Heartland Skies

by Melody Carlson

Jayne Morgan has a lot to learn about love. Harris McAllister has a lot to learn about tolerance. When they meet they have lots to teach each other.

Jayne feels betrayed when her fiancé suddenly dumps her for his high school sweetheart just weeks before the wedding. She’d love to leave Paradise, Oregon, but she’s signed a teaching contract and the kids in her classroom need her.

Chapter 1

“Now, here’s a serious contender for this year’s all-around buckaroo award,” said the rodeo announcer. “Mac Lawson, from Lubbock, Texas, already holds this year’s saddle bronc record. Today he’s riding Black Rage. Let’s hear it, cowboys and cowgirls—put your hands together for Mac on Black!”

Jayne Morgan watched with wide eyes as the black horse sprang out of the gate, bucking and twisting. He was a good-looking horse, and he moved with agility. As silver spurs dug into his flanks, the horse spun wildly.

She winced as the fiery stallion again bucked high into the air, this time showing daylight below. The crowd exploded with wild cheering. As the horse landed, he threw down his head impossibly low, and the rider was thrown against his neck. In the next moment, both horse and rider tumbled into a bone-crushing somersault, with the cowboy landing on the bottom. Jayne gasped and covered her eyes.

The crowd grew hushed for an instant, and then a low rumble of concerned murmuring began. Jayne couldn’t bring herself to look. The announcer was saying something about how these things happened in the rodeo world so the audience shouldn’t be worried. The words barely registered with Jayne; her heart was pounding, and she wished she hadn’t come to the rodeo.

“Is he okay?” she whispered to her fiancé, Derrick Long, her eyes still closed.

“Yep, he’s fine. Just a little shook up is all. See—he’s getting up and walking around. No big deal, Jayne.” The crowd began to clap hesitantly, and Jayne finally opened her eyes and stared down into the arena. There in a quivering mound lay what had only moments ago been a strong and healthy horse. Two rodeo hands were examining him.

“We have experienced help available who know how to handle these situations,” the announcer said in a calm voice; and then he added more quietly, “Could we please have our rodeo veterinarian report to Gate C immediately.”

“I thought you said he was just fine!” Jayne grabbed Derrick by the arm.

“He is,” said Derrick as he pointed down to the other end of the arena. “See, there’s Mac right—”

“I meant the horse!” she hissed.

Derrick laughed. “You mean you were more worried about the horse than the cowboy? Mac took quite a fall. He’s lucky to be walking around right now.”

Tears burned in her eyes as she looked down at the fallen creature. “But what about the poor horse? Doesn’t anybody care about him?”

Derrick shrugged. “Sure, it’s a shame to lose a good animal, but you’re going to have to toughen up, Jayne. This is cowboy country. Life is tough in the West. Animals come and go—”

“Speaking of going…” Jayne stood up. “I think I’ve had enough rodeo for today.”

“Well, I haven’t.”

Jayne remained standing. Derrick’s parents were sitting right behind them. They were probably staring at Jayne right now, wondering what was the matter with her. She decided to give Derrick ten seconds to change his mind. She waited, fixing her eyes on the brightly colored flags that flew over the arena. She knew that in another minute there would be tears running down her cheeks, and the last thing she needed was an audience this size. Not that many would notice. Most of the spectators were getting rowdy again, shouting and stomping their feet, anxious for the next contestant to ride.

She looked back down at Derrick. It was plain to see that he had no intention of leaving. “I’ll see you later,” she said, then turned and began to squeeze past many sets of denim-covered knees and cowboy boots, hoping that perhaps Derrick was following her. But when she turned her head, she could see from the corner of her eye that he hadn’t budged. Finally, she reached the stairs, and there she paused for a moment to look back down at the arena. Maybe she was overreacting.

The horse was still lying there, motionless. She couldn’t see if he was breathing or not, but she hoped he wasn’t in pain. She swallowed hard and turned away again. As she entered the shadowy walkway, she noticed a tractor coming in with a flat trailer behind it. Her stomach twisted, thinking of the poor animal being carted away, and she hurried away from the arena and out to the parking lots. The announcer was already introducing the next saddle-bronc rider, and the crowd began to cheer wildly. How quickly they had forgotten the fallen horse.

