Love Drunk Cowboy
Author:Carolyn Brown

chapter 8

She was expecting to plant watermelons on Monday morning so she was surprised on Saturday when Felix knocked on the door as she was having her morning coffee. The sun was barely up and she’d slept poorly, but at six o’clock she’d gotten up and made coffee and eaten a piece of toast.

“Miz Austin, it’s time,” Felix said.

“For what?”

“The weather is good. The fields are ready and we’ve wasted five days. We should start planting today even though it’s not Monday. The tractors and the seeders are ready but Miz Verline always planted the first seed in each row by hand for good luck. You need to come with us this morning,” Felix answered.

“Go ahead, Felix. I’ve got a ton of work to do in here.”

He shook his head. “It’s for good luck and a good crop.”

“Oh, okay. I’ll get dressed.”

“Yes, ma’am. We’ll wait on the porch.”

“How long is this going to take?” she asked.

“All day.”

She bit back a moan.

“All day every day this week and next,” he said.

“But I’ve got all this packing to do.”

His narrow shoulders drew upward in a shrug. “We usually quit at dark so you would have the evenings, yes?”

“What time do you start?”

“Six thirty.”

“So I’d have a little while every evening.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She nodded. “Give me ten minutes to get dressed.”

She tossed her pajamas on the metal footboard of the bed, donned her grandmother’s button-up chambray shirt and overalls, and wished she had a pair of work boots. Her running shoes would have to do since she couldn’t wear flip-flops or spike heels to the fields.

She didn’t even bother with a brush but finger combed her hair into a ponytail and secured it with a rubber band. She did take time to apply sunscreen to her face and bare arms. Plant the first seed? What exactly did that mean? And what the hell was a seeder?

“You can ride in the front seat with me.” Felix led the way to the old work truck where five men sat in the back.

At one time it had been blue but nowadays very little color could be seen among the splotches of primer where Felix had sanded off the rust and sprayed it primer gray. The bench front seat was covered with a multi-colored striped serape and the directional letters on the floor gearshift had long since faded away. But when Felix turned the key the motor purred like a something new right off the showroom floor.

“You take care of this truck?” Austin asked.

“Yes, I do. Miz Verline trusted me with it when she bought it brand new the first year I came to work here in 1970. The engine is easy to take care of. The outside, though, it’s hijo de puta!”

“What?” she asked.

“Son of bitch.” He grinned.

She laughed. “I see.”

“Miz Verline bought a new one and now this is the old work truck. But the new one won’t ever see the years and miles this one has. It’s not built as well. We are here. We start on this end and work our way east toward the hog pens and the garden. A quarter of a mile down the road, a mile toward the river each day is what we like to get done.”

He stopped the truck and the rest of the crew bailed. Three men crawled up into the seats of the green John Deere tractors and fired them up. Austin stood at the end of the freshly plowed field that went toward the river. The furrows were straight as a ruler, mounded up into peaks, reminding her of tiny mountains and valleys.

Felix handed her a hoe handle that had been sharpened on one end. “You will poke a hole in this mound right here and drop a seed in it, then tap the dirt over it with your boot.”

That didn’t sound so hard. Any monkey could do that job and it wouldn’t even have to be trained. She drove the hoe handle down into the earth about six inches and looked up to see Felix shaking his head.

“A watermelon seed should only be planted twice the depth of the seed. That would be less than half an inch.” He kicked the hole full of dirt. “Look at the end of the stick. It has a mark on it. That’s how deep to make the hole.”

She held up the stick and sure enough there was a notch about half an inch up on the pointed end. She carefully poked it to the right depth and Felix handed her a small brown paper bag with watermelon seeds in it. She dropped one and missed, bent over, put it where it belonged, and covered it with a handful of dirt.

Felix smiled again. “You’ll get better. Miz Verline could drop that seed and the angels took it right in the hole, then she’d use her toe to cover it up. The seeds are top quality. She said that only the best seed could make the best melons. When we get to the land right behind the house, that’s where we use the best of the best. That land is for her wine melons and she told me once that she goes out at night and tells those melons stories.”

“I thought she put the wine melons up near the cow and hog lots,” she said, remembering her notes.

