ELI breathed a sigh of relief as he finished his third riding class for the day. The four teenage girls were all unsaddling and brushing their horses. Eli dismounted from Tiger and led him to his stall so he could do the same. He loved the time he got to spend with the stallion he’d helped bring into the world a number of years earlier. He ignored the girlish chatter from the other stalls as he brushed the dirt from Tiger’s coat.
“I have a question, Mr. Eli,” Amanda said from outside the stall door.
“Ask away,” Eli called, “but don’t come in here.” Tiger was a stallion and he could be high-spirited at times. Amanda was young, relatively new to riding, and she could startle the horse.
“How come you didn’t get Tiger gelded?” Amanda asked, and Eli could almost see her tittering outside the stall door. He knew the other girls had probably put her up to asking, and the preteen was probably turning red right about now.
“Because I was hoping to breed him,” Eli answered levelly. Around the barn, particularly with new riders, he almost always got questions of that nature. He’d grown up on a farm, so he’d seen the birds and the bees in action many times when he was a child. It was part of life. But for many of these kids, this was new, so Eli answered their questions with honesty and care. “I’m coming out, so stand back.” Eli carried Tiger’s supplies out of the stall, stepping around a blushing Amanda before putting his tack away.
Once he was done, since it was still a nice evening, he turned Tiger out into the paddock. He was just finishing for the day, breathing a sigh of tired relief, when he heard young, high-pitched, excited voices joining the girls, and he remembered he’d forgotten about the therapy class. Checking the time, Eli began saddling the ponies to get them ready for the kids. Thankfully, he also heard Stone’s and Joey’s voices in the barn.
“Did you forget?” Joey asked as he peeked into the stall where Eli was working, and Eli nodded, continuing the saddling process. There was always something to do and never enough hours in the day. Eli heard Joey walk through the barn, and a few moments later he heard the next pony’s stall door open, and Joey’s horse-calming voice floated over the partition. He could also hear Stone managing the kids as they wandered through the barn to greet the horses. It didn’t take long to saddle the ponies, but Eli was still upset with himself for forgetting.
Leading the ponies into the ring, they placed each child on a pony and led them around the ring. There were only four children, but each needed individual supervision. Two of the four had trouble walking, and one rarely talked. The last little girl, Annabelle, had recently lost her mother and had withdrawn from almost everything, but responded to Raspberry. As Eli led Raspberry and her silent rider around the ring, he motioned to her father, who stood nervously outside the fence of the covered ring. He came forward, and Eli handed him the reins. “Simply walk slowly around the ring. Mary will let you know if there’s someplace special she wants to go.” He looked nervous, but took the reins and led his daughter on the pony. Moving to the fence, Eli watched the horses and riders. “Billy, you’re doing well, but remember to lower your heels,” Eli said gently.
“Okay, Mr. Eli,” Billy said with a smile, and he waved before doing what Eli asked.
“It’s wonderful that you do this,” Billy’s mother said from near his shoulder. “The horse had done more for him than hours of physical therapy.”
Eli turned to look into the mother’s tired eyes. “I’m glad we could help.” Eli and Geoff had decided that they wouldn’t deny anyone access to their therapy program because of their inability to pay. When Billy had begun six months earlier, he’d used a walker to take a few steps. Now he could walk on his own, and his legs were getting strong enough that he might be running soon. “Kids like Billy are why we do this.”
Eli finished the class and then helped the kids down from the ponies before getting goodbye hugs from each child, including Annabelle, before their parents took them home. After making sure all the ponies were unsaddled and all the horses bedded down for the night with hay and water, Eli closed the doors and walked across the yard to the farmhouse. The spring in his step that he’d had at the beginning of the day was gone, his entire body tired.
“Papa!” three-year-old Jakey yelled, his feet pumping as he raced across the kitchen floor, propelling himself into Eli’s arms. “Can I have a pony ride?”
Eli sighed softly, remembering he’d promised Jakey he could ride one of the ponies before dinner.
Adelle flashed him a sympathetic smile. “He’s been an angel, and he’s waited for his ride all day.” Eli smiled, the tired sinking further into his bones, but he didn’t want to disappoint his son. Remembering that he’d made a promise, Eli carried an excited Jakey back out to the barn.
