The Cowboy's Mail Order Bride
Author:Carolyn Brown

Chapter 5

 

 

 

 

Lightning zipped through the sky in long streaks, and thunder rattled behind every streak. Clarice rode in the front seat and Dotty sat right behind Emily, umbrellas right beside their oversized purses.

 

“Never know what it will do in February. It can put down a late snowstorm, hustle up a damn tornado, or turn off warm enough to work in shirt sleeves,” Dotty said. “If it starts to rain cats and dogs and baby elephants, I promise I’ll share my umbrella with you.”

 

“Thank you, Dotty.” Emily smiled into the rearview mirror.

 

 

“We’re going after Rose. Thank God she don’t drive anymore. Last time she got in her truck, she backed right out into the side of a police car. Totaled that car and ripped the tailgate off her damn truck,” Dotty said.

 

“It was her fifth accident, so the insurance company canceled and no one else would insure her,” Clarice said. “It was time she quit driving years ago, but she didn’t have a grandson to take her truck keys away from her like Greg took mine or like Dotty’s boy, Jeremiah, got hers.”

 

Emily followed directions into Ravenna and pulled into the driveway of a little white frame place with a couple of cats lazing on the steps.

 

“Toot the horn. Rose primps until the last minute. She’s got a crush on that old guy at Dairy Queen,” Dotty said.

 

Emily hit the horn and Rose came right out. Emily hopped out like a professional chauffeur and opened the van door for Rose, helped her inside, and buckled her seat belt.

 

“Now this is real service,” Rose beamed.

 

“See, I told you. Rose gets all fancied up to go to the beauty shop,” Dotty said.

 

“I don’t take out the garbage without putting on my makeup. Lord, I’d scare the poor old trash man plumb to death,” Rose said as she took out her compact mirror and checked her lipstick one more time. “I’ve decided I’m having a massage today too, Dotty. I weeded all my flower beds and got them ready to plant in a few weeks before we played dominoes last night, and I’m aching all over.”

 

“Woman, you got enough money to hire someone to do that for you. You are eighty years old, not twenty. Hire some help. There’s plenty of folks lookin’ for a job around here,” Clarice said.

 

“I know how old I am, Clarice Adams, and I also know if you don’t use it, it’ll dry up and die, and my arms already look like bat wings, so I’m not going to just sit down and let them go to complete fat,” Rose said.

 

“Well, shit! I ain’t used my female equipment since my husband died. You think it’s dried up?” Dotty asked.

 

Rose slapped the air around Dotty’s shoulder. “Don’t talk like that around Emily. You’ll embarrass her. I would have been on the porch waiting, but I got a phone call from Letha who wanted to talk about Prissy… oh, turn right at the T, Emily.”

 

Emily turned and looked over at Clarice. “Now make the next left and go a quarter mile. You’ll see the arch over the gate. That’s where you turn right again, and Madge will be on the porch. She still drives, but we like to take her with us on Wednesdays so we can all be together.”

 

“We all became friends back when we were young women,” Rose said.

 

Emily looked at Dotty in the rearview.

 

“Friends, hell. They are slave drivers and bossy as hell. My Johnny died five years ago and I had a lot of good old Kentucky bourbon therapy until this bunch of women interfered.”

 

“We had an intervention,” Rose said seriously.

 

Clarice pointed at the arch. “Yes, we did. I took charge and made her work for me, threatened to make her go to those meetings down at the Presbyterian church if she ever picked up the bottle again, and she’s doing fine. Madge is waiting on the porch.”

 

Emily hopped out of the van again and settled Madge into the third spot, beside Rose. They were cramped, but it wasn’t too bad, and Madge swore she was not wiggling into the backseat, because she might miss something they said.

 

“Now what were y’all talking about?” Madge asked. “I was looking on the farmer’s only dot…” She stopped dead and looked at Clarice.

 

“You mean that farmer’s game thing on the Internet?” Rose asked too quickly.