“For years she did then she decided to move them behind her house just last year. I think she did not have the energy to go that far to tell them the stories. I’ll take the next shift on the tractors, but I always walk with Miz Verline and we talk at the beginning of the first day of planting.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do. I want to know all about watermelons. Making wine fascinates me.”

“You have to have good melons to make good wine, and that’s why the acre right behind her house is for the wine melons.”

“Only one acre?”

“One melon makes about a gallon of wine. Now think about a whole acre of melons and how much they would make. Sometimes she would cut open a melon, taste it, and throw it out because it wasn’t sweet enough.”

Austin sighed. “But I don’t know by taste what is sweet enough.”

“Rye does. He’s been over here when she was throwing them out. He can help you and you will learn fast.”

Why did he have to mention Rye’s name? It had taken her hours to cool down and even longer to go to sleep. Then she’d slept poorly, dreaming of Rye and waking up wanting to feel his hands on her body; to finish what had gotten started on his sofa.

Damn it, Granny! Did you really have something to do with that?

She finished the twelfth furrow and started for the next one when he raised a hand. “Not yet.”

“Why?”

“Because the tractors have not come back. When they get ready to plant another row, then you can do the next ones. That’s the way she did it for good luck. The tractors go down the land, two furrows at a time. Then they come back to us, the same: three tractors, two furrows each. Three men to drive. Two men to walk along and make sure the seeds are falling just right. Sometimes they have to stop and readjust or sometimes the chain doesn’t quite cover the seed and they have to do a little bit by hand. Most of the melon farmers don’t do that but Miz Verline said that she wasn’t paying for high dollar seed to let it become bird food.”

“And this is the way she did it every single year?” Austin asked.

Felix nodded.

“Some of the others are starting the seeds early in greenhouses. Miz Verline said that was crazy so we still do it the old way. Put the seed in the ground and hope for good rain,” Felix said.

“Why would it be crazy?”

“The good thing is that you get a two-week jump on the crop if you plant transplants rather than seeds. The bad thing is that when you handle the tiny plant you can bruise the roots and it will die, so you’ve lost the money on that seed. Or the worst thing is that one plant will get disease in the greenhouse and it will spread to all the rest. Then you’ve lost many, many dollars in seed and have to go back and buy more.”

Austin did the calculations in her head: three hundred dollars an acre for seed. Multiply that by almost two thousand acres and it would become a huge risk for a two-week jump on the crop.

Felix went on. “And you’ve got to use different equipment to put the plants in the ground than she already owned for the seeds.”

“How long until these seeds come up?”

“Ten days for most. We’ll see some early ones at six days. But in ten days these will be tiny shoots. Then what we do tomorrow will come up and right on down the land to the end. When we start the harvest it will go the same way. We’ll start in this field and work our way down. If me and the boys can’t handle the load we hire young boys from town to help us but most years we have our way of doing things and we don’t need extra help.”

“When I was little I always came in June and she talked about the watermelon festival or jubilee or something like that in the middle of July. Is that about when you start the harvest?”

Felix nodded and looked at his watch. “There they are. They did good. No trouble on this turn around. The harvest is almost done by the time they have their watermelon party in town. Miz Verline always donated half a truckload of melons for the day. They give away slices of cold melons all day down in the middle of town. It’s on a Saturday and we go back to Mexico that next week.”

The three drivers hoped off the tractors and Felix, Jacinto, and Lobo got on. Angelo and Estefan walked behind the machinery and Lobo went back to the truck. Austin made her twelve holes, planted a dozen seeds, and then sat down at the end of the last row and waited.

Two trucks stirred up road dust when they passed behind her. The dry dust and the warm sun made her wish she’d had the foresight to bring a bottle of water. She wondered what Rye was doing that morning. Was planting pasture grass for bulls as time consuming as getting a watermelon crop in the ground?

“Good morning!”

She jumped and spun around to see Rye walking toward her in long strides. She looked around for his truck but it wasn’t anywhere.

When he was close enough that she could smell his aftershave, he stopped and smiled. His grin and bedroom hair that hadn’t seen even a good finger combing made her heart skip a beat. He wore a knit shirt that stretched over his broad chest, faded jeans, and a plain belt without a big bull rider buckle. His boots were scuffed and worn and she had trouble keeping her eyes from traveling up and down the length of him over and over again. He was even sexier in his work clothes than he’d been all decked out in starched jeans and dress boots.

