Wednesday, August 31, 2016


"I love the Lord because..."

How would you fill in this phrase?  If one needs to recite one line of poetry, perhaps the most well-known is "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."   When our son was four, he was overwhelmed with love in his heart for us.  He said, "I love you more than gold fish!"  Umm, okay then.  Sometimes our expressions of love aren't much better.  But, today we'll look at only one response the psalmist gives though there are a zillion different ways we could have offered.  

"I love the Lord, because He hears
My voice and my supplications.
Because He has inclined His ear to me,
Therefore I shall call upon Him as long as I live."
(verses 1-2)

This gives a vivid picture of the tender heart God has for His children.  He leans down low to hear.  That gives us value.  That gives us importance.  That gives us significance.  This makes us feel cherished.  That shows us the Father-love God has for us.  The writer goes on to say that because God hears, he will continue to call upon Him his whole life long.  The sheep know the voice of the shepherd, but the shepherd knows the voice of his sheep.

Our community is reeling this morning of a news report of the opposite kind of father, the drunken kind who flipped his vehicle with four children in it, all  unrestrained in their seats and who were ejected out of the car and thrown all over the roadway.  The father left his severely injured wife and had to step over at least some of his terribly injured bleeding children to flee the scene. Someone else picked him up so he could run away from his children's pleas for help from their daddy.  The first responders had to do the comforting as well as treatment as the little ones called out.  My son-in-law was one of them to answer their call.  Their father did not.  He left. 

It makes me think of the wounds my father had from his upbringing by a drunken father who wove inebriated from one ditch to the other with his family in the car.  Of course they were all unrestrained back in the day.  Only God kept them alive.  If their dad did not threaten their lives that way, he once told them he would stab them all to death in their sleep, or another time he lined them up on the front porch threatening to shoot them all while a deputy snuck up from behind and disarmed him.  My father searched for significance his whole life because he did not receive it from his earthly father.  Only God can truly give us that kind of significance.  He hears.  He sees.  He knows.

Has He heard your voice today?

Okay, we've talked about the good Dad and the bad dad.  How about you, dad?  I don't think bad dad got up and thought in the morning, I'm going to severely injure my wife and children today.  No, though he was only 26, he had an alcohol problem.  It started with that social beer.  Hey dad, with the social beer in your hand, you do realize that your children will imitate you and will also have one in their hand as well.  What if they, unlike you Mr.-Social-Drinker-Who-Can-Handle- it, what if they can't.  What if your social drinker offspring became more of an alcoholic after that one drink and at 26 turned into a zero instead of a hero.  Are you man enough to set a godly example, not serving your I-want-to-be-accepted-by-the-beer-drinking or wine-drinking crowd that is ever growing in our churches today.  Oh, you don't drink socially, just want one to unwind at home?  That's a bad sign, and it's worse than I thought.  Man-up and don't be self-serving.  And, oh, yeah, my husband works in Teen Challenge with the down and outers as well as the sons from nice homes who fell into the trap of alcohol, from professional ball players to the ones who used to sit by their daddies in the pew..  Don't take my word for it, my words are just opinions, but bravely ask God what His will for your life and legacy should be. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

PSALM 115 continued...


On the one hand we have deaf, mute, blind, lame gods,
while on the other we have our God, our help and our shield.

I will give Adam Clarke's literal translation of the following verses...

Three generations

"The Lord has been mindful of us;
He will bless, He will bless the house of Israel;
He will bless them that fear Jehovah, the small with the great.
Jehovah will add upon you, upon you and upon all your children.
Blessed are ye of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
The heavens of heavens are the Lord's:
but the earth He hath given to the sons of Adam."
(verses 12-16)

Just the kids...

"The Lord has been mindful of us."
"All our comforts are derived from God's thoughts to us-ward...
Both the weak in grace and the strong shall be blessed of God,
the lambs and the sheep of His flock.
'The Lord shall increase you,'
especially in spiritual blessings,
with the increasings of God.
He will bless you with the increase of knowledge and wisdom,
of grace, holiness and joy."
(Matthew Henry)

Jay and Amy's four

This past Sabboth was the perfect triad,
good worship, good preaching, and grandchildren there to sit by and to greet when they came running out of children's church calling, "Grandma!"
You see, the promise here of God's mindfulness is not just for the spiritually mature, but for the little ones as well, the weak and the strong,
"the small together with the great."
(verse 13)

Uncle Andru and Laura

"May the Lord give you increase,
You and your children.
May you be blessed of the Lord,
Maker of heaven and earth."
(verses 14-15)
Addie & Ezra

What a blessing it was to hear the five year olds quote their Bible verse,
"Hear, O sons, the instruction of a father,
And give attention that you may gain understanding,
For I give you sound teaching;
Do not abandon my instruction."
(Proverbs 4:1-2)
Yep, we were feeling pretty blessed about then.


But going back to earlier verses...
Sometimes we forget that fear rules those who worship idols as they try and appease these false gods.  It is not enough that they are man-made, but then they are given the false attributes of the ability to inflict terrible suffering upon their worshippers.  Instead we are encouraged the same as God's chosen people,  to trust.

"O Israel, trust in the Lord;
He is their help and their shield.
O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord;
He is their help and their shield.
Ye who fear the Lord, trust the Lord;
He is their help and their shield."
(verses 9-11)

Our fear is awe-struck reverence that endears us to trust,
not just the Israelites, the Levites, but all the rest of us who fear the Lord.
In case we miss it, the psalmist writes it three time,
"He is their (our) help and shield."
"He is our succor, support, guardian, and defence of all who put their confidence in Him."
(Adam Clarke)

Monday, August 29, 2016


"Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
But to Your name give glory
Because of Your lovingkindness,
because of Your truth."

Nope, can't claim the glory. 
There's just some things God won't share.
Jesus taught us to prayer, "Thine be the glory..."
"We seek it not; take it wholly to Thyself."

Sometimes we want to sit in the big chair and control the world.

Kids go through the stage always asking, "Why?"  Then parents go through the stage answering. At first they give long explanations which are always met with more "Why" questions.  They finally  reach the point that all they can say is, "Because."  Just "because." No frills.  No more pontificating.  They just say "because" period.  Here the because is "Because of Your lovingkindess (mercy) and "because of Your truth."  This sums it up, why we give God, and God alone, the glory, just because. (*Quotes are from Adam Clarke)

"Thy mercy gave the promise;
Thy truth fulfilled it...
As a promise-keeping God."
(Adam Clarke)

A Hot Wheels sandwich?
Sometimes even parents ask "Why?"

See, I told you.  Here comes the "Why? question in verse2

"Why should the nations say,
'Where, now, is their God?'"

I love the answer. 
It's like two kids arguing who's got the bigger, better, stronger daddy,
and of course, we know we do!

"But our God is in the heavens;
He does whatever He pleases."

Yep.  That's our big God. 
He does whatever He wants.

But it keeps getting better, so nah, nah, nah to ya'll old heathens!

"Their idols are silver and gold,
The work of man's hands.
They have mouths, but they cannot speak;
They have eyes, but they cannot see;
They have ears, but they cannot hear;
They have noses, but they cannot smell;
They have hands, but they cannot feel;
They have feet, but they cannot walk;
They cannot make a sound with their throat.
Those who make them will become like them,
Everyone who trusts in them."
(verses 4-8)

Silly people.  Sadly, there have been millions of silly people.
Adam Clarke calls them "Quite senseless people."
Instead of worshipping the God of Creation,
They worship the god of their creation.
That's how stubborn mankind is who refuses to
bow to the one and only Supreme God of the Universe.
He made it all,
but we want to make our own
in our own little image.

There's temples with idols in our towns.
They have parades with their idols.
They want us to celebrate with them.
God won't share His glory.

Remember at the beginning of this Psalm?
We saw that we can give God the glory because of truth.
I'll give you a little truth,
John 14:6


"Jesus said unto him, 'I am the way, the TRUTH, and the life;
no one comes to the Father but through Me.'"
I Corinthians 13:6 says, "Love...rejoices with the truth."
Nope, can't carve, mold, imitate, or counterfeit the ticket to heaven.
Because God said so.

Sunday, August 28, 2016


Jordan River

"The sea looked and fled;
The Jordan turned back.
The mountains skipped like rams,
The hills, like lambs.
What ails you, O sea, that you flee?
O Jordan, that you turn back?
...Tremble, O earth, before the Lord,
Before the God of Jacob,
Who turned the rock into a pool of water,
The flint into a fountain of water."
(verses 3-8)

I'd say that the Creator of all the earth can do just about whatever He wants.
Our world is not a watch that He wound up then walked away from.
His creation still listens to His Word
and acts in astounding manners
to do the incredible,
the unpredictable,
the impossible.
Still we know
that God is for us.
He will make a way.

God tends to pull the rug once in a while to shake things up,
though He has not yanked it away out from under us all the way quite yet.
He just gives it a tug
to let us know that
this world is not all there is.
It is rubble compared to what He has prepared for us.
We tremble before Him.

Adam Clarke gives an old Saxon translation...

"Sea saw, and flew!
Jordan turned underback!
Mounts  ye fained
(desired fervently, felt delight in expectation) 
so as rams; And hills so as lambs-sheep.
From sight Lord's stirred is earth..."

Jordan River

I love the poem that a godly man recently quoted
as his first response when told he had a brain tumor,
when his world got shaken up:

"We may not know when we'll go or
where we we'll go from this familiar scene,
but Christ is here and Christ is there and
all the way between;
and though we go from all we know
to some dim, vast unknown,
though late we stay or soon we go
we shall not go alone!"

Saturday, August 27, 2016


A past to forget,
A past to remember,
And a future to forge.

A very different kind of fiction
by Celia Jolley

"For you have been a defense for the helpless,
A defense for the needy in his distress,
A refuge from the storm,
a shade from the heat;
For the breath of the ruthless
Is like a rain storm against a wall.
Like heat in drought,
You subdue the uproar of aliens;
Like heat by the shadow of a cloud,
the song of the ruthless is silenced."
Isaiah 25:4-5

"Why?"  She had only been a little girl but had a lifetime of confusion.  The week her father had died some men had whisked her and her mother off in a black van as soon as they left the cemetery.  Torn away, Iris had never seen her grandparents again, nor her aunts and uncles, cousins nor friends.  They left their home, their church and their community and even her cat.  Her mother was adamant and said with a sad but fierce face that they could never, ever contact their family or friends again. 

"Why?" She would ask again and again.

"Sweetheart, I can't tell you now, but I promise, someday I will when you are older."  It was repeated so often that it became part of the bedtime routine for months.  A little girl's "Why?" spoken with tears was left unanswered forever it seemed.

Finding themselves across the country in a small town on the western slope of Colorado, all she had left were the memories.  Now over ten years later, they were still renting that two-bedroom cabin heated by a wood-burning stove while her mother worked in a school cafeteria in town.  At least her mom had allowed, even encouraged her to get a large dog, Samson.  But it was lonely, especially at first and always at holidays.  While other families enjoyed Thanksgiving and Christmas family gatherings, it now was just her and her mother sitting down to the table.  It hadn't always been that way.  Iris remembered the days when her mother had a circle of friends and when they had a circle of family.  But the most painful part was missing her grandmother who always had all the many kin gathered around her.  She was like a hen covering them under her wings for feasting, hugs, and kisses. 

