Coming Oct. 17, 2017
Muscles burned in my back and shoulders as I dug through my meager belongings. The winding roads I’d traveled last night proved more challenging to my still healing body than the flat open road. To fend off the bite of the post-dawn chill, I zipped up my great grandfather’s WWII flight jacket then scrounged around in my Harley’s saddlebags, searching for enough money to cover the cost of my bitter coffee and butter-bathed toast. My money should have been in my pocket, but it wasn't. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember where I’d stashed my money after my last pit stop.
I suffer from brain fog for a number of reasons and driving all night through the mountains hadn’t helped any.
Off to my right, two pickups pulled up. A late model Ford diesel with all the trimmings and a two-door jalopy with its red paint sunburned away to bare metal and a frayed bungee cord strapping down the hood. A cowboy in a pressed western shirt and jeans climbed out of the Ford, walked around the bumper, and then leaned against the older truck. A deep tan spoke of his time out in the sun and his boots had enough of a scuff to make me believe they were more than a fashion statement.
To cut the glare of the sun, he settled his wide brimmed hat low on his head. Dirty fingerprints stained the brim, and dried sweat ringed the crown. A young girl, who appeared barely old enough for her driver’s license, climbed down from her truck. The man started arguing with her before her boots even touched the ground.
No. Arguing was inaccurate, because his voice remained well modulated and the girl didn’t talk back, but the tension between them stood the hair on my arms, and Dread stirred in my belly.
Yes, Dread. With a capital D. A salty old bastard of a marine that had taken up permanent residence in the pit of my stomach like it was his own personal foxhole. He'd moved in when I deployed. He was mean. He was nasty.
And he'd saved this woman's life a time or two.
He also never got the message he could stand down now that I was back stateside.
Since I've been back, I’ve tried to stick to my policy of staying out of other people’s business and keeping an eye on my own six. So, I tucked my head and tried to ignore the disagreement.
At the bottom of my second saddlebag, I found enough dirt-encrusted coins to cover my tab, but somewhere on the road, I must have lost my last two hundred dollars. Damn. I sucked in a breath of frigid air and held it until the sting abated.
So, this is it then. The end of the road.
I’d promised myself I would stop running when the money ran out, never expecting that place to be in a no-stop-light town in no-where Wyoming. Bumming a few gallons of gas from the station to get me a couple more miles down the road wasn’t a viable option. I abhor handouts, but more importantly, I had that promise to live up to.
I always keep my promises.
To clear my head, I glanced around. Two mountain ranges stood sentinel over the high plains valley, their peaks obscured in clouds so dense my location felt like a world unto its own. It could be heaven for all I knew, but without my last two hundred dollars, it felt a whole lot more like hell.
“Let. Me. Go,” the teenager ground out.
I glanced up. The girl didn’t struggle, but her chin notched up a fraction and by the tremble in her upper lip, it had taken everything she had to keep her voice from cracking. She was tall and wiry, just shy of gaining curves. A dirty red bandanna hung from the back pocket of her faded jeans and bailing twine restrained a brunette ponytail. I liked this girl already.
“You’re gonna have to talk to me sometime,” the man said. “Now’s as good a time as any, sweetheart.” If he’d shouted, I might’ve gone about my business, but something about his smooth tone and calm demeanor raised my hackles and I found myself standing in front of him before I remembered this wasn’t any of my concern.
“Is there a problem?” I asked him.
“No problem,” they replied in unison.
But he let go of the girl and she took a small step back, kicking a small pebble with her boot. The man glanced at the nametag on my great grandfather’s jacket. “Parish, is it?”
I nodded. "Mackenzie."
The man raised a dark blond brow at me and a smile twitched at the corner of his mouth. Mr. Cowboy topped off at about six one, so he had a good six inches and sixty pounds of muscle on me—a woman of my size didn’t threaten him—but brawn doesn’t always win. My ex-boyfriend, if you could’ve called him that, hadn’t felt threatened by me either, but he won’t make that mistake again. Off the top of my head, thanks to Uncle Sam and my combat training, I knew a number of ways to neutralize a target with my bare hands.
Not every one of them was survivable.
