Swiping the last bit of water off the edge of the sink, Beth folded the dishtowel neatly and hung it on the towel rack to dry. Behind her she heard the clink of glassware as Maggie put away the last of the clean plates and glasses. Rubbing the palms of her hands nervously on her jeans, Beth cleared her throat, “I’m gonna go down to the stables.” She didn’t speak loudly, but her voice sounded like it was broadcast through a bullhorn.
Maggie whipped around to look sternly at her. “You heard what Daddy said.”
Beth sighed and nodded. “Don’t go near the strangers.” Then growing bolder she added, “But, Maggie, they don’t seem dangerous. Why is Daddy so intent on me staying clear of them?”
Maggie’s look softened. “You know he’s just tryin’ to keep you safe, Beth. We don’t know these people.”
“Lori is really nice. Stands to reason the rest of them are probably nice too.” It was the closest Beth had come to disagreeing with her sister about anything in weeks.
Setting her dishrag on the dining room table, Maggie walked over to Beth and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “It’s not just that, Beth. You know that. Daddy doesn’t want you to get too involved with these people. They aren’t gonna be here that long. He doesn’t want you hurt when they have to leave.”
“They don’t have to leave.”
“It’s what Daddy wants.”
“And what about you? I saw the way you were studyin’ that Asian boy that came in night before last.” Beth continued to push her luck, until Maggie got that look, the one that said, ‘I’m the boss. You’ll listen.’ She put on that look a lot since Momma – since Maggie took over from Momma. Beth knew it was time to change the subject.
“I still gotta go do chores.” Beth stepped away from Maggie and headed for the door.
“No ridin’ out in the fields alone,” Maggie called after Beth just as the screen door slammed behind her.
“Yeah, I know,” Beth answered half-heartedly. She kicked off her shoes, slipped into her barn boots, and took off toward the stables before Maggie could think of a reason for her not to. Beth loved her older sister, but there were days when Maggie’s determination to protect her was cloying and Beth felt like she was smothering.
It was a short hundred yards from the house to the stables, but that meant cutting right through the camp the newcomers had set up when they had arrived yesterday. If she circled their camp it put her uncomfortably close to the barn so she opted for the camp. Besides, she wanted to know more about these people. The new folk had settled in quickly, pitching tents, digging fire pits, breaking out folding chairs, and other small comforts. They acted like they had a lot of practice making themselves to home. It was a bit discomforting to have this many strangers suddenly so close when the Greenes had been isolated for what seemed like months. She could barely remember the last time she saw someone who was not a part of her own ‘family’. But her inquisitive nature far outweighed any trepidation she might have.
Beth excused herself as she passed between the RV and tents. The grey bearded gentleman with the hat smiled and said a cheerful “Good Morning!” She smiled back, suddenly feeling very shy, and responded in kind. He and the lady Lori called Carol were the only ones up. Carol was busy building a fire under their grate. Maggie had brought them a basket full of eggs yesterday, and she saw them sitting next to the cook fire. It appeared the rest were not early risers like she and her family were.
Not seeing anyone else, she quickened her pace. Beth stopped outside stable long enough to toss a manure fork into the wheelbarrow, then pushing it in front of her stepped into the cool darkness of the large open door. It was still early, but the sun was already hot and promised a scorching, humid day. Taking a deep breath she savored the scent of the new baled hay stacked in the front of the building. From the time she was big enough to toddle down here with her mother she had loved the fragrance of fresh mowed hay. It was so tempting to climb to the top of the small mountain of bales, flop on her back amidst the rafters and just forget about all the ugliness going on outside. But, there was work to be done and she was already late feeding the horses this morning. Best to get this job done as quickly as possible before the heat became oppressive.
The shadowy interior of the stable was a haven after the hot bright morning sunshine. She didn’t wait for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Beth practically grew up in this building and could find her way around blind, which was probably why she almost ran him over with the wheelbarrow before she realized he was there.
Leaning against one of the stalls, he was as much a shadow as the ones that filled every corner of the stable. He had been caressing Nellie’s head and the big bay mare was leaning her snout into his chest in obvious contentment. Beth felt stupid and awkward and probably should have been blushing furiously. As her eyes slowly adjusted the shadow transformed into a person. Beth had no intention of staring but she remembered he was the one who had arrived on the motorcycle.
“I’m sorry,” she said tentatively. “I didn’t see you.”
“’S alright,” he said, and she saw him shrug his shoulders “I’d best be goin’ anyways.”
“You don’t have too,” she said quickly. Too quickly, she thought cringing inwardly. Oh, God, did that sounded over eager. But her curiosity had gotten the best of her. She wanted to know what was going on outside the boundaries of the farm, and about these people. She hadn’t left the place in what seemed like ages, ‘cause Daddy said she was too young. She hadn’t been too young – before. Now that was his reason for everything. “I’m just goin’ to feed and water and muck out the stalls,” she said trying to act composed. “You won’t be in the way. And Nellie could use some gentling.” The stranger just looked at her. “She seems to like you,” Beth added lamely. Now she really did want to go hide.
He just continued to study her as if he was reading her from the inside out and trying to figure out how she ticked. It wasn’t a lecherous look, like she’d seen sometimes when she was in town, since she’d started growing up and noticing things like that. It was more a curious look, but wary. Skittish, she would have called him if he had been a horse. He acted like he was ready to run at any minute, like he was more nervous being around her than she was about being alone with him. He had turned around and now stood with his back against the stall. Nellie nuzzled his hair and nickered in his ear. His hand went automatically to the horses muzzle in a calming caress.
“My name is Beth,” she added hoping he would respond in kind. He didn’t. And that was disappointing. She sighed. If he wasn’t going to talk, she couldn’t make him.
It wasn’t until she walked around the wheelbarrow towards the grain bin that she saw the ghost of a smile flit across his features. At first she was puzzled, then she realized where he was staring and the heat did rise in her cheeks. He wasn’t looking where a guy would normally look, he was looking at her feet - the source of her impending humiliation. Glancing down she wanted to die. In her haste to escape the house she had put on the first pair of boots in the rack - the screaming pink ones with the ‘My Little Ponies’ dancing across the tops. The ones she had begged Momma to buy her when she was ten. They’d been so big then she’d had to stuff socks in the toes to get them to fit. Well they fit now without stuffing the toes with the socks. Daddy, being frugal, insisted she wear them out before she got new ones. With no stores to run to for new ones that would probably never happen. It was her turn to shrug.
An odd look passed over his face that she thought was more than simply amusement. It was like he was filing something away in his brain. Then he pushed away from the stall and started towards the outdoors. “Nice boots,” he said softly as he passed her and sauntered out the door.
Beth was left standing in knee high embarrassment.