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Wednesday, November 2, 2016



HAPPY TRAILS TO YOU
A  Fun Piece of  Country Fiction
By Celia Jolley


Dedicated to my first man-crush
Almanzo Wilder
He married Laura Ingalls when he was 28, and she was 18
Together they lived the Little House series life;
their romance told in "These Happy Golden Years".

She brushed out her silky chestnut hair then tied it back in a pony tail that still hung half way down her back.  Taking her apron off its rack, she slipped it over her plaid shirt and jeans hiding most of her curves, which was alright with her.  She sighed.  It was another day at the diner.  She poured herself a cup of coffee and took a few sips before hurrying out to the familiar hum of morning regulars conversing, well not exactly a hum.  She could hear Bertha and Edith arguing over where they could hear the best gossip, the Spitting Nails Salon or the Hair Spray Hair Salon whose owner loved the movie. 

Harold was talking loudly enough for hard of hearing Shorty to hear his story.  "Did I ever tell you about my uncle who survived the Great Depression by hiding all his money in a hole in his yard, but forgot where he buried it?  Fortunately, his dog dug it up one day when they were about to lose the farm."

"Lost his arm?  Now that's a plum shame," Shorty said shaking his head sadly.

First Amelia stacked her college textbooks under the diner's counter before she began to serve the coffee.  As always, she'd have just enough time after the morning rush to get off to classes.
One more semester and then she'd have to make a decision on where to go to finish her degree as a vet tech after getting her AA.  She'd have to figure out a way to pay for it too   Amelia could get student loans for tuition, but didn't know how she'd pay for room and board too.  Her Aunt Barbara provided that right now.  She could swing working part time in her aunt's diner and taking classes, but the next two years would be even harder.  Her aunt made a lot of allowances for her schedule too.  Not many employers would be so flexible.  But now was not the time for worrying.

Amelia moved about the room serving the regulars their coffees with an easy smile.  Their morning customers were mostly seniors who had time to linger over a cup of coffee and not just grab a cup and go like the younger set at Starbucks or those there who sat hunched over in front of their electronic devices.  No wifi here.  Her favorites always wanted to know how she was doing in her classes and how her car was running, little things like that.  Amelia would miss them when she would have to leave.

The bell jangled and a gust of chilled air blew in.  She didn't bother looking until Shorty raised his eyebrows saying, "It's somebody new.  Wonder why he's here?"  She sputtered, choking back a laugh.  They were an eating establishment for goodness sakes, not a private invitations-only brunch gathering for senior citizens. 

"I'll be with you in a moment.," she called as she topped off Harold's proffered cup before tossing a glance over her shoulder.

There stood a lanky cowboy in  a git-up like not often seen in their town.  He was someone her grandpa would have called "a tall drink of water."  The ranchers around here took to wearing John Deere caps these days, not Stetsons like his.  The man's belt buckle was big enough to probably have been polished off at some rodeo, either that or bought from some fancy western wear store for a pretty penny.  But his boots were the  mud coated leather and run-down heel of the real article.

He sat down waiting for her.


.

When the man tipped his hat by placing two fingers briefly on its rim, she realized she'd been staring.  Embarrassed to be caught gawking, Amelia got busy by tucking a menu under her arm, grabbing a clean cup, offering both to the newcomer while still juggling the coffee pot.

"Morning.  Booth or table?  Would you like to start with a cup of coffee?"

"Howdy.  A booth and coffee please."  He took off his hat and carefully placed it on the seat of the booth beside him. 

"Want me to hang that up for you on the coat rack?"

"No ma'am.  Thanks anyway.  A cowboy doesn't part with his hat if he can help it.  What's the best breakfast you could recommend, something that'll stick to my ribs where the hungries poke through?" 

She couldn't stop a giggle.  She rattled off a few of their bigger morning menu items, then wrote down his order, "Three eggs over easy, with a slab of ham, hash browns and biscuits and gravy.  Just thinking of all that food made her stomach rumble as she realized she'd not eaten anything yet.

"Can I order you anything, miss?  You sound a little hungry yourself," he grinned.

Amelia colored from the tips of her ears across her cheeks and down her neck.  "No thanks.  I have to leave for my classes soon."  She turned away thinking, "How embarrassing!"  She slapped the order on the window ledge into the kitchen where her aunt and cousin Billy kept busy.

Parr for the course, Harold meandered over to the cowboy's table while nursing his cup of coffee.

"New to these parts, stranger?"

"Just visiting."

"Passing through then?"

"Got a little cowboying to do first."

Amelia groaned.  Now Shorty ambled over to join in the socializing. 

"Are you the one Dan Price bragged about coming to train his wife's new horse? "

"Yep.  That'd probably be me."

"Heard you went to the university together, ag science." Tony stated.

"Yep."

Bertha craned her neck around putting her pudgy elbow over the back of her seat, "Betsy said that horse is a killer.  She's refusing to ride it."

Harold clapped his hand on the newcomer's shoulder and said, "He looks like he can handle it."

"Done the rodeo thwang?"  Shorty's fake accent was worse than fingernails done a chalkboard. 

Amelia didn't know how to get the diner back under control.  This was plumb loco.  What must the cowboy think of their customers.  She dared a glance in his direction to find him grinning.  He raised his eyebrows as she just shrugged her shoulders.  They were one big happy family of nosy neighbors with too much time on their hands.  Maybe the cowboy should try Starbucks tomorrow if he wanted to drink his coffee in peace.  She just furiously wiped down empty tables.




When his order was up, Amelia hoped they'd leave him in peace.  But no, first Harold, then Shorty had slid in across from him in his booth without so much as a "don't mind if you do."