Pinpointing his age proved difficult. He had the beginnings of crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes and his short stubble had a fleck or two of gray. Maybe thirty-six, give or take. Too old for me and I was twenty-nine. Not that I’m in the market. I fixed my eyes on his, in the way that had made most of the men in my unit squirm. He crossed his arms over his chest, unfazed. I should’ve backed off while I had the chance. I didn’t. “She’s a little young for you don’t you think?”
The girl snickered behind me and he shot her a look over my shoulder that did little to shut her up. The hint of a smile slipped from his lips, but the amused gleam in his eyes remained. He shrugged one shoulder by way of comment.
“You coming in?” he asked the girl as he ignored me and hefted himself off the side of her truck.
"I think I lost my appetite." She said it like a challenge. Like she dared him to argue with her. And yet almost like she wanted to join him.
He blinked twice as if he could clear his vision enough to see what she was really saying. But then he gave up. "Suit yourself," he said as he strode into the café without a backward glance.
She climbed into her pickup, its hinges groaned when she heaved the heavy door closed. When I headed inside to pay my bill, she mumbled something to me through her open window.
Glancing over my shoulder, I bit back all the things I wanted to tell her. Things like she had her whole life ahead of her, and that she didn’t have to settle for a man who was almost old enough to be her father. But then again, it wasn’t any of my business. “What was that?”
“Hank.” She waved her hand toward the café. “He’s really not so bad.”
I had my doubts, but kept my opinions to myself. I nodded to her then made my way up the steps of the cafe. Inside, the man she’d called Hank sat with his back to me, sharing a table with an older man. I didn’t congratulate myself for stepping in. I feared whatever brewed between them had only been placed on the back burner by my interference.
At the front counter, I sorted through my change—a dirty conglomeration of dimes, nickels, and verdigris coated pennies with the occasional quarter to speed up the process. Focused on the money, I never heard the old man approach. Surprising, as there had been times during my deployment I’d been so edgy, my senses so laser focused, I swear I could’ve heard a fly land on a cotton ball in the middle of a firefight.
That says a lot for how far I’ve come since I’ve been back stateside, especially considering I had walked across the squeaky floorboards myself and the man wasn’t exactly stealthy. And while I’ve adjusted to civilian life in many ways, there were still times when I reacted on instinct and self-preservation alone.
Dread rolled over from his nap and pulled the little string that pricked the hair on the back of my neck a split second before the hand landed on my jacketed forearm. I didn’t think. I didn’t have to. Training kicked in, and I shoved the man face down against the counter, his left arm pinned behind his back before I could stop myself. I released him almost as fast as I’d restrained him, and the rapid rat-a-tat-tat of my heart dropped back to normal in the span of a few seconds. I know I’m not in Iraq. I know everyone isn’t out to get me. Sometimes it just takes me a moment to remember that.
A stark reminder I’m not like everyone else.
I doubted I would ever be again.
To my amazement, the old man chuckled. Chuckled! I lifted my gaze and watched him stretch his shoulder back to relieve the pain from the bind I’d put him in. His pale blue eyes held a thin mixture of amusement and perhaps understanding.
I tried for a smile, even though the expression felt foreign on my face. “Sorry, about that.”
“Where did you serve?” He asked in a way that made me feel like the crazy train hadn’t just left the station.
"Iraq,” I said. “Fallujah,” to be more specific. Something in his demeanor made me want to add ‘sir’ to my answer.
He nodded once, laid a ten-dollar bill on the counter, and pushed it toward the wide-eyed waitress. “For the lady’s breakfast,” he told her, then stuck out his hand to shake mine. “Thank you for your service. I am glad you made it back in one piece.”
A half laugh escaped me—full of irony and lacking in amusement. Physically, I was in one piece, more or less. Emotionally? I was shattered. Each shard so miniscule, no way could I ever kluge them back together again, so I never really tried. I didn’t want this man’s help or his money. However, I accepted it and thanked him anyway. As weird as it sounds, I felt I owed him that much.
After a modest tip, between the coins I’d found and the change from his ten, I’d have enough for a gallon or two of gas, maybe a tad more. It might get me around the next bend, or perhaps up into the next mountain range, but nowhere near where I wanted to be. I knew this because after a year on the road, I still didn’t know where that was.
