One Texas Cowboy Too Many (Burnt Boot, Texas) (6 page)

BOOK: One Texas Cowboy Too Many (Burnt Boot, Texas)
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Chapter 5

Mavis didn’t find out about the new job until Monday evening, and she was furious when Leah sat down at the supper table that evening. Honey and Kinsey sat on one side of the table, with Declan, Russell, and Leah on the other side.

Granny had brought reinforcements, no doubt to either toss Leah off River Bend or to talk her out of her decision. Her blue eyes were barely visible she was squinting so much, and her lips almost disappeared when she set them in a hard line. Leah’s stomach twisted up into a pretzel and she sighed. It was going to be one long night and she’d told Rhett that she would be at the bar by eight.

Too late to change my mind, Granny
, she thought.

She’d already handed in her resignation. Her second cousin, Amanda, now had the job, and Leah had signed the contract for a year at the Burnt Boot Independent School District. She’d cleaned out her schoolroom, the boxes still in the back of her truck. Tomorrow or Wednesday, she’d take them to the new school and start getting her new classroom ready.

Mavis picked up a platter of steaks and passed it down the table. “I understand that you’ve got something to tell us.”

“Not me.” Honey took the sirloin from the top and slid it onto her plate. “Other than that Leah, Kinsey, and I are sure looking forward to our little vacation to New York City. That’s still on, isn’t it?”

“I expect she’s talking to me,” Leah said. “I resigned my position at the school and I’ll be teaching at the public school this year. My room has been cleaned out and Amanda has been given my job. And, yes, our vacation is still on, Honey, no matter where I’m teaching.”

“Why would you do that without even talking to me about it?” her father asked.

He and Declan were definitely father and son: both six feet tall with sandy-brown hair, dark blue eyes, chins with dimples in the middle, and broad shoulders.

“Granny gave me an ultimatum,” she said.

“I’m going to shoot Rhett O’Donnell,” Declan said.

“Why? He didn’t tell me to make this decision.”

“He’s got you bewitched.”

“Maybe I changed jobs so that I can see more of Tanner Gallagher. He might be bringing his sister’s kids to school some of the time and I can flirt with him. Now that we burned their school, the Gallagher kids will be attending public school, and they need more teachers.”

“Good God almighty damn.” Mavis slapped the table so hard that the silver and crystal rattled. “Declan won’t have to shoot that sumbitch Tanner. I’ll string him up with a length of barbed wire in the nearest scrub oak tree if he even looks at you sideways. I won’t have it, Leah. I swear to God I will not. The Brennans and the Gallaghers will never, ever get involved with each other. Not while I’m alive.”

Honey inhaled so sharply that for a second, Leah thought she was choking. Kinsey’s eyes came nigh to popping right out of her head. They both looked like they were going to break and run any minute. So much for them being the strong cousins. They couldn’t hold their own at the supper table when the Gallagher name came up.

Mavis shrugged. “I’ll call Matt and straighten this out. Leah isn’t going to any public school, especially in Burnt Boot.”

“Yes, I am and I’d rather have a hamburger from the bar tonight instead of a steak. I’ll see y’all tomorrow. If my clothes are thrown out in the yard, then I’ll see if Gladys Cleary will take me in,” she said.

“Why are you acting like this?” Mavis asked through clenched teeth.

“It’s not even three weeks until school starts. I had to find a job in case you made good on your threat, Granny. If you toss me out, I’ll have to have a place to live, which means rent, which means I have to have an income.”

“What are you talking about?” Russell asked.

“Granny gave me an ultimatum this morning. She can tell you all about it.” As Leah marched out of the house, she threw over her shoulder, “I’m going to the bar.”

“What in God’s name happened to her?” Honey whispered.

“I heard she was making out with Rhett O’Donnell,” Kinsey said.

“And we will break that little affair up before it goes one step further,” Mavis said. “You are in charge, Honey. Do whatever it takes.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll take care of it right now, Granny. You go on and call Matt.” Honey sighed at the beautiful sirloin in her plate, pushed back her chair, and followed her cousin out into the night.

* * *

“Hey, I was hoping you’d be here this evening.” Rhett smiled when Leah slid onto a bar stool. “What can I get for you tonight? A double shot?”

“I’d like a double cheeseburger basket and a beer,” she said.

“Sure thing.” He slapped two meat patties on the grill and sunk a double portion of fries into the hot grease. “Did the sheriff come see you today?”

“He was there at breakfast.” She smiled.

“Did he tell you not to leave town? He sure gave me orders to stick close to Burnt Boot,” Rhett said.

“No, but then where would I go?”

