smile. The screen door banged as they raced out to the barn.
Buck placed a foot inside Mr. Holten’s F350 King Ranch pick-up truck. The black vehicle shimmered in the sunlight. He couldn’t believe Mr. Holten had told him to drive it. This seemed like a prize truck. He would never be able to afford one of these beauties.
A loud squeal pierced the air! Buck turned to see Kyle and Tommy racing towards the truck. They climbed into the back of the extended cab. Apparently, Mr. Holten told the boys they could ride along. Buck was glad. Those boys were such hard workers. Even though he’d only been at the ranch for about a month, he really liked Kyle and Tommy. They could liven up anyone’s day.
“You getting all the way in the truck?” Bethany grinned at him as she reached for her seatbelt.
“Yeah.” Buck shook his head. He’d allowed himself to get lost in thought again. A sliver of fear crept in as he tried to put up his defenses in place. They seemed permanently cracked, not working properly. He turned the key in the ignition.
The ride to town was shortened by the fact that the boys chatted their ears off the entire ride. He could definitely tell they were excited about hanging up the signs. They even said that they couldn’t wait to reunite the horse “with his boy.”
“There! The last one.” Bethany announced as she pushed the thumb tack into the cork board. Both boys jumped up and down and clapped their hands.
“Now, maybe his owner will see it and the horse will get to be with his boy again.” Tommy reached up and wrapped his fingers around her palm. Bethany felt the warmth of love fill her. Her adopted brothers were blood relatives in her mind, even though they really weren’t.
Ready to head back to the ranch?” Buck stopped a few inches behind Bethany. She could feel his warmth, his peppermint breath caressing her hair. She wished she could just lean back against his strength. Instead, she turned and glanced up at him. But, before she could respond, her brothers did.
“Yep! We want to go for a ride!” Tommy pulled his hand from hers and grinned at Buck. Kyle cast a somewhat questioning glance at Bethany.
“That’s fine with me.”
Kyle’s face relaxed into a broad grin. Bethany nodded towards the door and the boys took off, racing to the truck. Bethany grinned as she a Buck walked out of the vet’s office. A warm peace filled her. What a perfect day.
The coarse brush smoothed over Trigger’s damp coat. The ride had been perfect. The hot sun, the cool breeze, and the softly waving grass all lent themselves to a beautiful day. Her brothers had enjoyed themselves. They had raced their frisky ponies across the shimmering field as she and Buck lingered behind and watched. Buck. She could tell he really liked kids. They had sat and talked about the family and farm life for a little, but then he’d laughed and raced with Kyle and Tommy. She’d joined the fun. The afternoon had ended when Buck was called away to go feed the cattle. She felt a fondness for him start to fill in her heart. What was happened to her? She thought back to her ex-boyfriend. The guy she’d left at school. The feelings she’d had for him were nothing compared to what was happening in her life right now. Am I falling in love? A slight nicker broke into her thoughts. She shook her head. No, she was not falling in love. Nope. Trigger was staring into her eyes.
“What?” She playfully scrubbed the animal’s soft neck.
Bethany finished grooming Trigger and led him outside. The Arabian snorted and pricked his ears when she returned to the barn. The young gelding nuzzled her shoulder and nibbled her hair as Bethany snapped a lead on his new royal blue halter. The one Buck had bought for him while they were in town earlier. She could tell he really liked the horse. She hoped they would be able to keep him. As she led the Arabian outside, she wondered if the owner would show up. The animal was so trusting of Bethany; she felt that the owner must be very kind to this beautiful horse.
After he secured the cattle gate, Buck climbed aboard the tractor and lifted the round bale of hay into the pasture. The scene from earlier that day entered into his brain. He saw the boys cheerfully hanging up signs, eager for the animal to be reunited with its owner. But, he’d also noticed how much attention Bethany and the boys gave the animal. They loved brushing and playing with it. Yet, he never saw them riding it. Perhaps it wasn’t trained yet for that.
Bethany slid the blue halter onto the Arabian’s nose and clasped a lead to the ring. She and Buck had decided to train the animal. She hoped its owner would not mind. If the gelding’s owner ever appeared. She easily slid the latch and the Arabian nudged the door open. The velvet nose whispered across her shoulder and Bethany grinned, leaning into the animal. Suddenly, the horse turned its head at the same time Bethany heard the barn door scratch on its rusty tracks.
“Bethany?” Buck’s familiar voice carried through the barn and sent gentle shivers down Bethany’s spine. She felt a shy smile gently twist her lips. She was getting used to having him around. No, it was more than that. She liked having him around. His gentle ways with animals and especially people had weaseled their way into her heart. A slight pinch to her arm pulled her back to the present. The Arabian was nibbling on her sleeve. Bethany laughed. Everything felt so right. She led the horse out of the stall and stopped when she reached Buck at the door. He opened up his hand. She hesitated only an instant, and then placed her cool fingers against his warm, work worn palm. She grinned up at his smiling face, and then pulled him and the horse towards the round pen.
Buck rested his elbows on the rail. The Arabian swiveled his ears as he trotted in circles, Bethany clucking and raising the whip to keep him going. Buck kept very still. The animal was distracted at every movement or sound. He had to get to the cattle soon, but he was afraid of startling the horse. And then Bethany would have to start over. He really didn’t want to leave anyway. He watched as the gray horse’s body language soon began to focus towards Bethany. Perhaps now was the time to go tend the cattle since the horse was now focused on Bethany. He moved slowly away from the fence and towards the barn. His movement caught the Arabian’s eye, and the animal jerked to the side. It started snorting and pricked its ears as it stared at Buck. Bethany glared in his direction, and then turned to calm down the excited horse.
Bethany led the Arabian towards the barn. After Buck left, she’d finally gotten the horse to calm down, but the Arabian had not done what she wanted him to do. Am I doing something wrong? She thought that she had gained the animal’s full trust. The horse would have been attentive to her commands. But, the horse had only shown a slight interest, and not obeyed anything yet. She fingered the ends of her hair as she secured the stall door. It seemed that the animal had acted up after Buck had left. But not before. Perhaps the horse trusted Buck. She would approach him tonight to see if he would train the animal with her.
Buck sat in the family room that evening, reading his Bible. But, his mind kept wandering to the beautiful young woman in the house.
“Buck?” Bethany poked her head into the family room. She was wearing her favorite jeans and a simple modest t-shirt. She padded towards him, her bright socks peeking out from the hem of her jeans. He pushed his heart back into place as he lifted his gaze to her questioning eyes.
“I have a question for you.” Her mouth twitched up in a timid half smile.
“Of course.” He smiled.
“Would you like to help train the Arabian?” She expectedly looked up into his face. He hesitated.
"I don't think I have the time for that with my other responsibilities."
Bethany's face drooped a little, but he didn't know what else he could say.