I watched him step back to his table. Hank hadn’t stirred from his seat.
“So much for coming to my rescue,” the old man ribbed him.
I gathered up my change and headed out the door, catching Hank’s reply as I left. “Not the first time I’ve let you down.” Then his amused tone shifted to something darker. “I doubt it will be the last.”
* * *
Divine Intervention isn’t something I believe in. I survived my tour in Iraq by dumb luck. That’s the only way I can explain why I’m alive while some of my friends and team members are not. Men and women, by far better people than I could ever dream of being, had been killed. If any kind of favored intervention existed, it should have come for them. I’m nobody special.
Therefore, it had to be dumb luck striking again, when I spotted the ‘help wanted’ ad on the crowded bulletin board next to the register where I paid for my gas. “You know anything about this?” I asked the kid ringing me up.
He shrugged his narrow shoulders. “They’re looking for some extra hands. Busy time of year and they’ve had a run of bad luck so they need the help.”
“So the job is temporary?”
I pulled the ad off the board. It had a tear-off phone number tab at the bottom, but I didn’t have a cell phone and after paying for the gas, I didn’t have money for a pay phone. Besides, there was a map to the ranch drawn in the corner. “Mind if I take this?”
Outside, I swung my leg over my motorcycle. At over seventy years old, the bike showed wear—leg rubs on either side of the faded black tank, pitted chrome, and the edges of the leather seat and saddlebags were alligatored with age. But like an old t-shirt, it molded to my body and it was comfortable, familiar, and we’d experienced many of life’s difficulties together.
I jumped on the kick-starter, and blipped the throttle as the engine roared to life. The rumble and vibration of the bike soothed me and I settled into the seat to memorize the map. The job sounded promising. Hard work had never scared me. I needed the money. It was temporary. Practically perfect.
Glancing both ways, I pulled in front of a slow-moving tractor, my helmet strapped to the side of the seat behind me. It swung forward and bumped my leg as I shifted into a higher gear. Before deployment, I never rode without my helmet. Since I’ve been back, I’ve worn it less and less. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suicidal. I don’t have a death wish. I’m just not certain it matters much if I die.
* * *
My engine sputtered and died on the downhill road into the ranch, like an old dinosaur rattling out its last breath. I coasted the rest of the way and skidded to a stop in front of a small group of men gathered around a campfire. Pebbles kicked up by my rear tire pinged into the crowd and landed with a tink against the side of the fire-blackened coffee pot. I settled my bike on its kickstand, swung my leg over and stepped to the edge of the circle of men.
Clouds building along the mountain range turned the sky the deep blue-gray of aged gunmetal. Thunder rumbled and my engine ticked as it cooled. Thin tendrils of campfire smoke curled into the air, but the handful of hot coals remaining provided little heat. A sharp whistle from an older man I assumed was the boss or ranch foreman, hushed their chatter, but all eyes remained on me. Men don't intimidate me, but I swallowed a grumble when my eyes settled on Hank from the café.
One of the cowboys spit on the ground, another stopped whittling. A kid to Hank’s right sucked in a hard breath. I thought he might choke on his toothpick.
“Morning, boys.” I said, confident, if not entirely welcome. For a moment, silence reigned. Even the cow dog stopped chewing at his fleas. “Looks like I’m just in time.”
“I thought the women’s knitting circle met on Wednesdays,” the kid muttered around the toothpick.
There was the expected quick round of chuckles. Ignoring the comment, I walked over to the foreman and pulled the flyer from my back pocket. “Says here you need hands. I have two, so I’m here to apply.” Another round of light laughter ensued, but the scowl I sent them silenced them fast enough.
“You’re a woman,” the foreman said, as if the statement would come as a revelation to me.
I pasted on a bright smile, patted my short-cropped mop of hair the same deep, brownish red as the horse tied to a nearby tree, and flattened the front of my bomber jacket that all but hid my breasts. “Kind of you to notice.”
“We need men. Strong men. With muscle.”
