When they stepped outside, the buffalo were grazing near the pond. If she had been alone, she might have taken a chance crossing the field, but not with Jonathan. Instead they walked up to the road and around to the house.
As they entered the yard, Carmen noticed Lori’s little red sports car. Lori was sitting on the porch swing, a red welt on one cheek. So it had come to this.
"Good afternoon, Lori. Sorry we weren't here when you arrived. We've been down to the old house, taking some measurements."
Lori nodded and struggled off the porch swing, her swollen stomach a reminder that babies were still an option for some people. Carmen looked away and Jonathan climbed up on the porch, lowering himself into the swing.
"I gather Alex isn't home yet. When do you expect him?" Lori asked.
Carmen kept her attention on the horses in the corral. So now they were involving Alex in their troubles. Didn't they think he had enough problems of his own? She sighed.
"He'll be along any time. Why don't you come into the house and have a glass of cold tea."
She glanced at Lori, but Lori’s attention was on a gray truck coming up the drive. Carmen stiffened. How could Lori do this?
"Jonathan," Carmen addressed him firmly. "Why don't you go check on the chickens? Maybe there are some fresh eggs."
Jonathan slid off the swing and took a short cut through the house to the chicken coup. Carmen breathed a sigh of relief. At least he was out of harms way. Now what about Lori?
The truck slid to a stop in the yard, spraying gravel and dust. Josh practically fell out of the truck and staggered toward the porch. He was drunk. This was only the second time she had seen him in that condition – both times since he married Lori.
He stopped and steadied himself, focusing on Carmen first, and then on Lori.
"I figured you'd be here...looking for Alex." His cold gray eyes shifted to Carmen. "She's always throwing it up to me - how good he is."
Carmen gripped the porch banister and stared down at him silently. She didn't want any part of their fight. Lori had come here looking for Alex. Did she think it would improve their situation?
Jonathan burst through the door and stopped abruptly on the porch, staring at Josh. He sidled over to Carmen and glanced up at Lori. Somehow he knew.
Josh staggered and lunged up the steps.
"Lori, I'm not putting up with this any more. You're coming back with me right now - if I have to carry you."
Lori turned and ran into the house, leaving Carmen and Jonathan to face Josh. Carmen tried to put herself between Josh and Jonathan, but before she realized what he was doing, Jonathan darted between them and pushed Josh. Unstable as he was, it didn't take much to send Josh down the porch steps. He hit the ground with a grunt and rolled over, staring up at Carmen.
"Shorty, you stay out of this or I'll tan your hide the way I should have done years ago."
He scrambled from the ground and staggered toward the steps again, pausing when he heard tires crunch on gravel behind him. He swung around as Alex stepped out of his truck.
It didn't take Alex long to size up the situation. "What's the matter, Josh?"
Josh stared at him. If Alex had reacted aggressively, the situation might have been entirely different, but Alex kept his head. Josh dismissed him, starting for the porch again.
"I came to get my wife."
Alex glanced up at Carmen. "Is Lori here?"
Carmen nodded and glanced at the house.
Alex grimaced. "You stay here Josh. I'll go get her."
"Alex!" Carmen gasped, but he brushed by her. Josh waited at the foot of the stairs, obviously confused by the turn of events.
After a few tense minutes Alex emerged with Lori. Lori was pale and her eyes were swollen and red. She put a porch post between herself and Josh, eyeing him nervously. Surely Alex wasn't going to let him take her.
Alex leaned on the porch rail, addressing Josh in a conversational tone.
"Lori says she's afraid to go back with you. She says you hit her."
Josh jerked his head around and stared at Lori accusingly. "I did not," he denied emphatically.
Lori pointed at the red spot on her cheek. "Then how do you explain this?"
Josh snorted. "You got that when you fell."
Lori glared at him. "I fell when you hit me."
Josh glanced at Alex. "She's lying. She's got it all mixed up."
Alex shrugged. "I wouldn't know."
Josh swung around and started for his truck. "I don't have to take this. I'm going home. If she wants to run away, good riddance."
Alex stepped away from the porch rail. "You're drunk, Josh. You don't need to be driving." His tone was still conversational.
"I'm not drunk." Josh continued toward his truck.
Alex vaulted the porch rail and hit the ground on the run. As Josh climbed into his truck, Alex raised the hood and jerked a wire loose.
Josh jumped out of the truck, leaving the door standing open in his haste.
"You think that's going to stop me? You just wait and see."
Alex backed away from him warily. When Josh leaned over the hood to repair the damage, Alex seized the opportunity. He reached inside the truck and snatched the keys.
The attention had shifted from Lori to Alex, and Carmen was sure things were going according to plan. But Alex was asking for trouble. Josh could easily overpower him and take the keys away - if that was all he did.
