It was Pepper. She knew before the stone broke the water’s surface; still she remained, leaning on the bridge railing, studying the whirlpool below, forcing herself not to look, afraid to know for sure. Dropping another pebble, she watched it disappear, sucked below the surface. The gentle clop clopping hooves closed in.
Another pebble. One—two—three twists, it was gone, swallowed by the dark, swirling water. So like her life. She, too, felt doomed, sucked deeper into black despair. One more unhappy twist of fate, and she might disappear, sucked into the whirlpool by her leaden heart.
The horse stopped so close behind her she could feel the heat of its body in the July sun. She could smell its rich, sweaty horse smell. It nibbled at her hair. She felt the rider’s eyes.
“Want to go for a ride?”
She had to look up then but did not speak. Her voice would betray the hurt swirling inside, tugging her ever downward. Not wishing him to see forbidden tears, she shook her head and, tossing the final stone into the water, turned towards home. She had hoped a walk along the creek would ease the pain of knowing he’d been with Jennifer the night before. It hadn’t. And now, here he was, and she couldn’t face him. At seventeen, her life seemed all but over. With a lump in her throat, she walked away.
Peter saw immediately. By now he knew her so well.
“Liz, hey! Wait!”
Sliding from the horse’s back, he hurried after her, caught her elbow.
“Can’t we even talk now?” The edge in his voice, an edge that hadn’t existed a few weeks earlier, cut deep. “Look at me, at least!”
“Why don’t you just go ask Jennifer? I’m sure she’d love to spend the afternoon with you!” When she looked at him, tears glistened in violet eyes.
For four years they’d been best friends. For over a year, they’d been a couple. Neither could deny that what had been friendship had blossomed into love. Neither wanted to.
“How could you, Peter? And with her?”
Elizabeth’s face was flushed. Jealousy, anger, despair, it was all there for his discerning eyes to see. Rarely had Peter seen her in such a state. Elizabeth was calm, reasonable, preferring an unruffled exterior to the emotional paroxysms many their age blasted life with.
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about your date with Jennifer last night.” Violet eyes flamed betrayal. “I’m talking about you taking Jennifer to the movies, that’s what!”
“Is that what she told you?”
“Don’t deny it, Peter! Even Paul said he saw the two of you sitting together.”
“And you believed them?”
“Shouldn’t I have?”
“For your information, Jennifer bumped into me outside the Roxy.” Peter’s eyes searched Elizabeth’s. “She sat with me!” His words tacked together along a now familiar bitter line. “She asked me for a ride home so she wouldn’t have to call her dad.”
Seeing continued pique, he said, “I suppose I should have said ‘no’ so that you, sitting home by yourself, wouldn’t get jealous!”
Elizabeth’s throat tightened.
“What should I have said, Liz? You could have been there, if you weren’t so stubborn. This ‘arrangement’ isn’t my idea!”
“I’m not being stubborn! And it’s not my idea either!” A wave of tears then, “I haven’t any choice, Peter, since . . .”
‘Dad’ disappeared in a muffled sob.
Once again, frustration won the day. The summer had been a continual argument, a hit and run of emotion leaving each miserable. This was but the latest round. In anger, Peter swung onto the mare’s back.
“Well, I’m sure ‘Daddy’ knows what’s best for his little girl!”
With that, he kicked Pepper’s flank and galloped towards the hill that lay between the bridge and Prospect Hill schoolhouse half a mile down the road.
Awash in a new wave of emotion, Elizabeth watched him go. Any relief from knowing Peter’s version of the night before drowned in his stinging sarcasm. The whirlpool pulled her into its vortex; tears washed horse and rider from her vision. “Getting too serious.” Her father was wrong. She’d always been serious about Peter, as he’d been about her. There was no “getting.”
But this, this was impossible. Even the thought of losing Peter was more than she could bear, and this hit and run quarrel . . . Peter was becoming increasingly angry with her, and who could blame him. The instant he disappeared from view, she resolved to follow her heart—whatever the cost. She loved her father devotedly; she loved Peter more.
Pepper’s hooves grew distant. Elizabeth stood rooted to the spot. The heat of the summer sun penetrated along with a new fear. Might he actually go to Jennifer? Who could blame him?
