EARLY morning outside Ludington, Michigan, was the part of the day Len Parker liked best, before the heat built and before anyone was up, except maybe the horses, but he could tolerate them. They didn’t give him pitying looks, and they didn’t walk on eggshells around him like everyone else seemed to in the six months since Cliff died. The sun had barely risen when Len pushed open the barn doors, and large beautiful heads poked out of the stalls to see what was going on, their big eyes blinking like they were just waking up too. Len opened the treat barrel and gave each horse a scratch and a snack as he checked them over to make sure everyone looked bright and healthy. In other words, the exact opposite of how he’d felt for what seemed like years.
In the last stall, Len opened the door, saying good morning to the farm’s latest colt, Tiger. Len gave the young horse a carrot and a light pat on the neck, receiving a nuzzle in response. “Yeah, you’re happy today, aren’t you?” Slipping a halter over the colt’s head, Len led him out of the stall and into his pasture. The crisp fall air nipped at Len’s skin as he watched the colt run and play before settling down to start his munching. Len looked at the sky, blue and clear, not a cloud in sight—a perfect autumn day.
After letting most of the horses out into their pastures, Len walked through the barn to the tack room, where he kept a small work area, and began making his notes for the day. The crops weren’t quite ready to come in, but it would only be a few weeks and everyone would be damned busy from sunup to sundown, taking shifts on the tractor in order to ensure they got everything in. Once he had his list completed, Len posted it on the board in the room before walking to the one horse he’d left in the stalls. Quickly and efficiently, Len brushed the chestnut gelding before saddling him and inserting a bit. He then walked the horse to the yard and closed the barn door behind him. Swinging into the saddle, Len clicked his tongue against his teeth and started off on the path toward the creek.
The familiar trail looked the same as it always had as the trees thickened around him, their leaves now yellow, red, and orange, just beginning to fall onto the path. At the creek, Len turned automatically, walking the horse down the worn path to the familiar and very special clearing. Len hadn’t been here in months—he hadn’t been able to bring himself to come here. Dismounting, Len tied the reins to a stout tree and stood in the middle of the clearing.
Memories washed over him, wonderful memories that he hadn’t felt as though he would ever be able to recall without tears. It was in this spot that he and Cliff had first made love, outdoors, beneath some of these very same trees. This had been their spot for twenty years. Len closed his eyes and let the feelings from this place surround him. The very earth seemed steeped in the love they’d shared, undiminished by time, just as Len’s love for his partner hadn’t faded just because Cliff had died. A slight breeze rustled the leaves, and for a split second, Len could hear Cliff’s voice on the wind telling him to move on, that it was time. A tear rolled down Len’s cheek, and he didn’t stop it when another followed, but unlike the tears he’d shed privately before, these were actually cleansing as he could allow himself to remember the times he and Cliff had spent together. Twenty years of loving, raising Cliff’s son—no, their son—Geoff, now a man. Twenty years of happiness and fights that always seemed to end with one of them saying he was sorry and then often coming here, to this very spot, away from the house, the farm, and everything else to make it up to one another.
For months, Len had gotten through the days by telling himself that Cliff had been in pain toward the end and that it was a blessing that, after months of battling cancer, Cliff had died peacefully and at home where he wanted to be. Those last few weeks had been complete agony for Len, and he knew Cliff had been better off once he was truly at peace. He’d told himself that over and over, hoping he could believe it, when all he had wanted to do was scream and yell at the world.
“Cliff, I was so angry at you for leaving me,” Len said out loud. “You were too young to die, and I’m too young to spend the rest of my life alone, without you.” How many times had he told himself and God that it wasn’t fair? Len had lost count, and he wasn’t going to do that today. Life wasn’t fair, he knew that. Hell, he’d lived that for months.
The breeze picked up again. “I’m always with you,” it said in Cliff’s rich voice and then died away again. Cliff was with him, Len could feel it now. He hadn’t for the longest time, but he could now. Maybe he’d just needed time, like everyone said, that and maybe a little perspective and distance.
The horse snorted and pranced, pulling Len out of his daydream and back into the dappled shade of the clearing. He blinked a few times, looking around, half expecting to see Cliff standing nearby. He wasn’t, of course, but Len could feel him there and that was enough to make him feel comforted. The horse nickered again, and Len walked to him, patting his flank lightly before once again listening to the sounds around him. The creek babbled over its stones, and the wind rustled the leaves once again. Wiping his cheeks on his sleeve, Len blinked a few times before untying his horse and stepping into the saddle. Turning the horse’s head, he clicked his tongue against his teeth once again and started back toward the farm.