“Looks like they talked you into being Granny today.”

“I thought you were fixing fence today.”

“I always come around on the first day of the planting to watch for a while. Brought you some coffee.”

She hadn’t noticed anything in his hands, but a small silver thermos appeared out of nowhere. He poured a cup for her and sat down in the dirt beside her. “Things going good so far?”

She sipped. “Good coffee.”

A cool morning breeze brushed across her face but her insides were as hot and steamy as the coffee.

He threw an arm around her shoulder and squeezed. “Figured you’d be ready for something. This is boring work but Granny always said it was necessary. If she was out here amongst the hired help they knew she wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty or to sweat. One year only five could get a Visa so she drove a tractor all summer. I tried to get her to let me do it but she told me to go home and raise cows. If I touched her watermelons with the smell of bovine on my hands it would be bad luck. I’m sorry about last night. I wanted to slaughter some bulls before the night was over.”

“So am I.”

“Want to take up where we left off?”

He’d heard about soul mates and first love and all that folderol but he’d always thought it was fairy tale material. It didn’t really happen except in old people’s minds that were afflicted with dementia and couldn’t remember all the fighting and fussing they’d done in their married lives. The way he felt sitting there in the dirt with his arm around Austin changed his mind.

“Right here at the end of a watermelon field?” She laughed.

“Anywhere. Anytime.” He grinned.

“I don’t think so, cowboy. You are wicked!”

He made tiny little circles on her arm with his calloused hand. She’d never realized a rough hand could be so damn sexy.

“You were thinking the same thing I was. I saw it written on your face like those bubble things above cartoon people. So you staying out here all day like she did?”

“I have a poker face. You can’t read me that well, Rye O’Donnell. And yes, I’m staying out here all day, and tomorrow and the next day after that. Something tells me that Granny would rather I did this and hire all the packing done. Next time I’m walking behind the tractor. I need the exercise. That’ll be as good as a morning run.”

He hugged her tightly for a second then stood up. “Have fun. I’m off to Nocona to buy barbed wire. Need anything?”

She felt empty without his arm around her. “You and Felix would know more about that than I would.”

“They’ve got the garden in the ground and she has her watermelon seeds sent from a special place. Prepays for them a year in advance so you’ll need to find that invoice and talk to them about next year’s crop.”

Austin nodded. “Where is the garden?”

“Up by the hog lot where’s it’s always been. But she got rid of the hogs and the steers when she took sick. Just take the thermos home with you. Want to grab supper at the Peach Orchard tonight? We could go to Duncan or Wichita Falls but Kent and I’ll be fixin’ fence until dark and it’d be late. Maybe we can plan on a Friday date,” he said.

“Are you tellin’ or askin’?”

He grabbed her hand and brought her fingertips to his lips. “Miss Austin Lanier, would you please have dinner with me tonight and Friday night?”

“That sounds like fun. I bet after today I’m too tired to go to Duncan or Wichita Falls anyway,” she said.

The tractors roared into sight and Rye waved at Felix and was gone before the three men slid out of the seats and headed toward the truck which Lobo had pulled up close to where they’d parked. All of them went for the big orange cooler in the bed of the truck and filled a water bottle. They drank deeply and traded places. Lobo got on one tractor, Angelo stayed with the truck, and Felix fell into place behind the tractor.

“I’m going with you as soon as I get these twelve seeds into the ground,” Austin said.

“It’s a pretty fast pace, keeping up with the tractors,” Felix said.

“I’m used to running three miles every evening. I’ve missed two nights. I need the exercise.”

“Then I’ll send Estefan to hoe the garden.” Felix spoke rapidly in his native tongue to one of the hired hands, who grinned and nodded. Then he yelled at Angelo and pointed east.

“Can I drive the tractor next time?” Austin asked.

“It is your land and your tractor, Miss Austin,” Felix said.