“We could run away to a faraway island where there are no other people. Of course, we’d have to live on coconuts and fish until the first crops came in. But I like to fish, and I know how to grill them over an open fire, so we wouldn’t starve.” He grinned.

“Sounds wonderful, but I’ve signed a contract to teach at the Burnt Boot school for the next year. Think you might hold on to that thought for a year and check out some remote islands during that time?”

“That is one fine pickup line,” Honey said from the shadows.

“What are you doing here?” Leah asked.

Honey wiggled her eyebrows across the bar at Rhett. “Thought I’d like to have a burger too. Fix me up my favorite, like you did this afternoon at the bunkhouse.”

“I sure will,” he said.

Leah frowned.

“You sure you want one exactly like I made you at the bunkhouse?” he asked.

Leah’s eyebrows became one solid line.

“Yes, darlin’, like the one right after we came out of your bedroom after…well, you know.” Honey giggled like a little girl.

Rhett picked up a red plastic basket, lined it with a white paper, and set it along with an empty cup in front of Honey.

“Where’s my burger?” she asked.

“You said you wanted one like the one I made you at the bunkhouse this afternoon. Since I spent the whole day out driving a tractor, plowing up about forty acres to put in winter wheat, you must have eaten an invisible one with an imaginary Rhett O’Donnell. And here it is. It’s free, by the way, so keep your money in your purse,” Rhett said.

Leah’s smile warmed his heart.

“And now I’ll get your burger ready, Miz Leah. What made you decide to change schools?”

“Job security,” Leah said and then turned toward Honey. “So Granny sent you to take care of the problem, did she?”

Honey glared at her. “You are a fool. All of us would love to have the chance you’ve got at River Bend, but you’ve been the chosen one since you were a little girl. There’s not a man on the face of the earth worth messing up that kind of sweet deal for.”

Rhett set the basket in front of Leah. “Want to explain what she said?”

“It’s like this,” Honey said. “Leah has been groomed from the time she could walk to take over Granny’s job someday. That means running the whole ranch. Granny let her have her way when she wanted to teach rather than learn the ranchin’ business, but she knows ranchin’ upside down and backwards, even if she doesn’t get her hands dirty real often. Her daddy made her learn all the ranch stuff when she was a kid. Granny made her learn the financial part, and she’s supposed to get the River Bend crown when Granny gets ready to pass it down.”

“That is enough, Honey.” Leah could feel the burn starting at the base of her neck and traveling around to her cheeks. Honey had no business airing the Brennan laundry in the bar, not one damn bit. Especially not to Rhett.

“She’s throwing it all away because Granny confronted her this morning,” Honey went on.

“About the school burning? Neither of us had anything to do with that,” Rhett said.

“Not about the burning. Hell, if Granny didn’t have a hand in it, I’d be disappointed. About you, Rhett O’Donnell,” Honey said. “Now I’d like a double cheeseburger basket and a pitcher of beer. Real ones.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Rhett filled her order and set four red plastic cups on the bar with the beer when it was done. She stacked the cups on top of the burger and carried it all to a corner table. She’d barely sat down when several other Brennans joined her. They’d just gotten their red plastic cups filled when six Gallaghers made their way into the bar. Tanner stopped long enough to order two pitchers of beer, and the whole bunch of them went to a table on the other side of the bar.

“Think we’ll have a bar left after tonight?” Rhett asked Leah.

“It’s a tough old bar that’s withstood a lot more than you can imagine,” Leah said. “And, Rhett, let’s get something straight right now. I don’t know how I feel about you, but it’s my business to figure that out. Nobody needs to throw ultimatums at me and expect me to heel like a huntin’ hound that they can pen up until they’re ready to let me loose for a few hours—not even Granny, as much as I love her. I’ll be thirty years old this fall, and I can make my own decisions.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He grinned.

“What’s so funny?”

“We’re probably about the same age. My birthday is in November. When’s yours?”

“October,” she answered.

“I always did like older women.”

* * *

Things got so busy that Rhett had to call Sawyer and Jill to come help him at nine o’clock. The bar was full. Tension was even thicker than the smoke. The noise level—from the jukebox to the sounds of noisy dancing boot heels—was so loud that behind the bar, they had to use hand signals to communicate.

Around nine thirty, Rhett looked back at Leah to find her bar stool had been claimed by a big, husky man with a beard and long hair. He had a tattoo of a parrot on his right arm and he motioned for a beer in a bottle.

Rhett twisted the top off and set it in front of him. “Pay the lady at the end of the bar,” he said.

The man nodded and handed Jill a bill. “Jumpin’ joint tonight. What’s the occasion?”

“School burned last night,” Jill said.

