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Authors: Carolyne Aarsen

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BOOK: The Only Best Place
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“Yeah. Though one of them could take off for no reason,” Tabitha said with a casual shrug. “Cows aren't too smart.”

Her words were almost prophetic. As we watched, a cow swung its head to one side, took a few steps, then veered off, running
out toward the open field, its calf right on its heels. One of the boys ran toward it to cut it off as another cow followed. Then
Dan turned his horse and galloped after the cows, the dog racing alongside of him. The cows turned, but the rest of the herd
that had been heading toward us stepped up the pace, and soon they all were running—a lumbering, bellowing group of bovines,
calves skittering away from the pack and then returning. All that lay between this thundering herd and us were four feeble-looking
strands of barbed wire strung between fence posts that now seemed way too far apart.

“That's not so good,” Tabitha said with an air of nonchalance that I envied deeply.

“Okay, I don't like this,” I said, not even attempting to keep the shaky note out of my voice. My fear rose up at their relentless
progress, but Gloria and Allison kept going ahead of us, following the fence, and Tabitha, pulling my fragile youngsters,
followed them.

“Gates! Open the gates!” It was Dan. Yelling. Loudly.

I'm not your typical submissive wife, but when Dan yelled, it inevitably sent me into action. Trouble was, I had no idea what
action to go into.

Gloria and Allison did know and started running. They clambered up and over the wooden fences and disappeared, only to reappear
on the other side between the corrals and the cows. Above the bellowing of the cows, I heard the screech of metal as Gloria
pushed open one half of a large gate, Allison the other.

The cows saw them and their forward momentum slowed, but only for an instant. Then they veered off in a cloud of hooves and
bellows and dust, away from the men and dog behind them and away from the corrals.

Dan yelled, Gerrit waved his arms, and the boys tried to cut them off as the dog raced alongside the cows, but the animals
thundered on oblivious to their cries.

I guessed this wasn't the desired effect.

“Dad's gonna be ticked,” Tabitha said in a matter-of-fact voice. “Better head over there and see what we can do.”

I looked back at Nicholas and Anneke, who had been watching the entire production with wide eyes. “I don't think the kids
should get close to this.”

“They'll be okay. They'll be on the other side of the corrals,” Tabitha said with a shrug.

I didn't share her optimism. Those cows were big and heavy and loud. The boards of the corral didn't look strong enough to
hold them back. I had two children here. Which one would I be able to save if the cows burst through the boards?

“Hey, Aunt Leslie, the kids will be fine,” Tabitha said, sensing my unease. “Uncle Dan would never let anything bad happen
to them.” She gave me a crooked grin that was so much like Dan's I felt suddenly like I could trust her.

“Okay. You're the farm girl.”

Tabitha punched me lightly on the arm, the ultimate teenage compliment.

Taffy snorted and stamped one hoof as Dan conferred with Gerrit, Gloria, and Wilma, who had joined him outside the gates. The
dog lay at Gerrit's feet, his head on his paws, clearly bored. By the time I got there, they had come up with another plan.

Gerrit and Gloria's son Joseph was assigned to gate duty. He was only eight years old and small, even for his age. He would
get trampled.

I don't know what got into me. Delusions of grandeur? A desire to show Gloria and now Wilma that I could do this, too?

“I can do the gates,” I said with false bravado, quickly, before my brain could catch up with my mouth. “How hard can it be?”

Dan straightened up in the saddle, and his expression made my moment of stupid self-sacrifice all worthwhile. His features
softened and he winked at me. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” I glanced back at Tabitha, who gave me a thumbs-up. “I'm sure.”

He told me what I needed to do. As soon as the cows were inside the gates, I was to swing them shut. There were two gates,
and they needed to be chained up in the middle where they met. Simple. And Dan assured me that the cows would respect a shut
gate. I had to trust him on that. As a backup, he gave me a long flexible stick, covered with woven nylon with four small
knotted strands waving from the end. A whip that he assured me the cows would respect as much as the gate. I looked at it,
then at him. Okay. Whip. Shut gate. Cows' respect.

I started to feel a little more confident.