They were busy jawing, until the cowboy bowed his head for a silent prayer before digging in.  Their eyes stayed open boldly staring.

She brought refills over as Bertha and Tony scraped their chairs closer to the table across from his booth. 

"How'd you expect to train a horse that wild?" Bertha challenged.  Her tight purplish-grey curls shimmied as much as her double chin as she talked.



"I read in a Louis L'Amour book once how this cowboy broke his horse by taking it down to a dry streambed to ride till it got plumb tired of striking his hooves against the stones.  I always wondered if that'd work."  Shorty added his two cents in.  She doubted he'd ever been on a horse in his life, unless it was a Shetland.

The cowboy chewed then washed it down with a swallow of coffee.  "I'd hate to see a bucking horse break a leg doing that. A corral's a mite safer," he mused before he took another forkful of biscuits and gravy.  "Mighty fine food, miss.  Compliments to the cook," he said between mouthfuls.

"I heard that," her aunt hollered from the kitchen.  "And thanks."

By now, Pokey Smith had finished his bowl of oatmeal and sauntered over to stand leaning against the booth where Shorty and Harold had made themselves comfortable.  His wife Edith who was about done using her toothpick, reapplied her red lipstick and joined him, her dyed copper bangs still in their pink foam curler. 

"How long d'ya figure it'll take you, stranger?" Pokey asked.

"It's too soon to tell.  Haven't met the horse yet," he said winking at Edith who lost her tough as nails glare for just a second showing a dimple in her leathery cheeks while smiling.

"Refills?  It's a fresh pot,"  Amelia called with a forced smile.

"Bring my cup over here, will you Sugar?" Tony said.

"Mine too, sweetheart," Bertha joined in.

Harold and Shorty swung their cups for her to reach.

The bell jingled as the mayor walked in. "Saw a strange rig out there, a pickup with a horse trailer." Then looking up, he added, "That yours, young fella?"

"Yes, sir.  Is it okay where I parked it?"  The cowboy sat up straighter.

"Sure thing.  I just came in to welcome you to our little town, but it looks like the others have beat me to it." He sat down joining Bertha and Tony at the table across from everybody's new BFF.



"I'll have the usual, Mealie." 

Oh how she hated that nickname.  "Coming right up, mayor, one cup of hot non-fat milk with a squirt of whipping cream and a glazed doughnut."

"Thanks, honey-bun.  You're looking more like your mother every day."

Amelia bit her tongue.  How could it get worse?  And it just did.  Junior arrived throwing the door open so hard that it slammed against the wall.  Again.  She groaned.

Her aunt screeched from the kitchen.  "Junior, if you break the glass in my door again, you'll be paying double for it, do you hear me?"

"Yes, Miss Barbara."  She had been his Sunday School teacher once and he still remembered how to address at least her properly.  "Hey, good looking," Junior said smiling her way.  "How 'bought bringing me a cup of that good coffee and stirring it with your finger just to make it a little sweeter?"

The cowboy jerked his head up and watched Junior warily.

"Mind your manners, Junior.  Help yourself to the pot.  I'm out of here."  She tore her apron off  before grabbing her books.  On her way out, she brought the bill to the cowboy.  When he smiled at her, she couldn't help but mouth, "sorry," as she left.


Amelia felt like a sloth the way the hours crept by in her classes.  Two more weeks until finals.  She tried to pay attention to what the teachers were mind-numbingly mumbling, but gave into her discombobulated thoughts of the overly friendly diner this morning.  The closest thing to what had happened there today was when Becky Sue Bender won $500 dollars in the lottery. Back then the whole breakfast bunch was giddy with joy and consternation that the First Baptist pastor's wife had been caught gambling by dabbling in the scratch-off tickets bought at the gas station next door.  Of course her husband insisted on donating it all to the building fund at church.






Amelia's thoughts kept turning to the cowboy's grin that set butterflies in the stomach to doing a flap dance, the way his sandy hair was plastered down round where his brim had smashed it, to the pearl snaps on his shirt, on past his brass buckle to his faded jean clad long legs, to his Tony Llama leather boots.  Good gracious Miss Molly, she was twitter pated.  Amelia fanned herself with notes from basic chemistry 101.  It's a good thing she'd never lay eyes on him again.

Except she did.  He came in just as he had the day before at the peak of the breakfast crowd to sit in the same booth carefully placing his hat next to him.  This time her aunt bellowed, "Give the feller some elbow room today, you galoots, and mind your manners!"

"Come on, Barbie.  I ain't flirted with a cute cowboy for nigh on fifty years," Edith huffed.  She'd remembered to take out the curler from her bangs this morning and had on red nail polish to match her lips today."

Her husband Pokey, just shrugged and whined,  "I guess I better go buy me a Stetson and a pair of boots if that's how you're going to carry on, Sugar Pie."



The diner broke out in rowdy laughter enough to make the cowboy blush, but not Edith.  Amelia groaned before she took him a menu and a cup of coffee.

"How's classes?" He asked smiling up at her with eyes as golden as a mountain lion's.

Her mouth went dry, but then she sputtered, "Fine and dandy." Then she heard her self asking, "What's your pleasure?" Once again she felt her cheeks heat up under his gaze.

Heaven's to Betsy, she over-poured his coffee cup!  He grabbed his hat out of the way and jumped up.  "Here, let me clean that up," Amelia squeaked.  She grabbed the napkins off Harold and Shorty's table to sop up the mess.

Bertha came over with a dish towel from the kitchen.  That woman moved amazingly fast for someone her age.  "Mercy, Amelia, you better get your mind off those classes of yours while you're in here with a lethal coffee pot in your hand.  Remember when you poured coffee all over Junior's lap that time?"

"That was on purpose," Amelia mumbled under her breath as she threw away the soggy napkins.

