"See the smell of my son
Is like the smell of a field which the Lord has blessed;
Now may God give you of the dew of heaven,
And the fatness of the earth,
And an abundance of grain..."
"Hold it right there!" Justice boomed. "Get out and show yourselves with your hands up." Three guys finally got out after arguing and reluctantly did as they were told after pushing and shoving each other.
"What are you doing on my land besides trespassing on private property. It's posted if you didn't notice."
"Ahh, shucks, Shields, we were just having a little fun. No harm done." Justice looked closer and did recognize two of them, brothers, both of them troublemaker and losers from his high school days. But they kept looking into the corn field over their shoulders.
"Who were you chasing?"
"We was just playing around. Don't know her name though," the third young man said trying to peer through the rows of corn which had grown to about six feet tall. Justice remembered his face from a drug possession charge recently. The local paper liked to post pictures of those arrested in the community.
"Tell you what, if you just back your car down a bit, the road will be wide enough to turn around at a gate. Don't let me catch you on my property again or I will press charges next time for sure."
They scrambled like the three stooges to jump back in their old Lincoln and skedaddle. Justice needed to find out who the other party was though. A girl?
"Hey, you can come out now. They're gone."
He waited. He was a patient man. Finally he heard rustling in the stalks. He was shocked. A young woman appeared covered in dirt like she'd fallen down, but obviously wasn't the kind of rabble he expected to have gallivanting with those low-lifers.
"Hello," she said tentatively crossing her arms over herself protectively. She pointed to his rifle still cradled in his arm. "Am I in trouble?"
He wiped some more grime off his face with his bandana. "Can you tell me what you are doing here?"
"I was trying to get away from them. She nodded her head towards the cloud of dust tearing away down the road. They've been shadowing me since I left the gas station. But then they began pulling up, passing me only to slow way down. However if I tried to pass, they'd speed up again. So I thought maybe I could try to lose them if I drove up this dirt road, but they followed me. I didn't consider the fact that maybe I was trespassing. Sorry." She looked frazzeled, in a fragile way standing there in a sundress and sandals, with dust and dirt all over her dress, face and legs.
"Sounds reasonable," he finally said. It was like his brain couldn't go faster than his tractor in the Indy 500. If you want, you can follow me, and I'll take you to the fruit stand where my mother is working. It's on another lane you would have come to if you followed the fruit stand signs." It was the best he could do, hand her over to his mother and let her deal with it.
He got back on his tractor and chugged up the road turning just before coming to their house. He shut off his tractor at the fruit stand. Eloise Sanchez was helping his mother today. Both were busy giving out samples of peaches. When the customers left, he waved over the girl who stood waiting by her car.
"Hey mom." His mother came over and gave him a squeeze. "This young woman was being harassed and chased down the road by those Proctor boys and another one of their druggy friends. I found her hiding in the cornfield trying to get away from them. Thought maybe you could help her."
"Oh, sugar, I am so sorry! You must have been petrified. Why don't I take you up to the house to get you cleaned up..."
"Oh, brother." he muttered under his breath. "I should have known that's what she'd do," he grumbled as he turned his tractor around. It was then he noticed her car was packed to the gills with stuff, like she was moving or something. He glanced back, tipping his hat when she looked up at him. Even with her face dirt streaked, her smile was a stunner. He almost drove into a pile of fruit boxes before he could tear his eyes away.
He heard his mother's high peal of laughter over the chug of his engine. Even if she was laughing at him, it was okay because it had been a long time since he'd heard her laugh, too long. His dad had been gone nearly a year now, and she grieved hard. They all did. She seemed better now that she was back outside working the fruit stand. She was good with people. She needed that interaction after a winter of withdrawing into her sorrow.
The mantle fell on him now to keep the ranch afloat. They decided to let his brother Joel take over the fruit, honey and nut side of their operation while his brother Jake was in charge of running cattle. He leased the land adjacent to them from his girlfriend's grandpa which gave him access to vast acreage. The old cowboy had recently quit running his own herd due to his health. Justice was primarily responsible for the grain crops and hay as well as the garden vegetables for the stand. They would never have been able to stay viable without diversifying. Then if one had a bad year, the other endeavors were there to lean on.
Eloise and her husband and straping sons were true gems. They couldn't find better and more loyal workers. Without their willingness to do the backbreaking work, they couldn't have made it. Justice had plans to improve their housing this winter. He wished he could afford to do a total remodel or move in a new mobile home for them, but it wasn't in the budget. So, he would replace the roof before it rained and redo the single bathroom when they went to visit family in Mexico. They didn't talk about it much, but they also went there to seek more affordable treatment for Eloise's cancer. Justice knew she shouldn't be working the fruit stand, but the woman did not want to leave his mother to do it by herself. He needed to find someone to hire for the seasonal position. He'd place an ad tonight in fact.