I took the flier from his hand and feigned perplexion as I pretended to reread the information printed on the sheet. “No, nothing here specifies men only.”
“You have to be able to ride.”
“I can ride.” He probably meant horses, not motorcycles, but he hadn’t qualified the type of riding so I didn’t consider it an outright lie. Besides, how hard could it be anyway?
“And shoot,” the foreman added.
A genuine smile tipped my lips. “Not a problem.”
He crossed his arms over his chest, eyes narrowed. “And wrestle calves.”
The breath I blew out ruffled my bangs. “Never wrestled calves,” I admitted. Looking around, I tilted my head, indicating the kid with the toothpick, still lanky from a growth spurt. “But I sure as hell can out wrestle him.”
The group of men burst into hoots and guffaws, and one of them piped up. “Awh, c’mon boss, give her a shot, what can it hurt?”
The foreman scrubbed a hand in nearly a week’s growth of beard and sighed. “Got no quarters for ladies, here.”
After all the things I've done. I don't think I qualified as a lady any more. “That shouldn’t be a problem.” I sauntered over to Hank with mustered bravado and jabbed a thumb in his direction. “I’ll bunk with Pops.”
Hank jerked his chin up as if I’d slapped him. “Pops?”
He had at least ten years on a couple of the other guys, who weren’t long out of the schoolyard at best. It wasn’t like he was old, old. But old enough I wouldn’t have to tell him more than once I wasn’t interested in some sort of high country romance. In Iraq, the men had learned to leave me be. These guys would, too. In time. I needed some rack time before I had the energy to deal with it though. Plus, I figured I’d already pissed off Hank enough this morning that he’d be the least likely one to hit on me.
Hank eyed me with speculation, the brim of his hat shadowing his expression. “You’re no spring chicken either.”
I ignored him and the round of juvenile comments from the guys about eating chickens, plucking chickens, and a whole host of other remarks that were designed to be taken the wrong way. If my bones didn’t ache and the muscle under the scar on my shoulder didn’t burn, I might have argued with him. As it was, I already felt twice my age, so I couldn’t disagree.
An ear-piercing whistle came from behind me. The men quieted mid-laugh and the mutt saddled up to my leg and leaned against me. I dropped a hand to its head and felt the quick lick of a hot, moist tongue on my palm. I turned my head and recognized the man I’d restrained this morning and the young girl walking up from the main house.
The girl’s smile was a quirky mixture between shy and amused. The man spared me a brief nod before turning his attention to the rest of the men. “Enough of that kind of talk. I run a family operation. My wife and granddaughter live here. I expect you to behave as gentlemen, and treat them,” the man looked between his granddaughter and myself before glaring back at them, “and any other women with respect. If you cannot manage that, then you’d best go now. I won’t tolerate that nonsense here.”
The kid with the toothpick stared down at his boots and kicked some sand onto the coals, someone cleared his throat, but nobody argued the point or bothered to leave. They had a leanness, a sparseness to them that spoke of a life of hard work without much left for excess. One or two may have been happy enough with a roof over their head and a meal in their belly.
The old man from the diner took a spot next to the foreman and introduced himself as the ranch owner, Dale Cunningham. “My wife is Charlotte, but people call her Lottie. And this here is my granddaughter, Jenna,” he said, indicating the young girl from this morning. With a negligent wave of his hand, he then introduced the man next to him. “My foreman here is Link Hardy. I expect you to follow his orders as if they came from me. We’ve had some mischief and trouble in the past, but I believe that is behind us now. Disloyalty to the brand or stealing from me or mine won’t be tolerated. I hate that I even have to say that, but I don’t want any misunderstanding from the start.”
All the men nodded, as Dale in turn caught each of their eyes. I bobbed my head as well, after all, loyalty and following orders came second nature to me.
“Breakfast and dinner will be served at the main house,” Dale continued. “There are groceries in the bunk houses, so lunches are up to you. You have thirty minutes to stow your gear and pack a lunch. Daylight’s wasting and we have fences to check, cattle to work and horses to round up.”