“Evening, Eli,” Tyrone called as he stacked bales of hay he’d dropped from the loft. “Are you getting a pony ride, little man?” Tyrone asked Jakey, and the youngster giggled when Tyrone tickled his belly.
“Yes, Mr. ’Rone,” Jakey answered, looking around the barn, his little body shaking with excitement.
“I’ll have Raspberry saddled in a jiffy,” Tyrone said, already walking toward the tack room. Eli was about to say it was okay, he’d do it himself, but Tyrone already had the saddle in hand and was walking toward the stall. Tyrone had been working at the farm for about six months, mostly in the evenings, and he had a way with horses that matched Eli’s own. When Geoff had hired him, Eli had been convinced they were making a mistake. But he now knew that had been his own prejudice talking. Other than Adelle, Eli hadn’t met many black people in his life, and he’d let stories and stereotypes color his judgment; ideas Eli had quickly come to realize were wrong.
“When do classes start again for you?” Eli asked Tyrone as he worked. Jakey squirmed to get down, but Eli settled him with a look.
“About a month,” Tyrone answered. “I’m taking one of Robbie’s music appreciation classes at the community college next term. I’ll get my degree in the spring, and then I’ll be the first to graduate college in my family.” Tyrone led Raspberry out of the stall and out toward the yard. Eli followed, and Tyrone held the reins while he placed Jakey in the saddle.
“Are you going to go away to school after that?” Eli asked as Tyrone handed him the reins.
“I’d like to, but I may need to work a few years first,” Tyrone said as he walked back toward the barn.
Jakey giggled and laughed as Eli led him and Raspberry around the yard. “Be careful and sit still,” Eli admonished lightly, and Jakey settled in the small saddle, a grin splitting his angelic face. They wandered all over the yard until Jakey began to fidget, and then Eli led the pony back toward the barn. Tyrone was working in the loft, so Eli got Jakey down and then unsaddled the pony in the stall. “Adelle will have dinner ready soon. Come in and join us,” Eli called up the loft stairs, and he heard Tyrone answer before scooping Jakey into his arms to get him away from the barrel of carrots before he fed them all to the horses. Then Eli zoomed him like an airplane across the yard and into the house.
“Daddy!” Jakey cried when Eli set him down, and the youngster did another flying leap into Geoff’s arms. “I missed you. Papa Eli gave me a pony ride. I fed carrots to the horsies.”
Geoff smiled, hugging their son. “I missed you too, buddy.” Geoff whisked him out of the kitchen toward the bathroom, and Eli settled in one of the chairs around the table.
“Dinner will be ready soon,” Adelle told him, and Eli nodded before getting up again to clean up. “Will Tyrone be in?”
“Yes.” Eli was too tired to say much more, and he tried to stifle a yawn, but failed. He found Geoff and Jakey still in the bathroom washing their hands and faces. Eli washed up when they were done before joining the others in the living room. Jakey played on the floor with Buster, Robbie’s Great Dane, petting and loving on the huge dog, who didn’t move, soaking in the attention. Tyrone joined them a while later, and then Adelle called them to dinner.
Normally at dinner, everyone talked about their day, and tonight was no exception—except for Eli, who simply ate without contributing much to the conversation. Afterward, Adelle shooed them all out of the kitchen and began to clean up. Tyrone thanked them for dinner before returning to the barn while it was still light.
“Go on and sit down,” Geoff told Eli gently. “I’ll give Jakey his bath.” Eli nodded slowly before moving into the living room. The television was turned on, and Eli sat watching whatever the others watched. Being raised Amish, he’d never gotten used to television and it held little interest for him so after a while he entered his and Geoff’s private section of the house. They had their own small sitting room, their bedroom, and Jakey’s bedroom, as well as a bathroom. He could hear Jakey splashing in the tub, Geoff’s voice drifting in as well. Eli sat in one of the overstuffed chairs and opened the book he’d been reading.
“Papa, you sleepin’?” he heard Jakey ask just before he climbed onto his lap with a book.
“Jakey, Papa’s tired,” Geoff said, lifting Jakey off his lap and carrying him into his bedroom. Eli closed his eyes once again, and the next thing he knew Geoff was waking him with a kiss. “Come to bed, tiger,” Geoff said softly, and Eli stood up, turning out the lights before following Geoff to their bedroom. Eli undressed and cleaned up, poking his head into Jakey’s room before slipping out of his robe and climbing into bed next to Geoff. As he’d done almost every night for almost ten years, Eli immediately curled next to the man he loved more than anyone in the world. Within minutes, he’d fallen asleep.