Elizabeth turned towards home. She did not know how to change her father’s mind any more than she understood his inexplicable change towards Peter. In that moment of heat and heartache, all Elizabeth knew was that she could not lose Peter.
By the time she reached the shade of the cottonwood a quarter mile from the bridge, she heard Pepper returning. Standing in the tree’s welcome shade, it was hard to read Peter’s expression. Whether he’d returned to continue the fight or intended to ride by, she couldn’t tell. That, she determined, she wouldn’t let happen. When he reined the horse to a stop, she knew it was neither. His normal calm had returned. As their eyes met, he reached a hand to hers, “Come on.”
Elizabeth swung lightly up behind him, settled comfortably on the mare’s broad back, and slipped both arms around Peter’s trim waist. Snuggling close, she felt his class ring, the ring her father had demanded she return, the ring Peter had refused to take, the ring she concealed next to her heart, and took a deep breath.
Peter cocked his head, to see if she was ready. His eyes met hers; his unhappy smile met her own. “I’m sorry,” he said softly.
“I know. Me, too.”
The horse moved. Elizabeth placed her cheek against Peter’s shoulder and closed her eyes. It had been weeks since they’d been close like this.
“Where’re we going?” she asked without caring.
“I want to show you something.”
They rode in silence nearly a mile, content to be close to enjoy what remained of the day. Passing both their homes, they reached the intersection of the main road south from Wareham. Peter reined the horse that direction.
Finally, Peter spoke. “It was a terrible movie anyhow.” He grinned as he felt her pull back.
“Not according to Jennifer!”
“Well, while Jennifer was trying to share her popcorn, all I could think about was you. Wonder what you were doing?” The sun skimmed straw-colored hair as he turned. His eyes searched hers.
“I better be the only one you share popcorn with.”
His smile did its work. “Fine by me.”
Elizabeth’s smile was fleeting. “I’m sorry. I had no right to be upset. You’re free to take anyone home.”
“Maybe that’s not what I want.” He, too, became serious. He rotated away, leaving only his profile. “I gave you that right when I gave you my ring, remember?”
Elizabeth loved Peter’s profile. “I remember.” Sensing his renewed irritation, she leaned against him. “Please, let’s not spoil the afternoon again. You know this is not what I want.”
Peter did not respond.
She peeked over his shoulder and changed the subject. “Weren’t you supposed to be at your Great-aunt Enid’s? You weren’t in church.”
“Who told you that?”
“I bet she really laid it on, didn’t she?
“My folks went. I stayed home to do chores. Matt was sore. He hates going there.”
“They’re picking up your grandmother?”
“Yeah. Hard to believe she stayed down there a whole month. She never has before. The house is sure different without her around.”
“How did you find me?”
“Ben was in the trees when I rode by; he promised not to tell.”
“Right now, I don’t care. We haven’t been alone since, it seems like forever.”
“I know. Hang on.” Peter kicked the horse. Pepper responded by settling into lopping gallop. Elizabeth placed her cheek on Peter’s shoulder and closed her eyes. All she knew was the gentle rhythm of the horse beneath her, the strength of Peter’s back before her, and peace. Her day of abysmal despair blossomed into sublime joy.
Near the end of the first mile, Peter slowed the horse, trotted up the next hill then reined her to a walk. They continued south one more hill and down, then cresting yet another of the rolling prairie hilltops, came even with a lane that ran east, disappearing in a tree claim. Here, they stopped. Elizabeth surveyed the scene. “Isn’t this the Frederick’s place?”
“Actually, it’s the Kraus place. My mother grew up here. Grandma lived here until she came to live with us, but that’s so long ago I barely remember it.”
Peter swung his right leg over the mare’s neck, slid to the ground then turned and reached for Elizabeth. As she slipped into his arms, he wound them around her, pulled her close. Holding her between himself and the sweaty horse, he gazed long into her eyes. Then he kissed her.
“God, I’ve missed you.” He whispered as he brushed auburn hair from her cheek. “These past few weeks have been the worst of my life. All I can think about is you.”
Elizabeth’s smile was bittersweet. “I know. Dad . . . he doesn’t realize how hard this . . .”
