Authors: Janet Tronstad
Clay squared his shoulders. He knew how to take his falls.
“How's your cold?” Clay asked as he turned to lead into the waiting room.
“Better. Thanks,” the minister said as he followed Clay.
Both men sat down on the hard benches.
The minister turned to Clay. “I've been wanting to talk to you.”
Clay nodded. “I have the highest respect for your niece.”
“Oh,” the minister said as he looked at Clay in slight surprise.
“Of course, nothing happened between us on the road up here,” Clay added. If he didn't know better, he thought he might be blushing. He never blushed. Not that anyone could see it through all of the whiskers on his face if he did.
“Really,” the minister said with even more interest.
Clay didn't know how much more of this he could take. “So, you see, there's no need for us to have a talk.”
“Really,” the minister repeated, only this time he was grinning. “Rene's aunt and I wanted to offer to pay her towing bill. I wanted to know how much it is.”
“I see,” Clay said. He'd done it this time. “That's very nice of you.”
“Rene means a lot to us,” the minister said. His smile slowed down some, but not much. “She's an easy woman to love.”
Clay looked at the floor. He could see where they had tracked mud and snow in. It needed a good washing. He could look at the floor all day, but he had never been a coward, so he lifted his eyes again.
“I'm not good enough for her,” he said to the minister. “I want to be, but I don't know how.”
The smile on the minister's face slowed down until it became a look of compassion. “I've noticed the cross you wear. Tell me about it.”
“It's an old tie tack. Belonged to my father. I never knew him, but he left it to me when he died. My mother didn't think much of it. Said it was a poor man who didn't have anything else to give to his only son.”
The minister put a hand on Clay's shoulder. “I'm not so sure I agree with her. It seems like a fine legacy.”
Just then the two women walked back into the room.
“We'll talk later,” the minister said to Clay as he stood up to help his wife sit down.
“I saw Davy coming down the hall,” Rene said as she kept standing. “He's got news and he's coming this way.”
t's okay,” Davy said as he walked into the waiting room. “They've stopped the contractions. Mandy has to keep still for the next month, but the baby's okay and she's okay and it's all just okay.”
Davy collapsed onto the bench closest to him. “I never want to go through this again.”
Rene didn't have the heart to tell him that the actual birth of his child wasn't going to be any easier. The poor boy looked exhausted.
“Can Mandy have visitors?” Rene asked.
“They're getting her ready to go home,” Davy said.
There was silence in the room.
Finally Clay spoke. “Your car's stuck in a snowdrift. I guess I could go dig it out for you.”
Davy sat straight up. “I forgot. We don't have any place to go.” His eyes grew panicked. “Where will I take her? She's supposed to be lying down for the next month.”
Rene's aunt and uncle exchanged a glance. Rene knew what they were thinking.
“We've got an extra bedroom. You can bring her to our place until we find somewhere for you to stay until the baby's born,” her uncle said as he leaned forward toward Davy. “Now's not the time to worry. You need to stay calm for Mandy. We have twin boys that can be a little loud, but they're visiting their grandmother in Havre right now.”
Davy slumped in relief. “I'll make it up to you. Odd jobs. Anything.”
“We'll talk about that later.” Rene's uncle said.
Rene was proud of him. Mandy and Davy would be in good hands while they waited for their baby. Just then a nurse wheeled Mandy into the room.
“Well, hello,” Rene said as she stood up and walked to the young woman before bending down to give her a hug. Mandy's face was pale, but she didn't look like she was in any pain.
Davy was there, too, whispering in her ear, “We're going to stay in Dry Creek for a while. With these kind people.”
Mandy gave a long relieved sigh and then sat up straighter and looked at her boyfriend. “But what about your job in Idaho?”
“I'll call them,” Davy said. “The most important thing is the baby.”
“You won't go ahead without me, will you?” Mandy's eyes were anxious.
Rene drew in a gasp. Mandy shouldn't even have to ask that question. Rene was going to say something, but she felt a comforting hand on her back. She stood up and Clay was there.