They didn’t exactly walk but they didn’t jog. It was more like a canter that gave Austin more of a workout than any morning run she’d ever done. She was back and forth hopping her six furrows like short hurdles and Felix did the same on his side. Twice on the mile long trip out to the end of the field she had to bend over and push a little dirt over a seed. Three times on the way back a clump of hard dirt prevented the chain on the seeder from filling the hole and she had to stop long enough to cover the watermelon seed. When they finished the two-mile journey she understood why they switched places.

“You really want to drive?” Felix asked.

“I really want a long drink of water and then yes, I’d like to try,” she answered.

Felix barked orders to adjust for another driver and told Angelo to leave Estefan at the garden. “He likes it there better anyway.”

“Rye said you have planted a garden since you’ve been here?”

Felix chuckled. “Oh, yes. We do that every year. Estefan likes the garden work. He’s like a woman with her kitchen. He doesn’t want anyone else in the garden.”

“Then leave him there today and I’ll take his place. Maybe I won’t tear things up too badly on the tractor.”

“Just keep the wheels between the furrows. The machinery will do the rest. I’ll put you on the middle tractor. Keep pace with the other two and you will be fine.”

She thought about Rye as she bounced along in the seat. The man made her hot as hell just throwing an arm around her shoulders, but there was no future in Terral and she really shouldn’t encourage something that wouldn’t last. But when he was around, she threw caution to the wind like tossing out yesterday’s garbage. Her pulse picked up when he was in sight and when he touched her she felt like the world stood still.

But what if I don’t care about a future? I could have a few romps with the cowboy. I don’t have to spend every waking minute sorting through boxes! However, if I did have a romp in the hay with the sexy cowboy, something tells me it would haunt me every day no matter where I was. So it’s a no-win situation. How can a woman’s life get so mixed up in one week?

“Damn!” She swore under her breath. For a town with less than four hundred people, Terral had sure made her life one complicated mess in a short time.

The day went fast and she barely had time to wash the red dirt out of her hair before Rye knocked on the door. She wore another pair of her grandmother’s capris that night. Red ones this time with a red and white striped knit shirt and red flip-flops. She really did need to go shopping but where did a watermelon farmer find time for that?

“Don’t you look all spiffy,” he said when she opened the door.

His black hair had water droplets hanging on the long parts that brushed his collar and his eyes were twinkling. His jeans weren’t starched stiff but looked soft and his boots were clean but worn.

“You look pretty damn fine yourself,” she said.

“The city girl cusses. Terral water is getting to you. You get the quota in today?” He threw his arm around her shoulders and escorted her, hugged up to his side, to the truck. It brought on the sparks but it also felt natural, as if his soul had found what it had been searching for.

“I cuss in the city too, so don’t blame it on the water. Felix said we did good. We didn’t quit until half an hour ago.”

He opened the door and she slid into the seat.

“How about you?” she asked.

“Walked five miles of fence and fixed what had to be restrung. Kent was whining that next time I offered him half a day off he’d take it,” he laughed.

He was glad that he didn’t have to ride in another rodeo that week and could spend every free minute with Austin.

They sat in the same booth that she and Pearlita had occupied the day they had taken her grandmother’s ashes to the river, but they were the only ones in the dining room. Their knees touching under the table created enough sparks to fry the fish in the kitchen. He reached across the table and brushed a strand of hair back behind her ear so he could see her blue eyes better in the dim light.

“I hate to say this but I’m almost too tired to chew,” he said with a sigh.

“Me too. How on earth did Granny keep up with all this at her age?”

“She was made of tougher stock. I swear that Depression thing they went through when they were kids made them tough as nails.”

The waitress appeared at their table with two glasses of water. “What can I get y’all tonight?”

“A full order of chicken strips and whatever beer you’ve got that’s cold,” Austin said.

“Full order of fish and bring us two Coors in the bottle, longnecks,” Rye said.

“It’s pitiful to be so hungry and not have the energy to chew,” Austin said.

“Maybe food will revive your spirits.” He wanted more than her spirits revived. He wanted her to be as eager to fall into bed with him as he was her, but it wasn’t happening that night. When it did, it wouldn’t be a slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am thing but an evening that she’d remember forever.

The waitress brought their beers and two glasses. Rye tipped his back and drank from the bottle. She did the same.

“Damn, that’s good,” she said when she came up for air.

“After a long day, it’s tough to beat a cold Coors.”