The diner's favorite stranger wanted steak and eggs this morning with country fried potatoes and wheat toast. 

"How's Betsy Price's horse?  Is it eating sugar cubes out of your hand yet?" Harold raised his voice from his booth across the diner, but kept his seat planted on the vinyl as instructed by her Aunt Barbara.

"Not yet.  He's an onery one to be sure.  Wish I'd been there at the livestock auction and could have warned Dan against buying him.  The gelding is pretty though. I can see why he wanted him with his chocolate eyes and long lashes, shiny buckskin coat and silky mane and long feathery tail and sleek long legs,"  He said it all the while staring at Amelia though he practically had his audience in cross-eyed love with the horse.  They waited with baited breath for more.

"More coffee anyone before I leave?"  Amelia had plunked down the breakfast special in front of the cowboy who dug in hungrily, but not before bowing his head in prayer.  Then he'd said, "Thank you, ma'am" to her as if she'd lassoed a beef and trimmed up his steaks all by herself with a laying hen under each arm. 

The air was full of waving coffee cups as she made the rounds. 

Her apron was off, jean jacket was on, leather purse strapped to her shoulders and was hugging books in front of her when she collided with Junior as he entered the diner as forcefully as usual.  The textbooks fell with such a bang that it could have caused half the diner's occupants to have heart attacks.  The cowboy was out of his seat helping her pick her books up before Junior knew what he had plowed into.  He tried to elbow the cowboy out of the way, but the man was planted firmly placing the books back in Amelia's arms.  She couldn't help smiling sweetly up at him saying, "Thank you, cowboy."

"My name's Justus, ma'am."

"Junior, now look what you did," her aunt bellowed from her portal into the kitchen.  "You start acting more like a gentleman than a wild steer when you come into my place or I'm going to have to ask that cowboy to brand you next time."  The restaurant erupted in hooting laughter as Junior went to a far booth and slunk down with his arms crossed over his chest. 

Amelia wasn't going to miss that yahoo Junior when she left town, that was sure as shooting.  It was   time for her to leave for classes.  She gave a little parting wave to the cowboy who dipped his head her way and winked.  "Oh, my!"  Her heart was beating like a wild horse galloping free on the wide open prairie, but she could still hear the collective sighs of all the women in the diner, all five who happened to be in the over seventies crowd.


Her classes were important in preparation for finals.  She turned in a couple of papers that were due as well, ones she'd stayed up late working on the last few nights.  By the time she walked out of class, she was beat.  She still needed to go by the counseling department to get more tuition grant applications for next year.  They needed to be in before the end of January.  Tonight she would narrow down her choices of four year colleges. 

Her aunt's Corgie Trigger followed her around like a shadow as she fixed herself a snack before going upstairs.  His little toenails went click, click, click on the wooden steps all the way up behind her.  He fell with a contented doggie sigh at her bedside where she snuggled up with school catalogs. 

Just getting to work the next morning made her heart pound and flop around  wondering if a certain cowboy would return.  When he didn't show right away, you'd think that her favorite parakeet had keeled over off its perch by the way the song died in her chest.   But that silly bird in her rib cage started fluttering again as soon as his boots crossed the threshold.  He stopped in the doorway in all his glory in a wide manly stance, one hand on his hat brim with the morning sun gilding him up as pretty as a canary sunburst.  When the man saw her he flashed her a wide grin creating a caved-in crevice deeper than the Grand Canyon in the pit of her stomach.  Gracious sakes alive.  He strode her way, tipped his hat, brushed past where she stood statue still and took his usual booth.


"If that don't beat all," Bertha stage whispered to Edith. 

"It's enough to make a woman jealous enough to start a cat fight, that's what," she growled back.

The men just hollered their own hello's to the cowboy and waved their empty coffee cups at Amelia.

Today he ordered the sausage and cheese omelet with salsa, and a tall stack on the side with maple syrup.

"How's our favorite pony doing now, Justus?" Shorty asked.  She guessed everybody was on a first name basis with him by now, not just her. 

"Is it safe to put my quarter in and saddle up for a ride yet?" Harold asked crackling with laughter at his own joke.

"Has Ms. Price stopped biting her manicured nails off yet," Tony snickered.  "Edith says she's practically keeping the nail salon in business all by herself the way that horse has got her all riled up."

The mayor walked in.  He'd missed coming yesterday due to a city council breakfast meeting.  "Nice to see everybody.  The man emoted part preacher and part politician wherever he went, at least enough to make sinners feel guilty about past due parking tickets.

"Mayor,"  Pokey grunted as a greeting.  "I got a bone to pick with you today.  Edith says that Susie told her while getting her nails done at the Spitting Nails Salon that the city council is considering using eminent domain to take over Widow Murphy's place."  The diner's patrons did a collective intake of breath.

"Well, that little bit of information should have stayed private within the council's inner circle, but I'm sure we can all guess who can't keep her pouty lips sealed, now can we folks?"  They all knew it was his wife who liked to sit in the next room with the door cracked open while playing solitaire on his desktop computer as the council was in session before jetting down to get her nails done with the latest news.  "Widow Murphy's been dead and buried nigh onto ten years now.  Her place is a regular eyesore and is so full of feral cats that I doubt there's a mouse left in town.  That deadbeat son of hers is still being a hippie in San Francisco and is not about to come home to see about it.  We just thought we'd offer him a little money for the place so we can have the room to add on to the jail next door."  Now that they weren't in the hanging business, there was a mite bit of crowding in the jails from time to time.

Amelia had thought hippies were practically extinct in the sixties, at least by the early seventies, even in San Francisco.  She shared a private smirk with the cowboy.   But thoughts of bell bottoms and flowers in their hair turned into more of a deeper gaze clear down to where her toes curled.  Even his breakfast was forgotten with his fork resting deep in a piece of bell pepper tangled in his country fried potatoes. 