The good and the bad thing about farming was that he had lots of time alone to think. He thought about how difficult it was for his brother Joel to buckle down to his responsibilities. At least he was trying. Justice helped him out when he could. Joel put his time in on the ranch during the day, but took off most nights to hang out with his friends. He thought his brother had probably dated pert'near every female close to his age in two county. He even had some cougars after him with his dark good looks inheriting the best of both his mother and his father. Justice just hoped he'd be careful and remember the way his Christian parents had raised him.
Then there was Jake, the youngest. Justice was real proud of him. It was beginning to look like he would be the first to marry. He and Windy had been together since they were freshmen in high school, inseparable. Windy's grandpa was a good mentor and taught his brother how to be a cattleman. However, that meant that they saw Jake less and less as he practically lived at Windy's folks and her grandpa's when he wasn't out working the cattle. They didn't seem to mind feeding him like a lost puppy. Especially since Dad died, Jake made himself scarce. He only came home to sleep most of the time.
Now as for himself, he'd been lucky in love, lucky that Judith broke off their engagement two weeks before the wedding. Justice just wished his dad hadn't taken it so hard. Both of their families had thought they were a perfect pair having grown up together and gone to church together their whole lives. But honestly, Justice had his doubts and was almost more glad than heartbroken when she did the right thing to break up. He'd been too chicken to disappoint his parents, even her parents since they were such close family friends over the years. Now Judith was happily married with a baby on the way. That left him home with his mother most nights. They both seldom went out. He did the farm's books always trying to make things stretch and balance while she read.
These were his musings when he puttered up on his tractor for lunch. "Hey, mom." He gave his usual greeting, but he was surprised to find that blonde thing sitting at the table next to Joel. His brother was so busy entertaining her, that evidently no one heard him come in. Even his mother seemed more perky than usual, smiling and laughing. When he pulled out his chair and plunked down in his seat, they finally saw him.
"I'm so glad you're here, Justice," his mother said. "After you say the blessing, I'll tell you the good news."
He wanted to tell his grinning like a fool brother to say the blessing if he was so happy, but Justice just bowed his head and thanked the Lord. He was grateful for his food, but wasn't sure he would be so thankful for what they were about to spring on him. They both looked too eager.
"Guess what! Jena here has agreed to finish the season out working in the fruit stand with me. That way Eloise can just work in her garden when she feels good and rest when she doesn't."
He looked around the table at the expectant faces. What could he say? They needed help. "Just bring me your social security number so I can fill out employment forms for you. We can't pay over minimum wage I'm afraid." Justice knew he'd have trouble even hiring high school students at that rate, but that's all they could afford."
"That's fine." The blonde looked even better with the dirt washed off her face. Evidently his brother thought so too. But as he really looked at her for the first time, something was nagging at the back of his brain, but he couldn't quite make it our yet. After that, he tried to avoid looking at the young woman.
"Well, we thought since we couldn't afford to pay more, and since she doesn't have a place to stay right now, we could supplement it by offering her food and housing too." His mother had that worried smile. Whenever she bit her lip like that he knew he was going to be surprised.
"What housing, Mom? We don't have any housing." Justice was perplexed.
"She could stay in your room. You and Joel could share. Joel is willing. After all, it's just during the busiest season then Jena will be off again to college."
"My room?" He croaked. He shook his head and tried again. "My room?" He couldn't get it through his thick skull. They didn't know this person from Adam, and they just offered her a job and invited her to live with them and take over his room, the one he had lived in for nearly twenty-three years! What were they thinking?
"I don't think that's a very good idea, Mom..."
"Ahh, come on Justice," Joel whined. "You know we need the help and Jena needs a summer job. It's just for a couple of months. You can stand it to share a room with me for that long if I promise not to put frogs and snakes under your pillow." Joel was pushing hard.
He shuddered thinking of his brother's childhood pranks. It was the slugs under the sheets that got to him the most. Well, if they wanted to talk this out in the girl's presence, then so be it. "It's just that we don't know anything about Jena. She could be a thief for all we know, no offense to you, miss."
"No offense taken." She blanched but then managed a smile.
What was it about that smile? He was scratching his head.
His brother was rising out of his seat with anger written all over his face. "Don't be accusing Jena of anything, Justice. I'm warning you."
What? His brother was willing to fight him for her honor, this stranger?
"Sit down, Joel," his mother said firmly.
"Mom?" He hoped she would back him up, but his mother was now looking down repeatedly dunking a French fry into her ketchup.
"You know we need help, Justice. I think God sent us Jena. We need her and she needs us."
It was settled then. They had all agreed to give their mother the final say on ranch business.
