Stepping out into the blaze of sunshine, he blinked and started his lazy trek along the well-trodden path from his large machine shed to the dirt track, which joined the barn, the corral, and two other outbuildings. Summer was beginning to embrace the land, and from the sound of the squeals coming from the backyard, the farm pups were practicing their herding skills on the children. Ol’ Sergeant, the sire of said pups, rose from his cool spot next to the shaded water crock and trotted over, ready to escort his master anywhere on the property.
“Are those spoiled kids getting to be too much for you?” He patted the cold and wet muzzle. The dog whined and wagged his tail in what Pete perceived as agreement.
A triple chirp sounded from his front pants pocket, signaling a received text message. He wiped a hand on his jeans, reached in, and pulled out his phone.
Wed nite Gr8 cant stop smilin do it again?
Pete grinned and then cussed, feeling the front of his jeans fill quickly at the thought of last Wednesday night’s secret meeting. Oh yeah. He had discovered pleasures beyond his hand. He definitely wanted to do it again. And again. And maybe some more.
But now was not the time to be thinking of such things. It wouldn’t do to face his mother with a raging hard-on. It might destroy his standing as the “good child” of the family, a title he’d never asked for but was expected to live up to.
With a sigh he pushed the phone back into his pocket, adjusted his package to the left, and picked up his pace, all the while wondering why he’d received a summons to the house before midday lunch.
The squeaky screen door to the mudroom slammed shut, an effective way of announcing Pete was in the house. He sat down on the bench and applied the bootjack to remove his crusty, straw-covered boots. Afterward, he did a quick hand wash with pumice soap and water in the garden sink, removed his hat, and ran his fingers through his short, sweat-dampened hair. Satisfied he was halfway presentable, he bounded up three steps and rounded the corner into the country kitchen.
“Oh, there he is.” Vera Stubbs sat at the huge oak table, her properly permed hair tied back in a red print handkerchief. “Peter, darling, don’t be shy. Come in and have some coffee with us. You remember Sister Agnes, Sister Josephine, and Brother Billy from church?”
He shook hands with all three conservatively dressed people and pulled out a ladder-backed chair between Brother Billy and his favorite older cousin, Lucy, who, on her days off from the village offices, helped his mother watch her small grandchildren and catch up on the summer garden chores.
After a few pleasantries about the weather, baseball, and the price of gasoline, he downed a couple of homemade oatmeal-raisin cookies and half a cup of coffee before his mother spoke up.
“I guess you’re wondering why I sent for you.”
Pete swallowed his mouthful of cookie. “Yes, ma’am. The thought did occur to me once or twice, seeing as you don’t invite me in for midmorning coffee chatter.”
Lucy ducked her head to hide her amusement, and his mother’s foot caught him across the shin.
Brother Billy, the spokesman of the group, stood as tall as his five-feet-four-inch frame allowed. “Peter, on behalf of the Delton Community Church Board, we have come to ask you a favor.”
Sister Agnes and Sister Josephine bobbed their heads in vigorous agreement.
“As you know, the seventy-eighth country jamboree weekend is six weeks away. We need your expertise for participation in the cowboy games, to be a part of the two-man team representing the church.”
Pete’s eyes lit up. The cowboy games were a big part of the festivities. The games were a variety of skill challenges set to showcase the wonders and talents of the local population. Local ranches and businesses sponsored two-man teams in hopes of winning a block of points for each challenge issued. At the end of the weekend, the team with the highest point total earned a sizable donation to a charity of their sponsor’s choice.
“For what charity?” he asked.
Brother Billy shifted forward. “It’s still up in committee. I think it’s boiled down to three worthy causes: the academy for troubled teens south of town, Seymour’s Food Pantry of Barry County, and the new AIDS support facility near the county seat.”
Pete nodded his approval. “They all sound wonderful. I’m honored and have no problem representing the church this year.”
His mother clapped her hands, her chin held high. “See?” She nodded at the church members. “Told you my Petey would do it.” Her smile radiated with pride and love.
“Praise be.” Sister Josephine beamed her trademark orange-lipstick smile. “Pastor will be thrilled.” She turned toward Lucy. “Tell your cousin what games he’ll participate in this year.”
Lucy, who happened to be a part of both the town council and the church board, pulled her ever-present clipboard from her recycled tote bag on the floor and began to speed-read. “This year, the games include horseshoe pitching, timed hay bale stacking, a chili cook-off, wood chopping, a mechanical bull ride, rifle range target shooting, distance spitting, arm wrestling, tractor pulling, and the demolition derby.” She handed Pete the registration sign-in sheet along with a consent and liability form. His mother magically produced an ink pen and placed it in his hand.