“I'm not going anywhere without you,” Davy declared emphatically. He stood tall when he said it, too, like he was making a pledge.
Rene was glad Clay had stopped her from spoiling this moment. Mandy's eyes were flowing over with tears and her face was beaming.
The nurse standing behind Mandy cleared her voice. “Someone needs to bring their car up to the front so we can put Mandy inside.”
“Our car is probably the easiest for her to get into,” Rene's uncle said. “I'll go get it.”
Clay nodded. “There's nothing easy about climbing into a truck.”
The nurse turned to wheel Mandy toward the door and everyone else followed.
Rene and Clay were walking past the receptionist's desk when the woman called out to them.
“Don't forgetâ” the receptionist said as she held up Clay's belt.
Clay turned back. “I thought you needed it for your payment.”
The receptionist nodded to Mandy and Davy as they went out of the hospital. “She had the phone number for her parents in her purse and he called them to get her insurance information. So, it's all squared away.”
“Well, then,” Clay said as he took the belt. “Thanks.”
Rene watched as Clay looped his belt around his jeans. “That was nice of you, putting your buckle up as payment when they needed it.”
“It's only silver,” Clay said as they walked to the door. He looked down at her. “Well, there's the diamonds, too.”
Rene didn't know many men who would be so casual about a hunk of metal, especially when it was an award for something they had done.
When she stepped outside, Rene looked at her uncle's
car. It was full with Davy and Mandy in the backseat and her aunt's crutches leaning against the inside of the passenger-side door.
“We'll follow you to make sure you don't have any trouble,” Clay said as they walked past the car. She had no choice but to go with him, but it made her feel good, like they were a couple.
Besides, not only was Clay generous with his silver, he was thoughtful, too.
“Our house is the big white one right next to the church,” Rene's uncle said. “We'll see you there.”
Rene told herself it was time to stop thinking about Clay.
Clay walked beside Rene on the way to his truck. He remembered how Rene's uncle had walked with his wife and wondered if he should do the same with Rene. He had a suspicion he would irritate her if it was too obvious that he was worried she might slip on the slush and mud.
Trying to think like a husband would take some getting used to.
“Do you have a lot of those belts?” Rene asked suddenly. “The ones with those championship buckles?”
Clay nodded as they arrived at his truck. “I have my share.”
He started to walk around the truck to his door when he saw Rene's frown. He had forgotten to open her door.
“Sorry about that,” Clay muttered as he stepped up to the passenger door and opened it.
Rene's frown didn't go away. “So do they have groupies in the rodeo? Like rock stars do?”
Clay looked down at her in bewilderment. “You mean like women screaming and fainting?”
Rene looked up at him and nodded.
“Well, I guess people put a bit of effort into applauding the winners,” Clay admitted. He didn't think Rene was asking about the women who wanted to take a rodeo champion home with them for the night.
“Well, you could have told me,” Rene said as she climbed up into his truck. “I wouldn't have bored you with my broken heart if I had known you had women throwing themselves at you all day long.”
Clay stood there speechless. Okay, so maybe the nighttime thing
been what she'd been asking. Did that mean she cared?
“We better get going,” Rene finally said. “My uncle's just pulling out of the parking lot.”
Clay had no choice but to walk around to the driver's door and climb into the truck himself. He turned the ignition on, but decided to wait on the heater. The sun was warming the truck up nicely.
“I didn't have women throwing themselves at me,” Clay said as he drove up behind the car. Rene's uncle pulled out on the main road. “Not like in those rock star concerts. No one ever tried to climb up into the chute with me or anything.”
“That's all right,” Rene said. “It's none of my business.”
Clay was tempted to tell her just how much of her business it was, but he didn't want to confess how he felt about her when she was annoyed with him. There was no sense in giving her any more excuses than she already had to shut him down.
The mud on the roads made driving almost as difficult as the snow did. Clay kept a close eye on the car ahead of him as it made another turn to follow the road to Dry Creek.
“Nice day out there,” Clay offered by way of conversation when they'd gone a half mile or so.
