The breeze whispered across his arms as Buck herded the last few cattle into the back pasture. Mr. Holten nudged Goliath forward.
“That new horse in the barn seems to be doing well with his training.” Mr. Holten noticed everything. Buck just nodded his head. He could sense what the man was getting at.
“But, perhaps he could be doing a bit better, though?” Mr. Holten sent Buck an expectant, questioning glance. The last couple of days, Buck had watched Bethany as she had, with some minor difficulty, handled the high strung Arabian.
“I suppose.” He replied noncommittally.
Bethany grasped the handle and pulled. The barn door swung open and the bright sunlight hit her in the face. Today was the day her dad was allowed to begin a little work again. He and Buck were out working the cattle at the moment. Bethany felt a little trepidation at the thought of her dad working again. But, the doctor said it was safe for him to do some work, as long as he didn’t overdo it. Trigger nudged her shoulder. Bethany turned to her horse. The animal’s eyes sparkled. He gazed out the door with his ears pushed as far forward as seemed possible. Bethany laughed and Trigger danced with glee. Another laugh joined hers; a deep rumble. Bethany knew whose laugh that was. Buck. His broad shoulders sent a shadow over her which pooled at her feet.
“I’m worried about Dad.” Blonde wisps danced in front of her eyes. Bethany tucked a few strands behind her ear.
“What if working again sent him into another attack? I don’t want to lose him. What would happen if we lost him?” She fingered the ends of her hair, worry snaking through her. She felt his hand gently grasp her shoulder and he turned her around to face him.
“The doctor said he could go back to work today. And I will make sure that he doesn’t overdo it. There is no need to worry.” He gazed into her eyes, gentleness, caring, and something like confidence radiating from him. Bethany fought the urge to lay her head on his chest. She didn’t need this right now. She didn’t want this right now. He was a good friend. But, if she let her feelings get ahead of her, like she did last time… She wasn’t going to think about that. She had already decided to move forward, right? She took a deep breath of air and nodded, exhaling slowly. She turned toward the door and led Trigger outside into the sunshine.
The horse pranced beside her. His body radiated pent up energy. The animal needed some exercise. Since she only had a half day today, Bethany would take him for a ride later. She would take her brothers with her. They would like that.
The little curly white dog tugged on his leash. He obviously was done with the vet’s office. His nails clicked on the hard floor as he pranced in circles. When his efforts proved in vain, he turned and stretched up on his hind legs, placing his front paws on his owner’s knee. The lady chucked and scooped up the little beggar.
“He sure is ready to leave, isn’t he?” Bethany grinned as she shucked off her gloves.
“Yeah. I don’t think he really likes getting his shots, does he?” She tickled the little animal under his chin. He whined guiltily, looking up at his owner with soft chocolate brown eyes.
Bethany grabbed the clipboard off the wall, signed her name at the bottom of the page, and handed the papers over to the woman. The woman thanked her and then left the room. Bethany released a sigh of relief. The last patient was out the door. Thank goodness for closing times. She looked at the clock. 5:00! Wow, the time flew fast. She was only supposed to have half a day of work. But patients had streamed through the office, leaving little time between for breaks. She had had barely enough time to grab some lunch and call her mother to inform her that she would not be home until supper. Bethany moved towards the exam room door, her feet complaining every step. Poor Trigger was not going to get his exercise today. She was so bone tired; there was no possibility of anything but crashing after supper.
As she swept the office, she wondered who was going to pick her up tonight. Her coworkers helped clean up the office, vacuuming the waiting area and straightening the magazines the rowdy animals had strewn on the floor. Bethany smiled. She loved working here. The environment was so pleasant and the best part was getting to help the animals. Of course there were the down sides. She had to put an old dog down the other day. His poor owner was so quiet, with tears streaming down her face. Bethany shook her head. There were so many pleasant visits, why remember the sad ones? She shook her head again, and leaned against the reception desk, her chores finished. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her dad’s F350 pull in front of the building.