He stopped short of signing the papers. “Hey, now. What happened to the real cowboy stuff? No team roping? No steer wrestling? No horse barrels? What about tie downs and breakaway and bronco—”
“These are the safer alternatives, dear.” His mother patted the contracts in front of him.
Lucy agreed. “In this economic depression, the town council simply couldn’t afford the insurance to cover the rough-and-tumble games of the past.”
Pete curled his lip. “And the demolition derby is covered under the safe alternative rule?” His sarcastic comment almost earned him another swift kick under the table, but his shin was saved, thanks to the baby’s wail from the living room.
“Uh-oh. Morning naptime is over.” Lucy popped up out of her chair. “I’ll get Gabby for you, Aunt Vera.”
Brother Billy turned to Pete and got straight down to business. “Junior Brown donated a car for the church to use, providing his salvage yard logo is painted on the side.” He leaned back in his chair, looking pleased with the announcement. “You’ll need to bring the junker up to derby regulations, of course, but otherwise it runs as smooth as Miss Bessie Todd’s dandelion wine.” The older cowboy tilted his hat with an apologetic glance at the ladies present. “Not that I would know about the devil drink myself.”
“Hello? Pastor Trumball?” The ever-exuberant Sister Agnes shouted into the mouthpiece of her cell phone, as if the man she was talking to lived across the country instead of a mere six miles away. “Good news. Peter Stubbs agreed to represent the church for the cowboy games. Yes? I’ll tell him.” She snapped her phone shut and grinned at Pete. “Pastor is pleased that you and his nephew will partner up for the church. He’s calling Asher as we speak.”
Pete sputtered out a mouthful of warm coffee. “Ash?” He cleared his throat and tried again. “I mean, Asher Gilford?”
“Yes. He’s the one who replaced our late Sister Minnie as the church music leader,” Sister Josephine noted primly.
Sister Agnes scanned the room and leaned in as if to divulge a secret. “You know, the poor fellow who lost his mother and his aunt, Pastor Trumball’s wife, in that tragic accident last year.”
“Lives in the old Miller place north of Porcupine Road,” Brother Billy continued. “Took over his mother’s hobby farm and converted the bunkhouse into a place to teach music. Drives a bright Beetle-bug car.”
“He’s the one I told you about.” Lucy brought six-month-old Gabby back to the table and handed the crying infant to Pete so she could prepare a bottle. “He could use some of your expertise on small farm equipment.”
“Oh. Umm, yes. Now I remember.” A string of uneasiness crept up his spine. He had taken great pains not to associate publicly with Asher, in fear of what people might assume about his own personal life. “I th—think I’ve seen the guy around. You know, in church at Easter time. And isn’t he the one who gives Trenton-Lee guitar lessons?”
A frown passed over his mother’s face. “I was under the impression the team choice for this year was going to be Rudolph Atwood and my Pete.”
“Rudy wasn’t sure he’d be able to swing it,” Lucy said, returning with the warm bottle. She took the baby from Pete. “He’s in the National Guard, and the country jamboree lands on his duty weekend.”
“But it’s okay. Asher volunteered to help out.” Sister Agnes gushed at the baby in Lucy’s arms, making silly baby noises while contributing to the conversation. “The young man is a delight. Colorful. Helpful. Talkative. A regular cutie-pie.”
“Those attributes are nice but not necessary to be a participant for the cowboy games.” Pete’s mother folded her hands in front of her as she addressed the church visitors. “I think the church board should look elsewhere. Asher Gilford hasn’t lived in our community long enough. I doubt he knows how to do any of the events.”
“Sure, this is Asher’s first country jamboree, but what better way for him to feel like a part of the town than to jump right into a traditional community event with”—Agnes reached behind Lucy and affectionately patted Pete on the shoulder—“a hometown boy everyone respects and adores?”
“I agree with Sister Agnes.” Sister Josephine lowered her coffee cup and settled her attention on Pete’s mother. “Why are you so worried about Mr. Gilford?”
Pete’s mother hesitated, her gaze cast momentarily downward, then back up again with a swift, renewed confidence. “I don’t understand the justification of placing Mr. Gilford as the other team member. He moved here less than a year ago. Does he understand the tradition of the games? Does he have the skills involved? What if he gets hurt?”
“The events aren’t difficult to learn.” Brother Billy’s voice hinted at confusion over Pete’s mother’s concerns. “As it is, most of the men train a few weeks together before the event. It would be nothing for Pete to teach Asher.”