She also missed the untamed acreage they had left behind in the green hills of Oregon where tangled  blackberry vines rambled.  Her father had always said that he wanted his child to be able to run free.  So even though he had a desk job in town, he'd purchased the twenty acres left wild.    Then one day with her hand in his, her father had literally almost tripped across live booby-trap wires stretched across a path down to their creek where he liked to take her fishing.  Fortunately he'd been the one to come across them and recognized them for what they were from his time spent in the military.  She was then fiercely ordered not to not play outside their small fenced yard after that.  He vowed to set up surveillance cameras to catch those bad guys.  But before he had a chance, came that terrible, horrible day, the day of the gun blast.

As soon as it happened, her mother yelled for Iris to hide and stay put.  Her mother called 911 giving directions before unlocking the gun cabinet to get her husband's hunting rifle out.

Iris could not hear the dispatcher over the phone, "Ma'am, stay where you are.  It might not be safe.  I repeat.  Do not go outside." 

"But my husband's out there.  I don't know if he's hurt..."

"Stay inside.  The sheriff and ambulance are on their way."

It had been too late.  He had died instantly.   

Iris was hidden.  She had seen it all, first the man confronting her father with his big black gun, her father turning as if to run but with his eyes wide open seeing her right behind him, right before he dropped from the blast.  Like a rabbit down a hole, the little girl dove into the tall sunflower patch her mother had planted as the rapid fire hit all around her like a black hail storm kicking up the dust.  She did not crawl out until the sheriffs came, until the ambulance carried her father away and until she heard her mother calling and calling for her.  She was hot and sweaty and itchy from lying on the ground with the salt from her silent tears dried upon her cheeks. 

All she could do was sit up from where she had been curled like a baby bunny in its nest.  Her legs were made of rubber and would not hold her up.  Finally an officer spotted her saying, "Here she is.  I found her."  The man gently picked her up, her gangly, shuddering, dirty eight year old self.  Her mother came running.  Together they made a heap of sorrow.


She heard whispered assurances like "at least he didn't suffer," but also frightening words, "It looks like the work of a drug cartel.  It was an AK47.  We're calling in the Feds."  U.S. Marshalls came, men in plainclothes but with badges and guns in their holsters. Her mother had quickly thrown a few things in suitcases, and then these men took them away without even a farewell hug to her relatives.  Iris had cried her eyes out.  She remembered hearing her mother's sobs as well in the night. 

That was another thing, her mother said she had decided that a new place to live should mean new names.  That was just weird.  She used to be Illa, but now was Iris.  Her mother changed from Marie to Mary and their last name was now Smith instead of Sharpe.  She remembered the time she had felt rebellious and had put her old name, her real name, on her school paper.  It was the only time she recalled ever receiving a spanking.  Just the frightened look on her mother's tear-streaked face was enough to convince her not to do it again. The papers went in the stove and a note went to the teacher saying it had only been "an imaginary friend's name."  It was the only time she knew her mother to tell a lie.  She might be tight-lipped, but she was not a liar.

Since then, her mother had made her swear that she would never ever try to write, call, or contact online anyone from back home or use her old name.  Her voice had cracked and her hands were shaking.  She thought her mother was overly paranoid, but begrudgingly agreed.  When she'd tried to ask why, she'd always got the same answer, "I'll tell you when you are older."  

That time never came.  By the time she was older, her life had adapted to their new normal.  She was taking college courses at the junior college and working.  Then there was her boyfriend.  He was so hard to please that it wore her out trying.  But he was worth it when he parceled out a heart-stopping smile.

Iris did not know which caused more shock and pain, her father's violent death that she had witnessed as a young child or her mother's suicide.  It did not make it easier that she was nineteen now because she still was her mother's little girl.  The note her mother left brought no comfort, but plenty of confusion.  After she had written it, she asked the gun store owner to give it to her daughter.  Then, just like that, she had slipped out a back door to the alley and shot herself with the ammunition just purchased for the handgun she always carried in her purse.

The note.  It said that she saw him, the man who had shot her father, the man she had testified against which sent him to prison.  Her mother recognized his tattoo that went up his neck and crawled halfway across his face.  She saw it in his eyes, she'd said, and in the sneer when he recognized her.  In it she told Iris that she loved her, that she wanted to protect her and not have the man follow her home back to her daughter.  She said that it was the only thing she knew to do to keep her daughter safe, that she was tired of hiding and just wanted to be with her husband.  Her mother said that she loved her and was sorry.  Then she begged her to find the extremely important file labeled WSP to read and that would explain everything, that she should call the phone number there before doing anything else.  That was it.  She was alone.

After the sheriff came with the news and left her the note, Iris collapsed in grief.  She did not know how long she lay there in a puddle of tears, but was brought back to life by her dog's wet tongue and cold nose sniffing her all over and whining.  Always the obedient daughter, Iris went woodenly through her mother's paperwork and found the file.  The more she read, the less she knew.  It told how her father had been murdered by a Mexican drug cartel right there on their Oregon property, which she knew, and that they were part of a witness security program, which she did not know.  There was a number to call to call if their situation ever changed.  After chewing on her pencil, Iris finally punched in the numbers.  The call was brief.

"We'll be in contact with you," was all that was said.

So when a man knocked on her door by nine o'clock that night making her old dog go into a barking frenzy, it scared her to death.  She looked through the peephole, a badge was held up lit by a small flashlight for her to see.  Iris unlocked and slid the chain over to open the door holding her dog back by the collar.  The man felt in his pocket and pulled out a dog treat.  Samson was his best buddy after that. 

"It's good that you have that dog.  They make the best protection.  Hello, I'm a U.S. Marshall, Officer Sterling Gilford.  I was sent to assess your situation, to determine the danger you are in." 

Ever since this morning when the sheriff left her, she'd locked their door, something her mother never failed to do, while she, on the other hand, had never felt the need to do so before.  Now alone, it all was different.  

"He is a good guard dog."  She swallowed hard and said hoarsely fighting back tears.  "He's all I have left."

"I'm sorry for your loss, miss.  May I come in?"  The man was clean cut, wore dark plainclothes, and was younger than she would have thought.  He showed her his badge once again, now up close.  It brought back traumatic memories from when men like him had showed up at their door after her father's death. She suddenly found herself shaking and dropped down on the edge of the sofa not able to stand any longer. 

"I just wanted to introduce you to myself so you wouldn't worry about my presence outside.  It is always better to be safe than sorry under the circumstances until we review your situation.  We'll do a thorough interview in the morning when my partner gets here."

"Yes, sir, nice to meet you."  It was almost weird to call someone "sir" who was so young, but she did it due to his badge and service.

"It is best if you don't leave the house or allow anyone in for now until further notice, for your own protection."

Her boss had told her to take all the time she needed to handle things, including her grief, but Iris didn't really know where they--where she stood financially and was determined to get back to work as soon as possible.  Without her mother's income, she didn't know what she would do.


His phone rang interrupting whatever  she had to say.  "Excuse me just a moment."  He went into the kitchen for privacy. 

As soon as he returned, her phone went off to the tune of "I Wanna Be Your Lover," Taylor Swift's hit.  She found her face growing red.  Her caller I.D. said it was her boyfriend. 


The man reached over, grabbed it to put it on speaker phone while she gasped.  He handed it right back.

"What are you doing!"  she whispered bewildered.

The officer had his finger on his lips and shook his head.

"What's up?  How are you doing?  Is someone there with you?"

"Just Samson.  I'm taking care of some things, you know, my mom's papers, stuff like that."

"Want to go grab a hamburger or something?"

Her stomach growled.  In the middle of all her turmoil she had forgotten to eat even though the fridge was full of food the church people had brought over as soon as the word spread of her mother's death. 

"Not tonight, thanks.  I'm tired."

"Hey, maybe I could come over, and you know, kiss you to sleep."

Her face once more heated from embarrassment.  The officer probably thought she was a floozy with a boyfriend talking like that.  "No, of course you can't do that.  The same rules apply now as when my mother was here.  No boys allowed when I'm by myself."

He swore.  "What?  You'll be alone from now on. We'll see how long that rule lasts.  I guess I'll see you tomorrow."

Again the officer was shaking his head.

"Umm.  I'm busy tomorrow, you know, taking care of things.  I'll call you when I'm free, okay?"

"You haven't let me close for--how many days has it been?  How long do you expect me to wait?"

She was now hot from anger.  "Remember, my mom just died, okay?"


"Fine!" and she hung up wishing she had a land-line so she could slam the receiver down.

"Sorry about that." Her shaking was rattling her so bad that her teeth chattered.

He was all business.  "Can I have that gentleman's name, please?"

She looked at him wide-eyed.  "Why?"

"It's how we do things.  Investigate.  Assess the situation for safety reasons."

His name is Santos Hernandez.  Her grief now turned to anger.  "I AM SO TIRED OF THIS! All these years that's all I heard was,  'When you are old enough,' Well, for crying out loud, I think I'm old enough!  It's time for somebody to tell me what's going on." She crossed her arms.  "What is the W.S.P?"

"How old are you, miss?" He was flipping through his phone to again check the information the Marshalls sent about the case.

"I'm nineteen."

He sighed and looked her straight in the eye.  "You're sure you don't want to at least wait until morning?"  He was stalling until his partner got him.

"Do I look like I want to wait another minute?"  Iris was fuming.

"May I have a seat?"

"Be my guest.  Would you like some coffee?"  Her good manners were kicking back in.

"Yes, please."  He jumped back up and went over and looked through the blinds and doubled-checked that the door was locked before sitting in a wing chair waiting after scooting it to put his back to the wall so he could face the door.

Somehow she managed to walk on her wobbly legs into the kitchen to make the coffee.  She could hear him talking on the phone again.  She stayed there while the coffee dripped.  She sank onto the  kitchen chair holding her head in her hands.  Finally when it stopped perking she called, "What do you want in it?"

"I drink it black, thanks."

She poured cream in hers then took the two mug back into the living room.  They still spilled over a little even though her hands weren't shaking quite so badly.  Her jaw and body ached from her earlier tremors.

After handing him his and putting hers down after a sip, Iris ran her hand through her hair.  "Sorry, I guess I'm feeling overwhelmed.  Our--my life has been so strange for years, and I've never been told the answers to my questions.  What, with losing my mom, I guess I took it out on you unfairly.  I'm sorry.  But I still want to know, what is this all about?"

"My supervisor told me it is alright to discuss this with you.  Actually it's probably vital that I do so especially if you've never been told anything."

"I haven't except for what I just read in the file today, but that was only one page."

"Alright," the officer took a deep breath  "You have been living under the Witness Security Protection.  After your mother testified against the Mexican drug cartel leader, your lives were threatened.  The U.S. Marshals were called in.  You were moved swiftly to this place under assumed names to be kept safe.  It is statistically shown that everyone in this program since it began in 1970 have been kept safe from those who would do them harm, as long as they obey the rules."

"As long as they don't commit suicide," she said under her breath grimacing.  Beginning to shake again, she hugged herself.

The young agent looked at her with kindness.  "Your mother was the exception.  We take it seriously that she says she saw the man who she put in prison.  His tattoos were not ones you could easily forget.  It was a brave thing to do when she testified in court.  But somehow, the murderer was recently released early from  prison, probably through corrupt bribes.  We have no idea why he is here in town though.   There are some big drug dealers locally who have been under surveillance, however.  We may be able to connect the dots soon." 