Dan gave me another smile, then clucked to his horse, turned it around, and cantered off toward the herd of cows, the dog
racing alongside him.

My heart kicked in my chest. That was my husband looking so suave and western. So at ease on the back of the horse, one hand
holding the reins, the other resting casually on his thigh. So in charge of his world. So different from the worn and tired
man I had seen the past few months. I could fall in love with him all over again.

I hugged the thought close to me. Love hadn't factored into a lot of our interactions back in Seattle. Fear, frustration.
And, oh yes, betrayal.

Definitely not one of the five so-called love languages.

So who knew? I thought as I watched my man slash cowboy being all manly and magazine ad-worthy. Who knew what could happen?

Twenty minutes later the cows moved our way again. As they picked up speed, heading toward the gate, my previous bravado and
confidence were replaced by fear that started in my stomach, then spread its icy fingers out to my arms, my legs, my head.
I clenched the gate in a death grip, the chill of the metal adding to my ominous feeling that something terrible was about
to happen.

C'mon, Leslie, an eight-year-old kid was going to do this.

The cows kept coming, the ground shaking. I was facing death. Dan blurred into the dust-filled distance.

An unwelcome thought pierced my bluster.

We hadn't updated our wills.

Our children would be parceled out among family members. Separated. Would my mother push for guardianship? Would she and Wilma
fight over the kids? I could see them already facing each other down, our poor children crying, calling out for their mommy
and daddy.

I almost got a lump in my throat. But then the pounding of the cows' hooves grew. I stood perfectly still, trying to make
myself insignificant, unthreatening.

The cows got bigger and bigger, noisier and heavier the closer they came, and the only thing that kept me at my post was a
larger fear of ridicule and the fact that I was wearing an unsuitable pink jacket. I wanted to prove to Dan, to Gloria, and
especially to Wilma that I could do this in spite of my lack of farm experience and fashion sense.

I expected the cows to come in a huge rush, but as soon as they saw the corrals, they slowed down. But the momentum of the
herd kept them moving. They pushed past me, a jumble of brown and black bodies, snorting and bellowing their displeasure as
they swung large shaggy heads and rolled their eyes in my direction. Heat and steam engulfed me in a bovine sauna. I fumbled
with my whip, ready to close the gate that they would respect.

Right.

“Wait, wait!” Dan called out as the herd going past me thinned out. But the cows in the front had seen the end of the line,
and spun around, using their large heads to push the cows behind them out of the way, bellowing and snorting and straining
against the boards of the corral. They creaked, and I hoped that they would hold the churning herd.

Gerrit whistled and his dog started barking, nipping at the stragglers' heels. A few kicked, but the dog danced out of harm's
way and the herd slowly pushed its way into the corrals. The last dawdler trotted past me when I heard Gloria yell, “Shut the
gate! Shut the gate!”

That was my cue. I swung one half of the gate closed, wincing at the screeching metal that would surely clue the cows in as
to what was coming down.

I ran across the opening to get the other half just as Dan shouted, “Watch that cow!”

I looked up in time to see a large, angry-looking animal turning around. The monster was huge, with buggy, bloodshot eyes.
It was ten times my size and coming straight for me.

“Stop it from getting through!” yelled Dan.

He was being crazy, yes? He was making a joke, right?

I stood in the breach, holding the narrow whip he promised they would respect and waving it threateningly even as the renegade
cow accelerated toward me.

A hero I was not.

I jumped.

The cow thundered through, then stopped.

From my vantage point behind the gate, I saw the dog scoot out around the cow, face it down. To my shock and surprise, the
cow spun around, kicked out behind her, but ran back inside the corrals.

Here was my chance to vindicate myself. Still clinging to the gate, I ran, the opening growing smaller, smaller. The cow turned,
faced me again and started coming again as I caught the chain from the other gate. With trembling hands I flung it around,
hooking it like Dan had showed me, realizing that me and my pink coat were drawing the cow's attention, hoping, praying, that
the cow wouldn't charge.

But it only blinked, shook its head once, as if warning me, then turned and trotted back to join the herd, its moment of rebellion
quashed.

