I hope you enjoy this month’s free short story. A clean romance, of course, with horses and sunset. Perfect for a quick summer read.
WITH HORSES AT SUNSET
When I pulled into my driveway I didn’t notice the hole in the fence.
Why would I? It was mid-day and I was eagerly anticipating a wonderful afternoon because it was our boss’ daughter’s birthday and in a fit of largesse he gave us all the afternoon off. With pay. On a beautiful day. What could be better?
We scattered as fast as possible, me to home and a couple extra hours of riding Peaceful, my mostly gray Appaloosa. It had been a while since I’d had time for a good, long ride and I knew Peaceful wanted to get out, too, and explore the countryside.
So I charged into the house, discarding office clothes as I went and grabbing my riding jeans from the dryer on my way to the bedroom. I hadn’t bothered to look towards the barn and the corral. No reason to. NutterButter, the pony who liked to go visiting and take my four full-sized horses with her whenever and wherever she went, was currently with a family half a state away who’d taken her with option to buy her if NutterButter and their son got along well.
I hoped they would. I was tired of chasing four horses and a pony all over the county, collecting them, and then herding them back home. So the day had an extra fillip of enjoyment. A couple extra hours of riding with no worry about my other horses meandering everywhere they shouldn’t while I wasn’t around.
Then my cell rang. “Hi, Shauna. Michael here.”
“What gives?” Michael, my good-looking neighbor who’d ridden the school bus with me when we were kids and, like me, stayed in the area when he grew up, connected every so often as neighbors do, especially neighbors close enough to see smoke rise from each other’s chimneys on clear mornings.
“The herd came visiting.” He paused, then continued, smothering a laugh I knew so well. “Again.”
“Impossible!” I held the cell away from me so as to better see the picture he’d sent of four adult horses sneaking across his back yard. “NutterButter isn’t here.”
“Guess she taught them well.” The laugh exploded as he could no longer hold in his merriment. “Like how to escape and go walkabout.”
I sank onto the nearest chair, almost falling in the process because I didn’t check where I was sitting. I was that upset. Disappointed. Disgusted. “And here I thought I was done with escape artist horses.”
“Guess not.” I could see his tears of laughter in my imagination. “I was too late to stop them. They were across the yard and gone by the time I grabbed a rope and went outside.”
I groaned. “Where do you think they went?”
Another chuckle, followed by, “The last I saw of them – their rear ends – they were headed towards the river.”
I groaned again, louder this time because the river is famous among us locals and not for its peaceful nature. “There are so many trees. And really tall, prickly bushes. And creeks coming from everywhere that crisscross each other on their way to nowhere. And, of course, there’s the river itself.”
“Bring rubber boots,” he added helpfully, choking on laughter. “Or prepare to go wading.”
“It’s awful by the river and if they decided to walk down a creek there won’t even be a trail to follow.” I groaned again and said goodbye to my pleasant afternoon.
“I’ll help.” Managing to control a last hiccup of laughter, he said he’d be over in two minutes, which meant he’d been watching for me with his truck at the ready to help collect my horses. Again. For about the thousandth time. “See you,” and then he hung up and I was left staring at my cell phone and pulling on my toughest and oldest clothes so I’d be ready when he pulled into the driveway.
Thank goodness he had a sturdy, old pickup with a huge engine that never quit and enough dents that if it acquired a few more in the river breaks they wouldn’t be noticed. Thank goodness my neighbor was a mechanic who could make trucks do amazing things — and a horse lover — and an all-around nice guy.
He was cute too, a fact I’d noticed only recently and how all those years ago I’d missed how well his jeans fit and that his eyes creased in the sunshine was something I couldn’t figure. But I noticed now every single time we got together for anything, which was rather often because we were next-door neighbors. Okay we were country neighbors with a bit more distance between us than if we lived in town, but not so much as to not notice each other’s lives.
I always knew what he was doing, especially since noticing how well those jeans fit. I wondered if he knew the same about me or if he cared what was happening in my life other than laughing when my horses went walkabout and he helped me corral them. Which he always did. I could count on him absolutely.
When his ancient truck chugged loudly into the driveway, I was ready with halters, ropes, grain, feeders, and anything else I could think of that might help convince my wayward horses to come home.
He examined my gear and nodded approval. “My contribution is lunch.” He tipped his hat to shade his eyes and added, “I bet you haven’t eaten yet.” He stared at me accusingly. “Have you?”
I admitted I hadn’t, and he insisted we find more food in the kitchen to add to his stash. “So you don’t die of starvation. I’d hate to have to bury your emaciated body.” He shuddered. “The ground is hard by the river. Rocks and nasty, thorny bushes. Tough digging.” Then he laughed. Again.
“Just drop me in the river and let me float away.” But my mouth turned upwards because, as usual, he’d made me feel better. In fact, as we pulled out of the driveway and bounced across the field and beside the ravine and between the rocks on the shortest route to the river, I realized that the lovely afternoon that had made me feel like singing was still beautiful, the sky was still blue, the horses would be found eventually because they always were, and Michael was beside me, eyes crinkling as he whistled the usual few tuneless notes that I’d come to think of as Michael’s Song.