"How am I supposed to stay safe from this guy?"  She chewed her fingernail.  "I'm remembering some things from back then, things I guess I'd put out of my mind."

"That's what trauma will do to you, make you have blind spots on what really happened when it is too painful."   His eyes were warm as he looked at her.  Then he took out a notebook and clicked his pen.

"So what kind of things are you remembering?"  Now his eyes bore into her as if forcing an answer no matter how much it hurt to talk about, things she'd never even told her mother, things she'd never let herself  think about."

"No one knows this, but I saw it all.  The bad guy, my dad turning to run, his eyes opening wide in fear when he saw me right before he was shot.  I saw the blood.  I hid for a long time even when they kept looking for me.  My mother assumed I had been in the house and was just then hiding in the sunflower patch.  She didn't know I had chased my daddy outside before it all happened."  Iris was shaking harder.  She felt his hands tucking a throw around her shoulders.  He didn't know it was the dog's blanket, but that didn't matter.

"Did you see him?  Would you recognize him?" Sterling's heart sank knowing that they would have to whisk her away for sure since there was a chance she'd recognize the killer.

"I'm not sure, I mean, yes I saw the man with the gun, but I kept my eyes on my dad instead, looking to him to keep me safe."  She didn't think she had more tears to cry, but they were still pouring down her cheeks.  

The poor man was looking around desperately for something to hand her to wipe her tears.  He came running back from the bathroom with a dry washcloth.  "I guess if I was a true gentlemen, I would have had a white handkerchief all ironed and folded to pull out of my pocket."

She half laughed and half sobbed.  "If you're not a gentleman, you are the next best thing."

He grinned.  "That'll do."  Then turning serious again he said, "My partner will be here sometime between three and four in the morning, but I'm pretty sure from what you just told me that you are going to need to clear out of this place and be relocated as soon as possible.  I don't see how you can be protected here now."

"What!  You mean I have to disappear without a trace again?"

He just looked at her.  "Considering the alternatives, yes."

Iris threw her head against the back of the couch and closed her eyes.  How could she?  She was in school, had a job, had a place to live--at least for now--had friends, but most of all, she had a boyfriend.  She felt the officer's warm hand on her knee through her thin cotton pajama pants and finally opened her eyes to look at him.

He went on.  "It is imperative that we know about this boyfriend.  Do you have an understanding with him?  Is it a serious relationship?  Would he be willing to disappear with you?  It would greatly complicate things and perhaps even bring disaster to all the plans to keep you safe, you know, if it's not that strong of a connection."  

"I don't know.  He's just my boyfriend.  Until a few minutes ago, I didn't know I'd have to decide my whole future tonight."  She let out a deep breath.

Maybe not tonight, but it would be best to settle it all a.s.a.p.  The sooner the better.  We don't know if your house is being watched or not.  That's why we can't have you coming or going until we know it's safe.  This guy your mom saw is a very bad dude.  What he didn't know before, he's learned in his ten years in the federal penitentiary.  I guarantee you don't want to cross paths with him."

He saw the effect his words were having so changed to say, "But I think it would be better to finish discussion after I speak with my partner."

"After that little bedtime story?  I don't think I'll sleep a wink.  Are you going to stay here in the house?"

"I was going to stay out in my vehicle, but if you'd feel safer, I could clear it with my partner to stay here., at least until he comes.  It might be best under the circumstances anyway until we know where we stand."  He turned a little red.  "I know what you said to your boyfriend, but my partner will be here in a few hours, so don't worry if you hear him come in."

Just then someone knocked on the door.  Officer Gilford shoved her down behind him while pulling out his gun and whispered, "Ask who's there and tell them that you can't come to the door right now."

"Who is it?"

"It's me, babe.  I'm worried about you.  I need to see you to find out how you are really doing, okay.  I drove by and saw a strange truck parked out by the curb, and thought I heard you talking to somebody.  Is anyone in there with you?"

"My boyfriend," Iris whispered.  Then she called out, "Don't worry, I'm okay by myself.  I'm going to bed now.  Goodnight, Santos."

"Hey, sugar, I just want to give you a kiss goodnight, a hug, just to show you I'm concerned about you, that I'm sorry I yelled on the phone."

Iris fisted her hair in her hands wondering when he had become so demanding.  "I need to be by myself, Santos, goodnight."

Wham!  It made her jump.  It sounded  like her boyfriend kicked the door hard.  "I'll be back soon, and if I find out that you have somebody in there with you..."  After shouting that, he finally walked away.

"Is he always this nice or is he putting on company manners 'cause I'm here," Sterling couldn't help whispering.  The jerk, he thought, hoping she would drop-kick the guy out of her life.

They were still whispering.  "My mom didn't like him either.  She said he tried to keep me under too tight of control.  I guess it's because he's jealous when I am with friends or at school or even at work.  Maybe she had a point."

"Smart woman.  Abuse often begins with that kind of controlling behavior.  It's classic.  You can't trust that kind of guy to change.  He'll only sink his claws in deeper, and his anger will escalate becoming more violent towards you.  Has he ever left bruises?"

Her blush and avoidance of eye contact told it all.  

Iris sighed, "Well, that's your answer.  I guess he won't be invited to my moving party."  She tried to smile, but another tear slipped out.  "He used to be a lot nicer, " she said as she drew circles in the carpet beside her, "but now I must admit, sometimes he scares me the way he grabs me or demands stuff I'm not willing to compromise on."

"Hey, it's okay.  We can take care of you."

"Until you leave.  Then I'll be alone."  She didn't say it to him, necessarily, but was just speaking the truth out loud.  It wasn't protocol, but Sterling gave her a sideways hug.  They were both still sitting on the floor but as soon as she slipped her arm around his waist returning his hug, he stiffened and held onto his gun.

"Oh, sorry," she looked up sheepishly as he looked down.  She wasn't a little girl but a young woman clad in her sleep clothes. And he wasn't just anybody.  He was a U.S. Marshall.   She was acting foolishly, grief or no grief.

"Like I said, I'm going to bed now."  Iris jumped up and practically ran into her room shutting the door.  He may turn out the lights in the living room, but she was leaving hers on.  She double checked the lock on her window and pulled the blinds more tightly shut.

She had burrowed down hiding.  Sweat was dripping. She was hot.  Would he find her?  The screams came.  The next thing she knew, someone had thrown open the door.  It was a man with a gun.  Iris scooted back crab walking until she fell off the bed .  She fought his hands.  His voice kept saying, "It's okay, miss.  It was a just a bad dream. It's okay..."

Iris woke to find herself huddled in a tight spot between her bed and the wall tangled in her sheets, drenched in sweat.  He was crouched beside her wiping the hair from her face.  Her dog had jumped on the bed whining peering down at her.

"Are you okay now, miss?  You were having a nightmare."

She shook her head.  "I want to come out and sit on the couch near you, if that's okay."  She was ashamed of being so scared, but she was, plain and simple, scared spit-less.   Her heart was still racing.  It had been a long, long time since she'd had one of her nightmares.  This tragedy with her mother must be bringing it all back, either that or seeing the officers with their shiny badges and guns triggering bad memories.  But her mother wasn't here to soothe her any more.

"Sure, I'll turn the lights back on then."

With her snuggled down on the couch wrapped in a quilt, he sat down on the uncomfortable lumpy chair to scroll through his phone.  He had fought the urge to slip back to his past temptations.  It was as easy as a click away.  He felt like throwing his phone.  It wasn't her fault for practically throwing herself at him.  He was stupid to hug a client, even if he was trying to comfort her in her grief.  She was innocent, he was pretty sure, but he couldn't, wouldn't fall again.  The girl probably didn't know how her beauty, and yes, her body, could affect a man.  Conner Wells his partner would be there in another hour, and it couldn't be too soon. 

As soon as he heard his soft knock, he jumped up to let him in making sure to step back out of the light and view of the street.  "Had any sleep?"

"None to speak of."

"Me either.  I'll stay up a couple more hours if you want to get some shut-eye first. 

"I'd stay up all night if I could talk you out of quitting this job, Sterling.  You make a great partner, and I'm going to miss you.  I know you've had a rough couple of years, that this job is hard on a marriage, but just wish you could hang in there."

"It cost me too much.  I know it was my foolish choices, but if I had a job that didn't have me gone all the time, I'd like to think I would have made a better husband, not one my wife had to divorce, not that I blame her.  Besides, I'm a rancher at heart."

"Yeah, I know it's been tough." Conner agreed.

Their eyes fell on the girl sound asleep on the couch.  Let me see if I can move her back to her room.  She had a terrible nightmare earlier and was too afraid to go back to sleep in her own bed," Sterling said. 

"I'll fill you in a little bit when you come back out here," his partner sank down in a chair with a yawn.

Iris never stirred when he lifted her up out of the quilt.  His heart thumped as he carried her in his arms and laid her on her bed.  He pulled the tangled sheets back over her but left the light on.  He couldn't keep staring at her like he had been for the last few hours memorizing the way her eyes looked closed with the brush of thick lashes, the way her dark hair splayed out against her pillow, the small sounds and whimpers she made in her sleep.  He stalked back into the living room.

"Am I ever glad you got here.  You know I was on my way home when this call came through.  I've already resigned, but agreed I'd spell you until you could get here.  But I'm out of here in the morning."

"Not so fast.  They want both of us to assess the situation and make sure she's safe.  These are some bad dudes they are looking for.  There is no way that girl will be safe as long as she stays here.  I almost hate having her off in that bedroom by herself."

"Don't look at me.  I can't stay in there with her."  His hands were up.

"She is kinda pretty, isn't she." Conner grinned.

"Okay, I'll agree because it's obvious. She is beautiful.  But listen,  I think we've made it over the biggest hurtle because she says she's willing to leave her boyfriend in the dust.  He's a big controlling loser anyway."

"I think he's more than that.  They may have been using him to get close to her.  He might be in the Mexican Mafia too.  After you gave me his name, I ran it, and he's now confirmed to be one of the suspects."

"He tried to come over earlier tonight, but she stuck to her guns and wouldn't let him in.  He was angry so I know he won't stay away for long.  He was suspicious of my truck parked out front.  I think the sooner we get her out of here, the safer she'll be.  I guess neither one of us will get any sleep tonight."

"Yeah, well, there's some good news and some bad news.  I'll tell you the bad news first.  Though in theory, the Witness Security Protection is funded, it is like everything else political.  It's being used right now like ping pong batted back and forth between the House and the Senate in the latest security funding bill.  Sooo, that leaves our little lady in limbo."

"What!  You said yourself that her life is in imminent danger.  We can't leave her to those blood-thirsty monsters!"

"Well, that's where the good news comes in.  You said you were heading for your parent's ranch in Montana, correct?"

"What's that have to do with anything.  I already told you I'll be lighting out of here as soon as I can in the morning turning this case over to you.  You already know I've turned in my papers."

"Technically, you're still in the force, just on vacation, right?  And since we can't keep her safe here, you might as well take her home with you."


