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Zachary McClure closed his eyes and breathed in the calming and familiar smells of the barnhorses, grains, leather and liniment. He hadn't smelled anything that comforting in the past four years. Dust, diesel and fear had filled his days in Iraq. Disinfectant, moans and sickness had filled his last year in the hospital. The smell of horses took him back to pre-army days. That was before
He stopped the thought. He couldn't change the past.
"You all right?"
Zach opened his eyes and looked into his sister's concerned face. Beth had always looked up to him, but lately they argued a lot. He hadn't wanted to come today, didn't want to face the ghosts of his past and the limitations of today, but she kept badgering him with phone calls and coming by his apartment, telling him he needed to start riding again. He tried sending her home, but somehow she got him to agree to come once here to the New Hope Ranch.
"C'mon. My friend Sophie is waiting for us." Beth linked her arm with his and started moving forward. "You remember her? She was my roommate in college."
He definitely remembered Sophie Powell. The weekend Beth brought Sophie home he'd been thunderstruck by the coltish girl. She wasn't model-beautiful, but there'd been a beauty about her. It had been her eyes, piercing blue. And her smile set him back on his heels. She had a crooked nose with freckles scattered across it and her cheeks. But that only added to her beauty. "I remember," he muttered. Only too well, he silently added.
Beth leaned close and whispered, "I think she had a crush on you."
"What?" Zach's head jerked around and his gaze clashed with Beth's. Her grin told him she was teasing him. Yet, there was a twinkle in her eye that made him wonder if maybe it was true.
"And she's ex-army, too."
This had the smell of a setup.
They walked down through the walkway between the stable and the office. Children's voices filled the air with laughter and excitement.
When they emerged, he could see the two practice rings. In the far ring a horse with its rider and two spotters moved around the enclosure. On the far side of the rings stood bleachers where three people sat, watching. In front of the closest ring, a woman knelt before a horse. A young boy, maybe six or seven, stood beside her.
"Will he bite?" the boy asked, eyeing the reddish-brown horse.
"No, she won't. You should give it a try. Samantha, or as we call her, Sam, is very gentle."
Zach remembered that low, rich voice. Sophie's. He often wondered what had become of his sister's college roommate and had wanted to ask, but that would've given his sis ideas.
Sophie held an apple in her hand. "Put your hand out," she instructed, "and I'll give you the apple."
The boy frowned at Sophie, then at the apple.
"You sure? I saw the b-i-g teeth." The boy kept his hand clenched in a fist.
Zach felt a smile bubble up, but he knew Sophie wouldn't appreciate his reaction.
She nodded. "I'm sure. Sam's my friend. She can be your friend, too."
The boy glanced around and saw Zach and Beth.
Without thinking, Zach walked over to the pair and took the apple from Sophie's hand. Her startled gaze locked with his. The connection was instantaneous and well remembered. Silently, he asked her permission.
Her nod was almost imperceptible.
Zach hooked his cane over his left forearm and put the apple into his right hand.
"You need to make sure your hand is flat. It makes it easier for the horse to get the apple if your fingers are not in the way," he explained. "I'm sure Sam wouldn't want to bite your fingers, so you have to make it easy for her."
The boy's eyes widened.
Zach showed the boy how to hold the apple, then offered it to the horse. Sam opened her mouth and took the apple.
"Wow. Can I try?"
"Sure." He looked at Sophie.
She stood and walked over to the barrel by one of the wooden porch columns, opened it and pulled out another apple. She gave it to Zach.
"Open your hand," Zach instructed the boy. When he looked up, doubt colored the youngster's eyes.
"Would you like for me to help?"
He nodded his head. "'Kay."
Zach moved behind the boy. Zach wished he could've squatted, but the prosthesis wouldn't allow it. Instead he put the apple in the boy's outstretched hand. "Now, be sure your fingers are out straight."
Zach slipped his big hand under the boy's and they moved their hands to the horse's mouth. Sam's lips and teeth picked up the apple.
