Early morning outside Ludington, Michigan, was the part of the day Len Parker liked best, before the heat built and before anyone was up, except maybe the horses, but he could tolerate them. They didn't give him pitying looks, and they didn't walk on eggshells around him like everyone else seemed to in the six months since Cliff died. The sun had barely risen when Len pushed open the barn doors, and large beautiful heads poked out of the stalls to see what was going on, their big eyes blinking like they were just waking up too. Len opened the treat barrel and gave each horse a scratch and a snack as he checked them over to make sure everyone looked bright and healthy. In other words, the exact opposite of how he'd felt for what seemed like years.
In the last stall, Len opened the door, saying good morning to the farm's latest colt, Tiger. Len gave the young horse a carrot and a light pat on the neck, receiving a nuzzle in response. "Yeah, you're happy today, aren't you?" Slipping a halter over the colt's head, Len led him out of the stall and into his pasture. The crisp fall air nipped at Len's skin as he watched the colt run and play before settling down to start his munching. Len looked at the sky, blue and clear, not a cloud in sight--a perfect autumn day.
After letting most of the horses out into their pastures, Len walked through the barn to the tack room, where he kept a small work area, and began making his notes for the day. The crops weren't quite ready to come in, but it would only be a few weeks and everyone would be damned busy from sunup to sundown, taking shifts on the tractor in order to ensure they got everything in. Once he had his list completed, Len posted it on the board in the room before walking to the one horse he'd left in the stalls. Quickly and efficiently, Len brushed the chestnut gelding before saddling him and inserting a bit. He then walked the horse to the yard and closed the barn door behind him. Swinging into the saddle, Len clicked his tongue against his teeth and started off on the path toward the creek.
The familiar trail looked the same as it always had as the trees thickened around him, their leaves now yellow, red, and orange, just beginning to fall onto the path. At the creek, Len turned automatically, walking the horse down the worn path to the familiar and very special clearing. Len hadn't been here in months--he hadn't been able to bring himself to come here. Dismounting, Len tied the reins to a stout tree and stood in the middle of the clearing.
Memories washed over him, wonderful memories that he hadn't felt as though he would ever be able to recall without tears. It was in this spot that he and Cliff had first made love, outdoors, beneath some of these very same trees. This had been their spot for twenty years. Len closed his eyes and let the feelings from this place surround him. The very earth seemed steeped in the love they'd shared, undiminished by time, just as Len's love for his partner hadn't faded just because Cliff had died. A slight breeze rustled the leaves, and for a split second, Len could hear Cliff's voice on the wind telling him to move on, that it was time. A tear rolled down Len's cheek, and he didn't stop it when another followed, but unlike the tears he'd shed privately before, these were actually cleansing as he could allow himself to remember the times he and Cliff had spent together. Twenty years of loving, raising Cliff's son--no, their son--Geoff, now a man. Twenty years of happiness and fights that always seemed to end with one of them saying he was sorry and then often coming here, to this very spot, away from the house, the farm, and everything else to make it up to one another.
For months, Len had gotten through the days by telling himself that Cliff had been in pain toward the end and that it was a blessing that, after months of battling cancer, Cliff had died peacefully and at home where he wanted to be. Those last few weeks had been complete agony for Len, and he knew Cliff had been better off once he was truly at peace. He'd told himself that over and over, hoping he could believe it, when all he had wanted to do was scream and yell at the world.
"Cliff, I was so angry at you for leaving me," Len said out loud. "You were too young to die, and I'm too young to spend the rest of my life alone, without you." How many times had he told himself and God that it wasn't fair? Len had lost count, and he wasn't going to do that today. Life wasn't fair, he knew that. Hell, he'd lived that for months.
The breeze picked up again. "I'm always with you," it said in Cliff's rich voice and then died away again. Cliff was with him, Len could feel it now. He hadn't for the longest time, but he could now. Maybe he'd just needed time, like everyone said, that and maybe a little perspective and distance.
The horse snorted and pranced, pulling Len out of his daydream and back into the dappled shade of the clearing. He blinked a few times, looking around, half expecting to see Cliff standing nearby. He wasn't, of course, but Len could feel him there and that was enough to make him feel comforted. The horse nickered again, and Len walked to him, patting his flank lightly before once again listening to the sounds around him. The creek babbled over its stones, and the wind rustled the leaves once again. Wiping his cheeks on his sleeve, Len blinked a few times before untying his horse and stepping into the saddle. Turning the horse's head, he clicked his tongue against his teeth once again and started back toward the farm.