She looked at the branding irons hanging on the wall. Each had a plaque under them with the brand burned into the wood, showing what it would look like on the cattle. Cowhide fabric covered with clear plastic served as table coverings. A roll of paper towels on each table was used for napkins because most of the greasy food was eaten with fingers. The menu was written in giant letters and hung on the wall on the east and west ends of the room.

Other than the table coverings the place had looked the same back when she was a little girl and came to visit her grandmother. Back then the tables were covered in red and white checked oil cloth. It was comforting in an odd sense of the word to find a world where things stayed the same. That must have been what her father was running from; what her mother couldn’t abide; and what her grandmother loved. But where was Austin in all that? Was she running from it or toward it?

“Yours up there?” she asked.

“Not yet but it will be someday.”

“Why not yet?”

“I haven’t brought one in here.”

“What’s it look like?”

He rolled a paper towel from the holder. “Got a pen in your purse?”

She dug around until she found one with her company logo and handed it to him.

He drew an R with a rocker under it.

“The Rocking R?”

“That’s right. It wasn’t registered in Oklahoma so it’s my brand.”

The waitress returned and set baskets of food in front of them and a plate between them with onions, tartar sauce, and bread. “Y’all need anything else, just holler. We still got coconut pie and German chocolate.”

Rye looked at Austin who thought about it a second then said, “Coconut.”

“Two of that,” he said.

They ate slowly, talked little, but enjoyed every single spark that danced between them that Saturday night. When he took her home he walked her to the door, fenced her in with an arm on each side of the door, and kissed her hard and passionately.

“Revived?” she asked.

“Not quite, but I’m workin’ on it.”

She pulled his lips to hers for another searing kiss.

“Picnic on the river tomorrow night? Maybe neither of us will be dog tired,” she said when she broke away.

He leaned in and their lips met again for a kiss that caused fireworks to explode in her head. “Then tomorrow at dusk? What do I bring?”

“Yourself. This time I do the honors,” she said.

“I’ll see you then.” He kissed her on each eyelid, on the nose, and added one more on the lips after each word.

***

She slept late on Sunday, did laundry in the afternoon, checked the window several times to see if Rye had moved his truck, and finally picked up the phone at two o’clock and called him.

“Are you alive?” she asked when he answered.

“I’m catching up on housework and laundry. Are we still on for the picnic?”

“Oh, yes. What’s your favorite dessert?”

“Your kisses,” he said.

“Other than that?” A country song called “Long Slow Kisses” by Jeff Bates played through her mind as she waited on his answer.

“Chocolate cake,” he said.

“Okay, then chocolate cake and kisses,” she laughed.

She made half a recipe of chocolate cake, fried a chicken, and made potato salad that afternoon. She packed it, along with a loaf of French bread and a block of Colby Jack cheese, all into a basket with two plastic plates, silverware, napkins, and two chilled bottles of watermelon wine. She found a blanket in the top of the closet in her room and tucked it under her arm. When Rye drove across the road she was waiting on the front porch.

He wrapped her up in his big arms and kissed her when he walked up on the porch. “Staying across the road and doing my Sunday chores was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” he whispered into her hair when he broke away from the kiss.

“I’ve looked forward to this all day too,” she said.

He stepped back, grabbed both her hands, and took her in from black flip-flops, to cut-off jean shorts, a tied up shirt that showed skin above the jean’s waist, and cute little black and white polka dot earrings. “You are gorgeous.”

“Thank you. Now it’s my turn.”

She started at his sandals, to jean shorts that grazed his knee, a gray muscle shirt, to his freshly shaven face and twinkling eyes to his hair, combed straight back and still too long.

“You are sexy as hell.”

He grinned. “Thank you. Never had a woman tell me that when I was dressed for the river, though.”

“Well I never had a man tell me I was gorgeous in hand-me-down cut-off jeans and flip-flops,” she said

“Were they all blind or just stupid?”

She laughed and the clouds parted. Rye O’Donnell was in heaven.

He drove to the river and carried the basket to the sand bar. She flipped the blanket out under a weeping willow tree and sat down on it. He dropped the basket and joined her, sitting close enough that their bare legs touched. The sizzle was right there, but Rye felt like they had all of the time in the world and there was no hurry at all. They had all night and then some, if he had anything to say about it.