It was time for her to go to class, but she slipped the cowboy's bill under his coffee cup as she refilled it.  He grabbed her other hand lightly and said, "Thanks, Amelia."  He'd never said her name before, in fact no one had ever said her name like that before.  He should have a license for making a girl's arm tingle all the way up one side and down the other till it rippled down her spine.

In order not to have another run in with Junior, she was about to slip out the back door when he burst in catching the door before it slammed against the wall.  "Are you trying to play hard to get, Sugar Plum?"

"I'm not your Sugar Plum," and she stormed past him since he was already in the building.  He tried to grab her arm but only managed to cause one book to slide to the floor with a bang that sounded like a gunshot. 

"Heaven's Junior!  You'll have us all down at the E.R. if you keep slamming Amelia's books on the ground like that.  I swear my pulse just went off the charts again."  Bertha was riled enough to set her curls a quivering in time with her double chin.

Amelia bent to pick it up but banged heads with Junior in the process as he hurried to help her before the cowboy could come to her rescue again.  As it was, Justus stood up beside his booth with his napkin tucked into his collar ready to offer his assistance.  Junior tried to grab her arm again, but this time she jerked it away.

"Hey, easy now, fella.  Let the little lady get on with her business," the cowboy drawled taking a step closer and sizing up Junior and obviously finding him lacking in comparison, except for stomach girth maybe.

It was Amelia's pulse that slammed hard in her chest.  "I was just leaving," she said not wanting to watch the eyeball to eyeball stare down.

"Junior!  You go take a seat before I call the sheriff on you for disturbing the peace," she heard her aunt holler.

She jingled the door leaving.

"Are you alright?"  Justus had followed her out to the sidewalk.  "Because if that fella's bothering you..." 

"No, never you mind him.  He's just like a pesky horse fly."

"I can swat him down, if you like."

"No, but thanks anyway.  You've been kind enough."

He slid a knuckle gently over the knot where she'd banged heads with Junior.  Her breath caught.

"Well, darling, I was wondering if..." He tugged at his collar only dislodging his napkin he'd so carefully tucked in.  "That is to say..."

They were interrupted when Harold and Shorty left, shaking the cowboy's hands before going down the street.

"I was just wondering..."

Pokey and Edith were just leaving.  Edith offered the cowboy a toothpick and a sultry grin that pulled her wrinkles in ways that Amelia thought weren't possible any more.

"I was hoping that..."

Bertha barged out parting the two of them like the Red Sea as she swept by.  "Got to run.  Toodles."  Tony only nodded and went around them.

The cowboy sighed.  "Are you busy Friday night?  I thought we could take in a movie or something."

"A movie?"  Her voice had raised an octave like she'd never heard of a moving picture show.  Clearing her throat, Amelia said in as normal a voice as she could muster, "I'd love to."

His grin broke open across his face like the sunrise over the Rock Mountains with a little sugar sprinkling of snow on top glinting like off his teeth.  "Good, I'll pick you up here in front of the diner at 7:00.  That'll get us there in plenty of time for the 7:45 showing.  In the meanwhile, I'll see you here again tomorrow morning."

She wondered how there could be two sunrises face to face, but felt her cheeks about to crack with a glowing happiness.  "See you then."  She took a couple of steps backward before stepping on Mr. Godfrey's cat who yowled an ear-piercing protest.  She turned and hurried to her car.  She'd be late for sure, but was singing, "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," at the top of her lungs all the way to school.

As he stood there watching her drive away out of sight, the cowboy almost forgot to pay for his breakfast but was reminded by Barbie running out after him waving his bill in front of his face while holding his hat hostage.  He followed her back in to finish his plate in peace after checking his hat for injuries.

The next morning Justus had three eggs scrambled with an extra large rack of bacon on the side, done but not to a crisp, with a huge pecan Belgium waffle to complete his order.  The rest of the diner patrons seemed to settle down to ask about the Price's horse until after he'd eaten and visited with Amelia first.  Bertha bustled about filling coffee cups so Amelia could slip in and sit across from Justus for a few minutes.

By Friday morning, convincing her to sit down beside him and eat a biscuit off his plate dripping with butter and homemade strawberry jam while he ate a bowl of cheese grits with a western omelet smothered in Louisiana Hot Sauce was another feat of valor.  She didn't know if it was the hot sauce or what, but the man was putting out some heat.

Friday night when she got home from classes, Amelia showered and washed her hair.  She drug out all the clothes in her closet, which weren't many.  She spent a good deal of her money paying for her textbooks, her car, her gas, and helping her aunt out with grocery money instead of at Walmart picking out a designer wardrobe.


She didn't have time to do any mending or to treat diner stains that plagued most of her clothes.  That left only a couple of things to choose from, her best Sunday dress or a pair of her favorite jeans she'd spared from diner duty and a flowered blouse that made her feel pretty.  Amelia figured she'd better save her dress for church and put on the other.  It was hard to see much in the small mirror above her dresser, so she just made sure her hair was shiny and as silky as a pretty pony's mane and tail.

He drove up at the same time she did, both five minutes early.  They parked side by side.  The parking lot was empty since the sidewalks rolled up early in town except for the gas station, the movie theater, and the bowling alley.  Well, the local bar didn't count.  He was over in a heartbeat to open her door for her.

"Hi," she said breathlessly.

"You're looking sweet," he had a sideways grin that was even more captivating than his full on smile.

"Ready to go?"  The door to his pick up gave a heavy metal riff.  "I don't use this side much as you can tell by it's groan, only when I give Maggie a ride."