The man threw back his head and laughed. “I guess that the feud is fired up?”

“Kinda looks that way. You a Brennan or a Gallagher?” Jill answered.

“Neither one. I’m from the other side of the river. I was passin’ by and decided to stop for a beer. Who’s the pretty girl who left this bar stool?”

“That would be Leah Brennan,” Jill yelled.

“Mavis Brennan’s kin?”

Jill nodded.

“Man would be crazy to mess with that. I’ll be on my way.”

Rhett spotted Leah at the Brennan table, with Kinsey on one side and Honey on the other. He wondered what in the hell they were trying to talk her out of or into, but he could not read lips.

At eleven, he sent Sawyer and Jill home and unplugged the jukebox. “Last call. Closing time,” he yelled, and the last three customers left.

He was busy sweeping the floors when Leah poked her head back inside the bar. “I hate to bother you, Rhett, but my truck won’t start. I think I left the lights on and ran the battery down.”

“Give me a minute to finish picking up this trash, and I’ll come out and jump-start it for you. We keep a set of cables under the bar for times like this,” he said.

“I’ll wait right here,” she said as she hiked a hip on the first bar stool.

Rhett had barely finished his job when Betsy Gallagher poked her head in the door. “Rhett? Well, look at this. So it’s true about you two, is it?”

Leah’s chin raised an inch. “I’m too tired to argue or to fight with you, Betsy.”

“I’m sure you are, screwing around with Rhett all afternoon yesterday down at the river and then burning down our school.”

Rhett stopped what he was doing and moved across the floor toward the bar. “What do you need, Betsy?” he asked.

“I’ve got a flat tire. My spare is flat too, and my phone is dead. I need a lift home when you get done.”

“Soon as I give Leah a jump start, I’ll be glad to take you home.”

“Thanks.”

He picked up the orange jumper cables and motioned for the women to follow him. Leah led him straight to her truck while Betsy waited in the shadows. It only took a couple of tries to realize that the batter was completely dead in Leah’s truck and there was no way it was going to start.

“I’ll take you both home,” he said. “But my truck is like the bar, the church, and the store in that it is neutral territory.”

“It doesn’t look that way to me,” Betsy said coldly. “Kind of hard to deny the rumors when here y’all are together after-hours.”

“Don’t be sarcastic,” Leah said.

“Hey, you don’t have any right to tell me how to be,” Betsy smarted off.

“I told you this is neutral territory,” Rhett said in exasperation. “I think you live closest, Leah, so you’re going first,” Rhett said.

Betsy smiled. “Does that mean I get to sit in the middle?”

“No, it means Leah does. I like her better than you,” Rhett said.

All he wanted to do was go home, wash away the smoke in a cool bath, and fall into bed. But they were both damsels in distress and he didn’t have a choice but to take them home.

“You ain’t no fun at all.” Betsy pouted.

Rhett didn’t give a damn right then if Betsy pouted until Judgment Day. Six o’clock came early, and there was ranch work to do. Maybe, if he was lucky, he’d dream about Leah without being awakened by Sheriff Orville.

Leah put the console down and slid into place between him and Betsy. A Brennan and a Gallagher that close together. Lord love a duck, as Granny O’Donnell used to say. There would be a brand-new war come morning when folks found out they’d ridden in the same truck together.

Chapter 6

River Bend Ranch was a conglomeration of several ranches. The main ranch had started off with a couple of sections of land more than a hundred years before, but as the family grew and children moved out, they’d acquired more land until it stretched twenty miles west from the original house. They’d built their school when indoor plumbing was still a luxury that was unheard of, and in the beginning, there had been two little whitewashed buildings on the back side of the school property, one with a star on the door for the boys and one with a quarter moon for the girls.

Sometime in the late forties, after the war was over, the Brennans outgrew their little two-room school, so they added several classrooms onto it, and while they were building, they added a couple of bathrooms—one for the boys, with two stalls, two sinks, and three urinals, and one for the girls, with four stalls and two sinks.

To save the money to put in a proper septic system, the head of the school of the time, Miss Elizabeth Brennan, came up with the idea of using the old cistern for a septic tank. With the new well they’d had put in, they had running water inside the school. The big underground cistern would be totally useless, and what was a septic system anyway but a holding tank in the ground? So they routed all the new plumbing into the cistern. For the past sixty years, the school had paid a company to pump it out twice a year. They had a permanent schedule: pump the cistern during Christmas break and in late summer, before school started.

* * *

“Why do we have to go inside their school?” Eli Gallagher asked.

