Wednesday morning Nat walked out to the office in the barn. His father and brothers already had the tractors in the fields to be planted. He could see one plowing in the far west. A little closer another tractor worked the soil. The east and north fields were a green carpet of new winter wheat shoots rising from the seeds that had been planted last fall.
Nat unlocked the door to the office with the spare keys his father had given him, and then settled himself at Jordan's computer. He first checked his E-mail, anxious for Paul's opinion, hoping it matched his own. It'd be tough going against his father, and he knew it wasn't prudent to buck authority without wise counselors. He wanted to make sure he wasn't acting on his own irritation with the situation.
"So my family isn't the only one known for excessive pride," Paul's message began. Nat laughed and read Paul's letter. Yes. Just as he thought. He needed to speak out on Sunday. Paul had even done a preliminary study for him, cutting some of his work. He replied to the E-mail, thanking him and asking him to look up a couple quotes he couldn't quite remember verbatim. Then Nat prayed, opened his Bible, and began work.
A noise startled him, and something moved near his head. Too late! He was caught -- lassoed. Libby laughed as he protested being trapped to his chair.
"Okay, Wonder Woman, you still have the touch. Can I get free now?"
"Not until you promise to have lunch with me."
"Sure. What time?" He tried to raise his wrist to look at his watch, but didn't get very far. "It's one already?"
"Now. Let's go."
"I'm a little tied up."
Libby laughed and let him loose. They drove into town and ate at the only restaurant there, a small family cafe. Afterward Libby gave him a tour of the changes in their small town since his last visit as they reminisced about their childhood again. The few people they met stopped to chat.
Next they toured a new consignment shop. Many of the items were made by Indians on the nearby reservation. He picked up a few trinkets for Rachel and then looked at the jewelry. Turquoise and silver dominated the shelves, but then an opal necklace and earring set drew his attention. The thin lines of gold formed a lacework around the stones to make complex, delicate flowers.
"Gonna buy some jewelry?" Libby asked.
He glanced at Libby. "It's just a pretty set. It'd look good on Nicole... I mean someone with her dark brown hair."
Libby laughed. "She's got you. Admit it. You like her."
Nat left the jewelry and went to the counter to pay for Rachel's gifts.
Outside the shop Libby teased him again. "You like Nicole."
"Of course I like her. She's a nice person."
"Nathan's in love."
"Hush," Nat said. "If anyone hears you they'll tell Mom I'm in love with Rhonda, and I'm not in love with anybody."
"Nathan's in love," she whispered, and jabbed his waist with her finger to tickle him.
He laughed, slipped the bag handles over his wrist and then grabbed her hands. "Be good, little sister. You left your lasso at home. You're defenseless."
Libby remained upbeat all afternoon and left him at home precisely at four o'clock. "You gotta get ready for service tonight." Wednesday evening service. How could he have forgotten?
Lisa was already helping his mother with dinner and she rode with them to church at seven. The service was much as he remembered it. Mostly singing with prayer and a fifteen minute homily. Every time Nat took his eyes from the hymnal, his Bible, or Mike Tallen he found someone watching him. A few of the looks seemed completely at odds with Mike's theme of God's gracious love.
Afterward Lisa came home with them and stayed another half hour before she left. Although he ended up finding out a lot about her, he wasn't particularly interested in any of the information. But he knew he'd been polite enough by his parent's remarks afterward. "So do you really like her better than Rhonda?"
"No." Nat grabbed his jacket from the hook.
"Where are you going?" his father asked. "Which girl did you like better?"
"I have no preference. I thought I'd get a little more work done on my sermon."
"I thought you did that this morning."
"Dad," Nat tried to say patiently. "You've given a sermon or two in your life. Didn't it take more than five or six hours to prepare?"
"Yeah, but you should know this stuff better."
"Yes. I do," Nat agreed, hoping he'd remember that thought on Sunday. "And it's hard deciding what to say and what to leave out when I only have forty-five minutes."
His father looked pleased with that answer. "Of course you know too much for one sermon. Focus on greed."
"Actually, it's a related vice. I've already started working on pride."
"Pride? Is there a whole sermon on that one?"
Nat smiled. "Yeah, Dad. I could write ten of them and have material left over. You'll see. I better get to work."
"Wait, Nat," his mother said. "So you want us to schedule time with both girls? Didn't you favor one or the other just a little?"
Nat took a deep breath. "Mom, it won't bother me if I don't see either one again. I'm just not interested."
"Oh, Nat! Please try. Don't you ever want to be married?"
"Sure I do."
His mother came and stood close to him, looking up into his face. "It's that love thing again. You're expecting fantasy feelings. Love is something that grows over time."
Nat hugged her. "I know that, Mom. And that's why this isn't working. I don't know these girls, and I probably won't know them over a dinner or two."