"Give me those." Josh darted for Alex and he threw the keys into the hedge row.
Carmen watched in amazement as Josh backed away from Alex.
"I suppose you think you’re real smart. I've got another set at the house."
Alex shrugged nonchalantly. "Then I suggest you walk down there and get them."
Josh stared down the road doubtfully. No doubt he knew he was being manipulated, but his brain was foggy enough that he wasn't sure what to do about it.
Alex rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, come on in and have some coffee with us. I'll drive you home and find your keys later."
Wonders never ceased. Josh accepted, mumbling that he wasn't drunk, but some coffee sounded good. Lori was keeping a low profile and apparently Josh had forgotten about her.
Carmen sat down on the swing with Jonathan, and Lori turned to watch the drive again. Less than fifteen minutes later, a state trooper car pulled into the yard. Carmen put an arm around Jonathan. Who had called the police - Alex or Lori? Obviously they both knew. She was sure that was why Alex had lured Josh into the house. Josh would be livid. No telling what he would do.
"You stay here," she told Jonathan, and jumped up from the porch swing. She darted into the house with the intention of warning Alex.
"Alex," she called anxiously, but he merely shook his head at her.
Josh was sitting at the table nursing a cup of coffee with Alex. The scene couldn't have looked more congenial. She could hear Lori talking to the trooper, and then they came into the house.
Josh stared stupidly at the trooper before turning a scowl on Alex. "Why'd you call him?"
Alex shrugged. "It seemed like the thing to do, Josh."
The trooper gave Alex a strange look and glanced at Lori, who seemed a loss for words. He shook his head and addressed Josh.
"Mr. Reynolds, I've received a complaint that you've been abusing your wife. I'm going to have to take you in."
Josh shoved his coffee cup away, sloshing coffee on the table. He glared at Alex.
"I didn't hit her."
Was it possible that he didn't remember? It wasn't like Josh to lie. But then, it wasn't like Josh to drink, either."
The trooper was amiable. "It isn't my place to decide, sir. You're not going to give me any trouble now, are you?"
Josh stared at him. "There isn’t any law against hitting your wife a little now and then. Sometimes that's the only way you can get them to stop their nagging."
Alex gripped Carmen by the arm. "Come on, sweetheart. This is between them. There's nothing more we can do but give them a little privacy."
They joined Jonathan on the porch and headed for the barn. Alex had an arm around each of them.
Carmen shook her head in disbelief. "I can't believe he said that. How could he think he had the right to beat on Lori?"
"Hit," Alex corrected gently. "If everyone who hit their spouse landed in jail, we might be rather shocked at the percentage."
Carmen glanced up at him, her face growing warm. She'd be one of them. "I shouldn't have hit you."
He squeezed her shoulder. "Let's not get into that. The difference in this case is that it is getting to be a pattern - increasing in frequency and violence. It has to be stopped."
She gazed up at him. "Did you call the police?"
He glanced down at Jonathan and covered the boy's eyes. Alex shook his head no and spoke for Jonathan's ears.
"Someone had to do it."
Jonathan peeled Alex's hands off his eyes. "I won't tell. I heard her calling the police before you got here. Do you think he will hit her again if he finds out?"
Alex shrugged. "It’s hard to tell. But it's better for them if he doesn't know she called - as long as he gets the idea she could." He glanced down at Carmen. "I did tell her to go someplace public if he did it again. I didn't mean our house, but she needed help. Judging by what she has told me, I don't think Josh actually intends her any physical harm. He's simply not aware of his strength - especially when he's drunk. He gets a little caught up in the role of head of the household, and becomes a parental figure as well. I'm sure, in his mind; he's merely disciplining her. If nothing else, he could use some counseling."
Carmen stared at him. "But I thought you didn't believe in counseling."
"I never said that. I said sometimes it is useful. Times like this."
"But you told me I didn't need to go...."
"No, I said I didn't think it would do any good because you didn't want to go. There is a big difference here. Lori is in physical danger - doubly so because she's pregnant."
"I pushed him down the stairs," Jonathan blurted out.
"You what?" Alex stared down at him. "You shouldn't have done that." He shook his head. "I'm surprised he didn't go after you."
"He was so drunk he thought I did it," Carmen supplied. "And I think he was coming after me when you drove up."
"I wouldn't have let him hurt her," Jonathan insisted.
Alex squeezed Jonathan's shoulder. "Honorable, but not too smart. Never antagonize a drunk. Next time you just get out of his way." He glanced down at Carmen. "Both of you."
They walked along in silence for a few moments. Carmen gazed up at Alex. "He said he didn't hit her."
Alex shrugged. "Maybe he didn't. Maybe he doesn't believe he did. Who knows? People have a way of shutting out things they aren't ready to deal with yet, or can't accept."