"Okay then, welcome aboard Jena." He kept busy eating his second hot dog with his eyes averted refusing to look at their new house guest. He downed his first glass of lemonade and then drank some more. He started to wipe his mouth on his sleeve then remembered his company manners. "I'll move my things out of my room now, and Joel can help you move your things in after we close down the fruit stand for the day."
"Thank you, Justice." His mother knew she had overruled him and patted his hand. He grabbed a couple of oatmeal cookies off a plate and left saying, "Leave the glass. I'll drink some more before I go back out there. It's hot today."
He swung his long leg over the low back of the chair and walked away from their banter. Standing in the door of his room, he didn't know how to even begin to clean it out. It wasn't messy really, it was just that over the years he'd somehow gathered an accumulation of stuff. He'd never before noticed how much it was. He'd need to bring empty fruit boxes up to haul it out. This was going to be more than the fifteen minute operation he'd imagined. He yelled, "Hey Joel, bring me some fruit boxes if you expect me to clear out of my room."
"We need to get back to the fruit stand anyway," he heard his mother say. "I don't like to leave Eloise very long even if her husband came to eat lunch with her and help."
Justice just began making piles on his bed. He also grabbed a garbage sack. This might take the rest of his afternoon, and time was money. Oh well, why fight it. He ruthlessly started to throw things away, things like his collection of pictures with Judith that he'd kept in a box in his closet, a box of his high school reports and newspaper clippings of when his name was in the paper for his sports and rodeo events...
"You can't throw that away!" his mother yelled coming into his room. "Those are special!"
"Well, here, you can have them then," he grunted.
"I'll put them in a scrapbook. Your kids will want to see them someday," she sniffed. "She dug through the garbage sack. "And these pictures with Judith? Some of these are our family times together. I want to save those too."
"Okay, okay. I'll just box it all up for now and you can sort through my things later if you want, Mom."
Joel stuck his head in. "This room is like a time capsule from your high school years, bro. It's untouched memorabilia from that decade everyone wants to forget, pictures of your old girlfriends--wait a minute--oh yeah, you didn't date!"
"Shut it, Joel. This was your idea, so let me work in peace," he warned. "Just bring me those boxes."
"Okay, okay. I'll be back in a flash. I'll just escort Jena and mom back to the fruit stand first."
Justice muttered "escort them my foot!" He was busy tearing things down from his wall, a bulletin board, a photo of him on his horse, then stilled when he noticed Jena was in the room.
"I didn't mean for you to have to totally clean everything out. All I need is the bed and a little space in the closet," she said apologetically.
"It's alright. It needed to be cleaned out anyway." He went back to yanking things down. He looked at his deer head mount. He might just have to leave that there to remind her it wasn't really her room. She was only temporary.
"Okay, see you later then." She left.
He didn't look back at her as she left. Then it hit him. She really was going to see him later. Every. Single. Day. She would be here all the time for the next couple of months. He rested his head against his wall. What was his mother thinking?
He kicked piles of dirty clothes around to make a path through Joel's room so he could squeeze his hanging clothes into the closet. After finding his brother's dresser drawers full and overflowing, Justice decided he'd just have to keep his other clothes in his suitcase and gym bag. He heaved a sigh. He wasn't looking forward to sleeping in a room smelling of his brother's stinking socks. He didn't like the hours his brother kept either, coming in late and sleeping in a couple of hours after he got up. Justice was in bed by nine almost every night. He'd rather bunk with Jake, but being the baby of the family, his little brother got the smallest room. He couldn't squeeze in there if he tried.
Two hours later, he'd finally hauled all his boxes to the attic and vacuumed it out. The room was now bare of all decoration. Except the mounted deer head. Maybe his mother would want to choose paint and have him do it while it was so empty. He hoped she had a better bedspread than this old one with football helmets on it. His final action was to take his favorite pillow. In exchange, he grabbed his brother's off his bed and tossed it in the room for Jena. He was done.
Since the vacuum was already out, he decided to use it for the whole house. Then Justice was too tired to go back and do the field work. What was it about housework that made him more tired than if he'd just plowed the back forty. Instead, he looked on the fridge door where a magnet held a list of what was going to be for supper each day. Tacos tonight. He began frying up the hamburger and chopping the tomatoes and lettuce and onions. The cheese was pre-grated in a bag. He wouldn't touch the tortillas until he knew if Jeff, or even Jena would be staying to eat with them or hitting town. He didn't often cook for his mother, but it always pleased her when she didn't have to come in from the fruit stand to fix their meals. He put a pile of paper plates on the table.
Then he put the meat on low and decided to be the first one for once to grab the shower. Their old house still had only one bathroom. His dad had always planned to add on another, but never got around to it. Keeping the place going was sunrise to sunset. Justice was just coming out rubbing his hair dry when the others came in the house.