When we reached the river, it was – the river. Fast running and cold, frothy around rocks and undercutting the banks so as to make standing too close dangerous unless you were okay with falling into the water along with a large chunk of mud. Which I wasn’t. So I stood far back and stared across and hoped to see at least one horse, hopefully four grazing peacefully so we could get them and bring them home before it got dark.
“Not here,” Michael said breezily. “Where should we look?”
“I don’t have a clue,” I said as I wondered whether I should be depressed because finding the horses could take us both all afternoon or happy because finding the horses could take us both all afternoon. Whistling, calling, cajoling, climbing trees to see farther. And doing it all together.
Of course, together or separately, it was work. Hot, dusty, frustrating work. Until I climbed still another tree and spotted them. “I see them!”
I pointed. “Across the river. Not far.” If we got there before they wandered away.
“So we go wading.”
I shuddered. “The water’s cold.”
“Not too cold.” He stooped enough to test it with a hand and sputtered.
“Liar.” As I shinnied down the tree.
He shivered. “At least it’ll wash away the dust.”
Soon we were both in the river and shivering, with our jeans rolled up and holding our boots and glad it was only a couple of feet deep. When we reached the other side, we headed to where I’d seen the horses.
And there they were, munching sweet grass that grew wild and tall, fed by the river’s water. Peaceful raised her head and flicked a fly from her rump.
“She has no shame,” Michael said.
“None of them do,” was my reply. “They never do.”
Michael inspected them. “They are here. The ropes and halters are in the truck on the other side of the river.”
“I’ll get them if you’ll keep an eye on the horses.” Not that he could stop them if they decided to go for a walk but he could follow them and know where they were.
“Don’t fall in the creek on your way back.”
I headed back through the cold water and about an hour later made the return trip with halters and ropes to lead them back where they belonged.
It wouldn’t be easy. We each had to lead two horses to the river, then across it, then lead them through the thorn bushes to where the truck was parked. Not far but it would be a very slow, difficult trek leading two large animals each who’d prefer staying where they were and eating grass. We knew that but had no choice.
We stopped before crossing the river to get them used to the fact that they’d have to go wading and to take off our boots. Then we crossed very slowly. Then we stopped again on the other side to pull our boots back on and let the horses graze a bit. Then we very, very slowly started through the underbrush.
It didn’t work. Two horses simply took too wide a path. The bushes wouldn’t allow it. So we ended up tethering two of them to trees near enough to the river for them to drink while we led the other two through the underbrush single file and tied them to the truck when we reached it.
Then we went back for the last two and repeated the same, slow process until we finally had four horses tied to the truck.
And realized what time it was.
“Sundown,” Michael said in a voice oozing with meaning.
“What are you trying to say that I don’t understand?” It was a gorgeous sunset. As usual.
“There’s no road. We came across fields, remember, and then through underbrush and around potholes and between ravines and across rocks.” He gave the sinking sun a bleak look. “It’ll be dark in minutes.”
“Are you saying we can’t get home safely because we can’t see where we’re going?”
“Yep. That’s exactly what I’m saying. If we didn’t have the horses we could make it before true dark so without them it would be okay. But we can only go as fast as they can walk.” He slanted a look in my direction. “Which means we can’t make it home today.”
“Oh.” That was unexpected. In all the many times Michael and I had collected my meandering horses, we’d never had that problem before. “What do we do?”
He rummaged among the things in the back of his truck. “I’ve a bucket back here somewhere that can hold water for the horses. We hobble them. The water and grain will keep them nearby so they won’t wander away during the night.”
“What about us?”
He dropped the bucket and a sack of grain on the ground and then checked the back seat of the pickup. “I think I have a blanket here somewhere and I brought enough food for an army so we won’t starve.”
“I hate the idea of staying here all night”
“It’s what we’ll do unless you have a better idea, one that won’t get us killed trying to get home in the dark.”
I didn’t and was glad he had a blanket because nights can get rather cold, especially near the river. Two blankets would be better, of course, one for each of us. But he only had one.
On the other hand, was I glad he only had one? I examined my thoughts and decided I preferred one blanket because sharing is a good character building experience.
We prepared for the coming night. We scrounged among the green stuff growing all around us for anything we could find that was soft enough to turn into a makeshift couch for the evening and, later, a bed for the night. Not an easy task when almost everything had either prickles or thorns or was sticky with sap.
But we managed and when we were done, we told each other that we deserved the dinner that was whatever Michael had brought from his house plus whatever we’d found in my kitchen. Left-overs from both places and we agreed that it was a repast fit for a king – or two very hungry commoners.
We laid out our bounty between us and then, our looks meeting as we realized that we’d be hungry in the morning, we set some aside for breakfast. “Of course we’ll be home in time for a second, more substantial breakfast.”
I agreed. “But it’ll be nice to have something when we wake up.”
“Coffee would be nice,” Michael said with a yearning that tugged at my taste buds. He finished with, “But the river water is excellent. And cold. And will wake us up as efficiently as coffee.”