His father shook his head. "I think you're mixing up what you think a minister should have and what you really want. We should invite Amy back. It seemed like she provoked some feelings. After you're married you can get her to change the way she dresses. She's always covered herself, so it's not like she's loose. She just has a better figure than most."
"Dad...." Amy. Rhonda. Lisa. What did it matter who came to dinner? "Whatever you think best. It doesn't matter to me." With that he slipped out the door to end the conversation.
The security flood lights lit the area around the houses and barns, making it easy to see where he was going. Inside the bard was black, and Nat inched along the wall looking for the light switch. He finally found the door to the office, fumbled with the keys, and then went inside. That light switch was easy to find -- right inside to the left of the door.
At the computer, Nat read his mail. Paul had found his quotes and added a couple more. He pasted them into his sermon document. At the end of his letter, Paul said, "Nicole and Rachel are here now. Gotta go."
Good. He was keeping up with them. Maybe he should call Paul and find out how the evening had gone. Nat reached for the phone and dialed Nicole instead. No second hand information, he'd promised, even though he knew he could trust Paul with his life.
Nicole's sleepy hello made him smile.
"Got to the phone a little late tonight. Sorry."
"Oh, Nat, it's you. Rachel's asleep."
"Good. I'll talk to her tomorrow. How are you?"
"You won't call her late, will you?"
"No. I'll set my watch. Have there been any problems?"
"Nothing too big to take care of. She was a bit antsy tonight before we went to Elizabeth's, but Paul played some computer game with her most of the evening."
"Good. Now you didn't answer my first question. How are you?"
Nicole laughed then as she had the other night. "I'm fine as long as you keep your promises."
"Then nothing will ever bother you again," he teased.
"We'll see. But how is your visit going?"
"Busy. My father scheduled me to preach Sunday without letting me know."
"Has he found out about your secret sin of card playing? Would he let you preach if he knew?"
Nat laughed. "You're right. I could try to get out of it that way, but I've already told the pastor here it was safe for him to take a little vacation."
"And you keep your promises," Nicole stated.
"I try to."
"What's this Rachel said about a sister with a big pregnant wild cat?"
Nat smiled and told her about Asia and Libby's plan to become a breeder. It was almost midnight when he set the phone down. He shut off the computer and walked back to the house.
Thursday started out the same as Wednesday had. He worked on his sermon in the morning and visited with Libby in the afternoon. Then at five he went home to endure the small talk. At least Rhonda was slightly more interesting than Lisa had been. He wondered why his father didn't invite Jordan's or Aaron's family over some evenings. Or why didn't Jordan or Aaron invite him over. He'd hardly seen his brothers or their families at all, even though they were only a short walk away.
They had just moved to the living room to visit when Nat's watch alarm went off. As Nat reached for the phone his father protested. "Oh no, Nat. You're not making another of those phone calls. You agreed not to."
"That was the other day. I promised Rachel before I left I'd call on Mondays and Thursdays at eight o'clock -- seven here." Nat picked up the phone and began punching in numbers. "I keep my promises."
His father came and pressed the cradle button to disconnect his call. "That can wait until later then," he said in a low voice. "You're being rude."
Nat stood. "Excuse me." He left the room and grabbed the office keys. Outside, Nat ran to the barn. He'd be a few minutes late making the call. He'd only allowed a two minute cushion. He didn't bother fumbling for the light inside the barn again and ran toward the office in back.
Suddenly he ran into something with his whole body. Pain shot through his leg, his hands, chest, and head. By feel he determined it was the tandem disk harrow that they'd used to break up soil earlier that day. He pulled away from it, annoyed with one more delay. They'd think he had forgotten them. He made it to the office door, and it took him several tries to get the right key in the lock. Finally he could turn a light on in the office.
He grabbed the phone as he went around the desk and sat in Jordan's chair. Rachel answered on the first ring. "You're late."
"I know. My father wouldn't let me call from the house. I had to go to the barn. But I didn't forget, Rachel. Tell me how you've been."
Rachel forgave him quickly enough, chatting eagerly about school and day-care and Paul's computer. She asked about Asia and kittens and the farm.
Nat described the tractors and attachments, especially the one he'd just tripped into. He didn't tell her about that, even though he now discovered he'd cut himself, his left hand. A quick glance down at his clothes indicated they'd been ripped. He saw a little blood, but his hand could account for that. He ignored his clothes, concentrating on Rachel, as he searched Jordan's desk for something to staunch the flow of blood from his hand. He finally decided his shirt was ruined anyway, so he pulled out the tail and cut it with a utility knife he found in one of the drawers to make a bandage.
Meanwhile Rachel chatted away, telling about the pictures she'd colored in the book he'd given her and asking if he'd taken pictures of Libby's cat.