"Maggie?" she wondered aloud whipping her head around.



He got in and buckled.  "Maggie's my dog.  Oh, sorry, but that seat belt doesn't work over there.  You'll have to scoot over and use the middle one by me, if you don't mind.  I'll try not to bruise your knees shifting gears."

Amanda moved over until they were practically jean to jeans.  She wasn't complaining.  The heat might not all be coming out the vents either. 

"You know I don't live here, right?"

"Yes," her heart plummeted.

He shifted into second gear knocking her knees in the process.

"And I don't plan to move here, ever."

"I know."  She looked out the far window until he shifted into third gear after first grazing her knee before finding the shift knob.

"But, I have to tell you, pretty lady, that you've got me all stirred up."

This time she looked up at his eyes that stared at her as long as possible without endangering their lives on the highway.  He shifted into fourth gear then kept his hand on her leg giving a gentle squeeze.

"So, I don't quite have it all figured out."

It's a pickle, all right," she agreed.

"So, for now, we'll just enjoy each other's company and leave it at that, alright?"

"That's about all I can ask for under the circumstances."

"And if it were different circumstances?" he asked.

Amelia swallowed then said, "As the old cowboy once said, 'If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.'"

Justus filled the cab of his pickup with his golden laughter.  He thought she was funny, and that made her happy.  He reached for her hand.



I think that was an English nursery rhyme from the fifteen hundreds, but we can make it into an urban cowboy legend if you want.  I like that."

"So you know your literature?" She had to admit, she was curious about him.  Little snippets of conversation at breakfast were not much to go on.  Dan Price bragged on him though, being friends from college.

"I went to the state university near my home, graduated about four years ago.  My mother's my source of information on that quote though.  It was one of her favorite sayings she used to discourage our whining.

"Mother's are good at quoting ancient history," She wished she could take that back.  She didn't want to talk about her mother.

"Oh?  Care to explain?"

"Suffice it to say, my Aunt Barbara was kind enough to take me in after high school, for which I am deeply grateful."  She cleared her throat then said, "I wasn't comfortable around my mother's new husband."

"Siblings?" He began the get-to-know-you-better quizzing.

"Yes an older brother, a lot older.  He's stationed in Germany right now, a career man.  And you?"

"Three brothers.  My mom had her hands full, so my father took us off her hands early and nearly worked us to death on the ranch.  We complained then, but it got into our blood.  It's a big enough spread that we all work it together to this day since he's passed on."

"Oh, sorry to hear that about your dad.  And your mother?"

He took a deep breath, "She lives with me."

"How nice."  She seemed to mean it. That was a game changer.  The girl had a way with the seniors at the diner, that was for sure and certain.

 So, what do you plan to major in?"

"I'm hoping to become a vet tech."

"A profession I tend to think highly of in my line of work."

She took a deep breath as they pulled into the parking lot of the movie theater.  "Any girlfriends back home?"  She'd been dying to ask.

"Nope.  I've put dating on hold for awhile.  Except for groups of friends and their wives hanging out now and then, I don't see much of the fairer sex.  My mother's the female I socialize with most these days, until now."

"So you're close.  That must be nice."  He didn't make any move to go in yet.  So she kept asking, "Do you drink?"  That was a game changer for her.

"Nope.  Haven't since college when I went crazy for a couple of years, much to my regret.  God and I are on better terms these days.  I never heard anyone say that alcohol draws them closer to God, if you know what I mean."

"Exactly."  She let her breath escape. 

"Do you have any boyfriends, other than that Junior fella.  He doesn't count though, does he?"

"Nope.  I wouldn't be here with you if I did, or he did," she said looking him straight in the eye.

He grinned back.  "Good.  That's what I like to hear.  Let's go in.  I'll get your door.  It likes to stick."

"I can get out your side," she lifted her legs over the gear shift and shimmed down practically into his arms.

He swallowed hard before stepping back to shut his door.  He knew they needed to keep going on their twenty questions game until he got up the nerve to tell her.  But why should he?  He'd be leaving town next week.  They both knew it and just wanted to enjoy each other's company while they could."  He rested his hand at her waist.  It felt good.  Too good.

"What do you want to see?" he asked.

"There's not much choice.  There's only two screens.  That leaves "Murder in the Swamp" or "Toy Story."  They keep showing it so that families have a choice to either watch a horror show or the same kids movie over and over. 

"Toy Story" it is.  I must admit, I'm a rather fond of that little cowboy Woody, you know."

"Of course you are.  I hated it when Jesse broke his heart that one time."

"It was enough to make a grown man cry," and he smiled."

Why shucks, he was still smiling down at her as they moved to the snack line. She wouldn't care if they spent the whole evening having a smile session.  His fingers traced up and down her back in a delicious manner.

"Regular butter or extra butter on your popcorn?"

She was melting.  "Extra."

"Regular coke or diet coke?"

Diet.

"You're easy to please.  Anything else?  A hot dog? Candy?"

"No thank you. I think I could survive on popcorn, well as long as it had butter and salt on it."

They moved on into the theater and walked to the back at the top of the stairs.  Why?  He couldn't say, except that he didn't want distractions like at the diner.  Yeah, that was it.  He wasn't some teenager with raging hormones after all.

They ate the whole bucket before the movie began, so he went back for refills while the previews were playing.  Amanda waved to a few of her friends from church who were there with their kids.

As soon as the lights were out and the movie began, he set the popcorn aside and reached for her salty, buttery hands wiping them off for her with too small of napkins.  He kept one hand firmly in his entangled grasp afterwards.  He looked down at her.  Her eyes met his as he roamed over her face in the flickering light of the show and fastened on her lips.  He brushed the tiniest kernel off her bottom lip.  She shivered noticeably.  He bent slowly waiting for her to refuse him.  His heart was beating like a crazy man's on a tightrope.  He hadn't felt this much of a rush even in his days of bull riding.  He tried to keep it short and sweet but almost forgot.