Jayne felt hot tears run down her cheeks as she walked toward town. She felt foolish and childish. Maybe she just wasn’t cut out for cowboy country, as Derrick had said. Maybe she just needed to “cowboy up” and go back and watch the rest of the rodeo. But with each step she took away from the rodeo grounds, she knew that she could not. She would not. She loved horses too much to be able to stand watching them like this.

Her obsession with horses had begun long ago. It had started innocently, with a gift from her Aunt May for her fifth birthday. The sleek glass animal was a golden palomino with a long, flowing mane and its front hoof lifted proudly in the air. Soon after that, Jayne began collecting model horses, and then she began to draw pictures of horses, and it wasn’t long until she was dreaming of horses. Every night for the next ten years she had prayed for a horse of her very own.

When she was fifteen, she got a job mucking out stalls for an equestrian center just outside of town—horse heaven. It was only a matter of days until she worked out a deal with the manager to trade work for the use of a horse and riding lessons. While she was earning her teaching degree, she promised herself that once she got a good job, she would buy a horse of her own.

Jayne walked across Main Street and sat down on a bench in front of the drugstore. Town was nearly deserted now with everyone over at the rodeo grounds. She took off her cowboy hat and wiped a wisp of dark hair off her brow. She leaned her head back and allowed the afternoon sun to pour down upon her face. Derrick’s mother was always warning about skin cancer and telling her she should use sunscreen. Although she knew Mrs. Long was probably right, Jayne had the kind of skin that rarely burned so she didn’t bother.

She readjusted the silver barrette that held her hair away from her face. The long, heavy ponytail was making her back too warm. Mrs. Long had suggested that she cut it, even offering to take Jayne to her own hairdresser. She said that Jayne’s hair made her look too much like an Indian, but Jayne couldn’t see what was wrong with that. Besides, Derrick seemed to like it. She closed her eyes and imagined that she was swimming in a shaded pool of water, with lush green things growing all around. The image was lovely, but it didn’t cool her off.

The sun was starting to sink, but it was still hot out. Derrick had told her that Indian summers were common in this area, and even though it was September, she should count on a few more weeks of hot weather. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees, and wondered what she should do now. She twirled the white straw cowboy hat around on her finger. It was a Stetson, a gift from Derrick’s mother.

Jayne had only been in town for a couple of weeks, but already she was starting to feel at home. Until today, anyway. She wondered what Derrick’s parents would say about her hasty exit. They were wheat ranchers and well known in the community. She had already met a number of their friends by attending barbecues, two parties, and now the town’s biggest yearly event—the Paradise Roundup. Until today, she had been having a lot of fun here.

Maybe the horse lover in her was overly sensitive, but she was dusty and hot and tired, and she didn’t want to go back to the rodeo. Besides, it bothered her that Derrick had shown so little concern; not just for the horse, but for her feelings. In less than three months they would be getting married, and she was beginning to wonder if they needed more time. Things between them hadn’t felt quite right in the last few days. Derrick had been acting differently since returning to his hometown, but even more so recently. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something had changed. He seemed distant, almost cool. Perhaps it was just because he was back in his own stomping ground.

They really hadn’t known each other very long. They had met less than a year ago, soon after she’d started her final year of college. Derrick had just graduated and was working in public relations, as well as helping out with the college group at her church. She had liked his outgoing and confident personality, and when she found out that his family had horses—lots of horses—she was more than a little interested. It wasn’t long before they were dating, and then steadily. Even her conservative parents had liked him. Derrick had taken her to meet his parents during spring break, and on a trail ride, while she was actually in the saddle, he popped the question. Of course, she said yes.

In that moment, life had seemed just about perfect. She was not only marrying a great guy, but God had finally answered her prayer. She would have a horse. A lot of horses! On top of that, Derrick’s dad was a golf buddy of the school superintendent, so landing a kindergarten teaching position had been a cinch. School would start in a few days, and Jayne had been spending several hours here and there over the past week setting up her classroom. Right now, life was just about perfect.

So why did she feel so perfectly lousy?

Chapter 2

Derrick never mentioned the incident at the rodeo. She met him at his shiny new pickup, which had been a welcome-home present from his father, and they drove home in silence. It wasn’t exactly a hostile silence, for Derrick had popped in a country music CD and hummed along. But just the same, it had been uncomfortable. She almost apologized for her emotional reaction, but she wanted him to apologize first. And it just didn’t happen.

