Read Chapter 11 before you continue…
“Atta girl! C’mon now, you know you can do this. We all have a lot of faith in you. You’ve been a real good girl all this time, don’t give up.”
The recipient of these words of encouragement nickered in protest before dropping her head back onto the hay. She was matted with sweat, her body straining to accomplish what seemed impossible at this moment.
“It’s no good,” sighed Hayden. “We need to call Doc Conrad. It’s been hours and she’s already changed positions just about a hundred times. Her water should’ve broke by now. I think there’s something wrong with the foal.”
“Hayden’s right, Jonny,” added Tyler. “She’s not even moving about anymore so she’s obviously not trying to reposition the foal inside her. She’s just lying there in pain. We should’ve called the doc at least an hour ago.”
As Matthew watched Jonny look forlornly at his elder brothers from his position near the mare’s head, his heart went out to the kid. Given the amount of time he had spent with the boy since they met, he already knew that Annie, the mother mare in question, was bred on the ranch and was the last Christmas present given to him by his father. This was also her first foaling and that obviously made matters more complicated.
Hayden and Tyler, dressed in canvas jumpsuits, were crowded near the horse’s rear, as if trying to will the mare to break its water and proceed with the birthing. Elaina, who was on a break from comforting the horse, was sitting on a nearby haystacks with her mother, who had also come down once she had heard that the mare was having a troubled labor. The foreman was pacing the aisles, shouting out orders to ranch hands to arrange supplies for the delivery that had already been prepared hours ago. Matthew was the only outsider.
It was the second day of his shooting at the Coreys’ ranch since he had obtained permission from Elaina to photograph her. As was agreed in the details, he would mostly capture the everyday occurrences of a ranch life at the Coreys’. But now he also had the consent to use the photographs of Elaina he had already taken as well as to photograph her further if any other worthy candid moment presented itself during his remaining days in Lainie’s Creek – as long as his work did not interfere with the work of the ranch, that is.
For two days, he had managed to go about his project, researching and documenting the activities of the people on the ranch, without causing the slightest nuisance. And then, Annie went into labor around twilight, just as he was wrapping up for the day and brought his presence on the ranch into stark relief.
When a ranch hand had ran out of the stable shed where she had been removed to a week ago for the impending birthing and began shouting that Annie was throwing a fit in labor pain, Matthew had stopped midway between packing away his equipment and raced after everyone to see the mare’s condition. As he reached the shed, Elaina, her brothers and the foreman were already taking charge to make arrangements for the birthing and arrival of the new member for their stable. But when Matthew began taking pictures of the proceeding, Hayden was in his face faster than the flashes went off.
“I want you and your camera out of here now,” Hayden all but shouted, pointing an aggressive finger towards the entrance. He had never felt any qualms to share his objections with Matthew and he obviously was not about to start now.
“Hayden, now you just leave him alone,” admonished Elaina, not taking her eyes off Annie but perfectly aware of her brother’s attack on Matthew.
“The flashes are startling Annie,” countered Hayden, his eyes boring into Matthew’s.
“What if I turn off the flashes?” Matthew offered. “The images may or may not come out as superb but I can work on that later. This is an important aspect of ranch life.”
“I don’t see the harm if the flashes are off, Hayden,” protested Elaina.
“Will you people stop bickering?” Jonny had shouted at that point. Every person in the vicinity had stopped what they were doing to stare in astonishment at having heard Jonathan Corey raise his voice and Matthew knew why despite his short time amongst present company. Jonny was usually such a quiet boy, it had come as a great surprise to witness his temper flare.
“Matthew, I know it’s very important for you to document the events of the ranch for your project,” Jonny had continued in a calmer tone, “but I think this is one time we need you to put away your camera. Annie’s very special to us and she probably won’t be comfortable with a camera clicking away in the background.” But ever the diplomatic, at the sight of Hayden’s smug expression, he added, “But you’re welcome to stay and watch if you want.”
It was a request Matthew had to respect not only because he had no choice in the matter but also because he had come to greatly value his friendship with the person presenting it. It was also more than his mere curiosity that compelled him to stay back for the birthing despite having lost the opportunity to document it. If Jonny was comfortable having his presence at an event so important to him, then Matthew wanted to be present to show his support.
So he had decided to stay and that was four hours ago. It was now a little over 1 AM and he had only taken a break to have supper at the house with Elaina and Mrs. Corey around midnight. The boys had taken turns for coffee and sandwich breaks, refusing to leave the mare by herself for long during what was turning out to be an unexpected ordeal. While Matthew could have left at any time, it just did not feel right to abandon what he was now mentally referring to as Annie’s Cause. In for a dime in for a dollar, he figured.
“I’ll go make the call,” sighed Mrs. Corey, rising from her perch and heading out. “Poor Doc’s probably deep asleep by now.”