The boy giggled. "That tickles."
Sam chewed happily.
Sophie's eyes twinkled. The lady's impact on him hadn't diminished over the years.
She stepped to their side. "Would you like to ride Sam?" she asked the boy.
"Okay." He turned to Zach. "My name is Andy. I come here to ride. Mom says riding's goin' to help me. Is that so? What if I fall off the horse?"
He was way over his head here. Zach glanced at Sophie, hoping for some sort of direction.
"You don't have to worry about falling, Andy. You see all the other people around here walking beside the riders? That's to make sure no one falls."
Andy looked around. "Oh." He turned to Zach. "Are you here to help me? Will you walk beside me?"
The question took Zach by surprise.
"This is Zach's first time here," Sophie explained. She stood on the other side of Andy. "He doesn't know how to be a sidewalker."
A mulish frown settled on Andy's face, and he crossed his arms over his chest. He looked at Zach. "Would you ride with me?"
Zach swallowed. "Well, Andy, I haven't been riding in a few years. Besides, my leg doesn't work as well as it used to."
Andy looked at Zach's legs, then at the cane hanging over Zach's arm. "Why?"
Suddenly the air filled with tension. He glanced at his sister, then Sophie. Did they think he'd go off on the kid? Zach leaned close and whispered, "I have a fake foot and calf."
"Calf?" Andy frowned.
Nodding, Zach pulled up his pant leg and showed the prosthesis on his right leg to Andy. "That's cool. Can I touch it?"
"Maybe" Sophie started.
The boy squatted and touched the artificial leg. His eyes widened. "Wow. How'd that happen?" Sophie stepped in. "You want to ride, Andy?"
"Can Zach help? He can walk beside me."
"Sophie knows how this works. I don't." Zach turned to her. "What do you want me to do?"
The tension seeped out of her shoulders. "I'll lead Sam and you can walk on one side of Sam, and Beth on the other. Will that work for you, Andy?"
"Yes," he crowed, hopping to his feet. He patted Zach's arm. "It's okay about your leg. I've got Down's."
Andy nodded. "Mom says I'm extraspecial."
Sophie smiled at Zach. "Thanks," she mouthed.
Satisfaction spread through Zach's chest.
They walked to the mounting steps. Sophie got the horse into position. Andy scrambled up the steps.
"Put on your helmet, Andy," Sophie called out.
He raced back down the steps and over to the row of helmets sitting on a shelf at the end of the stalls. He grabbed a helmet and put it on. He raced back to the steps. Zach rested his cane against the side of the stable by the mounting steps.
"Let Zach help you get on the horse, Andy," Sophie instructed.
Whoa, he didn't know how he was to help. Glancing at his sister, he silently questioned her.
"Just support him as he slips his leg over the pad," she instructed, "then guide his foot into the stirrup."
Resting his hands around Andy's waist, Zach lifted the boy onto the saddle blanket. A smile curved Andy's mouth.
Beth helped Andy put his leg in the stirrup attached to the blanket.
"Now, just hold his leg to make sure he doesn't slip," Beth instructed her brother. Beth had been here before and worked as a sidewalker.
"What do you say, Andy?" Sophie asked from her place by Sam's head.
"Go forward," Andy crowed.
Sam started walking.
Zach grabbed the front of the saddle pad and his other hand rested on Andy's leg. Andy turned and smiled at Zach. His heart overturned. With the warm New Mexico sun on his back and the feel of the horse under his hand, Zach felt a peace in his soula peace he hadn't felt in a long, long time.
Oddly enough, Zach, Beth and Sophie worked in tandem, he on the left side of the horse, Beth on the right, and Sophie leading Sam.
After three times around the ring, Zach felt the strain in his arms and legs. He stumbled, and his artificial leg folded underneath him, and he fell to the ground.
Andy cried out in dismay. Beth raced to Zach's side. Sophie started to move away from Sam, but Zach waved her back.