"My stars and garters!" It was what her grandfather used to say, but it had never come to mind before now.  She'd never been kissed like that.  Not. Even. Close.

"Sorry, I kind of lost my head," he said raking his hands through his hair.  But he was really thinking  about how she had kissed him back, and wow!"

"I've never been kissed in a movie theater, and never like that."

"Do you think Jesse and Woody ever did," and that had her erupting in giggles.

I don't think we can be trusted much without chaperones, so I suggest we only kiss in the diner at breakfast," he grinned.

She was dying now bent  over.  Tears slid out the sides of her eyes.  "Stop!"  You're going to get us thrown out of here." She'd just get control when the image of their kissing in the booth at the diner in front of all the regulars got her giggling again. As soon as she got under control, he'd snort and off they went again.  People were started to look back and glare.

"This is such a moving story, I can't believe we are missing it," he whispered.

He took her hand, and kissed the back of it before settling in comfortably close.  Pretty soon he looked down and saw her even breathing.  She was asleep with her head on his shoulder.  He smiled satisfied that it was turning out to be a pretty good date for a first one.  Then he grimaced.  He was leaving town in a week.  Justus knew he'd better put some distance between them before then or they'd be in trouble.  Maybe he better tell her he was going to be taking his meals at Denny's from now on.  But then he just relaxed enjoying the moment.

When the movie was over, a kid with the theater's name embroidered on his shirt woke them up.  They'd both fallen asleep.  She looked around confused for a half a second then up at him with those big beautiful eyes.

"I'm so sorry!  Why didn't you wake me up sooner?"

"Well, kinda because I fell asleep too, I know you're tired from studying and it's a fact of this cowboy's life that when I come in from working outside all day, any time I sit down and get comfortable, I'm liable to fall asleep."  But the truth was that he liked being able to stare at her unhindered, memorizing every curve, every freckle, every lash, every pucker of her lips, at least until he fell asleep too.  He cleared his throat.  "Ready?"

On the drive back to her car he said,  "You do know I don't live here, right?"

"Right."  She wondered where the drift of the same conversation was going.

"And I'm never moving here, you do understand?"

"Of course.  You have a ranch."

"And I'm only going to be here another week."

She nodded looking down as a sadness overtook her causing a big lump to form in her throat.

"So, I don't know what to do about it.  I mean, we are obviously attracted to one another, but..."

"I do have finals next week, so I'll be pretty busy.  It was true, heart breakingly so."

"Right.  So I guess I'll see you at the diner."  He decided he couldn't cut it off completely, not yet.

"But not tomorrow.  The Prices are having me up to the house for a big brunch."

"Okay."

He gently kissed her good night, but kept himself in check this time even as she sighed.



But he saw her in church that Sunday and climbed over her Aunt Barbara to sit next to her ignoring Junior's glare as he came up the aisle after him steaming as if Justus had stolen his seat with his best gal.
  
"Hi," he whispered grabbing her hand.

"Hi," she said back locking gazes that was broken when the pastor had them stand to sing.

Bertha was on the organ and Tony was on the drums.  Pokey had a base guitar while the mayor played lead.  Edith had a tambourine.  Her cousin Billy was the song leader.

"Quite a band you got there," he couldn't resist and grinned.

"They're not bad, truly."  She met his grin and upped it. 

Suddenly, it hit him like a thousand pound bull, and the wind was knocked out of him.  He could never afford to gamble with her affections.  This was not going to work.  He let go of her hand stretching his fingers out at his side.  "Oh, Lord, help me.  I can't do this again and make another mistake," he prayed silently.


He quickly found himself extricating himself out of the pew and away from a pretty girl with chestnut hair squeezing past Barbie and striding to the back door.  He didn't notice when the band stopped playing for a second as they all stared at his retreating back before striking up again.

Amelia heard nothing of the sermon and excused herself before the last verse of the concluding hymn to hurry to her car.  Billie could drop Aunt Barbara off before taking his family home.  She had to get out of there before she burst into tears. As it was, Bertha almost got to Amelia's car before she pulled out of the parking lot scattering gravel.  She hoped none of it hit the poor woman.  Somewhere in the back of her mind she wondered once again how Bertha could move so fast.  She just made it home before running up the stairs with the click, click, click, of Trigger the Corgi right behind her.  Finally the dam broke and she was sobbing. Amelia almost shut the door on the poor dog, but let him in where he settled himself beside her bed with a deeper than usual sigh.  She almost suffocated herself with her soggy pillow stuffed into her face.



There was, of course, no cowboy at the diner Monday morning.  The looks on everyone's face were almost too much to bear.  It was a good thing he wasn't there.  After all, now she could concentrate on her finals. 

That night her aunt came upstairs to knock.  Amelia had heard the click, click, click of the dog in her wake.  Trigger licked her hand as her aunt looked keenly down at her sitting at her desk where she was thumping her pencil in a nervous manner.

"I think you should skip working in the diner the rest of  this week, and wait until after finals.  I know how important your grades are to you to get into the vet tech program."

"Thanks, Aunt Barbara.  That's really sweet of you, if you're sure it's not too much trouble."

"You know how Bertha likes to get up and bustle around with the coffee pot.  It'll make her feel good to do it for you this week.  They all love you, you know.  But not as much as I do."  She gave her a shoulder squeeze and let her be.  For that, Amelia was eternally grateful.  Her aunt knew that Amelia needed a break from the diner probably more from wondering if a certain cowboy might show up.