"Hmm! Don't tell me you got dinner started, Justice!" His mother gave him a kiss on the cheek. "That smells wonderful, and I'm so hungry! Are you staying for dinner tonight Joel or going to town?"
"I thought Jena and I could..."
"I'm staying," Jenna jumped in. She was busy washing her hands at the sink. "What can I do to help?"
"Why don't you set the table...Joel are you staying or going?
"I'll stay then," but he didn't look happy about it.
"Okay, dear, for four of us then. Looks like Justice already got out the paper plates. You'll find the salsa and sour cream in the fridge too."
Justice figured his brother probably had great ideas about entertaining their new house guest in town, but Jena seemed bent on ignoring him. He couldn't help but smile a bit. Joel wasn't used to having females ignore him.
He began frying up the tortillas turning his back on the newcomer. He didn't need the distraction. His mother was actually singing under her breath. His shoulders that were tight began to relax. His mother was happy. It had been a long while since she sang in the kitchen.
Joel plied Jena with questions, but she was rather evasive. Justice grinned at the frustration written all over his brother's face.
"I just finished my second year at college and was headed home to look for a summer job. But since you needed help, it seemed like a perfect opportunity."
"Won't your family be expecting you, dear?" His mother would worry over her like a mother hen.
"I called and explained. My mom was fine with it. She stays pretty busy and isn't home much anyway."
"What does she do?" His mother asked.
"She manages a dental office. My late stepdad was a dentist. He's the one who set aside money for my education." At least the first two years had been paid for. She didn't know what she'd do now. She doubted her mother would help her.
"Where does she live?" His mother kept going.
"Maybe we should let her eat and grill her later, mom." Justice winked at his mother.
"You're right of course. Pass me the salsa, please Joel." His mother took the hint. But she liked it hot, the food and the conversation.
Still, Joel wanted to hear all about the trespassers who had chased Jena onto their property. So he told him.
"I'd like to pay them a little visit," he growled.
"No!" Jena and their mother cried out at the same time.
"I mean, I think Justice scared them off with the rifle in his arms. I don't think they'll bother me again," the girl said wiping her hands on her napkin.
"Your rifle? Did you point a gun at them?" Joel exclaimed. "Way to go, bro!"
"I only held it in my arms, but they got the message. Please pass the taco shells, mom."
"What were you doing with your rifle, son?" His mother was puzzled.
"I was just going to try to keep down the rabbit population that has been eating everything, It just happened to be handy when they jumped out of their old car. It got their attention anyway."
"I'll bet! Joel grinned. "I heard they are squatters on old Lester's place. I bet they're tearing it up."
Suddenly every person at the table turned grim. Lester had once been a long time trusted ranch hand until he stole so many head of cattle over the years that it added up to over $15,000 in loss. Cattle rustling didn't disappear in the wild west; it still happened. They had all been shocked though that he was the one who did it. At least they didn't hang horse thieves anymore. But he died before he served his full sentence in prison. Their dad had been faithful to visit him and witness to him. Lester had finally turned his heart over to God.
"I heard every last cent he made off that beef went to feed his gambling habit. I think that's what makes me the maddest, was that he threw it all away, all our money wasted," his mother was sticking her fork in her salad like it was a pitchfork.
"That ol' coot wasn't just a thief but he'd bet on anything that moved, every cock fight, dog fight, not to mention card games. I never heard of a gambler with such bad luck. I think he'd bet on whether the sun would come up the next day and still lose," Joel tried to make light of what was still a tender subject.
"Well, I hope the sheriff evicts those Procter boys before they start growing marijuana, cooking meth or something there on his place. I wonder who owns it now?" Justice said to no one in particular.
"Goodness, Jena, you are as white as a sheet. You had quite a day what with being chased, then learning the fruit stand business. I bet you are just plain tuckered out, sweetie," his mother clucked.
"I think I'll get my things out of my car now. Thank you for supper. It was delicious," she replied on her way to toss her paper plate in the trash.
"I'll help you as soon as I'm done," Joel said with his best smile.
It made Justice grin inside thinking of his brother's dilemma to eat or help a pretty girl. He noticed though that Jena had only eaten one taco. He was on his sixth. As soon as he was done, he'd go to his office. He wondered when he had starting thinking of his dad's study as his.
Joel was watching sports, his mom was reading and the young woman must have holed up in his bedroom, 'cause she wasn't about. Then he heard the shower. Great. Now they had another one to share the hot water with.
"I'm turning in for the night," he said until he realized he'd have to wait to use the rest room. He sighed. "I mean in awhile."
She came out with a towel around her hair wearing a bathrobe, the kind of silky one that goes with satin pajamas, not that he knew about those kind of things or anything. He heard the lock click on his room's door. Once years ago to save sanity, their father had installed locks on each of the boys' rooms to keep them from evading each other's private space. At least she would feel safe in a house with three young men, as if she wasn't. But she didn't know that. The bathroom was filled with the smell of her shampoo. Must be coconut, he figured.
