I tipped my hat down over my eyes as we rode into the sun dropping lower on the horizon. The trail boss did the same.
“We’ll be able to go to church tomorrow morning,” he said.
“Is your cousin Cath… Is Miss Elliot going to be there?”
“I expect, her father being the preacher.”
“Uncle Frank’s been the preacher there since before I was born.”
I’d already had second thoughts about taking the trail boss up on his invite. Now it was third thoughts galloping right along to fourth, fifth and sixth thoughts too. It made my head hurt.
“C’mon, cowboy.” He turned in his saddle and fixed his eye on me. “Don’t tell me you’re thinking about backing out now.”
“Well, I … umm … it’s just … ” I reached down and fiddled with a strap on the saddle that didn’t need fiddling.
“We need you. My father’s place may not be big, but he said he needs a couple of hands to fix up the summer lightning damage before winter. That’s me and you. Good thing this year’s trail drive ended early.”
I liked working with the trail boss, that’s why I signed on with him again this year even if we weren’t heading as far north with the herd as last year. But the pay wasn’t as good on account of the short drive and I needed more work, so here I was riding my horse Pete alongside the trail boss just a couple miles from his folks’ place.
“Anyway,” he said, “you were asking about church tomorrow morning.”
“Does ‘nothing’ have something to do with my cousin?”
Not a word out of me.
“I saw that wink she gave you when you met her a couple months back.”
Still not a word from me.
“She doesn’t wink at just anybody, you know.”
Now I definitely couldn’t say a word, not with my throat starting to feel all closed up and the blood rushing up from my neck to my face as I turned redder than a sugar beet.
I fiddled with a couple more saddle straps.
We rode up to the ranch house. It was pretty country here, the house up against the foot of a low range of hills, the oak trees scattered around it, a small kitchen garden to one side and good pasture stretching off to the north in the twilight.
The trail boss was just telling me about the town being five miles further along when a woman came running from the house.
“Tom, you’re home!”
“Truer words were never spoken, Mother.” He jumped off his horse, grabbed her in his arms and swung her up off the ground all in a whirl, then made to do it again.
“Tom put me down, put me down!”
“All right, I suppose I should be mannerly and introduce you to my friend here.”
His friend. He’d never called me that. He was always the trail boss to me. Friend.
“Well, any friend of yours,” a deep voice boomed behind us, “is worth being introduced to.”
“Hello, Pa.” There were big handshakes between them, and even bigger grins on their look-alike faces. The only difference was the years from father to son.
His father looked back at the half-ruined barn he just stepped out of. “God bless us all; you’re home, Tom.”
The family took right to me, I don’t know why. After we’d brushed down the horses I asked the trail boss where the bunkhouse was so I could throw my things down. He laughed and said I’d be staying in the house.
We walked inside to a table already laid for supper and a stove full of food just ready for serving.
“How’d you know we’d be home in time for supper, Ma?”
“We didn’t. We’re having a sort of dinner party.”
I turned aside to the trail boss. “I don’t mean to intrude, boss” I said under my breath. “I can ride into town for supper.”
“Into town? My mother always makes enough food to feed twice as many as are fixing to sit down to eat. Let’s go wash up.” He led me to the basin and towel hanging in a back room with a couple beds. “It’s time you stopped calling me boss, too. We’re both just my father’s hands now, and Tom’s fine.”
“You sure?” I said through some soap lather, trying not to let it get into my mouth while letting the words get out.
He nodded from under the towel he was rubbing across his face.
“All right … uh, Tom.”
We went back to the front room. The house had a parlor-like room to one side, and the kitchen and a huge table to another, and from what I could tell there were a couple more rooms in back besides the one we washed up in.
“So who’s in the dinner party, Ma?”
“My brother and his family. Set places for you two, won’t you Tom?”
He pulled plates from a sideboard and asked me to grab two chairs from the parlor room. His mother went back to the stove while his father went out with a bucket for some water.
“You know what this means?”
I shook my head.
“You won’t have to wait for church.”
“Wait for church for what?”
“Wait for church for Catherine,” he said. “Don’t play dumb.”
“I’m not … I mean she, she probably doesn’t even remember meeting me.”
“We’ll see.” He turned to the kitchen. “Ma, did Kitty say anything about that time I rode into town for supplies a couple months back when I was still on the trail drive?”
“She sure did.” His mother looked right at me. “She said you had the nicest cowboy with you she’d ever met.”
I about hoped the ground would open up and swallow me.
Dinner was a blurry time for me. Tom didn’t make me sit next to Catherine, or Kitty as she made me call her. He sat next to her and had me sit across the table. From her, not from him. I stared down at my plate most of the meal because every time I looked anywhere else I was looking at her and I tried that a couple times and food dropped into my lap both times.
After dinner his father and Uncle Frank stepped out onto the porch and invited us to join them while his Aunt Polly and Kitty helped his mother with cleaning up.
The cool evening air was a relief to my face.
“Son,” his uncle said, “tell me a bit about yourself.”
“Yes, you. Tom’s letter said you read the Bible?”
“Some, yes sir. I don’t know much about that sort of thing, but the trail … but Tom’s been helping me understand more.”
“Are you book-learned, son? Does reading come easy?”
“I have schooling.’ I didn’t want to tell him how much. That got embarrassing sometimes. “But I haven’t been a church goer, not since my mother died when I was 14.”
“She was a church woman?”
“Yes sir. When she died it was just hard to walk into a church any more.”
“I understand that. Do you think you might be able to walk inside church tomorrow?”
Now I was put to it. He’s the preacher, and family to Tom, and Kitty’s father. “I hope I might, sir.”
“Well I hope you might too, son.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a book. “Let me read this to you. Tom, grab a lamp from inside, if you please.” He adjusted his glasses and angled the book toward the light Tom set down by him.
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
“I’m preaching on that tomorrow, son. From what Tom wrote, you’ve been asking and seeking and knocking. I’d like it if you were there to hear.”
“I’d like that too,” a soft voice said beside me. Kitty stood in the doorway.
Moonlight splashed along the floor in that back room.
“You know what happened tonight?” Tom asked from his bed.
“You got bushwhacked.”
“What, you mean you set this up?”
“Not us. We’re not that clever of a family.” The bed springs creaked as he shifted to face me. “I think you know who set this up. Coincidences like this seem to be a specialty of his.”
“You think God cares that much about what’s going on in my life?”
“I know he does, and I think you’re starting to know that too.”
The springs creaked again. I lay there thinking and wondering and trying to come up with a way to convince Tom that I wasn’t important enough for God. But before I could come up with anything I heard snoring across the room.
So then I figured I might as well try to tell God directly that he didn’t need to concern himself with me, but I fell asleep before I could come up with anything that came close to convincing even me.
[Cowboy’s story started in Counting Canyons, then continued with Cold Canyon (Cowboy delivers bad news and receives better news in return), Cowboy and the Preacher Shake Hands (an itinerant preacher passes by when Cowboy is laid up sick on a cattle drive, ) and Cowboy Gets A Crush (the introduction of Kitty Elliot).]