She figured deep in her heart that she knew what had happened.  They had fallen too fast, too hard, like lightning quick.  She had to face it. It just wasn't meant to be.  She saw the change on his face in church in an awareness as pure a flash of light as one that would streak the night sky in a storm reflected in those golden eyes of his.  Maybe lightning did strike the same person twice, but for sure and certain she didn't think he'd survived the last hit of truth and ran.

Amelia locked thoughts of a lanky cowboy away, covered it in the cement of a hard heart and buried it in a watery grave of tears that night.  She studied hard and took her finals.  She moved around as if that heavy cement around her heart was really truly there.   She saw his truck parked at Denny's one morning, so she changed her route to school.  Who knew the sight of a Ford pickup could cause such pain.  Good grief!  They had only known each other less than a week, for heaven's sake. 



Friday morning, the door to the diner flung open and shook the building.  Barbie started to shout at Junior but then left her jaw hanging.  In fact, you could have heard one of Bertha's bobby pins drop.  It wasn't Junior.  It was the cowboy.  He hadn't been back all week.  Justus stood there with wild eyes searching, with his wide stance commanding attention, while he lifted his hat off his head to rake his hand through his hair till it stood on end. 

"Where's Amelia?"

"Taking finals."

"When will she be done?"

"Noon, I think."

He was gone like a tumbleweed in a tornado.  His truck was hooked up to his horse trailer with Ms. Price's horse's tail flying out the back as he pulled a U-turn and headed towards the junior college.

The mayor breezed in.  "What's gotten into him?  I've a mind to call the sheriff to report his crazy driving."

"NO!"  everyone shouted in unison before they all began talking at once, something they'd withheld in the sad quiet of the diner all week.  There had just been tisks, head shaking, hand wringing, and stirring coffee with spoons tinkling the sides of their ironstone cups far too long.  Edith had worked her toothpicks furiously.  Only Junior had looked like the cat that ate the canary.

Finally, Barbie had enough.  "Wipe that smirk off your face, Junior.  Do you seriously think she would look at you twice after that cowboy?"

"Yeah, well, who's the last fella still standing, after all?"

"Forget it, Junior.  You ain't got the stuff and never have," Bertha shuddered, her chins quivering.

"The only thing you got is the ninny cotton between your ears that won't let the truth in. Amelia's just not into you." Harold said. 

"Time to look elsewhere, young man.  Do you think Edith was my first love?" Pokey said, "Ouch!"  Edith kicked him under the table then threatened him with a toothpick.

"Maybe I never told you about a certain rodeo champ who I met long before you came along, Mr.-Edith-isn't-my-first-love."  Pokey backed away from the toothpick grasped between her red nails.

"Well, I'm just glad he took off with that killer horse," the mayor said.

"So Dan Price finally was convinced to sell the gelding to that cowboy?  Now Justus will probably break his neck trying to break it, the horse, not his neck, I mean." Shorty said. 

"Really now, we should all be thinking of Amelia, poor dear.  I wonder how we can cheer her up."

Junior started to say something but everyone shouted in union "Hush!"

"I wonder what that cowboy's up to," Edith chewed nervously on her toothpick. 

"He better not break her heart even more is all I've got to say about it." Barbie sank into a chair while her son rubbed her shoulders.  They all were thinking of the way they'd heard how he had kissed her in the movie theater which the mayor's wife had reported to any and all who would listen.

"I'm going to miss that girl when she heads off to finish her degree," she sighed even deeper.

"I promise I'll worry about her every day." Bertha picked her teeth with one of her bobbie pins.  Edith must be rubbing off on her.

"We should just pray for her," Billy finally spoke.

"Oh my, has it come to that?" Bertha heaved her bossom. 

"That's the best and only thing we can do right now.  Shall we?"  Billy held out his hands.  They all gripped each other's in a circle of prayer with an empty table in the middle.

Billy prayed a short but heart-felt one for his cousin and the cowboy.  "Dear Lord, we bring Amelia and Justus both to you.  Only you know if it is a love that is true and strong and meant to be or a passing fancy, a mighty strong and passionate fancy for that matter.  But we know their future is in your hands, their hearts are in your hands, so we release them to you asking for your tender loving care, and Thy will be done."

 "Amen" they all echoed.  Not any wiser but feeling lighter of heart, they went back to being their former nosy, chatty selves.


Amelia moved slowly out of her last class relieved to have her finals over and done with.  Heavy hearted, she felt like the rock in the middle of the stream as students swirled around her passing her by.  She sighed and looked up not remembering where she parked her car.  But a long horse trailer pulled by a brown Ford pickup was all she could see.  A horse's tail waved out the back and a cowboy stood leaning against it who was now taking his hat off to hold over his heart.

"Amelia."

"Justus?  What are you doing here?"

"Waiting for you."

"I thought you'd already left town."

"Not without saying goodbye."

"Oh."  The salty burn of tears was blurring her vision. "Well, good-bye then..."

He came up to her, as close as a starving man to a hamburger and he grabbed her hands.  "Come with me."

"What?  I can't do that!"

"Why not.  They will have to learn sooner or later how to manage without you at the diner."

"It wouldn't be appropriate.  I'm not that kind of a girl."

"I wouldn't be asking if you were.  My mother lives with me, remember?  She has severe rheumatoid arthritis and can't live alone any more.  She'd be our chaperone.  When I'm out of town my brothers take turns keeping her, but I'll be bringing her home as soon as we get there."

"She sounds wonderful."

"She is.  But I'm only thinking about how wonderful you are right now.  I don't want to end our time together.  I want to get to know you better.  I want you to see where I live, how I live, the small town I'm from. Did you know it's only thirty minutes drive to State where they have a great vet tech program.  You could stay with us or with one of my brothers' families and go to school there.  I was up all night praying and trying to figure all this out, and I think I might have.  I'm sorry for running out on you at church last Sunday. You looked mighty sweet in that dress, by the way."