A tall, lanky cowboy with a mop of blond hair and brown eyes, he and his cousins Randy and Hart had been chosen to do Naomi Gallagher’s bidding on this job. They’d managed the last assignment, which involved stealing Mavis Brennan’s entire pig stock and selling it off, so they were now in Granny Gallagher’s good graces. That, according to Hart, was a damn fine place to be.

Randy, who was as tall as Eli but outweighed him by thirty pounds, took off his cowboy hat and mopped his sweaty face with a red bandanna. When he finished, he shoved his bandanna back into his hip pocket. “It’s damn hot in here, but we promised nobody would get hurt, so we got to make sure nobody is hiding out in the school.”

“Why would anybody be in here at midnight?” Hart asked.

Shorter by a few inches than the other two, he was the pretty cowboy that all the girls flocked to in the bar or at a rodeo. He oozed charm and had a swagger that drew female eyes to his tight-fitting jeans. And he knew his way around dynamite and any other kind of explosive, which was a good thing when it came to blowing up tree stumps or taking care of a rock in the middle of a pasture.

“Why can’t we burn the place down like they did ours?” Randy asked as the three of them made their way down the halls, opening doors and checking closets.

“If I were a teenager, lookin’ for a hidey-hole to make out in with my girlfriend, it wouldn’t be in a schoolhouse in August. It’s like a furnace in here,” Hart whispered.

“If things work like they should, then I don’t reckon it matters if it’s hot as hell or if the air conditioners are runnin’ full force, does it?” Eli said.

“Looks like it’s empty as a tomb,” Randy said when they’d checked the whole place. “Did you check the girls’ bathroom, Hart?”

“Yes, I did, and if y’all go tellin’ anyone I was snoopin’ in a girls’ restroom, well, remember I know shit on you too.” Hart smiled.

“We’re ghosts. We were never here.” Eli opened the back door, and they looked around before trooping out across the yard to the implement shed, which they’d parked the truck in.

“I guess it’s a go, then?” Eli asked.

“Did you poke that dynamite down in the hole like I told you?” Hart asked.

“I did. You run the wire to the truck, Randy?”

“I did, but Hart has to hook it up to the battery. Ain’t no way I’m touching that shit. It scares me worse than rattlesnakes. I’ll be sittin’ inside the truck. Soon as it blows, we’ll back out of the shed and be halfway to Dallas by the time Orville gets here,” Randy answered.

“Y’all get on in the truck. Granny is a genius. Blow up their septic tank and there won’t be no school here next month either. It’ll take weeks for them to clean up the mess and decide what to do. If they can set fire to our school, we can blow up their shit,” Hart laughed.

“Wait!” Randy yelled from the truck bed. “I’m back here shutting the toolbox, and there’s no dynamite left.”

The smile left Hart’s face. “What did you say?”

“I said there was five sticks and now it’s all gone. That shit is hard to get.”

“Eli, how many sticks were left when you shoved one down the cistern opening?” Hart asked.

“None. I used all five of them,” Eli said. “I figured as thick as that concrete is down there, it might take more than one to blow it up good enough they couldn’t use it no more.”

“Holy shit!” Hart said.

“Nope, just plain shit.”

“One would have done the job,” Hart said.

“Then five will be fantastic.” Eli grinned. “Blow the damn thing and let’s go home.”

* * *

Rhett turned off the main road onto River Bend land at a few minutes before midnight. Leah’s shoulder and hip were scrunched against his and she was as stiff as a board. Hopefully, it was because Betsy Gallagher’s was smashed against her other side. He wondered if a member of each of the feuding families had ever been that close to each other without involving hair pulling or fists.

The same moon he and Leah had talked about the night before still hung in the sky, throwing off enough light to silhouette the playground equipment in the school yard. The movement of the swings powered by the night breeze made it look like the children of the past had come to play after the sun had gone down.

“Never been on River Bend property before. Is that the school over there?” Rhett asked.

“Yes, it is. Started off as a two-room school and then the Brennans built onto it,” Leah answered.

“Wouldn’t be more than half a mile as the crow flies to Fiddle Creek, then, would it?”

Leah shook her head. “It was built on the original ranch. We grew to the west as the family expanded.”

“And we grew that much to the east,” Betsy said.

“So Fiddle Creek is the only thing separating y’all? I can’t for the life of me see why either of you would want it, then. If either of you got control of it, that would mean you’d butt right up to each other. You can’t get along with land separating you now. You should be giving Gladys and Jill protection money to never sell that land, so there will always be space between you,” Rhett said.

Suddenly, the ground rumbled and the truck shook. Rhett held on to the steering wheel and jammed his foot against the brake, throwing gravel and dust every which way. He’d never heard of an earthquake hitting in northern Texas, but they were sure enough experiencing one right then.