“Let me talk to him, Beth. Somehow, I’ll make him understand just how wrong he is. I’m miserable not seeing you,” his eyes studied her lips, “and the idea of someone else taking you out . . . even once in a while . . . drives me absolutely crazy. Believe me, last night was nothing Jennifer wanted it to be.”
“Peter, I’ve tried to talk to him.”
“You don’t think he’d listen to me?”
“Somehow, you are the problem.” Elizabeth buried her face against his neck. Peter sighed deeply and simply held her. It was a long time before he spoke again.
“I had a reason for bringing you here, Beth.”
She pulled away, smiled at him. “You remembered.”
“I told you I would. Besides, it suits you, sounds like you, even if your folks don’t think so.” He grinned. “I’ve been practicing.”
“That makes me so happy! I’ve always preferred Beth, like my grandfather used to call me.”
“I have another idea I hope will make you happy.” Peter’s eyes were sensuous, searching. “I love you, Beth. Will you marry me? Live here with me? Have a dozen kids with me?”
Elizabeth scanned the blue eyes of her dreams. “You’re not kidding are you?”
“I’ve never been more serious in my life. I’ve done a lot of thinking these past weeks. I know what I want. How about you?”
“Oh, Peter. Yes! Of course I’ll marry you but . . .”
“How can I promise myself to you now. We can’t even see one another? That’s not fair to you.”
“All I need is your promise, to know that you love me. Somehow, I’ll make the rest work out.”
His lips were trembling. Elizabeth felt his excitement; her own made her lightheaded.
Pepper stomped flies and shook her head. Her mane swept over their faces. Peter laughed, took Beth’s hand, and said, “Come on.” He lead her from the horse’s side, and extending his arm towards the trees, started to talk.
Elizabeth loved the sound of his voice, loved listening to his hopes and dreams, but this time, she only partially heard what he said. Peter had asked her to marry him!
When Peter finished speaking, he wrapped his arms around her waist and looked deep into her eyes. “I’ll bring you back sometime when I can show you around. The house is big. It has a great yard. The buildings lay real nice. And down there beyond the trees,” he motioned again, pointing to a place where a large willow reigned between two cottonwoods, “That’s the spring that feeds the creek that runs between our pastures.”
“Peter, you’re forgetting something.”
“The Fredericks. We can’t make them move. I won’t force someone out of their home.”
Peter grinned. Pulling her close, he squeezed tight. “Neither would I. But the fact is, the Frederick’s are giving up their lease. Come March, they’re moving back to Iowa, to where they came from. Grandma is looking for a renter. Thought I might make her an offer.”
A cloud settled in violet eyes. “What about school? You said you’d finish.”
Peter nodded. “I will. I can manage school and farm for a couple months.” He grew sober. “It’s always been for me. It would have been my uncle’s if he hadn’t died in the war. Now, well, Grandma wants me there. It’s ours if you’ll share it with me.”
The look in his eyes took Beth’s breath away.
“My father may not give his permission, Peter, even in a year. He’s always talked of me earning a scholarship, going to college.”
“How do I tell him we’re engaged? He won’t even let me keep your class ring.”
Peter lifted the chain around her neck and pulled the ring from inside her blouse. He studied its gold in the sunshine. “Don’t say anything, not yet. I’ll talk to him, make him see we’re meant to be together.”
Rolling the ring in his fingers, he wondered aloud, “I only wish I knew why? Why he no longer trusts me? There must be something behind this.”
At her blush, his lips curved into a grin. “We’ve covered this before, haven’t we?”
“Most definitely,” Elizabeth’s eyes helds. “It would be one way of getting what we both want.”
“And me shot!”
“You know I didn’t mean it, not really . . . well, OK, maybe just a little. I’m sorry. But I am right.”
“Yes, and would prove he’s right not to trust me, to say nothing of my conscience.” Lifting a strand of auburn hair, Peter added, “I love you, Beth. I want to honor, not dishonor you, no matter how much . . . I do want you.”
The shadow of a cloud settled over them.
Peter drank in the color of her eyes then said. “It’s getting late. We’d better be going.”
Turning, they lead Pepper as, arm in arm, they walked to the top of the hill. There they remounted, this time with Beth in front. His arms around her, Peter coaxed the horse into a canter. About half a mile from the lane, he suggested, “It’s risky, but I could have Paul call, ask you out. I’d meet you somewhere. He’d do that for me.”