A few hours later, Eli woke to the sound of rain outside the open window and the feel of Geoff’s warm hands rubbing along his back and down across his butt. “Love you, tiger,” Geoff whispered as he kissed Eli’s shoulders and along the back of his neck. Eli rolled over and pulled Geoff to him. It had been a while since they’d had the time to make love, and Eli needed it badly. It seemed Geoff did too, because Eli’s boxers slid down his legs, and then he felt Geoff’s naked skin against his. The room was dark, but there was nothing Eli needed to see that his hands couldn’t show him just as well.
Eli kissed his partner and lover passionately, and the exhaustion that seemed to be a constant part of him lately faded, as did the rest of the farm and everything else but Geoff. “Love you,” Eli murmured against Geoff’s lips as he wrapped his legs around his lover’s waist, telling Geoff in no uncertain terms what he wanted. Geoff kissed him hard, fingers caressing his skin, enflaming him the way his touch always had. Eli nearly clawed at Geoff’s back, pressing his lover to him.
Eli felt Geoff shift above him and then a small snick sounded in the room. A few seconds later, Eli felt slick fingers tease his opening before a long digit sank into his body. Eli groaned softly, his lips tugging at Geoff’s as he felt his longtime lover curve his finger slightly inside him. Eli’s eyes rolled to the back of his head, and he panted, pleasure zinging up his spine.
“I love how you always respond to me,” Geoff whispered.
“Always will,” Eli promised through gritted teeth, hoping this would never end. He held Geoff tightly around the neck, trying to be quiet as his body was played like Robbie’s violin. Geoff always knew how to kiss him and touch him so he forgot his name. His body and heart had missed this connection so badly. “Love me, Geoff,” Eli begged, and Geoff kissed him again, tongue exploring his mouth as Eli felt the finger slide from his body and Geoff’s cock, long and thick, pressing at his entrance. Impatience bloomed in Eli, and he pressed up and against Geoff, forcing him inside his body.
From outside their cocoon of passion, Eli heard the rain pounding harder on the roof as thunder sounded in the distance. Geoff stopped, holding completely still, and Eli heard him whisper under his breath. “Shit,” he said softly, and Eli echoed a similar curse in his mind. Slowly, Geoff retreated and hurried away, returning with a cloth that they used to wipe themselves up. Geoff threw the towel in the bathroom and pulled on his boxers. Eli felt for his, locating them at the bottom of the bed, and had just finished pulling them on when their bedroom door opened. Jakey rushed into the bedroom as another flash of lightning lit the window, thunder cracking a few seconds later.
Jakey ran to Eli’s side the bed. Eli saw him nervously bouncing from foot to foot, holding his stuffed dog in front of him for protection. “Papa, Daddy, I’m scared.” Before either of them could answer, Jakey climbed onto the bed, curling under the covers between them, holding his doggie tight. Jakey squeaked as thunder cracked again, and Eli rolled onto his side, holding Jakey’s hand as he shook. “Why does it boom like that, Papa?” Jakey whispered, hiding his head when lightning flashed again.
“It’s just the angels bowling,” Geoff said from the other side of the bed. “They’re having some fun making a bit of noise. It’ll end soon enough.”
“Well, the angels should be more quiet, there are people trying to sleep,” Jakey said and rolled over, clutching his stuffed dog to his chest and closing his eyes. The lightning flashed again, and Eli felt Jakey shiver, but this time the thunder was softer, the storm already moving away.
Eli felt Geoff roll over, and his eyes locked onto those of his lover. “I’m sorry,” Geoff mouthed in the dimness, and Eli nodded slightly. “I’ll take him to his room in a few minutes.” The storm continued to diminish, and Eli was already falling asleep when he felt the bed shake slightly as Geoff got up. Eli felt him lift Jakey out of the bed and he heard Geoff’s footsteps leave the room. Eli didn’t remember Geoff coming back to bed, but he did remember waking up held close in Geoff’s arms. It was still dark outside, so he closed his eyes again.