In the barn, Len unsaddled Twilight before letting the horse loose in one of the paddocks. Then he returned to the barn, where he found the day’s activities already beginning. Eli and Geoff were in side-by-side stalls, talking to each other as they got their horses ready for their morning ride. A momentary sadness came over Len as he thought how much Geoff was like his father. Len needed something to do with his hands, so he grabbed a wheelbarrow and started mucking out one of the stalls. He’d taken to doing that in the mornings. Most of the time it was just a single stall, but it helped clear his mind and stopped him from wondering and thinking too much.
“Morning, Dad,” Geoff called as he walked his black horse, Thunder, by the stall. “You were up really early this morning. Are you okay?” Geoff stopped, and Thunder nudged Geoff forward impatiently. Geoff pushed back, and the horse calmed once Geoff reminded him who was boss.
“Couldn’t sleep, so I got up and went for a ride,” Len answered and went right back to work. He really didn’t want to talk about it, and Len knew Geoff would understand. The clomping of horse’s hooves on the concrete told him Geoff had moved on, and Len continued filling the wheelbarrow before wheeling the mess to the mulch pile. On his way back, he passed Eli walking his horse out into the yard.
“Morning, Len,” Geoff’s partner of six months called with a bright smile on his face.
“Morning, Eli,” Len answered with more energy than he felt. “Do you have a class this morning?”
“At ten. I have most everything ready,” Eli answered before mounting. Len pulled off his cap and waved it at the two of them as they started their ride. He saw them both wave back and heard the conversation and laughter fade as they got farther away. Placing his hat back on his head, he went back to work. As he finished the stall, Len heard tires crunch on the gravel drive outside, followed by the sound of truck doors closing and then footsteps on the gravel and into the barn. The tractor started with a deep rumble in the equipment shed.
“Morning, Len,” Lumpy called from the doorway of the tack room, the list of tasks in his hand. “Pete’s gonna get those last hayfields roll-baled before it rains. Where do you want us to put them when we’re done? You said yesterday that we didn’t need it.”
“You can leave it in the fields. The Hansens are going to take it all. They enlarged their dairy herd, and he said he’d be happy to take whatever we have. I’ll call and tell him he can start picking up the bales in a few hours,” Len said, and he saw a curious look on Lumpy’s face, like he wanted to ask something, but wasn’t sure if he should.
“I’ll tell Pete and then get on the list.” Lumpy looked the sheet over. “I’m gonna start with those fences, and I’ll let you know if I find anything that needs fixing. See you this afternoon,” Lumpy added before walking out of the barn and getting to work. Len climbed the stairs to the full hayloft and opened the only trap door that wasn’t covered by hay. Lifting a bale, he dropped it through the door to the barn floor below.
“Len, I can get that for you,” a voice behind him said, making him jump. Len landed near the edge of the door and nearly lost his balance. Big hands caught his arm, pulling him back from the brink and against a hard, firm body before both of them fell against the stacked bales of hay, with Len caught between the hay and Chris, the hand Geoff had hired a few weeks earlier. The scent of fresh hay mixed with the smell of soap and man, and for a second Len remembered what it felt like to be held and went with it until his thoughts cleared.
“You scared the shit out of me,” Len said, pulling away before storming toward the stairs.
“It was an accident. Christ, I only came up to help. There’s no need to take my head off!” Chris retorted louder than was needed, and Len heard the whap and thump as a bale was flung to the floor below. Len descended the stairs in a huff. He wasn’t angry with Chris, not really. It was his reaction whenever he got close to the man that kept throwing him.
At the bottom of the stairs, Len stopped. He could hear Chris moving around, heavy footsteps stomping on the loft floor, the thump of the bales as they fell with more force than necessary, but more than anything he could see the man’s chiseled face and bright, intelligent eyes, which looked as though they’d seen things Len could never understand. Chris also had a body that had seen hard physical work for years. Chris appeared to be nearing fifty, the way Len was, but Chris didn’t look like any other fifty-year-old Len had ever seen. Not that it mattered. Len was not going to find out if the muscles beneath Chris’s flannel shirt were as large as they looked, or if that glimpse of dark hair that sometimes peeked over the top of his shirt extended further. That was not going to happen. Len pushed the images out of his mind as he stomped out of the barn toward the house, figuring he might as well make breakfast. It would give him something to do, and everyone would be hungry in an hour or so.
The door banged closed behind him as he entered the house and walked right into the kitchen. Washing his hands, Len got to work. He wasn’t in the mood to make an elaborate breakfast, so he pulled out a dozen eggs and began cracking them into a bowl before pulling out a frying pan and filling it with sausage patties. Scrambled eggs, sausage, and toast made from Eli’s fresh bread would have to do for today.