“It's still too wet to start on that mural,” Rene said. She was slumped against the passenger door again, looking discouraged. “We can't paint when it's like this.”
“It'll dry out soon,” Clay said and then realized he should add a little more if he wanted to do his share of the talking on the way back. Rene liked to have someone to talk to her. “You never did tell me about the mural.”
Rene looked up. “It's going to be a historical picture.”
Rene nodded, shifting on the seat so she could look at him. “My aunt says that years ago there was a community barn rising just outside of Dry Creek. The barn's still there. She wants to paint a scene of that happening on the side of the place. We'll show faces and figures, all working on the barn. She doesn't have many pictures so we're going to make most of it up.”
“You'll do great at that,” Clay said. That didn't sound like enough, so he added, “With your creativity.”
He hadn't known talking to a woman could be so hard.
Rene smiled and he relaxed.
“Maybe Mandy can help,” Rene said. “I could draw sketches of the figures my aunt is planning for the mural and Mandy could critique them from her bed. My aunt has some old costume books and Mandy can use them to check to see we have things right. It'll give her something to do until the baby comes.”
“That'll be something. Seeing the two of them as parents.” It hit Clay like a newsflash that the baby was coming in a month and he would be gone in a day or two. He wouldn't see the couple and their baby. His job was done. He had no excuse to stay; he couldn't expect his uncle to cover his business forever, and this town was Rene's refuge, not his.
It was silent.
“You'll have to send me a picture of them,” Clay finally said. He was miserable.
Rene couldn't think of anything to say, so she nodded. She wasn't ready for Clay to leave. She could hardly ask him to stay, though. He'd already done her a huge service just by bringing her here. “If you wait a bit, I can earn enough to write you a check.”
“I trust you for it. You can mail it,” Clay said. “Or, maybe, you could keep the check and bring it to Mule Hollow when you come to see your cousin.”
“Yes, I could do that,” Rene said with pleasure. At least she'd have a reason to see Clay in the future.
“I forgot about Trace,” Clay said with an indrawn breath. “Coming to Mule Hollow might be difficult.”
“Oh,” Rene said with a pause. She couldn't just declare herself over Trace without looking a little unstable. “Maybe he will be out of town or something when I come.”
There was no way Rene was going to give up a chance to see Clay again. They were both silent until they arrived at the house where her aunt and uncle lived.
lay was sitting in the cab working the levers to lower Davy's car off the back of his tow truck. A full twenty-four hours had passed since Mandy and Davy had come back from the hospital and moved into the downstairs bedroom at the house. Everyoneâwell, mostly Reneâhad been busy getting the young couple settled in. If Clay didn't know better, he would think Rene was avoiding him.
Maybe she just thought he had his chores, too. First, he had unloaded her car from the back of his tow truck so he could go pick up Davy's car. Rene seemed to appreciate that he had done both of those things. He wasn't sure why she didn't look him in the eye anymore.
It could be the money, he thought to himself as he watched Davy's car touch the ground. He should tell her he didn't care about her towing bill. Her aunt and uncle had not said anything more to him about paying it, but he was fine if it never got paid. His uncle had been right. Even with the hours they'd spent worrying in the hospital, this trip had been better than any vacation he'd ever taken. It was because Rene had been with him.
Clay got the car to the ground and stepped outside to finish unhooking it. Then he heard the sound of footsteps behind him and he turned.
“Got a minute?” Rene's uncle asked as he walked closer. The man had clearly been at the church and was walking back to his house.
“I've been looking for something I wanted to give you all morning,” the minister said as he held out a small book. “I knew I had it and I finally found it.”
Clay took the black book in his hand and turned it over so he could see the front of it.
The Cross Explained,
” the minister said. “I thought you might want to read it since you have your father's tie tack. Maybe it'll tell you why that cross was so important to him.”
“It's mighty slim to say all that,” Clay said as he eyed the book.
“There's nothing too complicated about the cross of the Bible,” the minister said with a smile. “It's all about Our Father's love for His children. The sacrifice He made for us. The new chances He offers.”
