The Trouble with Texas Cowboys (3 page)

BOOK: The Trouble with Texas Cowboys
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“You ready to go raid the bar's refrigerator?” Sawyer asked.

“Oh, yeah, I am.”

“Are we going to have to add breaking and entering to a felony conviction of stealing bacon and eggs?”

She frowned. “Well, dammit! I hadn't thought of getting inside. Aunt Polly has always been there. We may have to eat peanut butter sandwiches after all. The store should be open now, though, so we can get some food there, I guess.”

“I don't like peanut butter.”

“Next thing you'll be tellin' me is you don't like pinto beans and fried potatoes,” Jill said.

Sawyer threw a hand over his heart and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. “That would be sacrilege. I'm not sure you can get into heaven if you don't like pinto beans and fried potatoes. Saint Peter would send you straight on down to the blazing fires of hell, so don't even whisper such blasphemy.”

“It would be almost as bad as not liking a good thick steak,” she agreed with a nod as she pulled her cell phone from her shirt pocket.

“Callin' the boyfriend?” he asked.

“I'm calling Aunt Polly, and if you are askin' if I have a boyfriend, I don't, and I don't want one, especially not a Brennan or a Gallagher. What time of morning do you call your girlfriend or your wife?”

A grin showed perfect white teeth. No tobacco stain and no cigarettes in his shirt pocket. That was definitely a plus if she had to live with the man. She hated a spit can and smoke.

“No wife or girlfriend. Both are too much trouble,” he said.

“That applies to boyfriends too,” she told him. “I'll set the pot on the cabinet so it doesn't boil dry. We can reheat the coffee in the microwave this evening. Do we take one truck or two?”

“Might as well take one. I'll drive,” he said.

She held up a finger. “Hello, Aunt Polly. We thought we'd make breakfast at the bar this morning, since there's nothing in the bunkhouse until we do some shopping. You're kiddin' me! That's not safe. Everyone knows that's where people put spare keys.” She nodded. “Yes, we're going to make bacon and eggs. Pancakes? Do you have the stuff for that at the bar?” Another pause. “That's fine with me. I love pancakes. Right now I could eat cow patties, I'm so hungry.”

Sawyer was staring at her when she ended the call.

“The spare key is in the flowerpot outside the bar. Aunt Gladys is bringing a box of that mix where you only add water to make pancakes, and some maple syrup. I guess we're having a party. I promised you'd cook and clean up the grill and wash the dishes.”

When she looked up, Sawyer was standing above her. “I'll cook because I'm hungry, but if I cook, I don't wash dishes.”

“Looks like we're lucky that the bar always uses disposable plates. Aunt Polly doesn't like to wash dishes either, and she's too tight to hire a full-time dishwasher.”

* * *

Polly and Gladys were sitting on the bar stools. Gladys wore jeans, a red sweatshirt, and a big smile. Both of them had smiles that said they were up to no good. They weren't any better than Sawyer at hiding what they were thinking, and Jill didn't like it. But then again, maybe they'd only been talking about everything that had happened the afternoon before.

They'd married brothers, so they weren't blood kin, but folks tended to think they were, since their last names were Cleary. Polly was dressed in her usual bar garb, which was bibbed overalls, a long-sleeved knit shirt of some description, and tennis shoes. That day her shirt was the color of a summer sky, which matched her eyes perfectly. Her short gray hair was still wet with whatever mousse she'd run through it and reminded Jill of the spiked hairdos that rockers liked.

Gladys was a tall, lanky, part–Native American woman with a touch of white in her chin-length hair, a gravelly voice that said she probably smoked on the sly, and brown eyes. Her skin wasn't nearly as wrinkled as Polly's, but then folks with her DNA usually leathered rather than wrinkled.

They both cussed like sailors, even if Polly did play the piano for the church, and they couldn't have been a bit closer if they'd been blood sisters.

“We're hungry. Bacon, eggs, and bread is over there beside the grill. Gladys already stirred up the pancake batter,” Polly said.

“Who's minding the store?” Jill asked.

“Verdie came in and agreed to watch it for a couple of hours if I brought back a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, so cook the whole pound, Sawyer,” Gladys answered.