"Shh, or you'll wake her up.  Listen, she can make me a list of what things are the most essential items that I can pack up and ship to wherever she ends up once we get this funding thing settled.  I can even arrange for a simple burial service for her mother while you can arrange a memorial service at your parents' home, just for her and your family.  Then, when the dust settles we can get her off to a new life with a new name, all in good time.  I promise that I'll work really hard to push this through."

"No.  She's Uncle Sam's problem, not a stray kitten for me to pick up and bring home to my folks."

"Did you hear anything I just said?  You know how the system works, but you also understand the ugly underbelly of these snakes.  They won't stop until she's dead."

A gasp sounded from the hallway.  She heard.   "I really have to get out of here, don't I?"  She collapsed onto the couch  moaning with her hands over her face.

"What about my mom's funeral?  What about my friends, my job, my college courses?"

"You have to disappear into thin air leaving all that behind you."  Conner's hard look revealed the truth of his words.

Sterling glared at his partner.  "It would be best if we move out before daylight then."

Conner added,  "I have some disguises in my bag wigs, glasses and such, but I think we might need to come up with a better plan." 

Sterling said, "I don't trust that boyfriend of hers.  He's probably aware that you just walked in, Conner.  By the way, this is my partner Officer Conner Wells, U.S. Marshall.  Conner, this is Iris Smith."

"Nice to meet you, I guess," Iris offered with a wilted look. 

"I wish it was under better circumstances too, Miss Smith," Conner gave her an assuring smile.

The men began looking around, and the rug caught both their attention at the same time.  "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?  We did this in Phoenix, and it worked," Conner said.

Sterling looked at her with a no-nonsense intense look and said, "Bring one black garbage bag full of what is most essential.  Leave instructions for what  are the most important items you want Conner here to save for you with the understanding that you can't take much with you.  The less moved, the easier to stay undetected.  We will each load those garbage sacks in our trucks.  Then, we'll roll you up in this rug, and I'll carry you out over my shoulder.  You'll have to stay limp and not make a sound until I can get you free down the road.  Let's leave in ten minutes.  It'll be getting light by then.  Conner and I will wear our service shirts with a generic label on the pocket to hide our uniforms."  

He began pulling it out of a bag his partner had brought in.  Then he looked up where she stood rooted to the spot.

"Can you do it, miss?"

"Just don't duct tape me." She saw the roll in his hands and was trembling.

"I'll just temporarily use it on the rug.  But you have to follow instructions carefully.  I need to be on full alert as we go out and can't afford to be distracted by your voice or movement.  Expect it to be hot and itchy."

She slapped a hand over her mouth while her eyes grew enormous.  "Samson!  What about my dog?"  He looked solemnly back and forth between the men and his owner.

"Do you have a carrier?"


Conner backed with his hands up saying, "You'll have to take him, Sterling.  I'll be tying up loose ends and can't be walking or letting the fool thing in and out.  Besides, he'll  want to be close to her, may even help."

Sterling looked down at the huge beast as he rubbed his jaw.  Then once he saw her plaintive eyes, he gave in.  "Alright.  Get your essentials in that garbage sack.  After I take it out to the truck, then I'll come back for the dog, then you.  Conner, tranquilize him."

"Tranquilize him?" Iris gasped.

"We have to do what we have to do.  Let's get busy.  I need that garbage bag of essentials quickly now, then you can make a list."  Remember, Conner can send some of your belongings to wherever you end up, but it won't be a moving van, you know."


"As soon as he's knocked out,  I'll get the dog wrapped up in a sheet or something.  He looked around and saw her laundry basket.  Dump that out and I'll use it to carry him in."

Everything was said in very quiet earnest voices.  Adrenaline shot through her and enabled her to made quick decisions.  Iris realized that nothing much mattered if she wasn't left breathing.  She took a few photos of herself and her parents, important files, and a journal.  She brought in her other ones she'd kept for years, opened the stove and fed them into the hungry flames making sure that only ash was left.  She grabbed a couple of changes of clothes, a make-up bag and was beginning to throw together products from her bathroom.  Reaching for her toothbrush, he stopped her when he said from the doorway, "Leave it.  It's best to keep your boyfriend guessing if you are coming back, another reason to take as little as possible.  We can get you the toiletries later."

"Can I have your phone please, miss?"  Conner said flatly.

"My phone?"

"Yes, you can't take it with you because it can be tracked."  Conner winked.  "Don't worry, I'm getting ready to download your photos off it and off your computer to save them onto a flash drive before I destroy it.  We'll try to arrange to have it replaced along with your laptop.  That's next.  I need you to give me access so I can wipe it clean.  We can't risk them being able to trace your whereabouts with any electronics.  I'll need your driver's license, credit cards, and any other I.D."

Sterling watched that exchange and thought her eyes couldn't get any wider.  That is until he brought out the duct tape.  She whimpered like a wounded animal.

Quickly he worked to tear off  one small segment to show her.  "I'm just going to put this much on the carpet to seal it, I promise.  That way you'll still be hidden if I go down. Conner could then take over and get you.  Do you trust me?"

Everything stopped as the men stared at her.  It was sink or swim time and she wanted to do more  than dog paddle out of here.  So, she nodded.  These men were laying their own lives on the line for her so she agreed.  Iris made a list on a torn off piece of paper bag for Officer Wells.  As soon as she could, Iris showed Conner what she wanted and what could stay.  Her life felt very light filling a garbage sack only a little more than half full.

"I'm proud of you.  You've done well, " Officer Sterling said.  "Are you ready?  Maybe get a drink of water first to hydrate 'cause you're going to get hot."

The light was beginning to gleam on the horizon as if an eye was starting to open.  And it was.  First Sterling took the garbage bag out and threw her bag in carelessly in the bed of his truck.  Then he took the laundry basket out trying to make it look effortless in spite of the sixty pounds of dead-weight-dog in it and managed to put him in the front seat.  All the while, Conner kept his gun leveled out the crack of the door.

"Now it's cut a rug time.  Lie down, and Conner and I will roll you up as gently as possible.  Remember, stay limp, stay calm, and stay quiet.  The single torn off piece of duct tape went round just before he lifted her to his shoulder.  "It's play time!"

She heard him open the truck door before he shoved the rug with her in it onto the backseat.  Suddenly, her boyfriend pulled up next to him and got out yelling, "What do you think you are doing?"  Sterling just shrugged and said calmly, "Ask him, he's the boss.  Then he got in his truck and drove slowly off even though he wanted to step on the gas."

Conner could play the part of the cleaning services boss, but Sterling kept his eye on him as long as possible and said a prayer for his partner.  It's a good thing they started early.  After a block, he drove faster, much faster.

"Is there a problem, sir?"  Conner kept his hand tucked in his pocket near where his gun was holstered but hidden.

"Yeah, there's a problem!  Where's my girlfriend, and why are you in the house?"

"She called our cleaning services to come get her mom's thing out.  It's too painful for her to deal with.  I think a girlfriend picked her up late last night, but I didn't see nothing so I couldn't say really.  I'll be out by noon.  Maybe you can catch her then."

But the young man tried to shoulder his way in past Conner.  Instead he hit a brick wall against Conner's chest.  "Slow down, fella.  My company doesn't allow me to let anyone in except the person who ordered our services.  Like I said, try later on when I'm out of here.  Conner went back in locking the door behind him and began throwing things into garbage bags as fast as he could, her mother's clothes, some of Iris clothes,.  He left some hanging that she had sorted out to leave so it would look like she would be back.  The family photo albums went in the bottom of every bag.  He threw her phone and laptop in the last bag that he planned to destroy and dump later, then checked to see if Mr. Boyfriend was still hanging around.  He wasn't so far as the agent could see.

He whistled as he casually threw in bag after bag into the bed of his truck.  The dog food and water bowl stayed.  The food in the fridge stayed, all those nice casseroles would be wasted, well, except the one that held the homemade sweet rolls.  That went with him.  He'd destroy those by devouring them.  He put that bag in the cab for easy access.

"Yep, it still looked like she had just stepped out.  Her mother's things were gone and any important document were secured.  The young man could have at it now, which Conner was sure he and his buddies would do once they realized she was gone.  They would tear this place apart.  It was time for him to leave.  The tightness in his chest didn't lessen until he ran over her phone and laptop while his truck was hidden behind a gas station two towns over.  Then he threw the smashed things in a garbage sack, and it went into the big metal dumpster.  Good timing.  He heard the garbage truck he'd passed earlier rumbling up and knew he'd done it on time!   He was outta there!

As soon as they were ten miles out of town, Sterling pulled over.  He had to give it to her.  She had not made a peep.  Not a complaint.  Only a uh-huh when he asked if she was okay to wait a few more minutes.

He ripped the duct take off and heard her sigh of relief. as he gently tugged the rug off of her.

"Oh, it was so hot!  What do I need to do now?"

Sterling glanced at her with her sweaty hair plastered to her face.  His admiration of her grew.  "You did really well.  I'd suggest that you push the rug onto the floor as much as you can, but keep it handy in case we need to suddenly hide you again.  It would be best to lay down out of sight for awhile yet.  Then I'll give you a wig and some glasses.  It'll spiff you up!"

She managed to laugh a little.  Not bad for a young lady whose life was threatened, whose mother died yesterday.  Now there was a woman who in her own mind gave her life to save her daughter's.  He had to admit, she surely would have been followed, then they both might have been dead by now.  There probably was a better way out of their dire situation like calling the sheriff, but still, that was some kind of love.  She knew the stakes.  He sighed and silently prayed,"I know, just like you gave your life for me, God.  I'm still trying to get my head around it.  I blew it so badly though it's hard to forgive myself."  

Iris looked at him where she could see him in the rear view mirror.  A sadness had taken over his countenance.  "Are you alright Sterling?  Are you worried we're being followed?"

"No, I'm hopeful we gave them the slip." His smile didn't go as far as his eyes.

"I hope Conner's alright."

"Yeah, he texted me while you were rolled up back there.  He left with your stuff in his truck.  No more interference.  Your smashed phone and laptop are in a garbage truck headed for the dump."

"Who would have thought that would make me happy?  I can't believe Santos showed while we were trying to get away.  It was a good thing you came up with such a great escape plan.  I actually feel relieved to have no more to do with him.  By the way, can you tell me where we are going?"

"To a cattle ranch out in the middle of nowhere up in Montana.  It's where I was headed.  I had planned to turn in my badge before I got called in on your case.  I'm taking you to my family's ranch until something else can be worked out.  Hopefully I won't have to roll up anymore pretty girls in rugs and carry them over my shoulder like a cave man.  I'm done with that job now."

"Thanks."  Her smile was turning all quivery.  "It may have been a just a job for you, but it was my life, the one my mother died to save for me."

"She must have been one awesome woman."  He looked back to see the tears dampening her cheeks, but no sound came out. 

"She was.  I'm sad that I can't give her a nice funeral like she deserved."

"Conner will make sure something will be done through your church with the sheriff attending as well.  He's the only one who is a little aware of your situation, though he doesn't know about the WSP.  My partner suggested though that we have your own memorial service after we get you settled at the ranch, something simple with my folks, you know, a time when you can share a few memories.  My dad is good with reading Scripture and saying a few words.  We can do that if it would be a comfort to you."