For a few minutes after the elder lady’s departure, there was only the sound of the mare’s labored breathing. Then Elaina abruptly got up and made out of the stable. “I need some fresh air,” she threw over her shoulders as a way of explanation.
Matthew followed. He found her leaning with her back against the outside of the stable shed, her eyes were closed and head thrown back. She looked like she needed a weeklong vacation. He approached her quietly and leaned against the wooden wall with his shoulder so he could watch her beautiful face illuminated by the moonlight. It seemed that the moon had waxed to its current fullness just so he could see how beautiful she was even with the tension etched across her features.
“Happy Fourth of July,” she sighed, sensing his presence. A poignant smile curving the corner of her lips.
Matthew looked at the dial on his watch, which had a secondary dial to state the date and month. “So it is,” exclaimed he. Contrary to what he had always heard about the country, time in Lainie’s Creek had flown past without his noticing. According to his schedule, he had less than 72 hours left before he was due back in New York. He looked back at Elaina. He was not sure if 72 hours were enough time left to spend with her. The way he was beginning to feel about her, it could be decades before he became sated with her presence.
Matthew straightened and turned away from Elaina, mimicking her pose beside her against the wall. Decades! That was not an amount of time he was ready to commit to anything other than his career. He had known this was going to be a temporary relationship and so had she. 72 hours was more than plenty for a summer romance.
“Why didn’t you call the vet at the very beginning?” he queried, hoping to derail his mind from the course it was taking.
Elaina finally opened her eyes, turning her head to look up at him. “Because foaling is such a natural part of ranch life that we could all probably perform our responsibilities while asleep. And because with three brothers, one sister, a houseful of seasoned ranch hands, we have enough experts to crowd any labor room.”
He noticed that her tone dripped with irony. “So what went wrong tonight?”
She sighed with resignation. “The average time between when the mare goes into labor and when her water breaks is between one to four hours and it’s past four hours. It’s also natural for her to move around to get her foal in position for the delivery but Annie has settled down for a while now without her water breaking. I had suggested that we call Doc Conrad earlier since it was Annie’s first birthing but Hayden and Tyler thought it unnecessary to bother the doc.” She looked into his eyes and added as further explanation, “Doc Conrad is very old and turns in early nowadays.”
“Women get false labor pains? Do horses have them too?”
Elaina nodded. “She’s been having contractions on and off for the last three weeks. That’s how we know this is the real deal. This time her contractions are more intense and certainly too visible to be false labor. I hope the Doc gets here soon –”
Matthew turned around to see the foreman panting with excitement at the stable shed entrance. “Annie’s water just broke.”
The next hour was one of the most intense hours of Matthew’s life. He watched as the attendants helped Annie bring her first born into the world with a mixture of awe, disgust and fear. He knew he would never take up ranching if only to avoid having to witness this event a second time. The procedure had been in danger of becoming what Elaina later explained to him as a “red bag delivery”, where the membrane carrying the foal fails to rapture and could cause the foal to suffocate during birth.
Fortunately, the veterinarian arrived in time to manually rapture the membrane and save the newcomer. Matthew could not decide if that was the most terrifying scene he had ever witnessed or was it the one a few minutes later when the vet and Hayden pushed their arms into Annie’s birthing canal and pulled the foal out rest of the way while Elaina and Jonny held onto Annie’s upper body to lend them leverage. He was only able to breathe easy once the mother and newborn were united and Annie was stroking the new colt clean with her tongue.
Most of the ranch hands were back, helping with the cleanup and sterilization of the place. The shed was going to be home for the mother and her newborn the next couple of days so they had to ensure complete sanitization of the domain to avoid infections by either patient. Elaina and Jonny had escaped being soiled by birthing fluids and the canvas jumpsuit had been great help to Hayden and Tyler but the doctor was a sight to behold despite his apron. It was a sight to behold. The photographer within Matthew was just reawakening and feeling sorry for himself at not being able to document such a prize event when Jonny spoke up.
“I think Annie would like to have her picture taken with her firstborn.”
Matthew spun around to look at Jonny where he was still crouching beside the new mother and checking over his new horse. He was also grinning up at Matthew like the world was his to handover.
“No kidding?” Matthew asked, not believing the serendipity of it all. Jonny nodded and he did not need telling twice. Minutes later he had retrieved his equipment from the McKenna’s truck that he was using for all his traveling purposes. “There isn’t a fair amount of light in here and without the flash, the pictures will come out grainy but I think I can work with the texture.”
Within minutes he was ready and taking pictures of the mare and her colt. He began by taking individual shots of the horses and then a few with Jonny at the helm. With a little bit of coercion, he managed to get the rest of the Coreys and the vet to gather around the new mother and son. Undoubtedly, the most challenging part was getting Hayden to agree, who really did not seem to like anything about Matthew. But when everyone else insisted, the eldest of the Corey siblings could not but relent.