Dale turned and headed to the barn without any fanfare. I figured that meant I, as well as the rest of the men gathered there had the job. I went to grab my motorcycle while the others grabbed their gear from their trucks. Two had their own horses in a stock trailer and they headed over to offload them. The horses’ hooves tapped a nervous, deep staccato on the trailer’s wooden floorboards as they backed out. Steel clanked on steel as the rear door banged against the shaking trailer. I straddled my bike and shifted it into neutral. The bunkhouses were downhill from the campfire, so I kept a close eye on Hank’s jeans-clad ass as I coasted down the ranch road after him.
* * *
When asked, I had no cabin preference, so Hank headed to the further of the two bunkhouses. By some tacit agreement, Hank and I had the bunkhouse to ourselves. Then again, Hank’s expression didn’t exude warmth and welcome. If his foul mood had bothered me, I might have bunked with the other men, but after bending Dale over the café’s counter this morning, I figured the fewer people around me at any given moment, the better.
A small stand of trees shaded one side of the bunkhouse provided a modicum of privacy from the other one. I assumed, because this cabin was farther from the main house—and meals—the other three men didn’t argue our choice.
I parked my bike on the side of the cabin constructed with rough split logs, the chinking now thin and weathered—and a far cry from the modern-rustic designs that resembled giant Lincoln Logs playsets.
Out front, a rock-enclosed fire pit outlined with log seating flanked one side of the front yard, while a hitching rail for a couple horses and a water trough anchored the other. The covered porch provided enough shelter to take your boots off and stay out of the rain and snow, and had a small stack of firewood stored to the right of the door. I doubted we’d need it this late into the spring, but this far north you couldn’t discount the chance of a late snowfall.
With no lock on the door, I stepped inside with an armload of my gear. I dumped it on one of the two double bunks anchoring each sidewall. The set of hooks and a small footlocker at the head and foot of each bed provided ample storage for me. Modern conveniences included a small bathroom with a shower, sink, and commode—roomy enough to turn around in, but not much more. The door leading to the bathroom was off to one side; its long wall was directly across from the front door and supported an apartment-sized refrigerator, a sink with a microwave above, and a two-burner stove. A homemade wooden table with two chairs completed the furnishings.
Organizing my belongings, I tossed my tarp and two thin blankets I use as a makeshift bedroll onto the top bunk to get them out of the way. I hung my jacket on one of the hooks. My clothes I dropped on the bed’s quilt—a hodgepodge of flannel, blue jeans with the occasional scrap of t-shirt thrown in. Cheery. Warm. Lottie’s handiwork no doubt.
By the time I turned around, Hank had coffee dripping into the small carafe and eight slices of bread spread out on the table, a generous dollop of mayonnaise spread across four faces.
“Chicken or Ham?” he asked. His hat was off, but that was the extent of his unpacking. His duffel lay untouched on the lower bunk on his side of the cabin.
“Chicken,” I replied without much thought to the decision. “But I can make my own.”
“I don’t doubt that, but my mother managed to beat a few manners into me. Easy enough to make a couple more sandwiches while the ingredients are out. You get the coffee.”
Okay. I turned to the pot without comment, poured a couple mugs, brought them to the table, and watched as he piled thick slabs of ham on two slices of bread and the shredded pieces of chicken onto two others. Well-muscled arms with thick cords of tendons working on the back of his large hands making quick work of the job.
Hands that had wrapped around Jenna’s wrist this morning.
Without warning, words flew out of my mouth, circumventing my verbal filter. “Your mother taught you to make sandwiches for others but didn’t teach you to keep your hands off women?”
He stilled, then he slapped on the top slices of bread and shoved his sandwiches into a plastic baggie. A muscle tensed at the corner of his jaw as if biting back his words. Weak, ambient light leaked through the drawn front curtains, yet the flash of anger in his eyes couldn’t be missed.
“You’re outta line.”
I pursed my lips at the truth, my apology stuck on my tongue. Ignoring his fresh mug of coffee, he stalked to his bunk, grabbed his hat from the hook, and snugged it on the top of his head. When he opened the front door, he turned to me and opened his mouth to say something. He must have thought better of it because he closed it again then he swept his gaze up and down my body before he stepped through the door. Just as well. Some things are better left unsaid.
His momma had taught him more manners than I’d given her credit.