Then we settled down to eat. And watch the sunset, which was spectacular as are all sunsets in our part of the country. Red and pink and purple, changing as we watched, bright at first, brilliant at all times, but gradually darkening as the sun dipped lower and lower behind evening clouds, then finally spreading across the entire sky as dark settled in, first in the east and eventually, everywhere.
As the last rays of light slowly faded, Michael gave a contented sigh and said, “I’m glad the horses ran away.” He waved at the scenery that we were a part of as he swatted away a fly.
“Me too.” I examined myself and didn’t know what I felt beyond that it was whatever Michael was feeling. But I knew that whatever it was, it was a new, different feeling for me. Happiness? Contentment? Relaxation so profound I’d forgotten what it was like? Or all of the above and a thousand more things I’d forgotten how to feel?
We just sat there and took it all in. Not that we could do much else given the situation and the four horses who ate contentedly and gave us looks that said it was about time we understood how they felt about the great outdoors.
I wiggled deeper into that blanket and heaved a huge, happy sigh and moved closer to Michael and leaned into him and wondered how he’d react to my wonton action and decided I didn’t care because he was warm and large and comfortable and if I wanted to use him as a pillow, well then I would do so and the memory of how those worn, soft jeans fit him made me smile even more. I have a very good imagination.
Turned out he was okay with me using him that way. In fact, he helped. He put one arm around me and pulled me closer and gave a slight grunt of satisfaction. “Nice evening. Nice dinner. Nice company.”
“Don’t compliment the horses, Michael. They are uppity enough as it is.”
“Not the horses. The other company. The company who happens to be in my arms at the moment and if any canoodling happens as a result, well don’t say it wasn’t your idea because it was.”
“I’m not complaining.” In fact, I felt so good that the feeling in my gut combined with the feeling of whatever the sunset had wrought brought on a wave of relaxation such as I’d never known along with perfect contentment until the two merged into pure, unadulterated — sleepiness. I yawned. A huge yawn.
Beside me, I heard another satisfied grunt followed by a kind of choked laughter because of that yawn but also because Michael laughs a lot, which I knew because I know him, but thinking about that laughter that went so well with the night and the stars just beginning to peek through as the night clouds dispersed and everything that was so wonderful that it made me yawn also made me realize something.
I didn’t know if I was in love with Michael or not but what I felt at that moment was special. Maybe it was a constellation of feelings brought on by the night and the sunset and the horses and the stars and the cool night air and the warm blanket and the warmer man with an arm wrapped around me. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, except that it was something and it was special, and I wanted to tell him about it. Needed to tell him. Had to tell him.
So I did. As sleep grabbed at me and tried to take me away from the moment and the man, I managed to say, groggily, “This is so special, Michael.”
“What?” He leaned closer. “You’re mumbling. I can’t understand.”
I tried again as the fog of sleep came closer. Real close. “This is special. All of it. The night. The horses. The sunset.” I managed to lift my face close enough to his that he could hear even though I was almost asleep. “And you.” I thought over my words in that groggy, wonderful state that’s between sleep and wakefulness. “Especially you.”
And then it happened. Our faces were mere inches apart so it was easy. All he had to do was come a bit lower, which he did, and then we were kissing, just like that and it felt so easy, so natural, so right, that I returned that kiss with everything in me as I decided that, yes, I probably was in love with him.
Then I fell asleep and stayed that way, wrapped in his arms and that really warm blanket until the sun came up on the opposite side of the world from where it had gone down and told us it was morning and time to get those horses back home where they belonged.
Except I’d fallen asleep before saying everything that needed to be said, especially before saying the most important thing. So when I opened my eyes, which was really hard because it was very comfortable on those soft branches and Michael’s chest, I said, “I think I’m in love with you.”
How did he react? He’s Michael so he reacted exactly as Michael would react. “You think? You just think? You don’t know?” And then he laughed. Of course he did. He threw his head back and laughed and I didn’t feel the least bit insulted because I know Michael and knew he’d laugh and I also knew what he’d say next.
And he did. “I love you too and just in case you’re interested on my part there’s no ‘think’ about it. I’m all in.”
I considered his words and decided on honesty. “Me too. All in.”
He threw the blanket aside and the cool – no it was actually cold – morning air hit us like a fast frost. “Let’s get those horses home so we can discuss this new stage in our relationship in a more comfortable place.”
I looked around and considered where we were. Where we’d been all night. The river. The bushes. The sky. Everything. “I agree that houses with real furniture can provide more creature comfort than where we are at the moment, but in its own way this place is perfect.” I slapped a mosquito. “Almost perfect.”
He grabbed the blanket with one hand and me with the other and pulled us both upright. Then we found the horses that gave us horse looks and a few snorts and happily followed the pickup all the way home with not a single one of them apologizing for going walkabout without permission.
I’m sure they’ll do it again. Go walkabout. It’s what they’ll do whether NutterButter is around or not. But next time I won’t have to wait for Michael to come to my place before we start chasing them down.
Because he’ll already be there because it won’t be just my place anymore.
It’ll be our place.