“It’s nice out tonight. I’m starving,” she said.

He opened the basket and his eyes widened. “Fried chicken, plates, and is that really chocolate cake?”

“From scratch with fudge icing.”

“Will you marry me?”

“You’re not on one knee and you don’t have a ring,” she teased but her heart skipped a beat when he said those magic-sounding words.

She took out the plates, cutlery, and napkins and then the chicken, potato salad, bread, and cheese. She handed him a knife.

“To slice the cheese.”

“You remembered everything. This ain’t your first picnic, is it?”

“No. Granny packed a picnic of peanut butter sandwiches and chocolate milk in a quart jar for me and Pearl when we were little and let us come to the river. She sat under the trees far enough away to make sure we didn’t do anything stupid like skinny-dip in the river and we thought we were the luckiest two little girls in the world.”

“I feel like that tonight,” he said softly.

She looked up in time to see his lips coming toward hers and shut her eyes so she could enjoy every sensation that the kiss would bring, and she wasn’t the least bit disappointed as he slowly, perfectly pressed his warm lips to hers and pressed gently, gently until she opened for him and their tongues tangled. He ran his hand up her back and her body heated up twenty degrees.

“Your kisses turn me inside out, but I’m starving,” she said.

His eyes twinkled. “Eat for energy for what comes later.”

“Something like that.” She forked a wing and a leg and bit into the chicken leg while he sliced cheese.

He broke tidbits from a slice and fed them to her, then licked the grease from the chicken from her fingertips, lingering on each one long enough to send electricity all the way down to her curling toes. “That’s a wonderful way to eat chicken,” he said.

“Even better than the gravy and fries?”

“Better location and I don’t have to stop with just one taste. It’s like having a one-inch bite of good steak or having a whole one right there on your plate,” he whispered.

“So I’m just a chunk of steak?” she teased.

“Darlin’, you are…” he paused and kissed her passionately. “There are no words for what you are. God didn’t create them yet but when He does I’ll tell you exactly what you are to me.”

They managed to eat their supper between more slow hot kisses and then they started on the second bottle of wine. They’d each had a glass from it when the pickup load of teenagers invaded the sand bar right in front of them. The kids had two six-packs of beer and a couple of fishing poles; three boys and three girls who didn’t even see Rye and Austin sitting back in the shadows of the weeping willow. They pretended to fish but mostly they chased the girls in and out of the edge of the water and teased them about going skinny-dipping.

“Ever done that?” Rye asked.

“Not with a boy.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Girl?”

“Pearl and I were about nine or ten. We got in big trouble but we didn’t have bathing suits on and we wanted to go swimming.” She smiled.

“They won’t stay long. Lie down here beside me in the crook of my arm. We’ll snuggle while they act like normal teenagers.”

She plastered herself to his side. He kissed her forehead. She laid her head on his chest. He undid the knot in her shirt above her belly button and made slow lazy circles with his fingertips on her back. The tension eased out with each circle and pretty soon she was asleep on his chest.

He smiled and shut his eyes. The kids would get bored and leave soon.

It was three o’clock in the morning when he awoke with a start to find a raccoon staring at him from the edge of the blanket. It had snagged what was left over of the bread and was having its own picnic.

“Hey, darlin’, you’d better wake up. It must’ve been the wine but we fell asleep and it’s only a few hours until sunup.” He kissed Austin awake.

“Mmmm,” she mumbled. “Did they leave?”

“Hours ago. It’s three in the morning.”

She sat straight up with a start. “We’ve got to go home, Rye. I’ve got to plant watermelons at six thirty.”

“I know, darlin’.”

“What is that?” She pointed at the raccoon.

“A thief. I’ll help you get the leftovers packed up unless you want to leave them for the old boy.”

She shook the cobwebs from her head. “That was some good wine.”

He tossed everything but the cake out toward the raccoon and repacked the basket. She folded the blanket and they went back to the truck, arm in arm, like an old married couple.

But she didn’t feel married. She felt cheated and determined that she wouldn’t drink another bottle of wine on a night when she had a chance to make Greta (or was it Molly?) pay up twenty dollars.