 

Emily’s ears perked right up. Those old girls were covering up something and she’d be willing to bet half her hundred acres that the next word after “dot” would have been “com.”

 

“Oh, so you’re on Facebook and you like to play the farm game?” Emily asked innocently.

 

“Not me,” Madge said. “My grandson brought a game for me to plug into my laptop that has to do with farmin’, and I was playin’ with it and…” she floundered.

 

Clarice butted into the conversation. “We were telling Emily about our Dotty intervention.”

 

Dotty slapped Clarice’s hand. “Intervention, my ass. You should’ve seen them come marching into my house like judge, jury, and Jesus all in one. They poured out my Jack, yelled at me, packed my clothes, and called Jeremiah to come sell my trailer.”

 

“Jeremiah sold your trailer?” Emily asked. She’d rather hear more about Prissy and dot com, but the conversation whipped around like the wind in a tornado.

 

“Yes, that rascal did,” Dotty said.

 

“You did good with him, and he amounts to something because you raised him right. And he knew exactly what he was doing when he sold that trailer. When’s he coming to Ravenna again? Y’all best call me when he does. I didn’t get to see him last time,” Madge said.

 

“He’ll be here for the church bazaar. He promised, and he never breaks a promise. I got a feelin’ he’s got a girlfriend. He ain’t just said it, but there’s something in his voice that says he’s happy,” Dotty answered. “That rotten Greg hears from him more than I do. And I was doing just fine with my bourbon until y’all showed up with that damned interferin’ shit you did.”

 

“I’m not buying that bullshit, Dotty. You were drinkin’ yourself into an early grave,” Rose said.

 

“I would’ve got to that grave faster if old man Beamus hadn’t died and quit making moonshine. Now that stuff was some powerful shit, and I liked it better than whiskey,” Dotty said.

 

“Moonshine?” Emily asked.

 

“Walter Beamus made moonshine back in the woods,” Clarice said. “Oh, Rose, I made you a new little book.” She passed it over the backseat.

 

Emily’s ears perked right up. “Prissy helping all of you girls?”

 

“On occasion. We hired her to help us navigate our way around our computers after we figured out that she and Greg wasn’t going to… how do you kids say it? Hook up?” Madge said.

 

“Oh, so they dated?” Emily asked.

 

“Hell, no!” Dotty said. “She hates ranch livin’ and he loves it.”

 

“Emily, if you fell in love with a rancher, would you demand that he leave it and move into town and work in an office?” Dotty asked.

 

“You don’t change what a person is. If they’re a rancher at heart, they’d be miserable in town,” she said.

 

Clarice hit the armrest hard enough that the whole van went quiet. “See there, I told y’all. If a girl is from the big city, then we shouldn’t be.” She stopped dead and the van went quiet.

 

“Were any of y’all big city girls?” Emily asked.

 

“Not me,” Dotty said. “I come from a place down in a holler that made Ravenna look like a big city. We didn’t even have indoor plumbing. I thought I’d hit the big-time when I married Johnny.”

 

“Not me, either. I grew up in southern Oklahoma in a little area known as Russett. It’s not even there anymore,” Madge said. “At least it was close enough that I could go visit my folks a few times a year.”

 

“And you, Rose?” Emily asked.

 

“Well, Madge and I are cousins. Our mothers were sisters. Huttig, Arkansas, isn’t any bigger than Ravenna, but it was home. My folks are all gone now, so I haven’t been back there in years.”

 

 

“What did your mamas think when you said you were marryin’ a man you’d never met?” Emily asked.

 

Dotty giggled. “Honey, there was thirteen of us. My mama was just glad I was leavin’.”

 

Rose clucked her tongue like an old hen. “My mama wasn’t too happy about me coming all that distance to visit my cousin, but she took me to the bus and gave me all kinds of advice on the way. She was so mad when I married a man from these parts that she wouldn’t even write me a letter for a whole month. I had to take him home to meet her before I was forgiven. And then be hanged if she didn’t like him better than me.”

 

“And you, Madge?” Emily asked.