Clay snorted softly at that. “Now that's what I could use. A chance to be a new kind of man.”
The minister nodded. “Then you need to meet God. Why don't we go someplace and sit down to talk?”
Clay hesitated and then decided he had nothing to lose. “Sure.”
Clay didn't see the curtain move as he walked toward the church.
Rene pulled away from the window. She had been watching Clay all morning. Not constantly, of course, but
here and there, between doing things like folding towels at the dining room table for her aunt, she had looked out the window just to reassure herself that Clay was still there. Now, she saw that Clay was going over to the church with her uncle and it made her sigh.
“Anything interesting out the window?” her aunt asked from where she leaned against the doorjamb into the kitchen.
“Uh, no, not really,” Rene said as she turned and walked back to the table with the towels on it. “Just Clay unloading Davy's car.”
Her aunt limped over to one of the dining room chairs and sat down. “I thought it might be him. He's an interesting young man.”
Rene picked up a towel and started to fold it. “He can be exasperating.”
“I imagine so,” her aunt agreed calmly.
Rene finished with the towel and reached for another before she drew in her breath and began. “I think I'm adopted.”
“Good gracious, why do you say that?” her aunt asked in astonishment. “I was at the hospital when you were born.”
“Then how come I can't recognize true love?”
“Are you feeling some special love for someone?” her aunt asked with a smile.
“I don't know.” Rene sighed. “But I do know I was wrong when I thought Trace and I were falling in love. And everyone in the family has known who they loved almost at first sight. And there's Grandma's veil andâI'm a failure at it all.”
“Whoa,” her aunt said with a small frown. “Who said everyone in the family falls in love at first sight?”
“Well, don't they? You did. My motherâ”
“Your mother fell in love at first sight almost eight months after she met your father. She couldn't stand him at first. Thought he was too arrogant.”
“Really?” Rene frowned. Her mother had never told her that.
“After your dad died, your mom just liked to remember it a little bit differently.”
“Really?” Rene let it all sink in. “I still don't know, though. It doesn't work so well for me. I think I'd be better off making a list. Especially ifâ” Rene stopped. “Oh, well, I might as well say it, especially if Clay's the one. He's not into emotions very much, and I think he'd like a list.”
“Well, whatever you do, I know you'll want to pray about it.”
Rene froze. She tried to stop the dismay from covering her face. “Maybe you could pray for me.”
Her aunt was silent for a few minutes.
“Rene, what's wrong?”
“Nothing. I justâthat isâGod and Iâwe justâ” Rene looked at her aunt's face. She didn't see anything but love, and she had kept everything inside for so long. “God doesn't like me anymore.”
Her aunt got up from her chair and limped over to where Rene sat. Then she bent down and hugged her close. “Why do you say that, dear?”
“I don't feel Him with me anymore. Not since mom died,” Rene whispered. “I was mad at Him and now He's mad at me.”
“Oh, my dear, God understands why you were angry. It's okay. He still loves you. He never stopped caring for you. He's always with you.”
Rene started to cry in her aunt's arms.
“Here.” After a few minutes, her aunt offered her one of the fresh towels lying on the table. “He always provides for our needs, too. Even if its just terrycloth when we need it.”
Rene smiled at that as she wiped her eyes with the hand towel.
“Now,” her aunt said as she stood up and limped back to her original chair, “what's on this list you're making? I've always thought a husband should be handy around the house.”
“Clay doesn't know much about houses,” Rene said.
Her aunt nodded. “Then put down that he should be good with horses.”
Rene giggled. “I can't make a list just for him.”
“Why not?” her aunt asked with a wave of her hand. “That's what your mother would do. We'll start a new family tradition.”
Clay never thought he would know what his father was like. But he did. He had been a man of faith. What more did a son need to know to follow in his footsteps? The minister had only been talking for a few minutes when Clay felt deeply that his life had been leading to this moment. He wondered if his father had prayed for him before he died. Prayed that this moment would come, when Clay would meet God and know why his father had cherished that small cross.