"Yes, please.  I would like that.  Thanks."  She was quiet for a bit then evidently felt like talking.
"My mother totally changed after my dad died.  I remember her as being very social, boisterous even when I was little.  But after he died and we suddenly moved, she became quiet, introverted and reclusive.  She avoided making friendships even at church.  She liked the cafeteria ladies she worked with, but did not ever invite them over or go do anything with anyone.  I always thought she was just depressed.  Now I understand better.  I wish she had told me.  It's like she put me off and put me off until I got so busy in my own life that I quit asking. "

He grabbed napkins out of his glove box and handed her a wad of them to sop up her tears.

"There's a little bit of everything in there, Jack in the Box, McDonalds, Burger King, and Carl's Jr.  That's how you spell my life on the road.  "Maybe you better sink down and cover up with the dog's sheet."  He grabbed it up off the sleeping dog.  "A string of cars and trucks is coming up, just traffic, but I want to make sure you are not seen.  I'll get you your wig before we stop for lunch.

He was quiet as he carefully observed each vehicle which passed him.  "Nothing suspicious.  Just drivers speeding."  He relaxed his hold on his firearm.

"So, it sounds like you were raised in a Christian family, Sterling.  Are you a Christian?"

Now that question took him by surprise.  And he silently prayed, "So, how am I doing on this new Christian walk, Lord?  Can I claim You yet?"  Then after he thought for a while, Sterling finally answered.  "I'm just a baby Christian still in diapers.  That's one reason I'm going home.  I need to spend time in the Word and around good people to grow stronger.  I was raised in a Christian home, but it just didn't take.  I've put a lot of heartache between the time I left home and now.  You might even say that I'm the Prodigal.  The world might have said I succeeded some, but I threw away the most important things in this life for pig slop.  I never want to go back to that ever again."

He couldn't look back at her, instead studiously observed any car that came up from behind them.  "You know, you didn't get much sleep last night, so you might want to catch a little nap since you're laying down anyway.  I'll put the A.C. on high so you can stay covered up by that sheet without suffocating."

"I think I will.  But what about you? You hardly slept, if at all."

"I'm good for now. " He flipped open a little ice chest that plugged into his console and popped the lid on a Red Bull.  "Nasty tasting stuff, but it keeps the eyelids open."  But he was talking to someone who was out to the world.  "Sweet dreams, sweetheart," he whispered.  Then he went back to vigilance.

Except the dog stirred.  He needed out.  Quickly!  Sterling decided he needed to spay paint the dog white anyway to change his appearance.  He'd do it while the mutt was still groggy.  Samson was unhappy, but Iris never stirred.  He got back on the road when the paint dried on the canine with a very big white dog riding shotgun beside him smelling of paint fumes.  With the tranquilizer still wearing off, he'd had to lift the lug up into the cab.

"What on earth!  What happened to Samson?" Iris woke up and poked her head up from the back seat.

"He was my little art project.  I didn't think he'd keep a wig on, but we did need to change him up a little.  And maybe you could just call him "Sam."  He'll probably still answer to it, but you won't be leaving any clues from your past.  Have you thought what you might like to be called?"

"I don't have any idea."

"Well. the W.S.P.. suggests that you keep the same initials.  It helps you learn your new name if it is similar to your old so you'll remember to answer to it more quickly, but mostly it helps with the changes in documents."

"So that's why my name changed from Illa to Iris.  Now I need...Oh, I know!  My great grandmother was called Ivy.  I've always like that name."

"Ivy it is.  I'll let Conner know so he can work on your new I.D. paperwork, like a new social security number, new driver's license, fake job references and stuff like that.  He'll be getting in contact with you eventually.  He's working on the funding hoping to get you some compensation.  The budget is hung up in Congress, but it always comes through."

She chewed on her lip where she slumped down in the back seat.  "I don't know about a new last name though."

"You've got time. So don't worry about it for a while."

They grabbed lunch at a drive through. She was now sporting a long blonde wig and sunglasses.  They ate up the miles.

"How long will I be staying at your parent's ranch?"

"I'm not sure yet.  That's something else Conner is working on. He should be able to get you some money to get you settled.  Sometimes they can swing a college scholarship even."

"I would like to go back to at least get my AA.  Wow!  I can't believe how beautiful it is around here.  It' is stunning.  By the way, have you told your parents I'm coming?"

He grinned at how fast her mind was hopping from one thing to another.  "No,  They won't mind.  They've taken in a lot of people over the years.  I'll just tell them not to ask too many questions, and they'll understand.  We're almost there."  

But they did ask questions in not so quiet whispers.  "Oh, son, you've brought home a young lady for us to meet.  We are so glad!  Where did you meet her?  Where's she from? How old is she?  She's so pretty!"

His mother would have continued to gush so Sterling put his hand on her arm.  "It's not like that mom.  This is work related.  She needs to fly under the radar for awhile, so I brought her here."

"Oh."  His mother's downcast look brought all his past rushing back to mock him.  It reminded him of when he had told his parents how he'd destroyed his marriage.

"Help me, God," he prayed silently hoping the pain would go away soon.  At least it was in his stomach now more than his heart.  That was progress he guessed.

Illa-Iris-Ivy stood frozen.  Then she pulled her wig off.  It was so hot.  She suddenly looked over at Sterling.  "Is that okay?"

"Sure.  You don't have to hide here."

"Hello Dad, Mom, this is Ivy."

"Come in, dear.  We are always glad to have one more at the table.   With our children grown and scattered, we love it when they come home bringing friends,"  Mrs. Gilford said convincingly  though looking funny at the blonde wig in Ivy's hand.  She went on, "Just call me Jill.  We don't have to be formal around here.  I was just about ready to put food on the table for a late dinner.  Let me add two more plates."

It was past suppertime, and they both were ravenous.   The smells made her stomach growl.  But her dog was meeting the ranch dogs out on the porch with some barring of teeth, growling and sniffing going on.  She felt like she needed to watch to make sure it didn't break out into an all-out dog fight.  She'd need to feed him soon too.  Ivy hoped they'd allow her dog in the house sometimes.

"Don't worry about your dog," Mr. Gilford said as if reading her thoughts.  "Ours are used to the pack, and one more won't make a difference after this meet and greet time.  They'll work it out.  But it might be best to feed him inside so there won't be a fight over food for now."

"Thanks, that will be great."

Sterling had rushed upstairs and came down wearing jeans and a western shirt.  It was a shocking sight to her to have her hero turned back into an everyday person, a very handsome person, however.

"You don't know how good it feels to take that uniform off.  I don't plan to put it back on either.  I'm done.  Dad, I'm here to be just be one of your ranch hands.  Just me and the cows from here on out."

Ivy was speechless.  His mother came over and gave him a long hug.  I know it's been difficult, son."

"You know we are proud of you, Sterling.  You've done hard things, things that make you an unsung hero.  All the same, we will be proud to have you oversee the ranch," his dad said.

"I'm not here to oversee, Dad.  I'm just here to be a regular cowboy."

"You've got to know I was hoping one of you kids would have the interest to keep the ranch going for the next generation like it has for the last three.  None of the others have shown any desire to do that.  You need to learn everything so I can turn it over to you one of these days.  We're not getting any younger."

Sterling ran his hands down his face to hide the tears smarting.  "Thanks, Dad.  I'm honored.  But I'm also starving.  Let's eat."

Jill had brought a roast out with potatoes and carrots and creamed corn with fresh green beans and bacon.  It was a feast." 

"I can barely keep my eyes open after that superb supper.  I think we both will want to get  between the sheets,"  Sterling blushed realizing what he said didn't come out right. "I mean you can show Ivy her room, and I'll go to mine.  Neither of us had much sleep last night."

"Sterling actually hasn't slept at all for the past forty-eight hours," Ivy added.

Jill jumped up to lead Ivy to her guest room.  She was asleep in five minutes feeling safe sunken down under deliciously soft sheets. 

The next morning, Jill overslept.  She wandered down the hall, and found the kitchen.  A simple breakfast of muffins and coffee was waiting along with a note.

"Sorry, but I had to go grocery shopping now that my son is here.  He always comes home with a hollow leg.  I'll be back before lunch.  Make yourself at home, Ivy.  Sterling is out working with his dad."

Ivy poured herself some coffee and relished the blueberry muffin.  Everything was so quiet.  Only the refrigerator hummed.  There wasn't even any sound of traffic.  Then she noticed the birds.  They made music, all kinds together.  After she ate and put her coffee cup in the dishwasher, Ivy wandered the house. 

It was a simple three bedroom ranch house, but it had been here for a very long time.  The fireplace rocks blackened from smoke spoke of its history.  Some walls revealed the old log construction.  On the way back to her room to empty her garbage sack of belongings so she could put her few things away, she peeked into the room across the hall.  The door wasn't shut all the way so she gave into the temptation to look inside Sterling's room.   It had sports trophies from high school and pictures of him and his buddies in the military.  Then she saw a picture of Sterling with obviously his wife.  His wedding band sat beside it.  She was blonde.  She was beautiful.  Now Ivy really felt like she'd violated his privacy and backed out wishing she'd never entered.

Jill drove up, and Ivy helped her bring in the groceries.  "Thank you so much," the older woman exclaimed.  "I haven't bought this much food in a long time.  It's not as much fun just cooking for  the two of us, so I'm looking forward to feeding you and Sterling too."

"If it's anything like last night, I'll be stuffing myself on a regular basis.  Jill, would you mind if I ran a small load of laundry or washed a few things with yours?  I wasn't able to bring more than a couple changes of clothing, so I'll have to wash the things I do have often."

"Sure sugar beet.  Oh, sorry, that was my nickname for one of my daughters."  They both laughed.  "I'm all caught up on our laundry, but let me grab this new detergent to take in there, and I'll introduce you to my washer and dryer.  But it sounds to me like you need to go shopping for some new clothes!"

"I don't have any idea how long I'll be here.  Sterling's partner is working on a new placement for me and will send my stuff then."  She hoped she hadn't said too much.

"Men!  Don't they know a girl needs her wardrobe?"

"Oh, your son is a hero, Mrs. Gilford.  I will never complain about what they did for me.  In fact, I'm sure I'm saying too much as it is, so never mind."

"We know enough about his job so that we won't pry, sweetheart.  I don't even want to know. "

"So, I guess he wants to be a rancher now."

Jill paused and looked out the window before answering.  "He was so head over heels with his ex-wife  that when she said she didn't want to be a rancher's wife, he joined the military to be able to support her after they were married.  It broke our hearts that he had to leave the land he so loved.  That didn't make her any happier even though he became part of the military police which gave him more opportunities to stay state-side.  Then this other job opened up.  But exciting as it was for him at first, it kept him on the road too much.  He didn't handle that well, and neither did she.  They both made some very bad decisions.  Well, I've said too much now myself.  His father and I always knew that what he truly wanted was to work on the ranch.  We are thrilled to have him back home for his sake as well as ours."

"All he said to me was that he felt like he was the prodigal coming back home."

"Well, let's have us a feast then!  We're barbequing steaks with all the fixings.  Do you want to help or rest up some more?"

"I'll be more than happy to help you cook as soon as I start this little load of laundry."

They joked and laughed, but Ivy was constantly having to bite her tongue to not reveal any part of her past.  She was like someone with amnesia without a past, except that she did remember.  Even happy memories were sad in that she could never go back to those days of her childhood with grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins.  Ivy could never speak of them.  She did not know if her grandmother was still alive.  She didn't even have her mother anymore.  She felt a lump in her throat and tears burned her eyes.  Ivy didn't have a clue what Jill had just said.