 

“Mama knew, but she didn’t like it. Girls did things like that more in them days than they do now.”

 

Madge whispered over the seat toward Emily, “I think Clarice has always been jealous because she didn’t get to be a mail-order bride.”

 

“I am not! Lester was a good man and we had a wonderful life,” Clarice protested.

 

Dotty patted her on the shoulder. “Was Marvin a bad boy in his youth?”

 

“Not that I know of. What about your husbands?” Emily asked.

 

“Johnny was a bad boy. Hot-tempered. Drank too much. But oh, honey, he could flat-out set the sheets on fire,” Dotty said.

 

“Turn right at the light and then left at the next corner,” Clarice told Emily. “There it is. The hot pink building beside that house. Shelly turned her garage into a beauty shop when her old business burned down. It used to be on Main Street. Park right out front. Thank goodness it’s not raining yet. And Dotty, don’t be sayin’ things like that in front of Emily.”

 

Shelly’s Hair Designs was painted in purple lettering on the window sporting a zebra print valance. It hardly looked big enough to offer everything that they wanted done.

 

“She added on the massage and spa at the back,” Clarice said. “And she’s got three beauticians and two massage ladies. It’s the biggest place in Bonham.”

 

“And the most expensive,” Rose said.

 

“Shit, woman! Quit your bitchin’. Abe squeals every time you pinch those pennies,” Dotty said.

 

“You want to come in and get all beautified with us, Emily?” Clarice asked.

 

Emily shook her head. “I’ll wait right here. I’ve got a book in my purse.”

 

“Nonsense! Drive around and get acquainted with the town. I’ve got your cell phone number. When we are done, I’ll call you and we’ll go for ice cream,” Clarice said.

 

The ladies disappeared into the purple magic and miracles salon. Emily waited until they were all inside before she backed the van out and drove on into Bonham. She located the library east of the town square, which she drove around three times, taking in all the stores surrounding the courthouse. If it had been a pretty sunny day, she would have copped a seat under a shade tree and read her romance novel while she waited, but the way those black clouds were rolling around, she’d probably just get settled and it would start to pour. She made a few turns and wound up in a lot beside the town’s kiddy park.

 

She turned off the engine and reached inside her purse for the book she’d been reading and grabbed her grandfather’s funeral memorial instead. The picture on the front had been taken the year she came home from college, back when he was still healthy. She wanted everyone to remember him that way, not as the withered-up guy that cancer had robbed of life and strength.

 

She touched his cheek in the picture and imagined him looking right at her. Tears stung her eyes, but she held them at bay until she opened the brochure. Born January 28, 1932 ~ Passed From This Life… she shut her eyes so she didn’t have to see the date. Hot salty tears broke through the dam and flooded down her cheeks, dripping onto her denim jacket. One landed on her grandfather’s nose and that brought on heart-racking sobs that echoed off the van walls. She gently laid the folder in the passenger’s seat and curled up in a tight ball around the steering wheel, weeping so hard that her chest ached.

 

Greg startled her when he opened the door to the van, gathered her up in his arms like a bride, and carried her to a nearby picnic table. He sat down on the table, put his feet on the attached bench, and held her without saying a word. She buried her face against his chest, wrapped her arms tightly around his neck, and wept.

 

Lightning lit up the sky again and again, and thunder cracked through the air louder than shotgun blasts. Dark clouds held the pregnant promise of rain, a rancher’s dream at the first of February. None of it mattered. The memorial said Marvin Cooper was dead, and they never lied.

 

The wind whipped around to the north, and the temperature dropped ten degrees and then rain came down in a torrent. Greg stood up with her still in his arms and ran to the van where he opened the front door and pushed a button to make the side door slide open. He crawled inside the wide backseat with Emily still cuddled against him.

 

He hit the button again to close the door against the rain falling in sheets so thick that nothing outside was visible. The skies went as dark as midnight, and the wind rocked the van back and forth. She sighed and dug her fists into her eyes like a child.

 

“All done?” he asked.