“Setting that aside, one needs to take into consideration his alternate lifestyle choice is not supported by the Bible. For him to represent the church would stir up controversy. I know the church doesn’t want that.” Pete watched his mother’s body stiffen with resolve. “Surely if the church council took the time, they could find someone more qualified, not only in talent, but one who has an unquestionable Christian spirit.”
The truth came out, and the cookies and coffee Pete had consumed suddenly turned into a ton of agitated crawdaddies with no place to hide.
Brother Billy took up the challenge. “Most folks, including yourself, don’t seem to have a problem with Asher taking over the music responsibilities at church.”
“Music on Sundays is one thing. Representing our church at a community event is not acceptable. We have our image to uphold, and Asher Gilford’s ways are too different for good people to accept.”
“Aren’t we all different, yet still loved and blessed in God’s eyes?” Brother Billy’s opposition seemed to chafe Pete’s mother, as she drew her lips in together to form a tight line. “We’re here to love one another and to help each other.”
Lucy nodded. “Delton is becoming a diverse community, and our growing congregation shows it. The cowboy games are a good way for Asher to show he’s not all different than anybody else.”
“As the good book says, ‘iron sharpens iron.’” Sister Agnes winked at Pete. “I have faith Pete will bring out a side to Asher we have yet to see. And vice versa.”
Pete’s thoughts drifted, and he became uncomfortably warm. Yes, it was an honor to represent the church in the cowboy games, but to do it with Asher Gilford? Did he really want to chance an association between them, no matter how benign? The two of them together in public could draw too many questions he did not want to think about, let alone answer.
Brother Billy thumped Pete’s back, “We are pleased both young men agreed.”
“Peter hasn’t signed the contract yet.” His mother sipped at her coffee. “And I doubt he’s going to now. Too much of his valuable time will be spent in training a novice, and as for Mr. Gilford? My son has a reputation to think about.”
“Sister Stubbs.” Brother Billy frowned, his manner noticeably more formal in tone and gesture. “The events require teamwork, and all the participants who enter the games take the time to train together, regardless if they grew up with the skills or not. And as far as Asher is concerned, he’s a virtuous congregational member of good moral standing.”
“And you can’t get any more of a straight moral compass than Pete and Asher.” Agnes leaned back in her chair. “Oh, they’ll make a wonderful pair, those two.”
Pete winced, wishing Sister Agnes had kept her opinion to herself.
“Agnes Klotz! Don’t you understand?” his mother shot through pursed lips. “Asher Gilford is an outright, unrepentant homosexual.”
“Judge not lest ye be judged, Sister Stubbs.” The quiet comment flowed from Brother Billy’s lips.
At Brother Billy’s words, his mother simmered down and regained her composure. “I’m not judging here. I’m full of love and compassion and concern for the church.”
“Hey, you.” Lucy nudged Pete with her elbow. “You’re being awful quiet about this. How do you feel?”
Pete jumped and sought out the cell phone in his pocket.
Brother Billy rose from his chair. “Yes, what do you have to say? Are we still in agreement that you’ll represent the church for the cowboy games, even with Asher Gilford?”
Pete hesitated. He loathed being in positions like this. Yes, he wanted to be a part of the team. Yes, he waffled at the thought of being with Asher in public. Yes, it bothered him that his mother was expecting him to do what she believed was right. But what was right for Peter Stubbs?
The triple chirp sang again, indicating a second text message on the heels of the first.
His mother ground her jaw sideways, resembling a horse chewing its bit. “Oh, honestly, Peter. Shut that blasted phone off. You would think whoever is calling would understand you have a life.”
The triple chirp sounded its third message alert.
Ignoring his mother, Pete pulled the cell phone out, keeping it under the shadows of the table as he stole a look.
Got 2 c u
Plz call me
“You’re still gonna do this, aren’t you?” There was a hint of a plea in Lucy’s soft voice. “It would mean so much to Pastor Trumball.” The three other church members agreed.
What was right? Who was wrong? Why did he always lean toward the path of least resistance and do what others expected him to do?
He jammed his cell phone back into his pocket. He was twenty-seven years old and tired of straddling the fence. His mother was right on one point. He had a life of his own, and it was damn well time he started taking steps toward it, even if they were little chick stumbles.
Gathering courage he’d never thought he possessed, he scribbled his name on the contestant form. “Brother Billy, nothing would please me more than to be Asher Gilford’s partner.” Out of the corner of his eye, he caught his mother’s expression: as cool and clear as a January icicle. In the heat of haying season, Pete shivered.
Sister Agnes and Sister Josephine rose from their chairs and fished for their car keys in their overstuffed pocketbooks. “For the glory of God and the cowboy games.”
Pete offered up his own prayer: Lord, help me. Amen.