A half hour later Nat hung up the phone and leaned back in the chair. He didn't want to be seen the way he looked now, and Rhonda wouldn't leave for at least another hour. He knew he should go back to the house, sneak upstairs to change, and rejoin the group, but he didn't feel like moving. He wasn't sure which part of his body stung more.
The barn outside the office door lit up. Someone was coming. Then his father stood in the doorway of the office. "You better get back to the house before...." His father came closer, and his voice lost its sternness. "What happened to you?"
"Got into a fight with the harrow. I think I lost."
His father came around the desk and pulled his arms away from his chest. Then he started to remove Nat's shirt.
"It's just my hand."
"No, it isn't." His father grabbed the phone. After a second he said, "Tell your father to come out to the office." Then he hung up.
Nat wondered who he'd called, but didn't care. "Sorry to spoil the party. You'll have to show me where you hide that light switch. Do you think I can get upstairs without a lot of fuss?"
"You're staying here."
"I just need a shower and clean clothes."
His father looked into his face, and then put his hand to the side of Nat's face, brushing back his hair. When his hand came down Nat saw blood smeared across it.
He touched his head and felt the small gash in his hair. "I didn't even feel that. It's just that Rachel has been lied to so much in her short life, Dad. I couldn't disappoint her, even by an hour or two."
Jordan came into the office and stopped before the desk. His face changed when he studied Nat.
"I'm okay," he tried to reassure him.
"Go get the first aid kit."
Jordan left the room.
His father still watched him, and Nat couldn't understand the concern or the apparent tenderness. "I'm okay," he repeated.
"Yeah," he said softly. "You'll be okay." He picked up the phone again. "Helen? Might as well send Rhonda home. We won't be back to the house for an hour or so." He hung up with no explanation.
Jordan returned, and they began cleaning him up with antiseptic wipes. Nat knew it was useless to protest. The cut on his chest was deeper than he'd thought. Bandages were applied to his chest, hand, and forehead. His shirt and T-shirt lay heaped in the waste basket.
"Well, Dad," Jordan finally said. "It's a good thing he went into the ministry. He doesn't know enough about farming to figure out what part of the tractor he's supposed to sit on."
Instead of joking back, his father turned and left the room. Jordan stared after him, his brow furrowed. He took a deep breath and focused on Nat. "How are you feeling? Up to walking back to the house?"
"I'm fine." Nat stood, and then realized maybe he wasn't fine as the room tilted to the left. Nat grabbed the edge of the desk to steady himself. "Just need a good night's sleep."
"Sure. Don't try getting out of Sunday, now, or I'll be forced into the pulpit, and you don't want to hear the lousy sermons I come up with."
"Mine's almost written. You could use that."
"I'd have to."
Nat smiled. "That would work even better than me preaching it. Maybe I really am injured."
Jordan gave a low, slight laugh. "Don't even try it. Where's your coat?"
"Back at the house."
Jordan slipped off his coat and helped Nat into it. "It's gotten pretty cold out there." Jordan helped him from the room.
Their father met them as they left the barn. After closing up, he walked on the other side of Nat, giving him support as needed. Nat didn't understand why he felt so tired. His head ached now and so did his ribs.
His mother met them in the kitchen, but he only heard his father say, "It's not as bad as he looks," before Jordan helped him up the stairs and into bed. Then he was alone.
"Wait," he said weakly. He should call Nicole. Why didn't he think of that earlier. She might be upset because of the delay. He'd rest a moment and then try to go to the phone in the other room.
Nat awoke, and in the moonlight he saw his father. "I should call Nicole."
"You called her. Remember. That's how you got yourself cut up." He sat on the edge of the bed. "How are you feeling?"
"I called Rachel. I should call Nicole." He tried to sit up.
His father put out his hand. "Please don't, Nat. Give the wounds time to heal."
"But just a phone call...."
"Can't your elders look after her while you're gone? If it's a church matter, you're on vacation."
"Give me a number. I'll call one of your elders for you."
Nat couldn't find a reason to protest, even though he wanted to. He gave him Paul's number. After his father left, Nat tried to determine why he needed to call Nicole. Right before he drifted back to sleep he realized that he just wanted to hear her voice.
He awoke a little later to his mother's hand on his forehead. "Ssssh. You have a fever. I'll bring you some Tylenol."
He waited, and then obediently swallowed the pills. "Did Dad call Paul?"
"I don't know. Try to rest."
He tried. For some reason his father's words from the other day repeated themselves. "I think you're mixing up what you think a minister should have with what you really want." Was he? What did he really want? He wanted to make sure Nicole wasn't upset because he'd called late. He wanted to hear her low, special laugh again. Then he fell asleep.