He parked the truck under the shade of an old locust tree. When Jayne climbed out, the ranch dogs ran up, barking out their friendly greetings. She reached down and scratched the golden Lab behind his ear for a moment, and when she straightened, Derrick was out of sight. He hadn’t said a word.

Irritated, she turned and went to her room. At times like this, it was awkward being a guest in Derrick’s parents’ home, but she told herself this was only a lovers’ quarrel. Fortunately, the house was huge and sprawling, making it easy to slip around without being noticed.

She flopped down on the neatly made bed. The blue-and-white bedspread felt cool against her bare arms. When she first came to stay with the Longs, she made the bed herself each morning. Then she realized that the maid was just remaking it anyway, so she decided to enjoy the unexpected luxury. The room and connecting bath were certainly nice enough, but everything, from the carpet to drapes to towels, was painfully matched in either royal blue or white, with no personal touches whatsoever. It reminded her of a hotel room. She had suggested to Derrick that perhaps she should find a place of her own before the wedding, but her finances were tight, so when Derrick insisted she stay here, she didn’t protest too much. Soon they would have their own place, and she could insert as much personality as she liked.

Fortunately, on her first day here, Jayne had discovered a great hideout, and surprisingly, it was a place that Derrick seldom frequented. The horse barn provided a perfect haven, complete with all the wonderful smells of carefully maintained leather tack and fresh hay and grain.

Most important, there were horses there. It didn’t even matter that quarter horses were not her favorites. She knew that quarter horses were considered the rancher’s horse of choice, the cowboy’s best friend, the workingman’s horse. And she respected that. Besides, these weren’t average quarter horses; these were the best quarter horses that the Long money could buy. Their everyday horses were kept out in the pasture, but the ones in this barn got special treatment. Tommy Sanders took care of them. He was a weathered-looking old cowpoke, and he’d been at the Long ranch since the early sixties. He grumbled and complained about “them fancy, good-for-nothing” horses, but he was a meticulous caretaker, and Jayne suspected he loved horses just as much as she did. He was always willing to recite their pedigrees and point out the unique characteristics of each individual horse. And he called them all by name.

One day, Jayne had asked Tommy about trying out her English riding gear on one of the quarter horses. Tommy had a fit, launching into a long lecture adorned with colorful cowboy expletives about the foolishness and uselessness of English riding and that it was for sissified, citified blue-noses who didn’t belong in this kind of country. She had pretended to take the ribbing in good humor, not wanting him to know that he had hurt her feelings. She didn’t think he had meant to hurt her, but it was the last time she brought up the subject of riding English when Tommy Sanders was around.

The last few days of the Paradise Roundup passed uneventfully. On Sunday morning, Jayne went with Derrick and his parents to Cowboy Church. It was a Roundup tradition, and she had never been to anything quite like it. Local Christian cowboys led the service with a western-style worship, and then a couple of well-known cowboys shared their testimonies. The service was quite moving. Jayne wished they had it every Sunday, because it seemed more real than the stuffy church that Derrick’s family usually attended.

After church, they went to a luncheon at the home of another wealthy cattle-owner friend of the Longs. There must have been over a hundred people there, but hardly anyone that Jayne knew, and no one seemed interested in knowing her. By the time they headed to the final rodeo performance that afternoon, her face felt tired from smiling, but she was determined to be a good sport today. Thankfully, no more serious accidents occurred. Derrick had become his easygoing self again, though perhaps a bit on the quiet side. With school starting the next day, Jayne had plenty to occupy her thoughts, so she didn’t press him. That evening, as they were leaving the rodeo grounds, Derrick asked Jayne if she wanted to ride home with his folks while he met up with some old school buddies. Jayne willingly agreed. She had no desire to stay out late the night before her first day in the classroom, and she wanted to go over her lesson plans one more time.