All the activity in both rings stopped. One of the sidewalkers from the next ring came to Zach's side. The man stopped and said, "How do you want to handle this?"
He would've rather faced a terrorist in the streets of Baghdad, instead of being facedown in the dirt in front of his sister and the woman he'd been attracted to. He rolled to his side and told the man how to help him stand. It was slow and awkward as he struggled to his feet. When he stood, Andy clapped.
"You need any more help?" the man asked Zach.
Zach shook his head. He limped over to a bench under the stable's awning, which sheltered the entrance to the stables. He'd been thrown by plenty of wild broncos and bulls in his rodeo days, but there'd been no shame in it. This time, he'd fallen flat on his face walking.
What kind of man can't walk?
He closed his eyes and rested his head against one of the porch posts. He knew that coming here this morning was a mistake. He just didn't know how big a mistake it would be.
Sophie looked at Zach. Her heart had skipped a beat earlier when she glanced up and saw him standing above her. Beth had called Sophie at the beginning of this week begging for help with Zach. Beth and Sophie had kept in contact since their college days when they roomed together and Sophie was more than happy to offer her friend a helping hand.
Zachary McClure still took her breath away. Tall, with wide shoulders and narrow hips, he cast a large shadow. Somehow, that handsome face seemed to have aged more than the few years since she'd last seen him. The weariness in his deep blue eyes matched the new lines bracketing his eyes and mouth.
"Is Zach feeling okay?" Andy asked, snapping her out of her memories.
Turning to Andy, Sophie saw the frown crossing his young face. "I think he's fine." She prayed he was.
For the next few minutes Sophie walked Sam, but Andy remained quiet. When she guided Sam toward the steps, she motioned for another sidewalker to help Andy dismount. The instant Andy's feet touched ground he raced to Zach's side.
"I'm sorry you fell," Andy whispered, tears in his voice.
Sophie's heart contracted.
Zach opened his eyes. Sophie felt Beth stop behind her. They both waited breathlessly for Zach's answer.
Reaching out, he ruffled the boy's hair. "I'm okay. Only my pride was damaged."
Andy nodded and moved closer. "I hate it when I trip and the other kids laugh." His lower lip trembled.
Zach slid his arm around Andy's shoulders and pulled him to his side. "I do, too. Makes me feel bad."
Andy nodded. "That's why my mom wanted me to come to ride on the horse. She said it would help me." He touched his stomach. "She said it would make my tummy stronger. Maybe it would help you, too."
Zach's brow arched and he glanced at Sophie as if accusing her of planning that little scene. He couldn't believe that, could he?
The boy accepted the praise and leaned against Zach. "Will you be here next time I ride?" The youthful hope in Andy's expression pulled at Sophie's heart.
Zach rubbed his neck. "Well"
She knelt by Andy's side. "Zach isn't trained for this. He only came today to see what we do here."
Andy faced Zach. "I'm learning. So can you."
Well, Andy certainly didn't beat around the bush.
Andy's mother walked up to the group. "Did you enjoy your ride?" After two sessions when Andy hadn't left his mother's side, she agreed to disappear until the session was over.
"I rode Sam," Andy explained, throwing out his chest. "And I met a new friend, Zach. He's got a fake leg. But he helped me get on Sam. You want to show my mom your funny foot and leg?"
Andy's mother's face lost all color. "I'm"
Zach stood and smiled at the woman. "I'm glad I could help Andy."
"I asked him to help me again next time, but he told me no." Andy crossed his arms over his chest and stuck out his bottom lip.
Things were quickly getting out of control.
"Andy, Zach needs some practice himself," Sophie gently explained. "Why don't you come back next time and we'll see what we can work out."
Andy glared at the group. "I'd want Zach to help."
Andy's mother stepped in. "We need to get going. Why don't you put up your helmet?" She unbuckled the strap and Andy ran to put his helmet on the rack.
"Thank you," Andy's mother said. After shaking everyone's hand, she led her son down the breezeway to the parking lot behind the stable.
Zach sat back down and closed his eyes.