“Give me a hug, girl,” Polly said.

Jill hiked a hip on the bar stool next to her aunt and leaned in for a hug. “I've missed you.”

“I ain't moved since you was here last.”

“Or got any sweeter either,” Jill said.

Polly laughed. “Ah, Gladys, she still loves us.”

Sawyer fired up the grill. While it heated, he removed the white butcher paper from around the fresh-cut bacon. “Did you smoke this yourself?” he asked Gladys.

“No, but the man I get my pork from down in Salt Holler did,” she said.

“Is that legal? Buying meat from an individual?”

She shrugged. “It's don't ask, don't tell. I don't ask the gover'ment if I can buy my bacon and pork from him. He don't tell the gover'ment that I do.”

“Well, it smells like what my grandpa used to make out in his smokehouse,” Sawyer said.

“Don't you dare burn it,” Polly said. “She don't offer it up free very often.”

“And the eggs came from the same man, as well as half my fresh produce in the summertime,” Gladys said.

He opened two cartons to find big brown-speckled eggs. Sawyer pulled slice after slice of bacon from the thick stack and lined them up on the grill. The sizzle and the smell filled the bar, and Jill's hungry stomach grumbled.

Polly patted her on the shoulder. She and Gladys had been sisters-in-law for more than fifty years, and Jill loved both of them.

She hugged Polly tightly. “I'm glad to be here. Did you hear about what happened at the bunkhouse?”

“Get up here on this stool beside me.” Polly motioned to her. “Gladys already told me about it. You be careful, girl. I swear them Brennans and Gallaghers are sneaky.”

“Yes, they are,” Sawyer agreed.

A granddaddy long-legged spider jumped from the bucket of peanuts on the bar in front of Polly and landed right on her nose. She squealed, swatted at it, and leaned backward. Everything happened in slow motion and yet too fast for Jill to do a blessed thing to help. She reached out to grab Polly, but all she got was a fistful of air.

“Well, Polly!” Gladys said.

Then there was a crack, and Jill thought the leg of the stool had broken when it hit the hard floor. But when she saw Polly's ankle, she knew it was far worse.

“God, that hurts,” Polly said.

“It's broken. Aunt Gladys, call 911 and get an ambulance,” Jill said.

“What can I do?” Sawyer was suddenly beside her, supporting Polly's head with his big arms.

“Just hold her right there while I make a call. Don't move, Polly. The bone isn't out of the skin just yet, but it looks bad.” Gladys fished in her purse for her cell phone.

Sawyer jerked his out of his shirt pocket, hit 911, and handed it to Gladys. She talked to someone who assured her that an ambulance would be there in twenty minutes.

“I'm supposed to keep you right here, and you ain't supposed to move a muscle,” Gladys said.

“Y'all could pick me up easy-like and load me in the backseat of my truck and take me to the hospital. Damned ambulance comin' this far is going to cost a fortune.”

Gladys narrowed her eyes and said, “And if we dropped you and you got a worse break and gangrene set in and rotted your foot off?”

“Who's going to take care of the bar?” Polly groaned.

“We've got two kids right here who can do that until you can walk again,” Gladys said.

“I can't cook,” Jill said.

“I can cook.” Sawyer patted Polly's hand. “Don't you worry. We'll hold down the fort until you are all better. I've done a little bartending in my day. It wasn't an operation like this, but I know how to fill beer pitchers and make a few fancy drinks.”

“And I'll take care of you. When you get released from the hospital, you can come to my house, and we'll do just fine,” Gladys said.

“The store?” Jill whispered.

“I'll take care of it in the morning while you do the ranch work, and then in the afternoons you can relieve me, just until Polly gets better. Can't leave her all day by herself,” Gladys said.

“That's doable,” Jill said.

They could hear the ambulance long before two big strapping men brought in a stretcher. They loaded her up, and Gladys glanced at Jill.

“Go with her,” Jill said. “Call us when you need a ride home or want us to bring anything to you. Keep us posted and, Aunt Gladys, don't worry. Sawyer's got the bar, and I've got the store. The ranchin' part we might not do just like you do, but we'll get it done.”