My heart thundered in my chest and my arms hung like limp spaghetti. I had overcome. My children weren't motherless. Dan
wouldn't have to find someone over the Internet to marry him. I took a long, slow breath as the adrenaline eased.

Dan vaulted off his horse and came running over. “Are you okay?” he asked, all solicitous. He put a dusty hand on my pink
jacket, and I didn't even mind.

“I'm fine,” I said, wavery with relief.

“You did good,” he said, hugging me quickly. “You did fine.”

“Way to face that cow down, Aunt Leslie!” Tabitha shouted from the other side of the corrals. She was holding Nicholas. Anneke
stood on the fence beside them, her tiny feet clinging to an opening, her arms hooked over the rough lumber. She was laughing
at the cows milling about in the corral below her, showing absolutely no fear. Nicholas waved, grinning a wet, drooly grin.

Nathan, the middle boy, strode over and high-fived me. “Good job, Auntie.”

Dan winked at me, then vaulted over the corrals to get ready for the next stage.

I clung to the wooden fence, glancing at the cows. Some stood quietly; others wandered around bellowing for their calves that
had gotten separated in the melee. But on my side of the fence, I felt safe. I felt strong. I was woman, hear me roar.

And I was definitely going to walk over and join Wilma, Gloria, and Dan.

As soon as my knees stopped trembling.

Chapter Four

L
eslie, do you have pastry forks?” Gloria cornered me as soon as I stepped back into the kitchen, face sore from scrubbing
and my wet hair pulled into something resembling a rat's tail rather than a ponytail.

When we got back from working the cows, I had ducked out to wash dirt out of my hair and try to create a kinder, gentler Leslie.
No mean feat, considering the dust from the cattle caked every inch of my body, inside and out. My “cute” pink jacket was
now a sickly gray and my jeans sported a rip in the knee I probably got from clambering up and down the wooden fence. My head
rang from the constant bellowing, so I could hardly see straight. Hardly the idyllic afternoon experience I had pictured in
my head when Dan first spoke of this adventure.

Gloria had brought extra clothes along and made the transformation from farmer's wife to hostess in less time than it takes
to say “lightning change.” Her tidy hair and impeccable lipstick put me to shame.
I should take notes,
I thought. Wilma had gone home to change, leaving her alter ego in charge of domestic duties. “We'll need the forks for the
cheesecake,” Gloria continued.

Ah yes. The cheesecake. Gloria had brought it. Dan's favorite, she had explained as she put it on the kitchen counter.

I took one look at my artfully arranged trans-fat-laden store-bought cookies and discreetly hid them under a cooking-pot lid.

“I thought I saw them when I unpacked.” My mind scrambled as I pulled open the utensil drawer. The faint odor of burning cheese
rose from an oven overloaded with pizza, but I couldn't shake this mission.

“I looked in there already,” Gloria said. “It would be nice to have them.”

That comment, plus the fact that I got the pastry forks from Gloria as a fifth-anniversary present, was a surefire recipe
for pressure. I dove into the pantry and then the disastrously disorganized odds-and-ends cupboard to no avail.

Coming out empty-handed and desperate, I almost collided with Judy, who had arrived carrying a large crystal bowl full of
layers of cake, whipping cream, and chocolate shavings. If I didn't know she loved to bake or that the nearest bakery was
half an hour's drive away, I would have guessed she bought it and was trying to pass it off as her own.

“Hey, Sis,” she said, handing the bowl to Gloria with a casual gesture. “Dump this wherever.”

Judy turned back to me, and her smile shifted. Grew warm and welcoming. “So farmer's wife, now you can add processing calves
to your résumé.”

“The employers will just snap me up.”

“So, what should we do about the pastry forks?”

I stifled a sigh. Persistence, thy name is Gloria.

The door opened again and the kids burst in, enveloping me in another round of hugs and kisses and well-wishes and noise.

And all the while my pizza was overflowing and burning to the bottom of the oven and Gloria's fingers were tapping out her
desire for my elusive pastry forks.

This was going to be so-o-o much fun.

BOOK: The Only Best Place
5.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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