The first day of school went surprisingly well. Her class of eighteen five-year-olds seemed to like her. Only Dylan Zimmer cried when his mother left him, but he seemed to be okay by snack time. Jayne took out her guitar and let the children take turns touching it and plucking the strings; and then she taught them a couple of songs. A number of the children were from the nearby reservation. Jayne had little experience with Native Americans, but she was drawn to their large, dark eyes and serious faces. As the week progressed, Jayne realized that it would take a little more work on her part to draw some of them out. They seemed a little more withdrawn and shy than the other children, but before long they started warming up to her. The only exception was Leah Bluefish, who was painfully shy. Jayne wasn’t sure what it would take to win her over. She hoped that as Leah saw the rest of her playmates joining in and chattering away that she would follow along. By the end of the week, Jayne felt certain that she had been blessed with a wonderful group of children and that this would be a very good year.

Jayne had been so caught up with teaching and having everything set up just perfect in her classroom that she hardly noticed how little she had seen of Derrick this week. He had been absent at dinner for the past few days, but his mother always had a ready excuse, and Jayne had not questioned it. In fact, it had been something of a relief because it had allowed her to focus on her new job. She knew, too, that Derrick was still getting used to the routine of ranching. He hadn’t decided yet whether to pursue another line of work or to devote himself full-time to helping his father run the ranch. His dad was pressuring him, and she didn’t want to interfere.

But by Friday, Jayne was eager to spend some time with her fiancé. She wanted to go out for dinner and to tell him about her week. She wanted to find out how his week had gone and how he was feeling about the ranch business. It was time for a good heart-to-heart.

She pulled into the driveway late Friday afternoon and looked around for his red pickup. When she didn’t see it, she continued back to where the shops were located. She parked in front of the gas pump and looked around. There were all different kinds of farm machines and equipment, much of which still made no sense to her city-girl’s eyes, but no Derrick. She looked to where a row of shiny silver combines stood at attention, like an army of robots ready to eat the wheat. Still no Derrick. She turned her car around and headed back to the house.

“Where’s Derrick?” Jayne asked his mother, who was lounging on the back deck with a tall glass of iced tea.

Marge Long looked up with a troubled expression. “Sit down, dear,” she said, in a voice that made Jayne feel uneasy. “Would you like some iced tea?”

“Sure, that sounds good.” Jayne watched Marge’s manicured hands as she gracefully poured amber-colored tea into a glass that had already been filled with ice and a wedge of lemon. It was almost as if she had been expecting Jayne to show up just now. Jayne sat down and took the glass, studying Marge for some sort of clue. But her expression was obscured by dark glasses and the shadow of an oversized sun hat.

“Jayne, there’s something I need to tell you, and it’s not going to be easy.” Marge removed her glasses for a moment to peer at Jayne, then quickly replaced them. She directed her gaze to the field that stretched out before them like a calm sea of golden waves, rippling slightly in the afternoon breeze.

The Longs had one of the biggest spreads in the county. Jayne had never heard the actual acreage count, but she knew it was in the thousands. The land had been in the family for generations and would all belong to Derrick one day.

Marge Long cleared her throat and began. “It’s about Derrick. I’ve begged him to tell you himself, but he’s being very obstinate. You know how he can be sometimes. Well, let me cut to the chase. Has Derrick ever mentioned Corky Galloway to you?”

Jayne shook her head, then took a sip of tea and forced herself to swallow.

“Corky and Derrick have been friends for just ages—why, they’ve known each other since sandbox days. The Galloways own a ranch on the east side; they’re good friends of ours. Corky was rodeo queen, homecoming queen, prom queen, and, well, you name it, and the girl usually had a tiara on her head. She and Derrick dated off and on during high school. But when Corky went to college, she broke it off with Derrick so she could be free to play the field, so to speak. Then about two years ago, Corky got engaged to an older fellow in medical school.”

She turned and looked at Jayne, then quickly glanced away. “I just can’t believe Derrick didn’t tell you any of this. Anyway, Corky was supposed to get married this fall, right after harvesttime. The invitations had already been sent out. But now Corky is back in town, and it seems she’s called the whole thing off. Of course, that means she’s available again.” Mrs. Long laughed nervously but avoided looking at Jayne.

Despite the heat, Jayne felt cold all over. Her heart was pounding against her chest. She knew that her whole world was about to come crashing in around her. She just knew it.

Marge removed her dark glasses and looked at Jayne, actually meeting her eyes this time. Jayne expected to see some trace of sadness, maybe even pity—not that she wanted it. But to her surprise, it seemed as if Marge were pleased, even a bit smug.