 

She shook her head and sunk back into his hard chest again. Gramps had been her anchor during storms, both naturally and those that life brought on, and he was gone. He’d never be there to guide her through the bad times that life threw at her, or laugh at her when she covered her ears during a lightning storm.

 

The next clap of thunder was so intense that she let go of Greg’s jacket and tried to curl up into an even tighter ball. Now she had to face everything, every day alone. She had to make decisions that would affect her entire life… all alone.

 

“First time you’ve let it loose since he died, isn’t it?” Greg asked.

 

She hiccupped. “He’s gone, Greg. He’s never coming back.”

 

“It took me about a week when my grandpa died. Dad said I should be strong because Nana needed me, so I was. And then one day I was in the horse stable and his old work gloves were right there on the tack room table where he’d left them. Still can’t bring myself to go back into the tack room.”

 

“How long ago was that?” she asked.

 

“Five years. I shut the door and used another room for a tack room. Louis, the guy who takes care of the stable most of the time, didn’t have any desire to go back into the old one either, so it’s been abandoned.”

 

“How did he die?” she asked.

 

“Heart attack. He took off his gloves and dropped seconds later. If it makes you feel any better, I cried longer and harder than you did,” he said.

 

She looked up at him. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Me too. For both of us. They left big boots for us to fill.”

 

***

 

Her small hand felt fragile in his, as if it would break like her heart if he squeezed too hard. He swallowed the lump in his throat and changed the subject. “So did the old girls bitch and argue the whole way into town?”

 

He could feel the tension leaving her body slowly.

 

“They told me about Jeremiah. They have secrets like little school girls, and they whisper a lot.”

 

“Jeremiah and I are really good friends. We were together a lot in the summertime when I came to the ranch. Dotty worked for Nana some back then because when school was out she didn’t have a job and Jeremiah always came with her. When he got old enough, Grandpa put us both on the summer payroll. And they always whisper and tell secrets. It’s just the way they are.”

 

 

As if on cue, the rain stopped, the clouds moved on to the south, and the sun lit up the inside of the van.

 

“Looks like the rain is over,” he said.

 

Using the back of his hand, he brushed the last of the tears from her cheeks. “And they told me about why Dotty lives at the ranch.”

 

“That’s a good thing for her and for Nana. She needed someone to need her, and Nana needed someone to boss and keep her company. Want to go to McDonald’s and get a cup of coffee?” he asked.

 

“I’d love one,” she whispered.

 

“I’ll drive. When the ladies call we can swing back by here and I’ll get my truck.” He nodded to his truck parked right beside the van.

 

“How’d you know I was here?”

 

“I didn’t. I drive past here on the way to the tractor supply and saw the van. Thought you might have had some trouble, so I stopped to check.”

 

He hit the button and the side door slid open. He swung his feet around, set his boots on the ground, and carried her around the van to the passenger’s side where he settled her into the seat. Then he trotted around the back of the van and crawled into the driver’s seat.

 

“Does it take long before the numbness goes away?” she asked.

 

“A while, and it’s not in an instant. One day you’ll just wake up and it will be filled with memories that are good rather than sadness,” he answered.

 

“Thank you, Greg.”

 

“You are welcome, Emily.”

 

“The ladies told me about the intervention to stop Dotty from drinking and all about how they were kind of like mail-order brides, except Clarice,” she said.

 

“I guess that was kind of like the forerunner of all this eHarmony.com and all that stuff today. Women wrote. Men proposed and they got married. Nowadays it’s text, call, and then get married.”

 

He parked as close to the McDonald’s entrance as possible and hustled around the van to open the door for Emily. He ushered her to the counter with his hand on the small of her back.

 

It didn’t feel right to be so sexually attracted to a man when she was grieving, but there wasn’t a thing she could do about it. Her skin was tingly, her face flushed, and her breath shallow. It was a pure wonder that another lightning bolt didn’t strike her dead right there under the dollar menu at the McDonald’s checkout counter.