Jake had picked that time to show up. He'd been coming in late and leaving early, so he did not know about their newest houseguest. He yelped, "Who was that?"
His mother smiled and responded like it was some everyday occurrence to have a young lady coming out of the bathroom in her bathrobe. "That's Jena. She's helping me with the fruit stand, and we invited her to stay here with us."
"In Justice's room?" Jake was incredulous. At least he wasn't the only one to think it absurd.
"Well, it's hard to find someone willing to work for minimum wage, so we thought it would be best if we offered room and board as well, you know, to sweeten the deal."
It was as lame an excuse as it sounded.
"Wow, okay then. I'm just surprised you hired her, that's all. But her names's not..."
Justice cut in. If there was trouble, he didn't want his mom to hear it first so he changed the subject. I boxed up most my stuff and put it up in the attic and just moved my clothes into Joel's room for now. By the way, I was trying to figure out how much hay we'd need this winter and thought maybe you could give me a estimate." He knew that would keep his brother going down a different rabbit trail. But he didn't have a chance later to ask Jake who he thought she was. Their mom was close by all evening so he finally gave up and went to bed.
But he couldn't sleep. He wrestled with his memory to come up with why he felt he knew this girl. She didn't go to high school with him, he was pretty sure. She was too young. Maybe he had a class with her at the junior college but didn't think so. He'd have remembered her.
Suddenly he sat up. He knew who she was. Justice wiped his hand over the stubble on his chin feeling his face flush. But why was she using a different name? And why on earth did she show up at their ranch of all places. Why were the Procter brothers chasing her? He growled. She was the last person he should have hired. Now he'd have to decide whether to fire her outright in the morning or just keep a close watch on her. It might trouble his mother if she knew the truth, so he decided he'd keep quiet for now. He wouldn't let on that he recognized her just yet. Then more thoughts kept his mind occupied.
The next morning Justice announced at breakfast,"I'm going to town this morning, Mom, so make me a list of the things you need. They tried to keep the house rolling like a well-oiled machine dividing up jobs like giving each person a day to do their own laundry. It was his day, so he started a load then, grabbed his mom's list, and headed out. Since the courthouse wasn't open yet with the county offices, Justice decided to grab a cup of coffee. Maybe he'd hear a little gossip about those Procter boys or about old Lester's place. He went to where the old timers hung out. He was greeted all around and answered their friendly inquiries about his families' welfare. There was better coffee and atmosphere in a lot of the other places, but this is where the salt of the earth gathered, men so down to earth that the dirt never came all the way clean under their fingernails from years of scratching out an honest living on the land.
By the time he left town, he had everything on his mother's list and then some. It had been a very productive morning that kept him beaming. The sheriff would soon be evicting those squatters right off old Lester's property because it was now his. The timing was perfect. He was able to get it for a song for back taxes. The new owners with a last name he didn't recognize, who somehow came into possession after Lester died, had never paid a dime. The place came with ten acres, not a lot like they needed for their ranch, but it was nothing to sneeze at either, even if the house wasn't much. He wouldn't say anything until he made sure those low-life's were run off, then he'd drive his mother out to see it to surprise her. Maybe God was allowing the years that the locust had eaten to be restored.
He hopped on his tractor and sang all morning at the top of his lungs. That was another good thing about farming, nobody was there to hear him as he belted out the tune, "O What A Beautiful Morning," from the old musical "Oklahoma, his mother's favorite." Then he went on to sing the lyrics "Well, the farmer and the cowboy should be friends," another song from the same musical. She'd played the soundtrack often enough until it was engrained in his memory.
At lunch, she had bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches ready. The day just kept on getting better.
"Why are you so happy today, Justice? Did you win the lottery or something? Either that or you must have slept extra good last night in my room last night," Joel poked at him.
"Not hardly with your snoring," he tried to grumble, but couldn't get it rumbling. "It's just a beautiful day." He took a good look at the girl now that he'd figured out who she was. She met his eyes and they locked, her wide brown ones growing bigger and his gaze growing more narrow. She broke away first. Yeah, she knew he knew alright. Still, he couldn't keep the heat from his face. Remembering her had its good parts along with the bad.
Justice excused himself as he went to switch his clothes to the dryer and put in another one to wash, his white ones, glad now that his mother had remembered to put bleach on the list. At least the bleach overpowered that coconut tropical smell of her hair.
Then he headed back to the fields. The hay would be ready to harvest soon. He tended the large vegetable patch they grew to sell at the fruit stand and filled bushel baskets with produce. The pumpkins were coming along nicely too. His heirloom tomatoes however were his pride and joy out of all he did. Justice chuckled, his life really was down to earth. But there was something intensely gratifying to gather the fruits of his labor. If only the rabbits weren't such pests. He didn't feel obligated to feed their large families, that's for sure.