“I’ll see you later.” She called out to the other women in the office. Bethany pushed away from the desk, the smooth surface sliding underneath her fingertips. She made her way jerkily across the room to the door, her exhausted legs complaining about moving again.
As she approached the passenger side, Buck easily swung down from the driver’s seat. Bethany felt her heart skip a beat as she willed the corners of her mouth to stay in a simple smile. Her feelings were rising, and it was getting harder and harder to keep them in check. She really liked this man.
Buck ambled around the front of the truck. Bethany let her smile grow and raised her eyes. Buck reached for the door handle and paused. The connection sparked between them as his deep blue eyes gazed into her soul. She had never felt like this. Not even with her last relationship. This was an entirely new experience. Buck pulled back a step and severed the eye contact. A sliver of disappointment ran through her as he placed his hand on the hood. What was she hoping for? As much as she wanted a new relationship, she could not force one to happen. It just didn’t work that way. But her disappointment remained. She had raised her hopes too high. He didn’t care for her that way. And that thought sent a pang through her stomach. Movement in front of her jerked her from her thoughts. Buck’s fingers grasped the handle and yanked the truck door open. Bethany eased herself onto the seat, as his hand guided her elbow.
Buck smoothly maneuvered the truck onto the gravel drive. As soon as the tires ground to a halt, he leaped out of the vehicle and swung open the passenger door. Bethany stepped to the ground in front of him, smiling up at him. With the sun glinting off the highlights in her soft blond hair, she was easily the most beautiful woman in the world. Yet she couldn’t care for him. He wasn’t what she would want. He had no place to call his own. The only thing he owned was his horse and the small amount of belongings that fit in a saddle bag. He couldn’t support a wife.
Bethany moved towards the house, Buck’s feet automatically falling in step with her. This felt good. He could get used to this. He thought how nice her petite fingers would feel against his palm. No, he would not let his feelings get out of hand. He had to shut them down. He couldn’t show that he cared. He could be a friend, but that was where it stopped. He couldn’t let her know his past, could he?
The screen door squeaked open as Bethany hauled herself up the porch steps, her feet complaining loudly with each step. She sure was exhausted, but her paycheck at the end of the week was definitely worth it. Not to mention all the lovely animals she was privileged to help.
“You need to get off your feet.” Mom’s statement pulled Bethany from her musing.
“Yeah.” She gathered herself and ambled into the kitchen, the aroma of chicken and garlic was filling the air.
“So, I’ve been noticing a difference in you lately.” Mom gave her a teasing, knowing glance as she reached into the cupboard.
“Oh, yeah?” Bethany wondered if her mother was referring to a certain person she had been spending some extra time with for the last week.
“You seem…” Bethany’s mom hesitated, “happier.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about.” Bethany tried to hold onto her ignorance, but her mother was having none of it.
“Yeah, I think Buck may be part of the reason for it.” Her mother ventured as she filled two glasses from the fridge’s water dispenser.
“I think you are imagining things.” Bethany threw the words out, hoping to deter her.
“Nope, not imagining.” Her mother grinned. Bethany couldn’t help the small grin that involuntarily curved her mouth. She tried to hide it, and it appeared that she had succeeded.
“You seem to be getting attached to him.” Mom handed her the glass and reached back into the cupboard.
“I don’t…” Bethany hesitated when her mom gave her a pointed look.
“…besides, he’s a wanderer. You can’t raise a family when you’re going from place to place…”
“He sure seems to have settled here for a while.” Her mom replied.
Bethany eased into a chair at the island. She was getting a little uncomfortable with this conversation. She needed a different topic. She searched her mind for something else to talk about.
“So, what are we doing for the 4th of July?” Bethany ventured. Her mother gave her an odd look, but went with it.
“I think we’re having a bonfire here on the 4th before the fireworks, and then Sunday, the 5th, we’re having some specials at church.” Her mom sat at the island with her.