"Excuse me, I didn't catch that," she admitted to her hostess.

"All I asked was if  you like Brussel sprouts?  Not everybody does...Oh my, sugar, you look like you're about to cry.  Come here.  Somehow I don't think you are crying about Brussel sprouts."

Ivy surrendered to her arms and sobbed over her loss.  Finally when she was able to speak again she said, "My mother died just a couple of days ago.  I couldn't even wait to have her funeral."
Mrs. Gilford's comforting arms held her longer, gently, not crushing her while she grieved.

"Oh honey, I'm so sorry."

"There's no one else.  I'm all alone and will have to start over by myself."  Finally she whispered,   "I'm so scared."

"Well now you have us.  You can be in our family, alright?"

"I don't know if Sterling will allow that."

"Sterling doesn't get a say in this, young lady.  I'm his mama, so I get the final word."

"Final word on what?" The men had come in for lunch.

"Her adoption.  I just told her she can be a part of this family whether she gets your permission or not."

Sterling looked at her with his eyebrow cocked.   He noted her red eyes and saw that she'd been crying making him desperate to cheer her up.  "It might be a good thing.  We'll have to see how this plays out."  

"Ivy, I spoke with my father, and he said we could have a little memorial service for your mother Sunday afternoon if that's okay with you."

"I would like that very much."  She glanced at Mr. Gilford and gave a tremulous smile.

Sterling knew his dad was forever in her court now won over by her obvious vulnerability.  After all, the young woman's fragility drew out his own protective instinct.  She'd been hurt enough.

"We might as well sit here in the kitchen to eat," his mother said forcing cheerfulness back into the room.  "Since I was in town grocery shopping, I just swung by the deli and got your favorite club sandwich, one for each of us."

"Great!  I haven't had one of those in so long, I dream about them." Sterling grinned as he pulled up a chair.  "Do you have a soda to go with it?"

"No Red Bulls allowed, but I've got the usual ones, Coke, Sprite, Root Beer, diet and regular." His mother busied herself getting it all on the table as they made their requests.  She put the variety of little bags of chips that came with the sandwiches on the table for them to choose from.  "Tonight we barbeque.  I'll leave it up to you if you want me to invite company or keep it for only us.  We just want to celebrate you coming home, son."

Sterling looked at Ivy and said, "I'd appreciate it if we don't have company for awhile.  That way she won't have to answer too many questions."  After his father said the blessing, he took another bite and a swig of soda out of the can and continued.  "I was thinking, it might be best if we did pretend I brought a girlfriend home.  That way I can stay beside her if anyone shows up to do most of the talking.   Is that alright with you, Ivy?  It might require a little bit of play acting, but it's still part of my job to keep you safe."

Ivy choked on her soda just then.  It went down the wrong pipe.  How embarrassing!  She only hoped that they all thought her red cheeks were from her choking and coughing and not from a reaction to his suggestion.  Ivy could only nod in answer and avoided his eyes.

"You know son, if you've worried about showing up at our old church, you should know that we changed congregations.  Now we go to that new independent one that meets at the high school auditorium."

"You mean you are avoiding the stink-eye from my ex and her family," Sterling snorted.

"Let's just say it's a refreshing change and leave it at that," his mother said with tight lips.  "We really do enjoy the worship band and the preaching from the Word."

"We miss the old hymns though," his dad added. "So after they ran off the last pastor, we thought it was time to switch."

"That sounds good.  It's been awhile since I've been able to go to church.  That's one reason I came home.  I need it badly.  I've got some questions I need to put to you sometime, Dad, about Scripture and other stuff."

"As soon as we're done eating, we can go in my study.  I wanted to show you the books anyway.  You know running cattle has its fat years as well as its lean.  As long as we keep the contract to graze on federal land, we'll be okay.  They lost that in Oregon, you know.  Hopefully it won't happen here.  We'd be sunk then."

The guys walked off with their soda cans in hand, but not before Sterling turned and said, "Thanks, Mom."

Sterling followed his dad into his study and shut the door.  He kept his head down as he propped his elbows on his knees.  After clearing his throat he began.  "Dad, you know how I ruined my marriage, how I gave in to temptation while on the road, and about my pornography problem.  I told you this on the phone when I called to say that I had rededicated my life to God.   I truly have.  I've really worked hard at being accountable, and my partner at work helped a lot.  Conner Wells is the best.  I gave him permission to spot check my phone and my laptop whenever he wanted to make sure I wasn't still using it for those bad things.  I want you to feel free to do the same.  I'll even show you how to check up on me.  I'll need you to help me be accountable.  I want to study the Word and become the man God wants me to be."

His father just grunted his acknowledgement allowing his son to have his say.

Sterling went on earnestly, "I know God's forgiven me, but I have a hard time forgiving myself.  Sofia and I had plenty of struggles in our marriage, but that doesn't excuse what I did.  What I want to know," and he coughed nervously, "is what do I do with my desires?  I pray and ask God to take them away, but I'm still a man.  I've looked up Scriptures, and it wasn't clear to me one passage to the next.  I checked online about whether I have a right to remarry according to the Bible, and the opinions are varied, some saying I don't have the right to remarry and some say I do.  What do you think?  Will I need to remain celibate for the rest of my life?  Because if that's so, I'm going to have a real struggle."

His father had listened quietly and took his time answering while flipping through the pages of his well-worn Bible.  Finally he spoke as he cradled it in his hands.  "I appreciate your honesty, Sterling.  I am willing to keep you accountable, even though I'm not sharp on the computer." He smiled before going on, "As for your re-marriage issue, I think everything needs to be kept in view of what happens when you are forgiven, "Behold, all things become new."  The book of Romans has some assurances as well as  guidelines, in Chapter Six, verses 6-7, "...knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin." 

"Then a few verses later it says in 12-13, "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God."

He flipped through the pages some more before putting his gnarled finger upon it.  "I Corinthians chapter seven, verse 2 addresses your concern when it says, 'But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife.'  Then further down in verses 27-28 it says, "Are you released from a wife?  Do not seek a wife.  But if you marry, you have not sinned.'  And back to that familiar verse 9, 'for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.'  Just understand that God made you a passionate man, Sterling.  It was not a mistake, but a gift, a gift woven into the fabric of man since Adam and Eve.  But it can be used or abused, as you well know.  But I see no reason in Scripture to say you cannot remarry, especially in light of the fact that you have been made a new creature in Christ.  I believe leaders in the church are held to a higher biblical standard though, but even they can be forgiven, remarry, just not be allowed back in the pulpit."

"Thanks, Dad.  That helps a lot."

"Do you have someone in mind?"  His dad asked with an eyebrow raised.  "Do you have feelings for this young lady, Ivy"

"Ivy?  What? No!  I just needed a place for her until my partner succeeds in finding a placement."

"Well, she's a pretty little filly and kinda makes you want to protect her, doesn't she."

"She's too young." Sterling frowned.

"Not that much younger than you, son.  Sounds like she's needing a fresh start somewhere, but will be quite alone when that happens, if I understand anything about your previous job, that is."

"Yeah, this will be her second time to be displaced.  It's got to be tough leaving everything and everyone behind each time.  Then to lose her mother.  It's a lot for anyone to adjust to."

"Well, you could do worse.  Your mom has certainly taken a shine to her, and I don't remember that ever happening with any other girls you ever brought home."

"No, Dad.  This is only about helping a client out.  I didn't bring a girl home for mom to like or dislike.  It's not like that."

"Just saying..." his dad got up and opened the ranch ledger up.  "Come see the accounts.  I'm sure you'll be wanting to put them up on your computer in an accounting program of some kind or other, sure as shooting, but I've only been able to use my chicken scratches, like my daddy did and his daddy did.."

Back in the kitchen, Ivy said, "I think the laundry is ready to be changed." 

"Well, you are welcome to use the dryer, but I generally hang mine out on the line to dry."

"Oh, okay.  I'll try it.  I've actually never done that before," Ivy grinned.  "So, I'll be like 'Little House on the Prairie?'"

Jill laughed, "Not unless you took your clothes down to the crick to scrub them first.  The clothes pins are in a sack hanging from the line.  It's near the back door when you go out through the laundry room.  Help yourself."

When she came back in, she asked, "Is it okay if I take a little walk with my dog?"  Samson had spent the night in the laundry room she found out, but was now jumping around happy to see her.

"Of course, dear.  I'm just going to throw together a potato salad and make a pie for tonight.  You go on," Jill encouraged her.

The view was so magnificent with rolling fields of grain on one side and cattle grazing on the other.  Majestic mountains were the backdrop wherever she looked.  Ivy had never seen a sky so blue.  A cool breeze blew that made the day forget its summer heat.   She took a deep breath.  Where she had lived before was beautiful, but this was just spectacular.  Ivy ended up picking a bouquet of wildflowers for the picnic table.  She'd grab a Mason jar from the back porch to use for a vase.

When the men, Sterling, Mr. Gilford and a couple of their long-time ranch hands joined them that evening, the food was ready.  Time to eat! Everything was set up on the table outside for Sterling's welcome home feast.  They stayed sitting around joking and swapping ranch stories until the stars made their debut.  Ivy was enthralled!  When Jill lit the citrusy smell of the mosquito repellant candles, it stole away the sweet perfume of the country.   Oh, well.  But somehow knowing there was so much land surrounding her gave Ivy comfort.  She felt safe.  Sure she'd seen the rifles inside and knew Sterling still carried a weapon on him, yet it was the vastness that spoke a healing to her heart. 

All hands took in the leftovers and dirty dishes.  Ivy loaded the dishwasher while Jill put the food away.  The sound of running water meant that either Sterling or his father were washing away the dirt and sweat of the day with a shower. 

"Let's wait to start the dishwasher, Ivy, until the guys have had their showers.  The water heater isn't always up to multitasking, you might say," Jill said with a chuckle.  "I'll start this before I turn in tonight.  I think it will be time to upgrade the old thing now that Sterling is home.  He does love his long showers.  His dad will probably have to take a cold one," she continued grinning.  "If you hear my man yell later, that will mean he just ran out of hot water."

"It's a good thing that I took mine this morning then," she smiled, "and that I finished my laundry earlier.  I'll have to keep the timing in mind.  Oh, my goodness, I forgot to bring my clothes in!"  Ivy ran out the door with it slamming behind her and plucked her things off the line savoring the sweet smell of line-dried clothes."


Everything was perfect, Sterling thought.  He was back in the saddle literally, and boy did it feel good even though he was sore.   His legs would get used to it again.  It was just that walking up to the picnic table, he had to go around the clothesline nearly getting snagged.  He got a little weak-kneed-startled to find some unmentionables  hanging, little things he did not want the crusty old ranch hands to see.  Sterling picked up something off the ground he'd knocked off stuffing it in his pocket without looking at it.  He wasn't about to hang it back up.  He'd have to speak to his mother about that.  It would take some adjusting to having a young woman on the ranch.  His sisters had been gone for years both having married young.  His ex-wife, of course, had never used a clothes line in her life, heaven forbid.   Even though he adverted his eyes, a warmth was heated in his stomach to find Ivy already making herself at home on the ranch.