He loaded the bushel baskets into the back of his pickup and drove them over to the fruit stand. After he lugged them over to where his mother could sort them to sell, he took a peach and rubbed the fuzz off before taking a juicy bite. It made his eyes want to roll back in his head, it was so good. When it was cherry season, he thought cherries were his favorite fruit, but when this season rolled around, Justice thought there was nothing better than a tree ripened peach.
"Son, we can't keep enough of your heirloom tomatoes in the bins. You better plan to plant even more next year," his mother said. "By the way, Joel agreed to take me to my eye appointment in town. We will probably grab a bite to eat there, if you don't mind fixing something on your own.
When he came into the house the girl was already there folding his white things, his socks and underwear. "What do you think you're doing!"
"Folding clothes." She looked at him askance. "I needed to do a load of laundry, so I switched the loads for you."
"It's my day to do laundry. We each have a day. You had no business touching my clothes," he barked. Even he didn't know what he was so worked up about it. Now she looked hurt. Good grief why didn't he keep his mouth shut. He turned around, but felt something hit him in the back of his head.
"What did you just throw at me?"
"Your stupid laundry. Here, have another one. She launched a pair of socks at his chest, hard."
He smirked. "So this is war?" He grabbed a handful of his clothes and knotted them to turn them into soft missiles.
Pretty soon she was shrieking and hiding behind furniture lobbing the clothes back and forth at him while he was laughing his fool head off. He decided to win the battle, and so he crept closer and closer until he grabbed her disarming her by ripping another pair of socks out of her hands. Then he didn't know what to do with her in his arms. Of course, that was the moment his mother walked in the house with Joel at her heels.
"What on earth!" She looked at the living room littered with his white tee shirts, socks and underwear and back at the two of them. She covered her mouth as she tried to hold back her mirth.
Joel, not so much. He glowered. Even though Justice had been quick to let her go, Joel had seen her in his arms. "So that's how it is, huh. I turn my back for one afternoon, and you steal her away from me?" He bumped Justice's shoulder hard muttering so only his brother could hear.
Justice put his hands up, "Not me!"
He was still thinking about this when he unloaded the produce at the fruit stand.
Jena just kept her back to him working sorting peaches from the crates Joel had brought in. Her shoulders were a little stiff as if she was nervous. He bet she was. Tonight he'd have to have a talk with her about her real name. He couldn't issue her a paycheck without it. He wasn't looking forward to the conversation, but maybe she'd just quit. That would probably be for the best.
But Joel was trying to talk her into going country line dancing. His mother always got tight lipped about it since it was in a bar.
"I promise to only drink sodas, mom. You can smell my breath when I get home," Joel teased her until she smiled at him and patted his cheek.
"I know you are a good boy, son. Just remember who your Father is."
They all knew that was code for God, the all-seeing, all-knowing One. Somehow or other, the fear of God had been instilled in each of her sons. He was grateful for Christian parents who had raised them right. Growing up together, the three boys had their wrestling matches with sometimes a punch thrown here or there, but overall they'd been a happy family. Boy, he sure missed his dad. He wished he was here now. He could tell him how to untangle this mess.
For some reason though, it really bothered him that Joel was trying to take Jena with him. "How old are you, Jena? Will they even let you in the bar?" Justice couldn't help but ask.
"It's in a bar? I thought it was some barn dance or something. I don't want to go if it's in a bar. I can't any way since I'm not twenty-one."
"Thanks a lot, bro. You know how to kill my fun for the night," Joel muttered under his breath. Yep, Joel was steaming mad at him, but Justice felt relieved. The girl deserved better than that crowd Joel wanted to drag her through. He knew some of those guys, and he wouldn't trust a sister with them, if he had a sister that is.
"Well, then, how would you like to watch "Oklahoma" with me tonight, Jena."
Joel groaned. "If that's what you're watching, Mom, then I'm outta here." The door slammed and they could hear him peal out down the drive.
"I'd love to watch it with you. It's one of my favorites."
"Now." He felt it in his spirit as if God had breathed it in his ear. He swallowed. "Jena would you like to take a walk with me first?" His mother was startled but then got a smug smile on her face. He'd be wiping that off soon, but wishing he didn't have to disappoint her. Every time she tried to prod him to date, he'd balked as bad as a yearling calf going up the cattle shoot for the first time."
They walked in silence away from the house. Jena was hugging herself with her head hanging down looking defeated.
"Can you tell me what this is about Lizzie? I'll admit, I didn't recognize you at first, but you had to realize one of us would put two and two together eventually. I think Jake knew who you were right off the bat, but I didn't let him say anything in front of our mother. And why were you hanging out with the Procter boys?"
