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A Soldier’s Return

Written by Lee Tobin McClain

Chapter Five

“If this is the last line of hope in your therapy, and you’re resisting it, then where does that leave you?”

The pastor’s question was so blunt that it startled Gabe into answering. “Nowhere much. Not hurting or scaring anyone else, I guess,” he said.

Carson nodded, pursed his lips. “So that takes care of everyone else in the world, but where does it leave you?”

Where did it leave him? What did his future look like? “I don’t even want to know.”

“Can I make a suggestion?”

“Suggest away.”

“Come to church,” he said simply. “Or our men’s prayer group, or Sunday school, or a Bible study. If you don’t like our flavor of Christianity, turn on the television or drive another town over to find something you do like.” He was leaning forward now, speaking intently. “When you’re at the end of your rope, that’s when God can catch you.”

Gabe blew out a sigh. “Sure. Good idea.”

Carson shook his head, reached into a bag he was carrying and pulled out a Bible. “If you’re the introverted type—I’m not, but I know some—then read. Read your Bible. If you don’t have one, take this.”

Gabe lifted an eyebrow. The Bible Carson was handing over bristled with sticky notes and was obviously well used. “Looks like you might need it for next week’s sermon,” he said. “Besides, believe it or not, I do own a Bible. Even open it up occasionally.”

“Then here.” Carson dove into his bag again and came up with a printed pamphlet. “Verses for vets. This is a good starting point for when you need some help and don’t know where to go.”

“Thanks.” The man’s obvious goodwill made Carson reach out and take the pamphlet. Even grudgingly admit, only to himself, that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to read a little Scripture while he was up here.

Then it was awkward until there was a knock and some shuffling outside the cabin.

Gabe pushed out of his chair and strode to the door. He opened it and was attacked by at least eighty pounds of quivering, licking beast.

And he, who freaked at the sound of a door being slammed, felt nothing but laughter inside. “Whoa, buddy, whoa! Down!”

Instantly, the giant dog sat, his eager eyes on Gabe’s. He looked vaguely like a Great Dane, mostly black with some white markings.

Daniela was laughing too, and Carson came over to watch the scene. “I’m sorry,” she said. “He’s normally well-behaved, but every now and then he loses it.”

“We’re kindred spirits,” Gabe muttered, squatting down in front of the dog to study it. Male, gray muzzled, missing an eye.

“This is Rufus,” she said, kneeling beside Gabe to rub the dog’s big head. “He’s been with us awhile, but mostly in the kennel. He’s too big for a lot of our people, but since you’re…” She glanced over at him and her cheeks went pink.

“Big?” he asked. “You can say it. I know I’m a hulk.”

“Just the right size for Rufus, looks like.” Carson smiled at them. “I need to get back to town, folks. My girls have a half day of school today, and I need to pick them up.”

Gabe barely looked up, he was so busy rubbing on Rufus.

“Thanks for coming, Carson,” Daniela said.

That reminded Gabe of his manners. “Yeah, thanks.”

“Remember,” Carson said, pointing a forefinger at him. “Read, or come to church. Both if you can. It just might change your life.”

Some surprises weren’t surprising at all, like the fact that a preacher would preach.

Others were surprising, like that Gabe would consider listening.

***

Watching Gabe interact with Rufus, Daniela’s heart melted.

His hands on the big dog’s body were just the right mix of vigorous and gentle, and soon had Rufus rolling over onto his back for the purer ecstasy of a belly rub.

Then Gabe examined the dog’s floppy ears and ran his hands along the ribs. “He’s actually kind of skinny. Is he okay?”

“Yeah. He’s fine, just older.” She stood. “If you think he’s a good companion for the week, I’ll go get his stuff.”

Gabe stood, too. “Where is it? I’ll go with you. Guessing this boy needs some exercise,” he added as the dog scrambled to his feet.

“In the barn,” she said, leading the way out the door and handing Gabe a strong rope leash to clip on the dog’s collar. “He probably won’t run, but just in case.”

They fell into step beside each other, and Rufus provided a good distraction from the too-affectionate feelings Daniela was having. She didn’t want to think about what she had been thinking about—how attractive Gabe was.

It just brought home the contrast to how she looked.

She drew in a deep breath of mountain air and let it out slowly, enjoying the notes of sage and pine. The slight breeze cooled her warm cheeks.

Off in the distance, beyond the flat bowl of valley where the ranch was situated, the majestic peaks of the Sangre de Cristos pointed at the heavens.

Those mountains had been there long before she and Gabe had been born, and they’d be there long after. God’s supreme craftsmanship at work.

Small, weak humans were in this world for a short time only, and their job—her job, because anyone else’s was none of her business—was to love God and others. For her, that meant helping as many people as she could through her psychology practice.

She needed to continue doing what she’d been doing: focus on studying and on viewing the veterans here professionally. Animal therapy was known to be effective, and indeed, interacting with Rufus was the only thing that had made Gabe look happy since she’d seen him.

She pushed open the door to the barn, flipped on the lights and beckoned Gabe inside. A chorus of barks greeted them.

But Rufus planted his front paws and stiffened his legs, pulling back at his collar.

“Come on, buddy,” Gabe said, and Daniela grabbed a treat and knelt to hold it out.

The dog didn’t move.

“He doesn’t want to come in,” Gabe said. “I guess this was his prison, and he’s broken free.”

“For the week, at least.” Daniela thought about it. “Let me put him in the outdoor run so you can see our operation and help me grab his stuff.” Rufus was so big that he needed a substantial container of kibble, large dishes and a big blanket to serve as a bed.

After securing Rufus in one of the big outdoor runs, she led Gabe up the aisle toward the supplies, gesturing toward the dogs and naming them.

Suddenly, there was a ruckus outside: small-dog yapping and then a deep bark from Rufus.

“That almost sounds like…” Daniela spun and ran toward the entrance of the barn. Behind her, she heard Gabe’s heavier footsteps.

Could the barking be Bruiser, the Chihuahua who’d escaped more than a week ago?

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