“That sounds great.” Bethany took a sip of her water. She kept the rest of the conversation off of her love life. Her non-existent love life.
Buck tucked his choir folder under his chair and ambled out into the foyer where a couple people had gathered to chat before the evening service. As he meandered around the room, many people greeted him with a friendly handshake or smile. He felt so welcomed in this place. This was a place where he fit in, where people were nice, unlike the place where he had lived before… before he had become a wanderer, a drifter. It would be a great place to settle down. He was getting tired of roaming around. He needed a place to call his own. Perhaps he would do some casual searching around this area. He sure was getting paid enough by Mr. Holten to support a place. Something comfortable enough for a small family. A family? Where did that come from? But, as that question surfaced, he knew the answer instantly.
Bethany grabbed her glass of iced tea off the counter and sat at the island across from her mother. Her day off work had gone well so far. She had worked with the Arabian and then she had helped Buck with his cattle chores. She had been helping with his chores for a while now because her dad was still unable to do most of the work, even though he was allowed to go back to work.
“Hey, you in there?” Bethany jumped as her mom tapped her.
“Yeah.” She ran her finger around the rim of her glass. “I was just thinking.”
“Yeah? What about?” Her mother always liked to probe into her thoughts.
“I was wondering if anyone is going to ever show up to take back their horse.” She met her mother’s gaze for a minute, and then went back to tracing the rim of the glass.
“You don’t want anyone to take him,” her mother mused. “You’ve grown attached to him.”
The fire crackled and popped as the church family gathered together for s’mores and singing. Bethany loved these get togethers. The cooler air felt good compared to the stifling heat of the afternoon, a gentle breeze teased their hair. Bethany carried the last tray of jumbo marshmallows, milk and dark chocolate, and graham crackers out. People had now filled the yard around the firepit, sitting in their camping chairs, on the wooden benches her dad had made, or on blankets on the ground. She set the food down on the folding table and stood next to the fire. The singing hadn’t started yet because her Dad hadn’t come out yet.
“This is a great gathering this year.” The tiny, elderly lady next her announced. The woman stood next to Bethany in choir too. She loved caring for people and inviting them over to her farm, which was pretty far from the Holten’s place.
“Yeah.” Bethany replied, “It’s much more than we usually have, I think thanks to Buck.”
“He’s a great addition to this little town. Everyone loves him. I wonder where’s he’s from?” Mrs. Jenkins smiled up at her.
“I don’t know. He just appeared in town.” Bethany didn’t really care, though. He had really shown his worth. “He definitely is a lot of help to us.”
At that moment, her father joined the crowd around the fire. Further conversation was now postponed until the end as they began to sing hymns of praise to God.
Buck set down the last armload of firewood. He looked around at all the people gathered. All these people who cared about each other, including him. How was he to leave behind all these people he loved in return? Lord, I don’t want to leave here.
Bethany watched out of the corner of her eye as Buck remained outside the ring of people. She wondered why he hesitated so much to involve himself. He seemed afraid to let himself care too much. Someone must have hurt him a lot. She slowly edged her way over to him and finally found herself at his elbow. He glanced down at her when she reached him.
“You love all this, don’t you?” Buck said it more as a statement then a question.
“Yeah.” Bethany smiled up at him and then grabbed his hand and pulled his hand towards the circle of people. She could feel him slightly tense, but then relaxed as he began to sing with the rest of them.
As people gave testimonies, Bethany kept an eye on the food table. Twice, she ran the tray back up, refilled it, and brought it back. Each time, she returned to her spot next to Buck and he smiled down at her. She smiled, basking in the warmth of the fire and the company of people around her. Once the singing and testimonies were over, people gave prayer requests. She listened carefully so she would remember them all so she could write them down later that night. Her mom’s gentle voice also rose among them, giving the prayer request for her dad. He could work, yet he still wasn’t allowed to do much. Hopefully, with a little more time, he could go back to work full time. The wonderful fellowship was wrapped up with a few people praying out loud around the circle.