She gasped. "You don't really think that do you? I despise them. They used to come by with their dad when he played cards with my grandpa. Even back then they scared me."
"Well, are you going to tell me why you are using a false name?"
"Oh, that. Don't worry, I'm not. I'll admit that I didn't want you to know it was me at first. I figured you'd just send me down the road. But Jena is my real first name. Elizabeth is my middle name and somehow that's the one Gramps called me because Lizzie was my grandma's name. As for the last name, as messed up as my mom was, she finally met a nice man, a dentist. After they got married, he adopted me even though I was a teenager."
"Okay. But why did you choose to come here?" His hands were shoved in his pockets, and he was trying to sift through everything to make sure it was all the truth.
"Well, I decided since I was driving by on my way back from college, I would swing by and see Gramps old place. He left it to me in his will, but the Procter boys were there..."
Justice stopped, "What did you just say?"
"I said that my grandfather left me his place in his will. I wondered if it was still livable, if maybe I could stay there and find a job around here this summer. My happiest times growing up were at his house, well, and at yours since I shadowed him wherever he went working for your dad when I stayed for the summers. I loved it here and would pretend your family was my family."
Justice groaned and wiped his hand over his face. "Well, Lizzie, it doesn't belong to you anymore."
"What do you mean it doesn't belong to me?" she gasped.
"It was sold for back taxes. As long as it's a notice in the newspaper, no matter how fine the print, they don't necessarily have to notify the owners before selling."
Lizzie covered her mouth with the back of her hand and tears started pouring. She gulped once, twice, then the sobs came.
Justice didn't know what to do. He put his hands on top of his head and turned around. He'd never been in this situation before. He tried to remember if Judith ever cried, but he couldn't remember a time, not even when they broke up. He'd heard his mom cry a few times, especially since his dad died, but she stayed in her room. But the tears were still coming so he stood in front of her and tentatively put his hand on her arm. Then he stroked her hair back from where her hands hid her face. Before he knew it, she flung herself against him and was crying into his shirt. Her whole body shook while weeping. By then he decided he'd better hold her since she was falling apart. The problem was, when he did that her hair was so close that her coconut smell filled his senses. That wasn't good either as she was feeling a little too good in his arms.
As soon as she made a shuddering stop to her breakdown, he stepped back and put his hands in his back pockets.
"I'm sorry. I probably soaked your shirt. I guess it was just a silly dream. I didn't know anything about the taxes. Mom didn't send me any mail about it." She was still taking shuddering breaths to get back under control. "I always wanted to come back and live here. My mother has a fancy house, but it's not my home. Now that my stepdad died, she's got a parade of boyfriends coming through again. I just can't go back. I can't!"
Justice felt like a dog, but another nudge from God hit between his shoulder blades. He had to be totally honest with her. "Umm, Lizzie, when I realized who you were, it got me thinking about Lester's place. So I went down to the courthouse and found out it was about to go up for auction, so I paid the back taxes and bought the place." He rubbed his neck and couldn't hardly look at her stricken face. "I figured it was a way to get the money back that Lester, your grandpa, stole from our family. I had no idea you were the one he left it to since I didn't recognize your last name. You hadn't given that to me yet for the employment papers yet."
"I'm truly sorry, Lizzie. I had no idea," Justice was hankering to hold her again. He put his arm around her shoulder. She tucked herself up close next to him. He heard her sign. He wanted to protect her, but he'd pulled the rug right out from under her instead. "You can stay with us as long as you want. Shoot, you can live in his house rent free once we get it cleaned up. We don't need it for now. I just thought someday, one of us boys will need a home. But I haven't told my family about buying his property yet. I used my own savings to do it. We can't all live with Mama here forever, you know," he chuckled.
"Might get crowded at that." She smiled up at him. "I think I've put you a tad over capacity as it is."
"Hey, don't worry about that. I think you've earned your own official laundry day. I hereby give you Fridays!" They both laughed. "You can keep working for us too." They had started to walk a bit but slowed to a stop again. She looked up at him with one hand on his chest. Her eyes were gleaming in the dusk.
"I can't believe you didn't recognize me immediately. Have I changed that much, Justice?"
"I think I was just shocked to see a beautiful young woman walk out of the corn stalks. You had my mind spinning. I tried to not even look at you. It was last night when I put two and two together."
"Seriously, you didn't know it was me?" Lizzie elbowed him.
"Hey, you've changed a mite since you were a twiggy sixteen year old." He shouldn't have said that. It made him think of all her soft curves she had now. But worse, it brought that night flooding back. He'd been picking his horse's hooves when she'd come in the barn to watch him work. They got talking, then he straightened and moved over closer. He'd never had a female stir him up before. She was a pretty little filly. He kissed her. He figured it was both their first one, and needed a little more work. When her grandpa came in and found them, they'd been practicing at it awhile.