Gladys started out the door and turned around to say, “My cows are used to breakfast at eight. Don't go spoiling them by giving it to them at six. You treat Fiddle Creek like it was your ranch and do whatever you see that needs done.”

“Yes, ma'am,” Sawyer said.

Chapter 3

A cold north wind whipped down the rolling hills of North Texas, creating music in the bare tree limbs as it rattled through them. After living right next to the Gulf of Mexico the past two years, in the balmy salt air and year-round pleasant weather, Jill could scarcely believe she was in the same state.

“It's as different as the tropics and the North Pole,” she mumbled on her way from Gladys's truck to the general store. According to the old wooden sign swinging between the two porch posts, the official name was The Burnt Boot General Store. But local folks referred to it as
, just like they called The Burnt Boot Bar and Grill,
or else
Polly's place.

Jill hung her coat on the rack behind the counter and wandered through the store. It was good to see that some things never changed. The shelves were full and free of dust. The meat counter looked like something out of an old black-and-white movie, but the glass was sparkling clean, showing a display of pork chops, bacon, hamburger, steaks, and big thick roasts.

Her phone rang, and she grabbed for it. Gladys said they'd done preliminary work and decided that Polly would need surgery. They were taking her in right then, and with any luck, they would release her in a couple of days. Verdie, their other lifelong friend, had already come to the hospital and would bring Gladys home when the surgery was done, and Polly was settled into a private room.

Gladys sighed. “I'm sorry to unload all this on you, kiddo. Did Sawyer stay with you?”

“You just worry about making Aunt Polly happy,” she said. “And Sawyer isn't here. It's so boring, we sure don't need two of us to take care of the place. He's out making sure the fences are mended from yesterday and that things are quiet on the ranch. I'll be fine. It's just a little store, Aunt Gladys, but I promise if there's a problem, I'll call you.”

“Just ring up sales and take their money or put their charge tickets in the little box under the counter. They're listed alphabetically. Best way to learn to swim is to jump headfirst in the water,” Gladys said.

“I'm not so sure I know about the meat sales, though,” Jill said.

“There's a scale and a calculator back there. Prices are on the front of the glass as well as taped to the wall by the scale. I made up enough last evening to last all day, and the shelves are stocked and dusted. If you get hungry, make yourself a sandwich. There's an open loaf of bread beside the scales, and you can get ham or bologna and cheese from the refrigerator. Help yourself. Quittin' time is five o'clock.”

“Don't worry, Aunt Gladys. I can take care of this.”

“I'm glad you arrived when you did,” Gladys said.

Jill wasn't used to being still. From before daylight to dark she'd had something to do, none of which required sitting in a chair behind a counter. She turned the chair so she could see out the window. A squirrel with a fluffy red tail scampered across the road, scaled the single gas pump like it was a tree, and perched on the top.

“King of the mountain.” Jill smiled.

A truck went by and spooked her entertainment. He made a flying leap and hit a drooping branch on the pecan tree at the corner of the store. In seconds he'd disappeared into the limbs, probably to scramble on to another tree and another, until he felt safe enough to come down to the ground again.

Then there was nothing but a small store with three aisles, a refrigerated section on one side, and a freezer on the other. Meat counter at the back, checkout counter with an old cash register at the front, and a few newspapers left over from the week before.

She read though one in less than ten minutes, then riffled through the magazines under the counter. The newest one was dated two years before and had nothing on the front to entice her to go further. On Monday she'd bring a big thick romance book with a bare-chested cowboy on the front.

An hour passed before a truck pulled up to the front of the store. She glanced at the clock: it was well past noon, so he was late. Sawyer got out, shook the legs of his jeans down over the top of his boots, tucked his gloved hands into the pockets of his mustard-colored work coat, and jogged to the porch. She jumped up so fast, the chair fell over backward. By the time she'd righted it, he was in the store.

“Hey, it's damn cold out there,” he said.

“I'd rather be out there than sitting in here bored to death,” she told him.

“You'd change your mind pretty quick. I drove all around the ranch. Got out and walked a few times so I could get a feel for the land. Fences look good for now. There's a couple of old wood posts that need to be replaced with metal ones, but that can wait until spring.”