When he woke again, Eli knew he was alone, but not for long. The door opened and Jakey bounded in, climbing on the bed. “Papa, Daddy said I could have a pony ride.”
“When did he say that?”
“Last night after he taked me to my bed. He pwomised.” Jakey stuck out his lower lip and crossed his little arms over his chest. They had been teaching Jakey that a promise was a promise, and they wanted to earn his trust. But he was probably trying to take advantage.
“Did Daddy say if you were good?” Eli asked, and Jakey nodded slowly. “Then no pouting, and you have to be quiet. Papa’s really tired.” Eli couldn’t remember being this exhausted in his life. He looked at the clock and groaned. He had a class in less than an hour. “Let’s go and get you dressed, and maybe Uncle Joey can take you for a pony ride.”
“I want you, Papa. Nobody else does it right.” Jakey slid off the bed and left the bedroom, and soon Eli heard him making car sounds. Eli pulled on his robe and followed the sounds, lifting Jakey off the floor and carrying him to the main portion of the house.
“Hi, Jakey,” Robbie said as he stepped off the stairs. Eli cautioned Jakey, and he approached Robbie slowly before touching Robbie’s leg. Robbie carefully lifted Jakey into his arms, getting a big squeeze around the neck, complete with sound effects from both of them.
“Will you sit with him a second?” Eli asked.
“Sure. Come on, Jakey, let’s go listen to the television,” Robbie said, setting Jakey on the floor, letting him show the way to the sofa. They sat on the sofa, with Jakey watching cartoons and Robbie sitting next to him.
“Thanks, Robbie, I won’t be long,” Eli said before hurrying to the bathroom. He figured he had fifteen minutes, tops, before Jakey began to fidget, so he cleaned up, showered, and got dressed, returning to the living room just in time to see Jakey trying to slide off the sofa. Eli scooped him up, and after thanking Robbie, flew Jakey into the kitchen, airplane-style, depositing him in his chair. “Morning, Adelle,” Eli said.
“Morning, Mr. Eli. Tyrone was already in this morning. He said to tell you he’ll get things ready for your class this morning.” Adelle put a plate in front of him.
“Isn’t it early for Tyrone to be here?” Eli asked, stifling a yawn.
“It’s Saturday, and I think he asked Mr. Geoff if there was anything he could do,” Adelle explained evenly. The woman knew everything that happened around the farm. “Now eat your breakfast. You’ve been looking peaked lately, and I don’t want you getting sick.” Adelle left, returning a few minutes later with Jakey’s breakfast, which earned her a cheer, and after she placed a towel around his neck as a bib, Jakey picked up his spoon and began to eat.
Eli did the same, hoping the food and a cup of Adelle’s coffee would revive him. Neither seemed to work, but when Geoff came in and sat in the chair next to him, leaning in for a kiss, that seemed to do the trick. “How many classes do you have today?” Geoff asked, his voice filled with concern.
“Just two, and they’re both done before noon,” Eli answered, wondering what Geoff was thinking.
“Adelle, would you be willing to watch Jakey this afternoon for an hour or so? I’d like to take Eli riding for a while.” They all knew that riding was a bit of a code. There would be horses involved, and riding, but there would also be stopping by the stream where a very different type of riding would occur.
“Of course, Mr. Geoff. I have some cookies to bake, and Jakey can help,” Adelle said with a smile.
“Thank you so much, and when we get back, consider it the start of your Sunday.” Adelle was off most Sundays and she disappeared for most of the day. No one ever knew where she went, and they didn’t have the guts to ask her. Those who tried had only gotten stern looks and then the cold shoulder, and she’d say she was a woman of mystery.
Eli checked the clock and began eating more rapidly so he wouldn’t be late. Once he was finished, he put his dishes in the sink and was about to head to the barn when one of the sheriff’s vehicles pulled into the yard. Eli watched as Sheriff Colton himself got out and walked to the back door. “Come in, Harvey,” Eli called, and the sheriff opened the back door and came inside. “What brings you here? Can we offer you something to eat?”
“Thank you, Eli, but no. I’m afraid I’m here on official business.” Sheriff Colton looked around the kitchen. Adelle turned off the stove and left the room. “We’ve had a complaint that you’ve been improper with some of the children in your therapy program.”