"Your gramps scared me good, threatening me with calling the sheriff. I didn't realize how young you were, and I was considered a man at nearly nineteen. Remember how he called me every name in the book? He was using words I'd never heard before. Figured he'd come at me swinging next, but you got him out of there."
She laughed nervously. "Yes, I was afraid if you two tangled, he'd get hurt. He wouldn't let me come back to your ranch after that."
They walked some more. "I was sure glad you who found me running from the Procter's. I had gone out to see the home place again, but was surprised to find them there. I turned the car around as fast as I could without getting out, but they followed me and caught up with me when I was putting gas in my car. That's when they started harassing me. I guess I just knew I'd find a safe haven here on your place."
"So you're over eighteen now?" He was falling fast.
"I'm nineteen with another birthday coming up in a couple of months."
"Good. I wouldn't want anybody to call the sheriff on me now." With that he tipped her face up and waited just a moment to make sure she wasn't pulling back. Instead she leaned into him. Her kisses were as sweet as he remembered. He'd always felt guilty when he kissed Judith, because it just wasn't the same. It didn't get his heart pounding like this. Those two were the only girls he'd ever kissed, and he'd always think of Lizzie, which wasn't the thoughts a fiancé should have. But now he figured it had been so long since that night he'd first kissed her that they might need a little practice again, and so they did.
Finally he knew he shouldn't keep her out there any longer the way his heart was beating. "I think we should go explain some things to my mom, what do you say?"
When they came in, his arm was around her. His mother looked pleased as punch. The talk he had dreaded with their new hire had not gone as he thought it would. It was much, much better than he could have ever dreamed. God was good.
His mother was exasperated with herself. "Oh, Lizzie, I should have recognize you." She gave her a hug. Then they sat in the living room, Lizzie and Justice leaning into each other on the couch while his mother sat in her recliner with her feet up. Justice told her the whole story, even the part about kissing Lizzie at sixteen and making Lester so mad. He just didn't go into any great detail.
"Lester told us about it. He was furious," his mother smiled.
"You never said anything to me about it," he sputtered.
"Lester told us how he'd made a believer out of you that he would come after you with his shotgun if he caught you with his granddaughter again. We knew you weren't the type to go sneaking around. But I think we made the mistake then of trying to push you and Judith together. I see now what a mistake that was. The closer the wedding got, the more sick I felt about it. I knew you didn't love her like you should, so we were so glad when she called it off. She wasn't the one for you, son."
"You knew, Mom? You knew I shouldn't marry Judith?" He was shocked.
"Of course, dear. I'm your mother."
"My gramps made sure I knew that Justice was taken. In fact, I didn't know if he got married until I showed up and found out he still lived at home."
"Really?" He wanted to know. "Did you look at my ring finger 'cause I looked at yours first thing," he quipped and winked at her.
"As soon as the sheriff calls to say those guys are off the property, we'll go see it together. I told him to let them know I wouldn't press charges for trespassing if they made themselves scarce. Hopefully it won't take long for them to clear out."
"You two go on by yourselves. I can see it another time, Justice. In fact, with all that excitement, I think I'll call it a night." She kissed each of them and said, "You know how to make your mama happy, Justice." Tears were in her eyes.
The house was old, but its bones were good. The roof needed repair and some of the porch was starting to get dry rot, but the rest of the house looked solid. It was just way outdated like a time warp. The interlopers had left garbage everywhere. Sad. It was a wonder they didn't burn the house down with all their cigarette butts snuffed out on the planks of the worn wooden floor next to their old mattresses. There wasn't much salvageable as far as the furniture went. It had seen its better days.
In spite of it all, Justice was feeling an unfurling of a new hope within him, a hope for more than working sunup to sundown on the ranch. It was what he'd not dared to dream since his fiasco with his former fiance, but this little thing holding his hand was pumping new life into him. They could make this a home, hers and his together. When he kissed her under the old maple tree,
a little later, he never wanted to come down to earth again.
"So what do you think of the old place?"
"It's been let go and is rundown, but I think it would make a good home when it's fixed up."
"That's what I was thinking. By the time we do, it would make a nice starter home for a couple like Jake and Windy or..."
She looked up at him sharply. He could see the disappointment in her face, but she averted her eyes away. "Probably."
"Or do you think maybe we could be happy here, Lizzie?"
"Us?" The next thing he knew she had jumped up clasping her arms around his neck and wrapping her legs around his waist. "Yes, yes, yes!"
He held on to her tightly. She was still the same frisky filly, his little Lizzie girl. They had a lifetime to practice their kissing too he figured. Now there was something to really look forward to. O what a beautiful morning!