-Cowgirl, Unexpectedly-

 

 

     The road is my addiction, an incessant quest, a burning itch I can’t quite scratch.

     After a year of living on the road, I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever find what I’m looking for. I just hope I’ll recognize it when I see it.

     Last night, I’d slalomed my Harley through Wyoming’s windy, mountain roads, challenging my still-healing body. Now my muscles burned in my back and shoulders as I scrounged around in my saddlebags for enough money to cover my bitter coffee and butter-bathed toast from the diner.

     Where had the rest of my money gone?

     A breeze kicked up and I zipped my grandfather’s WWII flight jacket to fend off the post-dawn chill. 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, a frayed bungee cord strapping down the hood.

      A cowboy in a pressed western shirt and jeans climbed out of the Ford, walked around, and then leaned against the driver’s side fender of the older truck. A deep tan told tales of his time out in the sun and his boots had enough scuffing to make me believe they were more than a fashion statement.

      He settled his wide-brimmed hat low on his head to cut the glare of the sun. Dirty fingerprints stained the brim, and dried sweat ringed the crown. A teenager climbed down from her truck.

     “This isn’t gonna work,” the man said, before the girl’s boots even touched the ground. He didn’t raise his voice, but tension arced between them, standing the hair on my arms and stirring Dread in my belly.

     Yes, Dread. With a capital D. A salty old bastard of a marine that had claimed squatting rights in the pit of my stomach like it was his own personal foxhole. He’d moved in when I’d deployed overseas. 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 and sometimes spotted trouble where none existed.

     “We had an agreement,” the girl said. “Figures, you’d want to back out of it now.”

     I tucked my head and tried to ignore them. Since I’ve been back, I’ve tried to stay out of other people’s business and keep an eye on my own six.

     “This is going to be hard enough without adding conditions,” the man said. “Have you considered anyone else’s feelings? What about your grandfather? Your grandmother? Don’t you think they’ve been through enough already?”

     “So, this is all my fault now?” The girl’s laughter rang as hollow as a cracked bell. “Perfect. Thank you for that. I knew this meet up was a bad idea.”

     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.

     My skin prickled with heat and itched with the need to sweat like it used to when mortar fire crept closer and closer to the base’s blast walls. 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.

     As I stepped toward the diner, the girl yanked open her truck door. The cowboy grabbed her wrist.

     “Let. Me. Go,” the teenager ground out. “I don’t have to talk to you.”

     The girl didn’t struggle, but she notched her chin up. 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 some time,” 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.

     “Is there a problem?” I asked him even as my brain told me this wasn’t what minding my own business looked like. Further proof I was better off limiting my contact with civilians. 

     “No problem,” they replied in unison.

     He let go of the girl and she took a small step back, averting her gaze and kicking at a small pebble with her boot. The man glanced at the name patch on my great grandfather’s jacket. “Parish, is it?”

     I nodded. “Mackenzie.”

     The man raised a dark blond brow at me and a cocky 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 how to neutralize a target with my bare hands.

     Only a few of them were survivable.

     I fixed my eyes on his, in the way that had made most of the men in my unit squirm. He had the beginnings of crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, but his short stubble was free of gray. Maybe thirty-six. Seven years older than me. Not that I’m in the market.

     He crossed his arms over his chest, unfazed, with a hint of humor in his eye. Not as if he were laughing at me, but as if he’d learned not to take life so seriously sometimes.

     I should have apologized. I should’ve backed off while I had the chance. I didn’t—me, people, the combination was no bueno. “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. His lips flattened, but the amused gleam in his eyes remained as if he were withholding a good punchline. He shrugged one shoulder by way of comment.

     “You coming in?” he asked the girl as he 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. Then he gave up. “Suit yourself,” he said as he strode into the café without a backward glance.

     She climbed into her pickup, and its hinges groaned when she heaved the heavy door closed. I headed inside to pay my bill and she mumbled something to me through her open window.

     “What was that?” 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.   Then again, I could have read the situation all wrong. It wasn’t any of my business.

     “Hank.” She waved her hand toward the café. “He’s really not so bad.”

     Maybe. Maybe not. I nodded to her then made my way up the steps of the café, wondering how much of an ass I’d made of myself. Inside, the man she’d called Hank sat with his back to me, sharing a table with an older gentleman.

     At the front counter, I counted out my change—dimes, nickels, pennies, and the occasional quarter to speed up the process.

     A hand landed on my jacketed forearm.

     I didn’t think.

     I didn’t have to.

     Training kicked in. I grabbed his hand, shoved the man face down against the counter and pinned his left arm behind his back. 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.

     The old man chuckled. Here I thought I was nuts. I lifted my gaze and he stretched his shoulder 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 like a commander to a subordinate, 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. Glad you made it back in one piece.”

     A half laugh escaped me—full of irony and empty of humor. Physically, I was in one piece, more or less. Emotionally? I was shattered. Each shard so minuscule, no way could I ever superglue them back together again, so I’d 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.

     He stepped back to his table. Hank hadn’t stirred from his seat. “So much for coming to my rescue,” the old man ribbed him.

     As I headed out the door, I caught Hank’s reply. “Not the first time I’ve let you down.” Then he added, “I doubt it’ll be the last.” His self-deprecating tone lost its light, shifting to something darker.