“Yeah, it’s a bad idea.”
“I didn’t say no, but if we get caught, it will really complicate things.” Leaning against him, she turned her forehead against his cheek. “Dad seems so angry with me lately; I hate that feeling.”
Her tone gave her away.
“Are you afraid of him?”
“No, . . . well, maybe a little. He’s never hurt me, but . . . He has a temper, Peter, and since this, whatever this is, started, well, it’s like I’ve done something wrong.”
Peter nuzzled her hair. Taking the reins in his right hand, he entwined her left fingers with his own. “It’ll work out,” was all he could think to say.
They rode for several minutes enjoying the closeness, the warmth of the summer sun. Then, without speaking, Peter shifted the reins and reached into his back pocket. He pulled out a paper and handed it to her.
“Look at it.”
Unfolding what was a postcard, Elizabeth saw a creased reproduction of a large building. “The Denver Mint” read the caption. On the back was one line made illegible by runs in the ink. Peter’s name was printed in neat block letters on the right side.
“What does it say?”
“I don’t know. That’s the way it arrived.”
“I didn’t know you knew anyone in Denver.”
“Neither did I.”
Peter grew quiet a moment then said, “It’s from Jess. I recognize his printing, he never wrote in cursive. It came a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to show it to you.”
Elizabeth studied the washed out message. “What do you think it means?”
“Haven’t a clue.”
And then Peter drifted off to that place he disappeared whenever Jess came up, which wasn’t often. His mother Laura was still touchy about Peter’s night on the lam, as was his grandmother. All anyone knew about Jess in the intervening three years was that he’d not returned for his father’s funeral the winter before. Not even Jess’ mother seemed to know his whereabouts. To have heard from him was remarkable indeed.
Elizabeth broached the topic. “I just remember how frightened I was that you really had run away with him. Now I hate how sad he still makes you. You’ve never told me what happened, why you fought?”
“It’s not something I’m proud of.”
Elizabeth doubted she’d ever have a better chance to ask, but thinking better of it, wondered aloud, “Why would he have sent this?”
Peter gave her a wistful smile. “I haven’t a clue.” Taking the postcard from her, he slipped it back into his pocket.
“You’re sure it’s from him?”
“Judging from my experience, I hope it wasn’t. He was so moody. He still affects you that way.”
Peter brushed a kiss against her cheek. “That wasn’t the Jess I grew up with, Honey. That Jess was so caught up in his anger and hurt, he couldn’t see beyond it.”
Gazing long into her eyes, he added, ”If he could have, he would have taken one look, seen how beautiful you are, and fallen madly in love with you—just like I did.” There was an extreme tenderness in his touch as he pulled her closer. “Let’s just say, I was defending your honor and leave it at that, all right?”
And, Peter was right. Elizabeth Beehmer was beautiful. It wasn’t only the rich auburn hair or the violet eyes that attracted him to her. It was who she was, what lie beneath the creamy complexion, that bound his heart to hers. Her quiet, reserved nature was sometimes mistaken for aloofness, but there was nothing of that in her. She was inherently shy. That quality alone made him protective of her. His respect for her native goodness, her kindness and compassion had cemented his affection. He would have had a hard time not desiring her, he found her so attractive. Knowing who she was had long ago cost him interest in anyone else.
Elizabeth placed her hand on the blue cotton sleeve encircling her waist. She doubted she’d ever understand Peter’s friendship with Jess. Content to ride peacefully in his arms, she dropped the subject. If Peter raised the specter of Jess’ ghost, then she’d listen, otherwise, Jess didn’t exist to her.
For a time, only the mare’s eyes saw what lie before them on the dusty July road. Sadly, Peter relived the frustration of his final morning with Jess. With all his heart, he wished for a chance to make things right between them. He hoped that Jess, too, regretted that day. Still, the postcard in his pocket left him uneasy. He’d never been able to forget Jess’ eyes as he pulled away. Those eyes haunted him as much as did Jess’ stinging condemnation of his feelings for Elizabeth, feelings that had only deepened during the intervening years.
By late afternoon, the midday heat slackened. When they turned east, clouds began gliding east with them, keeping cadence with the horse. The workhorses in the Christiansen pasture nickered a greeting as Pepper passed.