He paused and looked around the store. “Looks slow in here.”

“Boring.” She drug out the word into half a dozen syllables.

He removed his coat and hung it on the rack beside hers. “Let's do our shopping then. Gladys said I could put whatever I buy here on a ticket, and she'd take it out of my monthly paycheck.”

She motioned toward the line of five carts. “Help yourself. How many head of cattle is Aunt Gladys running now?”

“Looks to be about a hundred and fifty, but the ranch has good fertile ground. It would support twice that many, especially if we cleared the mesquite off the west side and put it into hay this spring. Figured I'd get out the chain saw and go to work on it next week. The wood will keep us warm, and we can stack up what we don't use for next winter.”

She pulled the next cart out and followed him. “You can take my food back to the bunkhouse with you.”

He stopped and turned around to face her, the empty cart between them. “Is that an order or a request?”

She batted her eyelashes at him. “Please, kind sir, would you take my groceries home for me? I'll keep the perishables in one bag, and you can set the whole thing in the refrigerator, and I'll put everything away when I get there.”

“You aren't very good at that,” he said.

“What? Asking or flirting?”

He cocked his head off to the side in that sexy little gesture that tightened up her gut. “Fake flirting. But yes, ma'am, I'll…hey, how are you going to get home anyway? You don't have a vehicle here.”

She shrugged. “I'll walk. Believe me, after all afternoon in this boredom, I'll be ready to walk all the way to the river, not just to the bunkhouse.”

He put two cans of green beans into his cart and added a couple of cans of corn. “I need both. I'm making a pot of soup and one of chili this afternoon. That will last several days and taste good in cold weather.”

She picked up a container of cocoa, a bag of flour, and one of sugar, and put them into her cart.

“I thought you didn't cook,” he said.

“Cooking is one thing. Baking is another. I have a terrible sweet tooth, and I don't like store-bought cakes, pies, or cookies.”

Sawyer looked over his shoulder at her. “How are you at apple pie?”

“One of my specialties. Granny Cleary taught me to make the crust when I was a little girl.”

“I'll make a deal with you,” he said. “I'll keep the real food on the table if you keep sweet stuff in the bunkhouse, and we'll share. I'll buy staples. You buy baking goods each week.”

“Sounds fair enough to me. Move aside so I can pick out six good cooking apples. I'll start this afternoon with an apple pie and a chocolate cake.”

“But you have to work here until five o'clock.”

“There's an old cookstove with a perfectly good oven in the storeroom. Aunt Gladys often heats up soup for her lunch on it,” she said. “And truth is, I'll be thankful for something to do.”

“Then I'll be here at five to take you home,” he said. “Even if the pie is mediocre, I don't want to have to eat it off the ground with a spoon because you stumbled and fell with it on the way home.”

“Cowboy”—she smiled brightly—“my pies are not mediocre.”

“I'll save my opinion until I've tasted it,” he declared. “But believe me, darlin', I will be here at five to protect that pie.”

Neither of them heard the truck park outside. Not until the bell above the door jingled did they turn away from the meat counter where they were discussing whether he should buy two or three pounds of hamburger for his chili and soup.

“Hello. Where is Gladys?” Quaid Brennan said.

Jill left her cart sitting beside Sawyer's and started forward. “Aunt Polly broke her ankle this morning, and Aunt Gladys is at the hospital with her. I'll be taking care of the store for her for a while.”

“Hello, Quaid.” Sawyer waved.

He gave a brief nod toward Sawyer. “Gladys is lucky she'd already hired him before I knew he was lookin' for a job. I'd have given him a job in a second.”

His big beautiful blue eyes never left hers. His shoulders were broad. His jeans fit right. His boots were scuffed and worn, showing that he was a real cowboy. His blue-and-black-plaid flannel shirt peeked out from under a work coat and hugged his body like a glove. With his blond hair and blue eyes, light skin and square face, Quaid was the exact opposite of Sawyer, but he was a damn fine-looking specimen all the same. He picked up her hand, brought it up to his lips, and kissed the palm. “I'm looking forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

She pulled her hand back and tucked her thumbs in her hip pockets.