"Um, thank you, but it serves you right skipping the diner's breakfasts and having to eat at Denny's this past week."

"Their coffee's pretty good," he said with a sideways grin while she play punched him in the shoulder.

"I don't know..."She worried biting her lip.  It was all he could do not to kiss her.

"Amelia, I have to tell you something else about me, something I haven't told you yet, before you make your decision.  I've been married before.  We met in college and married as soon as we graduated.  But she hated the ranch, she hated the small town, and  pretty soon I guess she hated me.
When I had to travel to train horses, I found out she liked to go bar hopping with her girl friends in the city and met somebody.  We had some pretty big fights over that.  But when I told her we needed to let my mom move in with us, it was the last straw.  She packed up and moved out to live with her boyfriend.  She divorced me, and I don't know.  I suppose they are married now.  It's not something I'm proud of, but you have a right to know."



Amelia was transfixed with her eyes luminous with tears.  She reached up and gently stroked first one side of his face, then the other feeling the rough stubble of his whiskers.  He'd been a wreck since not seeing her.  After tossing and turning all night, he had not even tried to clean up.  His clothes were a muddy mess.  He smelled of horses and sweat.  He'd intended to drive away and not look back, but he couldn't do it.

"Amelia?"

When she could trust her voice, she said, "I'd love to meet your mother."

Meanwhile, back at the diner, they all crowded around the front window when they saw his pickup and horse trailer pull in across the street.  Then her little old rusty compact parked out front.  She pulled a suitcase out of her back seat, and he threw it in the back of his double cab. 


"Oh, my goodness, she's running away with him!" Bertha looked like she might faint so Tony pulled a chair over to put under her. 

Edith was grinning like an old mule mouthing a sugar lump.  "They look a site better in the happiness department since the last time we spied either one of 'em." 

Pokey just took her hand and kissed the back of it.  Edith dropped her toothpick right out of her mouth.

Barbie said, "Billy, better get out here.  You prayed, but we might have a problem here.  I don't want no man running off with my niece without a preacher sanctifying a union.  She's got a suitcase."

"Just wait and see what they have to say for themselves before we get all riled up," he said with worry lines squeezed between his near uni-brow.

Harold yelled, "Everybody, get back in your seats and look calm.  We can't all jump them at the same time."

Bertha was crying into a tea towel Tony got for her from the kitchen, "My baby girl's going away."

"Come on, Bertha, buck up.  Here they come," Shorty said as he slid in beside Edith before he jumped up and found his seat with Harold.

Pokey started whistling. Nobody had ever heard him whistle before.

The quiet, other than the whistle, was deafening.

The door jangled open, and they both stepped in side by side, closer than honey to the suckle.  "Hi, everybody.  I just finished my finals, and now I'm going to take a little vacation to go meet Justus' mother.  She lives with him so he can take care of herm that is if you think you can get by without me for the next couple of weeks, Aunt Barbara." Amelia finished off her prepared little speech she had just practiced with the cowboy by his truck.  Then she threw in for good measure, "And he needs to get back home 'cause he misses his girl Maggie something fierce."  When they all gasped, she added, "Oh. That's his dog."

Her normally stoic aunt burst into tears and grabbed the tea towel from Bertha to bury her face in. "I thought...I thought...when I saw the suitcase..."

"I'd never do anything to disrespect your niece, Miss Barbara."

Billy came over and wrapped his arm around his mother's shoulder.  "We just prayed together right here in the diner, and it looks like it's all going to turn out after all."

"I'm going to check with the vet tech program there at State.  It's within commuting distance from Justus' ranch, the Four Flying Cowboys' spread named after Justus and his brothers," Amelia added. 

"Is the flying part named after when you get bucked off your broncho's?"  Shorty wanted to know.

"Something like that," Justus grinned.  "It might have a little to do with having the fastest time in team roping events too."

"You aren't going to let our baby girl on that killer horse are you young man?"  Bertha could look fearsome if she had a mind to, purple curls and all.

"No ma'am.  Nobody's going to ride that wild thing but me.  And if he gives me too much guff, I'll just send him out to pasture.  I hate to say it folks, but we need to hit the trail.  There's a few hours yet of daylight we need to burn."

"Better have a cup of coffee for the road, you two."  Bertha jumped up and grabbed the coffee pot with her astounding agility plunking two cups down in front of them.  Everyone crowded around them as they gulped it down.

No one saw when Junior left, but the mayor burst in, saying, "Are you aware, young man, that your trailer tags have expired?"

"No!" Everyone yelled in unison.

"I'll pay the fee and we'll send them to him in the mail," Edith scoffed.  She used to work at DMV for a hundred years and was good at pulling strings.

"Why thank you, little lady," and the cowboy kissed her on the cheek.  She practically choked on her toothpick but Pokey saved her by pounding on her back.

"Well, we're riding off into the sunset."

"Happy trails to you!"  The whole diner broke out singing it together.  After all, most of them were on the church's worship team and could make pretty good music together.  The bell on the diner's door jingled on their way out.  But out on the sidewalk, he swept her back into a kiss that sucked their breath away as the Breakfast Bunch all watched, one that sizzled in spite of the snow flurries. 

"See, I told you we better save our kisses for the diner's chaperones," he told her making her giggle.

After a moment of poignant silence, Bertha called, "Coffee anyone?" while Tony softly quoted,

"Thou wilt make known to me the path of life;
In Thy presence is fullness of joy;
In Thy right hand there are pleasures forever."
(Psalm 16:11)



 



























































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