 

“Two coffees, one black,” he told the lady taking orders and then looked down at Emily with a question in his eyes.

 

“Just black for me too,” Emily answered.

 

“Did they tell you why she drank?” He carried two full cups toward the nearest booth.

 

Emily nodded. “Because her husband died.”

 

He waited for her to slide into one side before he slipped into the opposite one. Their knees touched under the table, but he didn’t move and neither did she.

 

“They’d been married more than fifty years. They never had any kids of their own. Probably a good thing since she had to work to support them both, and she did a good job of it. Worked in the kitchen at the school until she retired and for Nana in the summertime. Then Jeremiah grew up and moved away and her husband died. She hit the bottle pretty hard until Nana, Rose, and Madge took charge. Nana brought her to the ranch and put her to work full-time, and Jeremiah came home from Conroe and sold the trailer. He didn’t want his momma to ever go back to that place because he was afraid she’d drink herself into the grave. He says that Nana saved Dotty’s life when she gave her a purpose in life. He thinks that as long as Dotty had to provide for her husband and him that she was alright. It was when she wasn’t needed that things fell apart.”

 

“Sounds like he’s a smart man.”

 

Greg nodded. “Real smart.”

 

***

 

She looked across the table and reached out her hand. “Give me your glasses. There are rain smudges on them.”

 

He handed them across the table and she blew warm breath on each lens before wiping it clean with a McDonald’s paper napkin. “There, that’s better.”

 

“Thanks. I wish I could wear contacts, but my eyes are shaped funny. I could have that surgery, but I’m a big chicken when it comes to needles, so I’ll just wear my glasses.” He put them back on and took a sip of coffee. “Besides, there are some things I’d just as soon not see real plain and I can always take them off.”

 

“Too bad we don’t have life glasses that we can take off and put on at will. When we had them on they’d show us what we needed to do with our lives and help us make hard decisions,” she said.

 

He raised his coffee in a toast and nodded. “Amen! You invent them and I’ll pay for the patent. We’ll make a fortune.”

 

She touched her cup with his and they both sipped at the same time.

 

Yesterday they’d had a make-out session like a couple of high school kids. And today she’d mourned her grandfather all curled up in his arms during a vicious thunderstorm. If she believed in reincarnation, she’d swear that they were both old souls who had known each other in a past life.

 

Right then she would give half her ranch for a pair of those glasses that she’d mentioned. She’d put them on and maybe she could get a clear vision of why her grandfather insisted she take some time away from Happy, and why she felt like he was really glad that she was where she was that day.

 

“Earth to Emily.” Greg grinned. “Your phone is ringing.”

 

She grabbed it out of her purse and answered without looking at the ID. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll be right there.” She touched the screen and tossed it back in her purse.

 

“They must be all dolled up for the weekend and ready to go home,” Greg said.

 

“Looks like it,” she said.

 

“Don’t expect miracles. They’ll look the same, but they’ll have a new spring in their step because they feel all better when they’ve been to see Shelly,” he said. “At least it’s quit raining, so it won’t mess up their hairdos for Sunday. Did Nana tell you that if you live under her roof that you will go to church on Sunday morning?”

 

She slid out of the booth and he followed her to the door.

 

“She didn’t, but I’m not surprised. That’s exactly what Gramps preached all the time. When I first went to college I didn’t go home for two weekends just so I wouldn’t have to go to church, but then I missed him and the folks at church so much that I went home the next week.”

 

Greg chuckled.

 

She smiled. “You too?”

 

“Oh, yeah! But don’t tell Nana. She thinks I just came home to raid the refrigerator and get my laundry done for free.”

 

He drove to the park and walked with her to the van. At the door she turned around and wrapped her arms around his neck. She rolled up on her toes and kissed him hard. He tasted like coffee, smelled like a mixture of shaving lotion and rain, and the kiss came near to frying a hole in the ground.

 

“Thank you for helping me get through the tears,” she mumbled when she pulled away.

 

“Yes, ma’am,” he said hoarsely.