The emotions stirred so deeply inside him that he was scared. He didn't trust himself. He wasn't supposed to have feelings like that. To his surprise, though, the minister accepted it all like it was natural.
Clay spent an hour with the minister before he needed to come up for air.
“We can continue later,” Rene's uncle finally said and then hesitated. “My wife and I are hoping you can stay for a while.”
“I don't want to put you out.” Clay had already talked with Uncle Prudy and found out that there had only been three calls for a tow job in his absence. His uncle could handle that kind of volume easily.
“I've made some phone calls. I hope you don't mind. But if you want some work, Conrad's garage in Miles City has some jobs you could do. And I need help putting up scaffolding for the women before they start that mural.”
“They're going to use scaffolding?” Clay asked in alarm. “When Rene said they were painting a barn, I thought she meant a short barn. Something close to the ground. Maybe a shed even.”
Rene's uncle shook his head. “The thing has to be almost thirty feet up there.”
“And you're letting your wife do that?” Clay demanded.
The minister chuckled. “I can see you'll have some surprises in store for you when you get married.”
“Oh,” Clay let the man's words settle in to his heart. For the first time, it seemed possible.
Clay nodded. “If you're building scaffolding, I'm going to be there to help and to make sure the bracing is strong.”
“I can't keep sleeping in your sons' room, though,” Clay said. “Aren't they coming back in a couple of days?”
“There's a room for rent down the street I could line up for you. It wouldn't cost much. It's just a room with a bath over a garage.”
“I'll take it,” Clay said with a grin.
“Well, let's get to it then,” the minister said with a satisfied look on his face.
Clay started over to the house to get his duffle bag. He'd just as soon put it in his room so everyone would know he was staying in Dry Creek. And, if he felt like whistling as he walked back and forth, he saw no reason to hold back.
Rene moved when she saw Clay walking toward the house. She should be pairing up socks at the table and working on her list. So she quickly sat down so Clay wouldn't know she'd been watching for him at the window. Then she put a few socks on top of her list so he wouldn't know she was doing that, either.
“Good afternoon,” Clay said when he opened the door and saw Rene.
“I didn't know you whistled,” Rene said. “What's new?”
Clay stopped and grinned at her. “Me.”
“That's nice,” Rene said as she looked at him. He did seem different. “You're not wearing your hat! I can see your eyes.”
“Oh.” Clay stopped. “I guess I forgot it over in the church.”
Rene kept looking at him. He was more relaxed than she could remember seeing him. Of course, he wasn't driving in a snowstorm and he'd been getting enough sleep. She probably looked more peaceful, too.
“Hey, you're working on your list,” Clay said as he looked at the table.
Rene turned. Sure enough, the paper showed through the socks.
“You need to put that he has to be a man of faith,” Clay said. “On your list. That's what you need.”
Rene winced. That would eliminate Clay right then and there. And he sounded pretty cheerful about that fact.
“I have some serious items on the list,” Rene said just to show him that he didn't need to worry she was targeting him. “I might even put down a college degree.”
“Humm,” Clay said, but he wasn't paying any attention. He was looking around the room. “You didn't see what happened to my duffle bag, did you? I thought it was in the corner over there andâ”
“It's on the kitchen porch,” Rene said. “We didn't want anyone to trip over it.”
“Thanks,” Clay said as he started walking in that direction. “I'll have it out of your hair in a minute.”
Rene stopped cold. He was leaving. She didn't want him to go.
“We're having chicken pot pie for supper,” Rene said. “My aunt's recipe.”
“Sounds good,” Clay said he stepped back into the dining room with his duffle bag in one hand. “I'll be back in time. I'm just going to move into my new place.”
“A room down the street.” Clay was walking through the living room and he turned back when he got to the screen door. “I'm renting it for a couple of weeks.”
“Oh,” Rene said. When Clay had turned, the afternoon sun was shining in through the open door. He had a golden look to him. He grinned at her and then he stepped through the door.
Rene could hear him whistling as he walked down the street. She still didn't know what he had to be so happy about.