Authors: Arthur Mitchell
“Ever since Smith took over, the force hasn't really been up to snuff around here. Damned shame.”
I nodded slowly, unsure how to respond.
“I'm surprised you've been following it so closely. I mean, our families were friendly, but not exactly close...”
“Don't matter to me,” he said, giving me a severe look. “When something like
happens a couple miles from my place, I want to be a hundred percent sure it isn't gonna happen again. God, these fucking drug runners...”
He took off his hat. Redness swirled beneath his tanned cheeks, simultaneously alluring and angry.
“Sorry, Cat. It just burns me up is all.”
“Don't worry about it,” I smiled. “Nice to know I'm not the only one who thinks there's more than meets the eye here. I seriously thought I was going crazy for awhile.”
We exchanged another smile through the brief silence. The whole time, I my insides twisted, conflicted on how best to approach the question I wanted so desperately to ask.
“I only wish the bull were the least of my worries,” I began softly. Ethan returned his hat to his head, narrowing his eyes with curiosity.
“Our combine broke down this morning. Got a well and some plumbing to fix too. Thing is, we've got a bunch of spare parts way up in the main barn's rafters. I'm so undermanned right now it's not even funny and –“
“You want me to help?” He said suddenly, a grin breaking across his face. “You got it! A little dust and some cobwebs never bothered me.”
Wow, that was easier than I thought. It's heartening to see something go my way for a change...
“That's very sweet. How does five o'clock sound, if you're all finished for the day?” I decided to set the time comfortably late for him, just before sundown.
“Five is perfect. I'll see you then, little Cat.”
My head automatically cocked and I focused my eyes on him. The nickname caught me off guard as he walked away. I kept expecting him to turn back, but he never did.
The whole drive home, I wondered if he'd meant to shake things up.
Little Cat, huh? That's quite an endearment for someone I barely know...then again, maybe he's
sending me a signal.
“Christ, a signal,” I whispered to myself. “Am I really ready for that?”
I didn't have an answer. As soon as I drove past the silver marker for Pa, my mind turned to graver matters.
Ethan showed up right on the dot. I'd just eaten a small plate of fruit and cheese for a snack. I waited by the main barn's entrance for him.
He parked his truck and walked over to me, a big flashlight in one hand and a six pack of beer in the other. I shot him a quizzical look.
“Nothing like kicking back a little while we clean that mess out, right? Don't tell me you're a wine girl?”
“For you, I'll make an exception.” I felt like sticking my tongue out.
He laughed and tossed me a can. I'd never been much for beer – especially the cheap stuff from the big brands – but Ethan's selection wasn't the worst in the world.
The bitter brew tasted almost like coffee, tricking my mind into a higher state of wakefulness.
“Follow me,” I said, tucking the can into my pocket.
My jeans hung tight as I began to climb up the ladder. Self-consciousness sang in my veins at the thought of having such a handsome man right underneath me.
Darkness aside, he could see everything. My whole outline.
All the things I wasn't ready to show anyone yet...or was I?
Who cares if he sneaks a peak at your ass? It's what men do.
I coughed uncomfortably after pulling myself up onto the top level, and not just from the dust. Ethan stepped effortlessly over me, shining his flashlight throughout the cavernous loft.
“Holy sheee-it!” He whistled, the sharp sound echoing back at us. “You weren't kidding about this place. Looks like it's going to be a long evening and a lot of work.”
With a smile, he cracked his beer and guzzled several long sips. He held out his hand, cold and wet with condensation, helping me to my feet.
“Any idea if the lights work up here?” He asked.
I bit my lip, unsure about it myself. Instinctively, I began to move very slowly and feel along the wall. Ethan spotlighted my hands, helping me avoid any obvious protrusions like rusty nails.
I yanked my fingers back and shook them each time I caught the masses of cobwebs clinging to the walls. At last, I felt something, and peered through the orange glow.
My fingers twitched, kicking the switch up, and...nothing happened. I stared at the rancher, puzzled.