Ten minutes later, Len heard the back door open, and Eli joined him in the kitchen. “Do you want some help?”
“No, I’ve got it. Could you call the guys and let them know breakfast is in five minutes if they want it hot?” Len asked, and Eli hurried outside again while Len finished cooking. In almost exactly five minutes, what sounded like a stampede of men came in the back door. How three men and a teenager could make so much noise was beyond him, but they did. Eli and Geoff sat at the table. Joey washed up at the sink, and then Len heard footsteps go into the bathroom. Len hadn’t seen Chris, but he knew that it was him, he could just feel it.
Dishing up the food, he brought it to the table while Geoff set out the plates and flatware, and Eli got juice and milk. Once everything and everyone was situated, the five of them sat down to eat. “After I get the rest of the stalls cleaned out, will you be able to work with me?” Joey asked Len with his mouth half full of eggs.
Len had been giving Joey riding lessons in exchange for chores around the farm. Len knew that Geoff paid Joey for his work, regardless of the lessons. Joey lived with his mother, and he’d always worked hard. Hell, he was almost one of the family. He spent almost as much time at the farm as he did at home, and he probably ate as many meals at their table as he did at his mother’s. Len also knew that Joey was gay, and if as a gay teenager, he felt comfortable on the farm, then that was fine with him. “Once Eli is finished with his class, you saddle up Sadie, and I’ll work with you for an hour or so,” Len answered, and he received a smile from Joey in return.
Geoff and Eli talked about their plans for the day, and Len half listened as he concentrated on his plate, eating as fast as he could without appearing to shovel it in. He could almost feel Chris’s eyes on him, and he was bound and determined not to look back. Chris and Joey talked about nothing, and once Len was done he got up from the table, carried his plate to the sink, and began to clean up.
The others began to finish up and brought their dishes as well. “That was good, Len, thank you,” he heard Chris say from behind him as he placed his plate on the counter. Len could feel him standing just behind him, as though Chris were waiting for something. Then he heard footsteps as the man walked away, and Len breathed a small sigh of relief. The others headed out as well, and Len turned back to the table to take care of the last of the cleanup and saw Geoff staring at him.
“Dad, what’s wrong? You were downright rude to Chris, and you never act like that. Not to anyone. I get that you don’t like him, but what I don’t understand is why. He’s a nice guy, and he works hard.”
Len really didn’t have an answer, at least not one he wanted to share with Geoff, so he turned back to the sink and ran the water to clean the pots and pans. “Why is a guy his age working here, anyway?”
“He’s the same age as you, and you work here,” Geoff said, and Len could hear a hint of teasing in his voice. “What’s his age got to do with anything?”
“It just seems strange to me. He seems a little old to be a farmhand. Most of the guys we have were raised on a farm, but he wasn’t.” That was for damned sure. Chris was a hard worker, but he didn’t know his way around a farm at all.
“You know he just got out of the Marines. Retired with thirty years of service,” Geoff began, and he pushed a chair away from the table with his foot so Len would sit down. “He told me he needed some peace for a while.” Geoff sipped his coffee, and Len poured himself another cup and sat down across from Geoff. “If Chris has been in the Marines for the last thirty years,” Geoff continued, “then you can imagine the things he’s seen throughout his career. He didn’t tell me, and I didn’t ask, but just by looking in his eyes you can see he’s haunted by something. I was sort of hoping that he might open up to you, but I can see I was probably wrong about that.” Geoff looked disappointed, and Len knew he was the cause, but Chris made him feel things he wasn’t sure he was ready to feel. But Geoff was right, Chris did work hard, and if what he needed was some peace in his life, Len could sure understand that.
“I’ll try, Geoff,” Len said, getting up from the table and away from the sad-puppy look Geoff was giving him. Even when he was a kid, Geoff would use that look to get anything he wanted from Len. Not that Cliff had been any less of a pushover.
Len heard Geoff set his mug on the counter. “I know you miss Dad. I miss him too, and you’re allowed to grieve all you want, but maybe helping someone else will help.”
A sudden swell of anger welled inside him, and Len whipped around, scattering water and dish soap around the kitchen. “Is that what I am, some sort of project?”
“No, Dad,” Geoff answered levelly, walking toward the door, ignoring the mess on the floor. “You’re not the only one who loved him and misses him, is all I’m saying.” There was such a note of sadness in Geoff’s voice that Len wanted to hurry over and comfort him like he had when he was small, but before Len could move, Geoff was gone, the door banging closed behind him.