A pair of blue jays jabbered warnings as the horse approached the bridge between the two farms. The bridge planks prattled agreement. The scent of yellow clover filled the air. Blue sage and flax contrasted. On the gentle breeze rode the aroma of sun-cured hay and new-tasseled corn.
Peter’s mood shifted. Melancholy gave way to vexation. “This is so frustrating! I would never have believed I’d actually look forward to school just so I could see you.”
Elizabeth, who’d been quietly cherishing their time, their closeness, felt Peter’s tension mount as the mare climbed the hill to her home.
As they passed the trellis of yellow roses in the corner of the yard, Elizabeth’s breath caught. Frank Beehmer crossed the yard towards them. In his right hand, he carried a five-gallon bucket of feed. “Peter?”
“I see him.”
Shifting the full bucket of grain to his left hand, Frank reached the horse just as Elizabeth slid breathlessly into Peter’s hands. “Just where have you been?” Her father’s voice was harsh, edged with anger. “You’ve been gone all afternoon!”
“It’s my fault, sir,” Peter interceded. “I ran into Liz out walking and persuaded her to go riding with me. I guess we lost track of time.”
Frank’s eyes shifted to Peter. “Yeah, I know. Ben told me how you ‘happened’ to run into her.” His voice deepened. “I thought I’d made my feelings clear, Peter.”
“I’d like the chance to ask why?”
“Oh, you would, would you?” Frank’s eyes darkened.
“Papa, please,” Elizabeth pleaded.
“Liz and I have been friends since you moved here,” Peter continued without missing a beat. “I wouldn’t hurt her for the world. I don’t understand why, why you’ve decided we shouldn’t see one another?”
“The fact of the matter is you are precisely the reason! You’ve monopolized her time this entire past year! More. Seeing you day and night will only lead to trouble.”
Frank’s voice became the texture of rough gravel. “While she’s still under my roof, I can and will decide what right for her!” His eyes shifted to his daughter’s, “And she darn well better do as I say! Is that clear?”
Peter bristled and stepped forward. Elizabeth caught his arm. “You better go.”
Her movement betrayed her. The gold ring slipped into the light. It sparkled in the late day sun.
Her father grabbed it; with a jerk, he broke the chain and said, “I thought I told you to give this back!”
“I wouldn’t take it!” Peter’s eyes burned blue fire.
“You get in the house! Now!”
The screen door banged. Having heard their voices, Marie Beehmer stepped outside.
“The next time you disappear all afternoon like this, I’ll take a strap to you!”
Elizabeth gave Peter one tear-filled glance and fled her father’s fury.
Peter, struggling for self-control, watched her then turned to face her father. “What have I done?” He took a deep breath. “I love your daughter. You’re wrong to keep us apart, and you’re wrong to treat her . . . She’s not a child!”
The knuckles on Frank’s left hand whitened over the handle of the oats bucket. Raising the ring in his right hand, he stepped over and shoved it into Peter’s shirt pocket. Mere inches separated them.
“That’s precisely what has me concerned! Now, you get on your horse and get home! And don’t you come back! Am I clear?” With that, he quickly turned, spilling oats over the lip of the bucket as he stormed towards the barn.
Peter’s temples pulsed with indignation. Setting his jaw, he called, “If you ever take a strap to her . . .”
“Peter,” Marie Beehmer intervened.
Opening the gate, she checked to see that her husband hadn’t turned, placed a hand on Peter’s arm, and, as she followed Frank with her eyes and said, “He won’t.” Her eyes found Peter’s. “He never has.”
Peter took a deep breath. “I don’t understand . . .” His voice failed him. He looked down then back to Marie. “Can’t you help us?”
“I don’t . . . When he’s like this . . . He’s very stubborn. Give it time. Be patient, Peter.”
Peter looked away. Muffled sobs found him. His eyes flew up to Elizabeth’s open window. He could see shifting lace curtains. Beyond were darkness—and tears.
Without speaking, he mounted, turned Pepper away. It was a relief when he was down the hill and could no longer hear her crying. His class ring thumped against his chest as he kicked the mare’s side to gallop home. He ached to hold Elizabeth, to comfort her. Yet, at that moment, he didn’t know when or how—or if—he’d ever see her again.