Sterling was determined to keep his eyes off Ivy.  Even answering her questions at the supper table, he looked elsewhere.  He wasn't about to fall into temptation.  His mother only looked at him sternly, while his father just raised that same eyebrow.  He could imagine Ivy's hurt.  She quit trying to talk to him.

"You ever been horseback riding, young lady?"  His dad was asking at supper the next evening.

"No, but I always wanted to."

"Well, in the morning if you get up early wear your jeans.  We've got some cattle to move from one pasture to the next and can use all the help we can get.  Your job will be to stay on the horse.  He'll know what to do."

"Are you sure, Dad?  That might be tough for her first ever ride."

"Well then, take her out now for a little riding lesson tonight so she can get the feel of it."

Ivy gave out a happy little squeal.

He caught the wink his dad gave his mother.  But he knew well that a suggestion from his father was the same as a command.  He was taking Ivy horseback riding."

Jill shooed her out the door.  "I'll do the dishes.  Go on with Sterling."

Ivy loved everything from the smell of the hay, the smell of the leather, to the creak of the saddle as she mounted.  Sterling put his hands over hers as he explained about the reigns. 

"If all else fails, hold onto the saddle horn," he smiled up at her forgetting not to look.  Her eyes were lit like sparklers with excitement, her cheeks flushed and a wide grin was on her face.  He tried not to notice how good she looked in the saddle, but he'd have to be a dead man not to notice that.  After checking to make sure her stirrups were the right length, he teased, "Here's where you put the quarters in to make the horsie go," he winked remembering the same line his dad had always used when taking novices out for the first time.  Then he reigned himself in.  He hadn't meant to wink at the girl.  He swung up in his saddle and led the way looking back to make sure she was alright.

They had a nice ride up a dirt road a couple of miles.  He allowed his horse to slow down to ride next to her for a piece.  "What do you think?  Do you still want to herd cows in the morning?"

"Yes!  This is a dream come true."  Then she turned pensive.  "Thank you, Sterling, for inviting me to enter into your family life for a bit. I know you really did not have to do it, that it is not in the protocol. But, I feel safe here with you."

"Well, after church we'll have our Sunday supper then gather for a memorial service out under that tree."  He pointed back to an old gnarled pine whose branches unfurled away from the ground with enough space underneath to allow the tallest of them all to stand underneath.

"My mother would have loved that spot.  Evergreens are her favorite kind of tree."

They rode on in quiet for awhile.

Then she blindsided him asking, "How come you won't look at me, Sterling?"

There.  She'd said it.  But he had not expected her to, so he sputtered before deciding to answer her honestly.  "Well, it's because you are a very beautiful young woman, Ivy, but it's not my place to oogle you.  I'm trying hard not to, you might say."

"Oh."  She thought for a moment then said.  "It might make it seem funny if you pretend to be my boyfriend Sunday if you don't look at me sometimes though."

"Yeah.  I'll keep that in mind."  But the thought of acting like Ivy was his made his stomach heat.  "Maybe we should stay home tomorrow.  It's not like I want to act out a lie in church."

"Or..." She was obviously thinking hard.  "Maybe you should just ask me out now for real, then after tomorrow we could breakup."

He laughed.  "You are too much, you know that?  Okay, Miss Ivy whatever your last name will be, do you want to go out with me?"

"Yes!  Even if it's only for a short while, it would be an honor to be by your side as your girlfriend because you are my hero."

That struck him dumb.  He swallowed hard.  She truly saw him that way, he realized.  But the truth was, he was a broken man.  He was just now being made new in Christ.  Sterling sternly told himself that he should not take pleasure in the innocence of her declaration.  Knowing she had such implicit trust in him shook him in his boots.  It was one thing to put her life in his hands as far as her security needs went. But putting her heart in his hands was another.  He squirmed in the saddle and said, "Let's go back.  I need to see how you trot and gallop before tomorrow."

He instructed her on how to ride more smoothly without being so jostled.  Once galloping, they soon reached the barn.  Sterling said, "You go on in the house.  I'll take care of the horses."

When she protested that she wanted to help, he just pointed to the house. Ivy turned and left him.  He sure ran hot and cold, like that ol'water heater, she thought.  She never  knew when he'd be all-out friendly and when he would grow taciturn.  It rubbed some of the pleasure off the ride, but not much.  Ivy had loved every minute and was looking forward to the morning.

She was blocking the back door entrance sitting down playing with her dog when Sterling came in.  He almost fell over both of them not seeing them there.  He'd kicked the dog food everywhere and spilled the dog's water.

"Oops," she said.  "Sorry we were in your way."  They both grabbed the broom at the same time.  She relented her hold on it and took the dust pan instead.  "Your mom just mopped in here today, so the food should be clean enough to put back in the bowl.  Then I'll mop up the water.  When she stood up just as he turned from putting away the broom, he found himself almost up against her.  She stepped back,  and he brushed quickly past her. 

"Goodnight.  See you bright and early," he hung his hat up and went to bed but not to sleep.  He tossed more than an unbalanced load in a washing machine where his heart was thunking like a pair of tennis shoes thrown in with the wash.  The thought of Ivy kept him awake forever it seemed.  He worried about her starting over somewhere else, somewhere where she would not know a soul.  She could not talk about her past.  That would be hard to go into a relationship like that with so many secrets.  Then he remembered every touch from carrying her back to her bed while she slept at her old house, to her hands under his holding the reigns and even on the broom.  That ol' warmth in his stomach was getting quite regular, and he didn't like it.  Not at all.


He kept away from her on the small cattle drive letting his dad see to her if needed.  He just wanted it to be him and the bawling cows.  No complications.  But that didn't keep her from trotting up beside him. 

"How do you think I'm doing so far, Sterling?  Am I a root'n-toot'n cowgirl?"  His mother had loaned her a straw hat and a pair of one of his sister's old boots, so she looked the part sitting astride her horse.  Cute.

He could not totally ignore her so he had given a quick glance.  "Sure 'nuf, parner," he quipped, but swallowed hard at the pretty picture she made on horseback.  He'd known his share of cowgirls, but none as pretty as this."  He kicked his horse enough to take off after a wandering cow for an excuse to make space.  He needed more air to breath.

It was worse the next day when she wobbled bowlegged into breakfast wearing a nice summer dress.  She was surely sore, but not complaining.  He felt for her, obviously unused to riding.  His mother had evidently gone shopping in town while they were out on the little roundup and picked her out a few pretty things.  That reminded him that he needed to sneak back into the laundry that little item that fell off the line.  If his mother found that in his room, he'd get the what-for, for sure, and then some.

"Good morning, Sterling.  We'll leave for church in thirty minutes."  His mother looked like the cat that ate the canary.  "Ivy, now don't you look lovely, darling!"

"Thanks, Jill.  I appreciate this new dress."

"You do look mighty fine this morning, Miss Ivy.  You did fine yesterday too, " Mr. Gilford said.  It was enough to make Ivy beam.

His mother cleared her throat.  He knew she was trying to catch his attention so he could also chime in to compliment the girl, but he ignored them.  Instead he said, "I'm not sure we should go to church today.  There might be too many questions and put Ivy under too much pressure."

"I don't mind.  We can get there a little late and leave a little early.  I'd love to go to church."

That sucked the air out of his argument.  All he could say was, "I'll be ready then."

"Why don't you take your truck, son, so you can skidaddle if you need to.  You know your mother likes to yack with her friends after church.  I'll be there to squeeze her shoulder if people get too nosey about your new girlfriend.  We know how to hold our tongues."

"Sounds like a plan," he said and went to get ready feeling like he'd swallowed a brick for breakfast.  Fortunately, he saw her door was left open so he took that small bit of lingerie and tossed it into her room where it only fell on the floor.

"What are you doing!" Ivy exclaimed.  She'd come up right behind him.
"Umm..." He was sweating now.  But like always, honesty was the best way even if it was painful. "On my way to the picnic table for my welcome home party, I accidently got tangled up in some of your things hanging on the line.  This happened to fall on the ground, and I wasn't going to be caught dead hanging it back up with Jim and Ted watching.  So I stuffed it into my pocket without looking and forgot it was still there until this morning.  Honest."

Ivy was bent over laughing so hard she was gasping for air. "I...believe's just so...funny!"

"It's not something I was ever trained for, that's for certain," he finally grinned a little even though he was blushing like a school girl.

Just a little later, when he opened the passenger door for her, Ivy scooted over to the middle of his truck's bench seat.  "We have to look like we're boyfriend and girlfriend, remember?  You did ask me to go out with you, after all."

How could he forget when her bare arm brushed up against his?  This was not going to be easy.  It had been awhile since he had been around a woman, and then it was only when he was giving in to temptation.  God had a strange sense of humor, he guessed.  When they arrived, she slid over to get out his side barely keeping her skirt down.  Sterling looked away.  When she put her hand in his, his stomach was feeling the heat again. 

"Okay, mister, let's go do this!" She said it like it was a battle cry even though it was only loud enough for him to hear.

"Most everyone is already here."  He touched his hat in polite recognition of a few people he knew, stragglers like them late to the service with no time to visit.  The auditorium seats were almost all taken.  He was surprised at such a crowed.  But he found regular chairs to sit on along the back.  He put his hat on an empty one next to him.  Ivy kept hold of his hand even as they stood to sing, even when no one was looking.  Well, a couple of his ex-wife's girlfriends craned their necks like turkeys.  He saw the whispering going on and a few more swiveled around.  He felt onery enough to put his arm around Ivy.  She looked up at him in surprise, but then leaned into him.  She fit just right.  He decided to just enjoy the moment.  He kept his arm there throughout the whole service even while they sat down.  A strand of her hair tickled his hand.  So he stroked it.  He wished the A.C. could be kicked up a little higher because he was feeling the heat between them.  Not good.

As soon as the closing prayer ended, he jumped up and grabbed his hat and her hand.  "Let's get out of here."

But no one was as fast as the curious gossip seekers.  Soon they were surrounded.  Sterling fielded a few questions but she only looked up to him and smiled.  When he didn't like the way some of the guys he used to run around with were looking at her, he slipped his arm was around her waist.  Finally, he excused them and broke through the small crowd ushering her out to the parking lot.

But suddenly Ivy realized it was a long bumpy ride back to the ranch, and she had to use the bathroom.  It was noisy now with cars and trucks pulling out and people still calling their greetings.  Out at the truck she put her hand up to his neck and tugged him down so she could tell him without yelling.  He looked surprised, looked at her lips and bent down and kissed her. She was shocked.  She wanted to stay in his embrace, however nature was calling. 

"Sterling, I have to go back.  I have to use the bathroom."

His eyes were melted almost black looking down at her holding her close before shaking himself loose from the spell. "Huh?  Okay.  Just don't try to talk to anyone.  Just say we're in a hurry."

She ran back inside and found the ladies room weaving around people who tried to stop her to visit.  She could only smile and shake her head.  What she didn't count on was the young woman walking into the stall next to hers.  It was a conversation she couldn't ignore as much as she wanted to.

"I saw you with him, you know."  A pause to see if she took the bait.  "I was his ex-wife's maid of honor.  I know all about their ugly split-up.  You'd better run while you can.  He'll only use you and spit you out."  This was said with so much spite that it practically dripped into a pool onto the floor.  "I see he's going for the young innocent types now.  That's a player for you."