In the barn, Len unsaddled Twilight before letting the horse loose in one of the paddocks. Then he returned to the barn, where he found the day's activities already beginning. Eli and Geoff were in side-by-side stalls, talking to each other as they got their horses ready for their morning ride. A momentary sadness came over Len as he thought how much Geoff was like his father. Len needed something to do with his hands, so he grabbed a wheelbarrow and started mucking out one of the stalls. He'd taken to doing that in the mornings. Most of the time it was just a single stall, but it helped clear his mind and stopped him from wondering and thinking too much.
"Morning, Dad," Geoff called as he walked his black horse, Thunder, by the stall. "You were up really early this morning. Are you okay?" Geoff stopped, and Thunder nudged Geoff forward impatiently. Geoff pushed back, and the horse calmed once Geoff reminded him who was boss.
"Couldn't sleep, so I got up and went for a ride," Len answered and went right back to work. He really didn't want to talk about it, and Len knew Geoff would understand. The clomping of horse's hooves on the concrete told him Geoff had moved on, and Len continued filling the wheelbarrow before wheeling the mess to the mulch pile. On his way back, he passed Eli walking his horse out into the yard.
"Morning, Len," Geoff's partner of six months called with a bright smile on his face.
"Morning, Eli," Len answered with more energy than he felt. "Do you have a class this morning?"
"At ten. I have most everything ready," Eli answered before mounting. Len pulled off his cap and waved it at the two of them as they started their ride. He saw them both wave back and heard the conversation and laughter fade as they got farther away. Placing his hat back on his head, he went back to work. As he finished the stall, Len heard tires crunch on the gravel drive outside, followed by the sound of truck doors closing and then footsteps on the gravel and into the barn. The tractor started with a deep rumble in the equipment shed.
"Morning, Len," Lumpy called from the doorway of the tack room, the list of tasks in his hand. "Pete's gonna get those last hayfields roll-baled before it rains. Where do you want us to put them when we're done? You said yesterday that we didn't need it."
"You can leave it in the fields. The Hansens are going to take it all. They enlarged their dairy herd, and he said he'd be happy to take whatever we have. I'll call and tell him he can start picking up the bales in a few hours," Len said, and he saw a curious look on Lumpy's face, like he wanted to ask something, but wasn't sure if he should.
"I'll tell Pete and then get on the list." Lumpy looked the sheet over. "I'm gonna start with those fences, and I'll let you know if I find anything that needs fixing. See you this afternoon," Lumpy added before walking out of the barn and getting to work. Len climbed the stairs to the full hayloft and opened the only trap door that wasn't covered by hay. Lifting a bale, he dropped it through the door to the barn floor below.
"Len, I can get that for you," a voice behind him said, making him jump. Len landed near the edge of the door and nearly lost his balance. Big hands caught his arm, pulling him back from the brink and against a hard, firm body before both of them fell against the stacked bales of hay, with Len caught between the hay and Chris, the hand Geoff had hired a few weeks earlier. The scent of fresh hay mixed with the smell of soap and man, and for a second Len remembered what it felt like to be held and went with it until his thoughts cleared.
"You scared the shit out of me," Len said, pulling away before storming toward the stairs.
"It was an accident. Christ, I only came up to help. There's no need to take my head off!" Chris retorted louder than was needed, and Len heard the whap and thump as a bale was flung to the floor below. Len descended the stairs in a huff. He wasn't angry with Chris, not really. It was his reaction whenever he got close to the man that kept throwing him.
At the bottom of the stairs, Len stopped. He could hear Chris moving around, heavy footsteps stomping on the loft floor, the thump of the bales as they fell with more force than necessary, but more than anything he could see the man's chiseled face and bright, intelligent eyes, which looked as though they'd seen things Len could never understand. Chris also had a body that had seen hard physical work for years. Chris appeared to be nearing fifty, the way Len was, but Chris didn't look like any other fifty-year-old Len had ever seen. Not that it mattered. Len was not going to find out if the muscles beneath Chris's flannel shirt were as large as they looked, or if that glimpse of dark hair that sometimes peeked over the top of his shirt extended further. That was not going to happen. Len pushed the images out of his mind as he stomped out of the barn toward the house, figuring he might as well make breakfast. It would give him something to do, and everyone would be hungry in an hour or so.