We both jumped when the sharp sound rang out a second later. Four big copper shell lamps hanging from chains sparked to life, bathing the whole cavern in a pale white luminescence.
“Alright,” he said, softly and seemingly satisfied. “Should we get down to it?”
I smiled, happy that we wouldn't have to struggle through the makeshift junkyard in total darkness.
Ethan walked ahead of me through the narrow corridor formed by the big crates.
My chest tightened. I realized that I didn't have the first clue how we were going to find the parts.
Opening every single container wasn't even close to practical.
“Any ideas, Ethan?”
“Seems like a good idea to start near the back. I mean, these machine parts won't be stowed away in the smallest boxes. Why don't I test the stacks for heaviness and give them a little shove? If there's anything inside that sounds like metal, we'll hear it.”
I digested his advice. Without a better idea, I agreed and we set ourselves to work.
I worked on the smaller boxes filled while Ethan handled the larger containers. I was opening my third box when I gave out a happy whoop.
He spun toward me, wondering if I'd just seen a ghost. I held up the silver plaque and he leaned in close to read the letters.
I shivered with delight as he whistled, the shrill sound hurtling its way up my back.
“Didn't know you were a rodeo girl. Awesome!”
“Yeah, I stopped when I hit fifteen. Pa said he didn't want me getting hurt and losing time at school, but I think he really didn't want me getting into the men there.” I looked past him, absently smiling at the memories.
“Can't say I blame him. I really had a thing for cowboys. Seems like the guys who were serious about it were all too many years ahead of me back at Whitmoore High...and I guess that means you too.” I looked up nervously, hoping I didn't just spill the beans on my attraction.
“Do you still ride?” He asked, devastating me once again with another wide smile.
“Gosh! It's been years...but I'd love the opportunity sometime. Horseback riding wasn't even an option while I was in school. And rodeos? Forget about it.”
“We'll have to go out sometime.” He paused, quickly correcting his words. “Riding, I mean. I've got a few extra horses this year that I'd love to show you. These guys can go for miles, easy and really well trained. I'll ask the next time they come by. I'm sure they wouldn't mind lending me an extra ride for you to borrow.”
“I'd like that,” I said, feeling a warm tingle ripple down my back and kindle into a full heat between my legs.
We continued with the cleaning exploration for what felt like hours. Ethan opened another beer while I dug through boxes, sweeping obvious garbage and old nicknacks into a worn sack we'd found.
When I came to a box that rattled with metallic sounding pieces, I thought I'd hit the jackpot. I pulled apart the flaps, reached through the cardboard dividers, and froze.
Ethan must have sensed the jolt that ran through me, leaving my eyes watery and red.
“What's up, Cat? Looks like you've found another treasure.”
Swallowing my tears, I held up the shimmering dark blue bird on its little chain. It was pure stained glass, one of the many perfect glass animals Pa had made for my mother while she was alive.
After she passed, he'd boxed up everything. Her clothes, most of their photos, and all the old tokens of his love had gone in the small wooden box at my feet, a time capsule of passions he'd hoped to lock away with his loss.
I think he believed it would ease the pain in some way. But it didn't.
He still thought about her, all the way up to her death. It was probably the reason why we ate with friends on the holidays and rarely spent a dinner at home at the table. For him, the table was a place for family, and when that family was missing a piece...
Two pieces now. God, I don't know how I manage to have my coffee and breakfast there every day.
“Pa made every last one of them,” I said, setting aside the bird and digging deeper. “Haven't seen them for years. Not since we lost Mom. Here, let me show you...”
I passed each animal into Ethan's big hands. By the time I finished, he held three more colorful birds, a black bear, a silver fish, and a turquoise turtle.
“Pretty good workmanship. Damned good, actually. My grandfather did this sort of thing, and your Pa's critters are as good as his. Maybe better.”
Ethan kneeled and reached into the box, carefully dragging out the cardboard and wrapping paper to secure each one. I cleared my eyes and laughed softly.
“Sorry I'm being such a baby about this. It's just that –“
“Cat, you don't have to explain anything. If there's anyone who understands what it's like to lose both parents so fast, it's me.”