“I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you, dear. But Paradise is such a small town, I didn’t want you to hear it from someone else. As you can probably guess, Derrick and Corky are getting back together. You see, Derrick has spent every spare moment with her. It’s only a matter of time—”

“Why hasn’t he told me this himself?” Jayne struggled to keep her voice level.

“Oh, dear, I know it must be horrible for you. But better for this to happen now, rather than after you were married.”

“Where is Derrick?” Jayne felt the words explode from her in what she was sure sounded like a shrill scream.

“No need to go to pieces, Jayne. These things happen. It’s all for the best. Now, as far as your teaching job, I’m sure we can get Ron Whitfield to release you from your two-year contract—”

“You have no right to take away my job!”

“Well, I would hardly think that you’d want to stay.”

Jayne stood and held her head high. “It’s my decision, not yours. I’ll pack up my things and be out of your way as soon as I find a place to live.”

“You may stay as long as you need, Jayne. We’re certainly not throwing you out.”

Jayne shook her head as if she could shake off this horrible news. How could something like this be happening to her? And where in the world was Derrick? Could this possibly be some sort of cruel hoax his mother was pulling to break them up? Even as the thought formed, Jayne knew that what Marge had said was true.

“Just when did Derrick plan to let me in on this?” asked Jayne in a tightly controlled voice.

Marge frowned. “I don’t know. I told him he needed to tell you right away, and we had a disagreement about that. He’s gone to Portland for the weekend. He did say something about writing you a letter.”

“A letter? A ‘dear Jayne’ letter?”

Marge nodded. “This is such an unfortunate situation, Jayne. If there’s anything I can do to help, please feel free to ask.”

“I’ll be out of here by morning,” said Jayne flatly, then turned and walked away. But instead of going back into the house, she walked out into the fields. She walked down the fence line until the house and all the farm buildings were nearly out of sight. Finally, she stopped at a place where a patch of wild grass grew. It was considered a weed by farmers, but it looked cool and green to her. She lay down there, shielded by its height.

She looked blankly at the clear canopy of blue sky stretching above her as silent tears streamed down her cheeks. She cried for a long time. After the tears had dried, she began to batter herself with unanswerable questions. Why had Derrick betrayed her like this? Why hadn’t she seen it coming? What would she do now? Here she was, living in his parents’ home, while Derrick was out running around with his old girlfriend. Was everyone laughing at her? How would she hold her head up in this town again? She was Derrick Long’s castoff. He had brought her to Paradise, and now he didn’t want her. He didn’t even care enough to tell her to her face.

When she could stand the pounding questions no longer, she cried out to God. “Please,” she said in a husky voice, “I need you more than ever right now. Please help me. I don’t know what to do. It hurts so much, and I feel so worthless. I know you can turn bad things into good, but right now this looks hopeless. Please help me, God. Please.” She could think of nothing more to say. She had never been good at flowery prayers; when she prayed, it was straight from the heart.

She folded her arms behind her head and looked up. A couple of sparrows flew high above her in the clear blue sky. It was so serene, so peaceful. Had God really heard her cries? She thought he had. She sighed deeply, then closed her eyes. Like a bird that had flown through a hurricane and then found shelter, she decided to rest in this peace.

When she awoke it was dark, but that fragile peace remained. She stood up and stretched, then began to walk back toward the house and barns. She didn’t really want to go back, but where else could she go? Although the evening air was fresh and pleasant, she wasn’t prepared to sleep under the stars. Her earlier sense of despair had diminished considerably. Somewhere inside her, she sensed that this breakup was probably for the best, even if she felt as though she were being torn apart. God still had his hand on her life, and although it seemed like a shambles right now, she needed, more than ever, to believe that God was still in control.

When she finally reached the lighted barn, she went inside to say good-bye to the horses. She gently stroked the soft muzzle of Sally Rose, the beautiful sorrel mare she had ridden so often. Suddenly she began to cry again. To her surprise, these racking sobs seemed to come from deep inside her, even deeper than before. But this time, it was not about losing Derrick. This was about losing the horses. All these beautiful horses would never belong to her now. She knew it was silly and superficial. It was a painful moment of truth, and it shamed her to admit, even to herself, that she had loved the horses more than she had ever loved Derrick. But it was true.

Perhaps it was she who needed to write the letter of apology.

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