Len finished the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen before walking into the living room to sit down. He hadn’t slept well in months. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Cliff, and most of the time it was how he looked toward the end. Len was always happy to wake up from those dreams. Sometimes, though, he dreamed about him when they were young. Those were good nights, and when he woke, Len almost always wanted to punch the pillow, his disappointment so strong that the dream wasn’t real.
Sitting in his chair, Len reclined until the footrest came up. The house was quiet, and Len looked around the room. The walls were filled with pictures. He and Cliff had taken tons of them the entire time they were together, and Len had framed some of them. His eyes settled on an old photograph of Geoffy on his first pony, Strawberry, with Cliff and him smiling back at the camera. He couldn’t even remember who took the picture, but he could remember that moment like it was yesterday: Geoffy’s fifth birthday party, the yard full of happy children, and Geoffy’s squeal of delight when he saw Strawberry for the first time. He let his eyes wander. There were pictures of Geoff as he got older, and pictures of the three of them standing in front of horses, tractors, or just around the farm. Getting up, Len lifted one of the pictures off the wall. It was of Cliff, just Cliff, taken about a year before his diagnosis. His eyes were still so bright, and his smile just like Len remembered from high school. “I miss you,” he said very softly before hanging the picture back on the wall. Sitting back down, Len closed his tired eyes.
He must have dozed off because the back door snapping closed made him jump and he heard heavy footsteps on the kitchen floor. “Len.”
“I’m in here, Chris,” Len answered, not sure he was happy to have Chris seeing him sitting around in the middle of the day. Straightening up in the chair, Len stood up as Chris walked into the room.
“Geoff said to tell you that Eli’s class is about done and that Joey is ready for you. He and Henderson are out taking a look at the fields to determine when to start harvesting.” Chris’s expression was all business, like he was expecting Len to still be angry with him, but all the anger and frustration Len had felt earlier in the day had leeched away. Now he was just tired.
“Thank you. I’ll be out in a few minutes. Tell Joey we’ll be going for a trail ride, and we can go as soon as I get my horse saddled.”
“I think Joey already did that for you,” Chris supplied, his eyes wandering to the pictures on the wall. “Is that Cliff?” he asked, indicating the picture Len had rehung on the wall.
“Yes. He died of cancer about six months ago,” Len answered, and Chris nodded his head slowly. Len got the feeling he understood what Len was going through.
“How long were you together?” Chris asked rather softly.
“Twenty years. Geoff was two when we got together. I can still see both of them. Cliff was always a bit of a hothead, but there was never any doubt that he loved both Geoff and me.” Len sighed and stopped talking.
“I know you miss him. It shows on your face. Hothead or not, he must have been a wonderful man.” Len saw Chris swallow hard, and then he turned and left without saying another word, the back door closing with a crack. Len sighed before getting his light jacket and heading out toward the barn.
Joey had indeed saddled both horses, and Len led his out into the yard where Joey was waiting for him. “Are you ready?” Len asked, and Joey nodded his head excitedly as Len mounted the horse. “Then let’s go.” Len led the way down the trail that took them along one of the fields and out around the college across the street. They would have to cross the road eventually, but the trail was nicely cleared and groomed, so they wouldn’t have to worry too much about pitfalls. “Let’s work on your trot,” Len told Joey, and he watched as the teenager spurred his horse a little faster.
“How’s school?” Len asked once they’d slowed again and were riding side by side.
“It’s going good. Mom’s happy with my grades,” Joey answered.
“Okay, but are you happy with your grades?” That was one of the things Len had found with Geoff. He and Cliff had always been proud of how well Geoff did in school, but Geoff had never been happy with anything less than a stellar performance.
“Not really, but I’m trying my best, and I’m working hard,” Joey answered cautiously.
“As long as you’re doing your best. That’s all anyone can ask,” Len said.
“Chris helped me with a report last week, and I got an A on it.” Joey seemed proud. “I had to write a report for history class. Mr. Jennings handed out the topics, and I got the first Gulf War. Some of the other kids got cool battles in World War II and the Civil War.”
“So you were disappointed,” Len supplied as he signaled for Joey to stop. Len carefully checked the street and then spurred his horse across, with Joey right behind him.
“Yeah, at first. I was talking about it with one of the guys from school when Chris came to Eli’s class two weeks ago, and he must have overheard because he said he’d help me. He was a Marine, you know, and he was there in the desert. He told me what it was like, how hot it was, and the sand getting into everything.” Joey sounded so excited. “I asked Mr. Jennings if I had to write on the whole war, and he said I could write what I wanted, so I wrote about the guys in the field and what it was like for them. Mr. Jennings said mine was the best report in the class.” Joey sounded proud.