Afterwards, as Matthew flipped through the shots on his camera screen, reviewing them briefly with Jonny, he asked, “What are you going to name him?”
Jonny looked faraway for a few minutes before turning to look fondly upon the colt. “I think I’ll call him ‘Banner’ like ‘star-spangled’. It’s fitting, don’t you think, today being Independence Day and all?”
Matthew had come upon a set of shots where everyone were gathered around the new mother and son, each with a hand stretched out to touch the horses as though reaching out in hope that some of the new colt’s fresh wonder for life would seep into them. He instantly knew that the photo will make it to his exhibition. He showed it to Jonny and said, “There. You see that shot? I think I’ll name it ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ then.”
He watched as a proud smile lit up Jonny’s young face.
“Thank you, Mrs. Corey. I could’ve driven back to the McKenna’s but I appreciate you putting me up for the night,” said Matthew, abashed by the fuss being made over him.
“Oh, hush,” replied June, finishing off with encasing another pillow in a fresh cover and throwing it across to Elaina, who promptly patted it down at the head of the bed.
They were in the Coreys’ guest room where June had insisted Matthew turn in for the rest of the night given that it was already near dawn and they were all too exhausted for anyone to be driving through the dark across country land. When June had first suggested the idea, Hayden had begun grumbling his objections about keeping Matthew in the house overnight with Elaina right across the hall. He had, however, shut up and stalked off after one glare from their mother, parting one last loaded glance at their guest. Apart from she and her mother, the rest of the family had already retreated to their rooms for whatever sleep they could muster before morning. It was the Fourth of July and that meant a heavy day at the County Fair that would require a good stock of energy.
But the coming celebration was not what had Elaina’s heart racing. Matthew was staying over and a better opportunity could not have presented itself to ensure that she accomplished her goal. But she had to play her cards right if she were to make tonight perfect.
“There. The room’s all ready now. God knows it has been awhile since we’ve had a guest to accommodate in here. Elaina, let’s leave Matthew to finally catch some shuteye. It’s another big day ahead tomorrow.”
June’s words startled Elaina out of her musings. She blinked as she tried to focus on what her mother had been saying. Leave Matthew to catch some shuteye. Of course, that would be best. She turned to Matthew. “In case you forgot, the Fourth of July County Fair is tomorrow so give your camera plenty of recharge like we discussed this morning.”
“Thanks for the reminder,” replied Matthew, smiling briefly. But Elaina could see something else in his eyes, something that she could very much relate to.
“Well, goodnight,” said Elaina, trying to appear cheerful in front of her mother as she left the room. She heard her mother and Matthew exchange goodnights as she crossed the hall and entered her room, quickly shutting the door behind her.
She had to work fast if she were to get ready for tonight and not make a mess of this golden opportunity. If she knew her mother, June would have completed her nightly routines and gone to sleep within half hour – less if she skipped her ablutions since it was already very late. And thank god because Elaina could not wait to sneak back to Matthew’s room. Now if she could only find the right attire.
It was a funny thing that just a week ago, she could care less about her appearance and now she was frantic to find the appropriate attire for seduction. After five minutes of combing through her very practical wardrobe and failing to find anything that looked remotely enticing, she decided her usual sleeping clothes would have to do – fresh underwear and a clean shirt. She would just have to ensure that they were her nicest ones. But first, a shower and some toothpaste.
Ten minutes later, she was clean and freshly clothed but panic was clouding her brain. She could not do this. After all that anticipation building up for a week, she was not ready to get into bed with Matthew. What if she was not good enough? What if she was not up to his standards? Well, of course she would not be up to his standards – she only has had that couple of experiences when she was a teenager and he probably had a whole range of it.
But she was acting like a teenager now and she needed to stop it. That was the whole point – to enjoy the high of physical intimacy, to take a chance on the chemistry she felt with Matthew. Tonight was the night, she knew it. Tonight she would know what it felt like to make love. And she needed to speed up the process before she went his room and found him in his third stage of REM, regenerating muscle tissues like she read in that magazine at the dentist’s last year!
Renewed determination – and awakened estrogen – coursing through her veins, she marched to her door and then paused, cautiously opening it to peek into the dark hallway. Finding the coast clear, she tiptoed to the guest room and grasped the doorknob with a shaking hand. Seconds later, she was inside Matthew’s room, softly clicking the door closed behind her.
Back pressed against the frame, she took a deep breath and tried to focus her vision in the darkness, training her eyes in the direction of the bed. Matthew was in a half raised position from obviously having been startled up, staring at her with his mouth hanging open. And he appeared to be naked under the sheets. This was going to be quicker than she thought.
“Good,” exhaled Elaina, trying to sound sophisticated but failing to hide the quaver. “I’m glad you’re ready.”
Read Chapter 13