“So did we decide on two or three pounds?” Sawyer asked.

Quaid raised an eyebrow.

Jill spoke up before Sawyer could catch his breath. “He's going to do the cooking, and I'll do the baking. You know that we are sharing the bunkhouse, don't you?”

“Of course I did know that.” Quaid smiled.

“What can I help you with today?” Jill asked.

“I need”—Quaid looked around the store—“ten apples.”

“Making a pie?” Sawyer asked.

“No, eating them,” Quaid said.

Jill picked up a paper bag and set it on the produce scale. “You must love apples.”

“Not for me. I'm taking them to my Sunday school class in the morning, so pick out good eating apples, not cooking ones.”

“You'll want these pretty red ones. They're firm but still sweet. I wouldn't buy them for a pie, but they are wonderful for eating,” she said as she loaded up the bag.

“So you know how to make a decent apple pie?” Quaid asked. “Since you like to bake, maybe when you get settled in I'll talk you into bringing cookies to the class some Sunday?”

“We'll see.” She smiled.

Sawyer cleared his throat to get her attention and pointed at the hamburger.

“Be there in a minute,” she said.

She handed the bag to Quaid and followed him to the front of the store.

Quaid settled his black felt hat back on his blond hair. “Put it on the River Bend Ranch bill.”

Truck tires crunched on the gravel outside, a door slammed, and Tyrell Gallagher pushed the door open, bringing a blast of cold air with him. “Hello, Miz… What are you doing here?” He glared at Quaid.

“Buying apples and talking to Jill,” Quaid said.

“Where is Gladys?”

Jill stepped out around the counter. “Aunt Polly broke her ankle this morning. Aunt Gladys is with her, and I'll be takin' care of the store for a few days.”

“You are still coming to Wild Horse tomorrow, aren't you?” Tyrell asked.

“For supper, yes, I am,” she answered.

Quaid picked up his bag of apples and started out the door, stumbled over the cart he hadn't put back in the corner, and blamed it on Tyrell. “You tripped me, you son of a bitch.”

He threw the apples across the store and swung at Tyrell, who wasn't about to back down or talk sense to a Brennan. The first punch landed on Tyrell's cheek. He spit blood and hit Quaid right between the eyes with a heavy fist. Then they were on the floor, rolling around like a couple of schoolboys. One long leg kicked over a display of corn, and cans fell like snow, landing and rolling everywhere. Tyrell tried to get away from the cans and fists peppering down on him, but he stepped on a can rolling across the floor and landed smack in the middle of Quaid's back. He got a couple of punches in before Quaid picked up a can of corn and hurled it over his shoulder, hitting Tyrell in the left ear.

It was like Polly's fall, happening in slow motion as Jill picked her way through the cans to grab Tyrell by the hair and give it a yank. He drew back his fist, thinking it was Quaid, and she would have felt the brunt of it if Sawyer hadn't clamped his big hand over it in midair.

“You lay a hand on her, cowboy, and you won't live to see the light of day.” Sawyer pulled them apart and shoved Quaid toward the door. “Get out of here. This is neutral territory, and you know it. If either of you ever start anything in here again, you won't get a warning, you'll get a royal ass whuppin'.”

“Why aren't you runnin'
off?” Quaid growled.

“I am, soon as you clear the parking lot. I don't give a shit if you two drive out in the middle of the road and kill each other. At least that way Jill wouldn't have to go out with either of you tomorrow, so have at it. But you're not fighting in this store.”

Tyrell bowed up to Sawyer. “You can't tell me what to do.”

Quaid spun out of the driveway, throwing gravel everywhere at the same time that Betsy parked her truck in front of the store. She hurried in out of the cold and looked around wide-eyed at the mess.

“Was that… Holy shit, Tyrell, what happened in here?”

“He can tell you later. He's leaving,” Sawyer said.

“This store will fold up without Wild Horse's business, so you'd better watch your smart-ass mouth,” Tyrell said.

Betsy reached out to touch his shoulder. “Come on. Let me help you to your truck. Hell, you look like you got slammed by a semi.”

BOOK: The Trouble with Texas Cowboys
11.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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