I smiled awkwardly. Yes, he understood, alright.
Missus Hartz had died not long after he was born, just a couple years before I came into the world.
Pa always said the whole town grieved. Her baked goods were supposed to be the very best, and several bakeries in a hundred mile radius had come knocking at the Hartz door, hoping to license the recipes.
“I forgot about all that,” I answered truthfully. “Well, maybe it's best to let sad memories lay low for now. Just look at all this.”
I waved my arms, exasperated at the piles we still had to clear. I blamed myself, mostly.
I was working through every box too slowly, getting hung up way too easily whenever I found memories with no promise of turning up the machine parts.
We worked for the better part of another hour before Ethan worked his way to the wall. He forced a crate as tall as him out into the space between us. He grunted with exertion each time he pushed it several inches.
I wanted to fan myself. Watching him positioned over the box, shoving it with his arms and legs, exposed his powerful muscles to me.
Delicious. I knew it was wrong to think like that, but how could I help it?
I wonder if he sounds like that when he comes. Oh, I bet it's just like that, but even more ferocious.
Shaking my head, I tried to forget my dream from the other night. Ethan wiped his brow and forced an old crowbar beneath the wooden hinge.
A small cloud of dust showered the floor around us. I shielded my eyes and nose until it faded, hoping I wouldn't get ill or whip up my allergies by breathing in so much trash.
“Shit, my eyes,” he murmured, furiously rubbing them. “What's in there? See anything?”
By the time he finished clearing his vision, I was next to the box, shoving aside big metal parts inside. It looked like several tool boxes and smaller cardboard containers neatly lined together.
We exchanged tense looks as he handed me the first arm-length container. Ethan retrieved a pocket knife from his jeans and passed it to me.
I held my breath as I slit it open, hoping against all odds that this would finally be what we needed.
The rectangular hunk of steel felt like a brick in both hands. I stared at it dumbly, unsure exactly what I was looking at.
“Hell yeah!” Ethan burst out. “Looks like a combine cylinder if I ever saw one! Ditto for everything else in here...”
He ran his hands through the box, aimlessly groping at the alien metal pieces inside. Grinning, I put the large piece back in its box, setting it on the ground next to me before I high fived him.
“Nice work. I really couldn't have done it without you. I'd be up here searching a week from now, and probably a lot sicker from all this dust.”
“Don't worry about it,” he said, a genuine firmness in his voice. “Might as well finish up and get everything back in its place.”
I helped him stack several items we'd need off to the side. I knew it was just a matter of time before more contraptions broke down, and I had no intention of crawling big up here to dig around.
We tied the box shut and then slowly shoved it toward the wall.
Ethan was about to give it a final push to raise it into a standing position when he halted, looking off to his side. Even when his hair was flaked with dust and messed up, he looked adorable.
His cowboy hat sat next to the parts, safely away from all the commotion. Seeing him without the brim's shadow over his face heightened my admiration.
“Hey, that's quite a cabinet back there. Did your old man build it himself?”
Before I could answer, Ethan sucked in his muscles and slid between the small space revealed by the absent crate. We soon found out that it connected to another small passageway between we'd somehow missed between storage crates.
The lamps overhead didn't do much to light this area. He pulled out his flashlight and turned it on, revealing small impressions in the ground that weren't nearly as caked with dust as the rest of the floor.
Surprised by the odd discolorations, I peered closer. When I realized they were footsteps, left in the dust sometime recently, I crouched to the ground, running my fingers through the tiny dust layer.
“Something looks really weird here,” Ethan whispered. He shook his head, turning his attention to the tall cabinet once again.
He grabbed the handle and pulled, slowly increasing his pressure, but it didn't budge. I walked back to the little area where we'd worked out the parts and bought him a crowbar.
“Stand back,” he warned. “No telling what might spill out of here when it's opened up.”
My eyes wandered to a small lock on the side. It looked like it would withstand a lot. But Ethan wedged his tool into place before I could ask anymore questions.