Ivy bit her lip.  Hard.  She had heard enough.  She practically ran out of there barely washing her hands and slinging water droplets on her way out the door.  She wasn't as disturbed at what was said, which Sterling had alluded to in his talk about being a prodigal, but it was the viciousness with which this was spoken.  It made her so angry she wanted to spit in her eye!"

He was still standing with the door open on his side waiting.  She was shaking with fury. 

He was going to try to cool it down now after their little show of being boyfriend and girlfriend.  He had blown it with the kiss realizing too late that it wasn't what she had asked for.  But something had her upset.  It was just a kiss, for crying out loud!  Was she all strung up tight about it he wondered.

"I met your ex-wife's maid of honor in the bathroom.  I wanted to slap her trap shut.  But I ran out before she was through with her little diatribe."

"I'm sure she said nothing I didn't deserve." He grimaced wishing Ivy had been spared that.

"It wasn't much of anything but what you had already hinted at, but it was the vitriol with which she spoke.  I don't think she heard a word of the sermon today the way she chased me into the bathroom to unleash her venom."

"I'm sorry you had to hear it.  That woman would rather smear manure than throw fresh hay, that's for sure.  She's always been that way since I've known her in kindergarten."

Ivy became still beside him.

"What's wrong?"

"I'm just now realizing how you've lived here all your life.  I don't know how that would feel.  I guess I'm just a little bit jealous," she sighed.

"It's not always a good thing.  People in a small town never forget your mistakes. So, it seems like I have a past I want forget, while you have a past you want to remember," he caught himself,  "I mean, the happy times, those things you've been robbed of and can only keep close in your memory."

He took her hand then let go realizing what he was doing.  He gripped the steering wheel and said, "About that kiss.."

She quickly put her fingers over his mouth.  "Please don't say it.  Just let me have that little bit.  Don't try to take it back from me.  I know, but please don't say it."

She unbuckled and scooted over to the far side before re-buckling.  "Of course I know it was all play acting.  You did a fine job of it too."  Her face was turned away gazing out the window.

Sterling cleared his throat.  "Alright then.  As long as we understand each other."  But he didn't.  He was so mixed up, he wouldn't know a sow's snout from its curly tail.  He raked his hand over his face.  The most he could tell was this young woman had a man-crush on him.  He had played with those feelings today like playing with matches so much that he might cause them both to be burned.  "Dear  Lord, help me!" was all he could silently pray.

Sterling wanted to make himself scarce the rest of the day, but they still had her mother's memorial service to attend to.  He was back to not looking at her when she spoke to him at lunch.  His mother cornered him after Ivy left to take her dog on a walk.  All the ranch dogs followed like she was the Pied Piper or something.  He stared off after her, but his mother yanked him back to reality. 

"I raised you better than this, son.  You will treat a guest in this house with courtesy.  A man looks a person in the eye when spoken to.  I don't like it one little bit how you've been acting around Ivy."

"That's what it was today, just acting."

"I'm talking about here at home.  But about that other, you have no right to pull her strings like a puppet's.  Hers are attached to her heart which has been through enough already without you messing with it."

"It's obvious, son," his dad chimed in, "that the little lady has a crush on you as her hero.  Be very careful with her, Sterling.  There's protection and then there's protecting.  Right now she needs less FBI and more kid glove careful handling.  We'll have the service for her mother in about an hour."

At least his dad had nipped his mother's speech in the bud.  She might have carried on for awhile.  Sterling went to his room.  It was nice to be home, but as an adult, he wasn't used to having someone giving him a good dressing down, well, except his partner.  Conner was on his case pretty consistently, and he'd needed it.  It kept him out of the bars and off the wrong sites and away from the wrong women who were attracted to the uniform and badge.  He gave a sneer.  Who would have thought that U.S. Marshalls would have groupies.  But they did.  Conner was a happily married man, and he worked hard to keep it that way.  Not Sterling.  He had given in to temptation too many times. 

That's why he shouldn't have anything to do with the girl in his care.  She was an innocent. 
Sterling kicked himself for his behavior today.  He used her, putting his arm around her to poke a stick, so to speak, in his ex-wife's girlfriend's eye.  Not that it didn't feel good having her tucked up against him.  It felt so good that he'd allowed himself that kiss.  It was like kissing a soft rose petal.  Sweet, like nothing else he ever remembered.

He needed to call Conner.  He needed to be held accountable.  "Hey buddy.  How is it going?"

"It's not, not yet anyway.  How is it going on your end?" Conner answered.

He groaned.  "It's killing me, man.  She's too pretty, too innocent, too tempting.  I need you to find something quick.  I mean I won't cross the line with her or anything, it's just that I don't want my mind going places it shouldn't, you know."

"Maybe she's the One."

"You have got to be kidding me!  You're beginning to sound like my dad."

"Maybe you should listen to wisdom.  She might need you buddy, and maybe you might need her as well.  It is not good for man to be alone.  It's Scripture.  Check it out."

"It's too soon."

"What?  Two long years since your last mess up.  I'd say you are well on your way to becoming a steady-freddy, good buddy. Do you think you deserve a little more purgatory first or something?"
Conner had a way of poking him through a chink in his armor.

"I don't know.  I just don't want to mess up again.  I hurt too many people, you know, not just me."

"Listen.  How do you think the young woman in your care will fare out in a totally new environment with no past, so to speak?  She'll always be looking over her shoulder with anxiety  for the rest of her life.  Someone with a parent who has committed suicide  always has that little niggling fear that they might choose that way out too.  Then there was that bad choice of a boyfriend?  I saw the bruises too."

Conner wasn't done yet.  "Have you ever thought that maybe God has had this all arranged, that you were put on this case for a reason?  Who was the closest agent they could call on to respond? When has the funding not been there when needed?  I don't recall that ever happening before.  Who was already resigning to go live off the map in the wild blue yonder?  Coincidence?  Who needs protection?  Who knows how to protect?  Who needs to move on with his life and find a wife?  Is that an environment there that you want to go hunting for a new wife in, your ex-wife's territory?  Just promise me you'll think about it."

"I need to get off the phone.  We're going to have a memorial service for her mother like we promised.  Say a prayer for her.  I'll think on it, what you've said, but I'd be surprised if God was thinking the way you are thinking, no offense partner."

"I don't know," Conner laughed. "God and I have been friends for quite some time and are  starting to think alike, well, at least I'm trying to think like Him that is."

"Give my love to your wife."

"Okay. We both are praying for you and our young friend."

"Thanks, bye."

Sterling could only look to the ceiling and say, "God, I need a little clarity here.  I want to want your will."

His father knocked.  "It's time Sterling.  We're all waiting."

When he got outside he saw Ivy had picked a fresh bouquet of wildflowers.  Mixed in with the rest were wild roses with their  faint intoxicating perfume.   They walked the road together.  Samson sensed her sadness and walked close beside her.  His dad had sent all the other dogs running away with tails tucked.  His mother waved him ahead.  Did she want him to hold Ivy's hand or put his arm around her shoulder again?  Didn't they just scold him for playing with her emotions?

He caught up with her taking the other side away from her dog.  Their shoulders kept bumping slightly as they walked along.  When she gave a shuddering sigh, he couldn't help but take her hand.  The girl was hurting.  He alone in his family knew the inside story of her pain and sorrow.  It was his place to be beside her right now.  She needed him.

It was like a lightning bolt went through him.  Ivy needed him.  She would keep on needing him.  But would he be toxic to the young thing causing her to wilt?  The last thing he would ever want would be to bring her another moment of hurt.  His head swam.

But he listened to the words of truth his father read from Scripture.  He read Isaiah 25, the part that said that God had been a defense for the helpless.  What really got him was the verse about the song of the ruthless being silenced.  Boy, he hoped with all his heart that would be true for Ivy.

He listened to Ivy share memories of her mother.  Some things revealed that she had been in charge of her mother's happiness for far too many years, for the way she held the household  together in spite of her mother's constant worry and depression.  Ivy had carried that burden a long time making her grow up beyond her years.  It sent a tightness in his chest to think that she would have to continue to carry that torch of anxiety for herself.  All the protectiveness in him rose up and nearly choked him.  Then his father prayed a beautiful prayer that shook him down to his toes. 

"Dear God, we bring to you our sweet Ivy's tremendous sorrow.  We don't have to know the past to understand the terrible burden of pain she carries.  Oh, Lord, if there is some way we can help this young woman by lifting any of her pain off her shoulders, show us how.  Lead and guide us we pray.  But ultimately, God, only You can do that for her.  We are reminded that You are the one who said your yoke is easy and your burden is light.  Her burden has been heavy for a long, long time.  I sense it in her spirit.  Help someone to come along and be willing to be equally yoked with her, to help her bear it. We pray this in Jesus name, amen."

Sterling'd been struck by that lightning heat of realization now three times in one hour.  Was God speaking to him?  Was God using Conner to speak to him?  His dad?  Even his mother?

Ivy bent down to place the flowers at the foot of the cross he'd fashioned to memorialize her mother.  When she turned around sobbing, he opened his arms.  Naturally.  He tucked her head under his chin.  Standing here, he alone knew what she had seen, the murder of her father.  He had a glimmer of understanding what that little girl went through to lose her extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  He tightened his arms as he thought of her abusive boyfriend, probably used by the drug lords to get to them.  He thought of her pain at the suicide of her mother, a hurt that would never quite heal while trying to reconcile how her mother had thought it the best way to protect her.  His hands caught up her hair accidently undoing the French knot she had woven.  She faced a future that was shaky at best as far as she knew if her past was any indication.   How could he let her go?  He surged with a fierce warrior instinct throughout his whole being.  Who else could do the best job of protecting her?  She thought he was her hero.  How could he let her down?

Sterling remembered her attitude considering her knowledge of his ugly past.  To her it was past.  Was it?  Was he ready to let it go and move forward to become the man of God he was called to be?
He stood there willing to hold her as long as she wanted to cling to him.  His mother and father stood a respectful distance away waiting.

He was falling in love with her not because she was weak, but because she was strong.  Her metal had been forged in the furnace of a hotter flame than most people ever experienced.  He needed her, he suddenly realized, more than she needed him.  Ivy had grown, climbing up to entwine around his heart.

Finally, she looked away from him wiping her eyes saying, "Thanks, Sterling for being here for me today." 

He lifted her chin turning her face to look at him.  They drank in each other's eyes.  What he had to say was for her ears alone.  He didn't have to worry though since his parents had already turned back to go home arm in arm.  "Hey sweetheart,  I want you to know that I'm going to continue to be here for you if you let me.  No more play acting.  This time it is the real thing."

Her eyes grew round.  But there was no mistake this time when her hand went up 'round his neck and pulled him down towards her lips. 

It was more than like kissing a rose petal, Sterling thought.  It was like kissing the whole bouquet, wild and sweet.

This is an unusual story for me to write.  I've never read a book about the WSP or have ever seen a movie on the subject.  The questions about what on earth is the secret witness protection was just a tickle in the back of my mind.  When I googled it, the story began.  Then last night when I was finished, I googled it again to check some facts.  A story appeared published from three days prior of a woman coming out of the program.  She had been, of all places, hidden in Billings, Montana.  She spoke of two suicides that she knew of and of the difficulty as a child being swept suddenly away.  Oh my.  There might be a news special on her story.  So, perhaps this is a timely piece.