Once the last guest pulled out of the driveway, Bethany put out the fire while Buck hauled the leftover wood back to the barn. Her mom carried the food back to the house. When the fire was out, and the wood was put away, Bethany helped Buck lead all the horses into the barn. The Arabian horse was led in first, and then the rest, because she was so flighty. Once the barn chores were done, Bethany and Buck walked back to the house together.
The last dish now in the drainer next to the sink, Bethany removed her apron and ambled into the living room. Her family was all there gathered as usual for family devotions. Bethany picked up her Bible off the end table and sat in the last empty seat. Between her mom and Buck. Of course, her mom made it that way. Bethany didn’t mind, though. She loved sitting next to Buck now. He loved the Lord, was kind, generous, and hard working. Wait, why am I thinking this? But she knew. She was falling in love with the drifter cowboy. She couldn’t let herself, though. What if he didn’t feel the same way? She shook the thoughts off and forced herself to focus on the Bible lesson. Her dad was leading the Bible study from James 2. He spoke about how works were a product of faith. Bethany engaged in the conversation that followed, and then asked as well as answered some questions. Her dad then wrapped it up with a closing prayer. Bethany leaned back against the couch. Buck did the same. No one talked for a little while, and then the boys, getting restless, asked to be excused.
“Oh, sure. You can go play if you want.” Mom stood up and Dad followed suit. Tommy and Kyle rushed up the stairs to their room. Mom and Dad slowly walked out of the living room. Soon, the sounds of dishes clanging in the cupboards and conversation drifted through the house. Occasionally, sounds from upstairs would be heard.
Bethany glanced up at Buck and then looked down at her hands in her lap.
“Today was pretty amazing.” She said quietly.
“Yeah.” Buck responded.
“The boys just followed you around all day.”
“I didn’t mind. Actually, I liked it. They seem to like me.”
“Yeah,” Bethany agreed. She could see how they were getting attached to him. She was getting attached too. Her feelings were getting stronger. She couldn’t resist them.
“Thank you for helping me.” His hand gently slid to the couch cushion between them. Did he really care for her? Using the tip of her finger, Bethany traced the veins on the back of his hand. After half a summer, his skin had been tanned from riding in the sun all day every day. Her heart swelled as she thought about how much he cared for her family. He not only fulfilled his usual duties of caring for the cattle, but also helped with the horses. He even pitched in with the household chores, like doing the dishes and sweeping the floors. Calloused fingers softly caressed her chin, gently pulling her face up. She met his soft, hazel eyes.
“Y-you’re welcome.” Her words came out breathless. “I-I really enjoyed helping you.”
His eyes softened further, if possible. She glanced at his lips, which parted slightly. He lowered his mouth over hers. She closed her eyes and leaned into the kiss and his arms enveloped her in an embrace. And then it was over. She met his eyes again, which reflected the thrill she felt within herself.
“Your family has all gone to bed, I think.” Buck broke the quietness.
“I think you’re right.” Bethany noted the abnormal silence in the house. They both stood to their feet together.
“Goodnight.” Bethany hesitated as she stood facing him.
“Goodnight.” He smiled and then wrapped his arms around her once more in a quick hug. And then they parted and went to their own bedrooms.
Buck parted the curtains in his room downstairs to let in the moonlight. He then lay down on the bed under the quilt and closed his eyes. He thought back to what happened in the living room. Her golden hair, blue eyes, and gently figure. Bethany was so beautiful. His lips and body still thrilled a little from the kiss. And she had responded with more intensity than he expected. Yet, he kicked himself for kissing her. Why had he allowed the moment to cloud his judgement? She wouldn’t want him. Not if she knew his past. She would hate him. She would never want to see him again. That thought made him shudder. No, she could never know. Yet, he couldn’t keep this secret much longer. The problem was, he didn’t want to leave. What am I to do?