“Let’s gallop across the field. Keep the horse under control and rein him in when you get to the other side. I’ll watch from here and signal when you should start back,” Len instructed, and he watched as Joey took off like the wind. Len could see a few times when Joey didn’t have full control, but he recovered and pulled the horse in. Len waved his cap, and Joey started back. This time, he kept the horse’s speed down slightly, but the horse was definitely under his control.
“Very good. You corrected your problem on your own on the way back. Go do it again, and this time, remember to have fun and enjoy yourself,” Len encouraged him before watching as Joey and Sadie raced across the field. That was it. Joey kept her under control and looked like he was having the time of his life. It had been a long time since Len had felt like that, and there were days when he thought he never would again, but watching Joey, Len felt some of the teenager’s happiness rub off. When Joey returned, Len took off, letting his horse sail with him across the field. Len felt his blood race and his heart pound as he pulled his horse up before turning around and racing back, the horse’s hooves pounding the ground as Len rocked slightly in the saddle with the horse’s movements. Pulling up and slowing, Len praised his horse as they walked to where Joey waited. “You’re doing very well, Joey. You really don’t need me to teach you much more. You control the horse well and know what you’re doing. If you want to learn more, there are people who can teach you dressage or even jumping.”
Joey shook his head as they pointed their horses back toward the farm. “I was just interested in learning to ride for fun,” Joey said as he fell in next to him on the trail. “Besides, I sort of liked spending time with you. I never knew my father, and you’ve always sort of acted like I’d hoped a dad would act.”
Len had been feeling particularly emotional all day, and he swallowed hard, but didn’t turn away. Joey looked so earnest and sincere. Len had hired Joey before Cliff passed away, and he’d always felt a bit protective of him. He didn’t know what to say, so he just smiled as they continued riding.
On their return, Joey stepped down off Sadie and led her into the barn. Len followed, removing the saddle and bit before taking care of the tack and letting his horse out into the paddocks.
“Have you ever ridden?” he heard Joey ask someone from one of the other stalls.
“A horse?” Len heard Chris ask. “No. I rode a camel once, though. We were on leave in Saudi, and one of my buddies got it into his head that he wanted to try riding a camel. We found a guy who did that sort of thing, and he agreed to take us on a ride. They train the camel to kneel down and you climb on. Then they stand up, and you nearly fly over its neck if you aren’t ready for it. Then once they start walking, you sway back and forth like crazy.”
The other stall door opened and closed, and Len patted his horse on the neck before hoisting the saddle on his arm and grabbing the rest of the tack, leaving the stall and closing the door after him. He could still hear Chris and Joey talking. “Where do you sit?” Joey asked.
“On the camel’s hump, and if riding a horse is anything like riding a camel, I’d rather sit in a foxhole in the middle of the desert for three days rather than do that again. My butt and legs ached for days after riding that thing. The captain was so mad at both of us, he nearly spit quarters. ’Course, we did our jobs and got razzed by all the other guys because we were walking funny.” Chris laughed a deep, rich laugh, and Joey joined him with his higher-pitched, younger sound.
“Actually, riding a horse is nothing like riding a camel,” Len interjected as he carried his saddle into the tack room.
“Len’s a great riding teacher,” Joey said, beaming, and Len saw him looking expectantly from him to Chris. At least Joey stopped short of volunteering Len to teach Chris to ride. Granted, the expectation was there; he could see it in Joey’s eyes.
“If you want to learn to ride, I could show you the basics pretty quickly,” Len found himself volunteering before he could think about it too much, his overall helpful nature overshadowing his wariness and trepidation. Almost as soon as the words crossed his lips, he regretted them, but he wasn’t about to take them back.
“We could go riding together,” Joey volunteered excitedly, a touch of hero worship in his voice.
“I’ll think about it,” Chris answered.
“Have you got those stalls finished?” Len asked Joey, and the boy hurried away to get to work, practically running to get the shovel and wheelbarrow.
“He’s a real nice kid,” Chris commented.
“Yeah, he is,” Len agreed. Once again he could feel Chris’s eyes on him, and Len had to tamp down the uncomfortable feelings and stop himself from leaving right away. Cliff hadn’t been gone that long. He certainly shouldn’t be feeling these things for another man. Part of him was sort of flattered by the way Chris looked at him sometimes, but it was too soon, way too soon. The other part wanted to get out of there and away from those looks, and that was the part that won. “Have you got work to do?”
Chris’s eyes blazed for just a second, and then the fire faded away. “Yeah, I’d better get to it,” he answered, and Len used that opportunity to make his escape.