“Sweet Jesus, I promise I won’t ever step foot on River Bend again,” Betsy squealed.

It only lasted a couple of seconds, but it seemed like eternity. Rhett got control of the truck, stopped it right in the middle of the road beside the school, and threw his arm around Leah, drawing her closer to his side as the truck rocked from side to side.

Then a shaft of black shot up from the ground and Rhett’s first impression was that the Brennans had been drilling for oil and had hit an old-time gusher. It went straight up in the sky, past the top of the school and the huge old oak trees surrounding it, before it mushroomed and started back down.

All the windows in the school exploded outward and debris flew through the air as the black cloud fell to earth. Betsy screamed and covered her head when something bounced off the truck’s hood. Then something else hit a truck tire and the explosion sounded like a shotgun blast at close range. In no time, the truck was sitting at an angle, sliding all three of them against the driver’s side and plastering Leah even tighter against Rhett.

Then another heavy object landed in the truck bed, raising the front end up until the passengers were practically looking at the ceiling before it finally popped back down. It slowly settled back down and what was in the mushroom cloud started raining down on the truck.

Rhett took a deep breath then grabbed his nose. “That’s not oil.”

“Hell, no, that’s shit!” Betsy screamed.

Leah gasped. “I thought it was a tornado.”

Rhett saw a couple of headlights through the fog of the stuff falling all around them as it blew in the same breeze that made the swings move. He squinted to see if it was help or the culprits, but then they were gone. He took out his cell phone and punched in the number to the bunkhouse, but nothing happened. When he looked down, his phone was registering no service.

“Looks like we’re stuck, ladies,” he said.

“Granny is going to kill me,” Betsy said.

“If my Granny don’t get to you first,” Leah told her. “Y’all Gallaghers just blew up our school.”

“Not the school, the septic tank. That is not mud covering my truck,” Rhett said.

They sat there in stunned silence, their noses twitching and eyes so wide that the whites showed all around the edges. Rhett turned on the windshield wipers and hit the button for water to wash the crap away. Long before he had a clean glass, the reservoir ran out of water.

Leah moaned when she saw what was left of the school. It had no windows, no doors, and what had been painted white was now dripping with brown liquid. The walls still stood upright but the roof had big holes in it. A toilet sat upright on the roof, and one had landed upside down on the lawn.

“Were there only four toilets?” Betsy asked.

“I can’t remember,” Leah answered.

“Lord help us all. They’ll dub this one the shit war,” Betsy said.

“And it’s your fault, like the pig war was your fault,” Leah said.

“You started it when you burned down our school.”

“It might be covered in crap, but this truck is still neutral. What y’all should be worried about is how in the hell we’re getting out of here. We’ve got a flat tire and a toilet blocking our way if we could go forward. Plus, there’s another one in the bed of the truck that could possibly have knocked a hole through the metal and damaged everything underneath it, in which case, even if the tire wasn’t blown, we can’t go backwards,” Rhett said.

Betsy threw the back of her hand onto her forehead. “We couldn’t drive in this slime even with four wheels that worked perfectly. I’m a dead woman.”

“You got any cell service, Leah?” Rhett asked.

She shook her head. “If I had power left in my phone, I would have loaned it to Betsy back at the bar, so I wouldn’t have had to ride with her.”

Betsy whipped around as much as she could and glared at Rhett. “Why didn’t you think of that?”

“Because I was tired and trying to get Leah’s truck started. This is not my fault, ladies,” he protested.

A truck drove up beside them and honked. Betsy rolled the window down and Declan yelled across the distance, “What the hell happened? We heard a… Good Lord, what are you doing here? I thought the smell was from all this crap and now I find out it’s from a Gallagher.”

Betsy shot him a dirty look. “I was sitting beside your sister when this happened, so don’t go blaming it on me.”

Declan’s phone rang and he hit a button. “Granny, the Gallaghers have blown up our school. Looks like they did it through the old cistern we use as a septic tank. Everything is dripping with crap. Stay in the house. The breeze is coming from the north tonight, and you do not want to smell this. We should have posted guards.” There was a long pause as he kept nodding. “Leah is sitting in Rhett O’Donnell’s truck with him on one side and Betsy Gallagher on the other side, so I don’t think it was Rhett that did it.”

“Give me that phone,” Leah said tersely as she carefully reached through the window to take it from Declan’s outstretched hand.

“You drop it. You retrieve it,” he said.

She hung on like a bulldog with a ham bone. “Granny, my truck battery went dead at the bar and Betsy had a flat tire and no spare, so Rhett was taking both of us home when all this rained down on us. His truck is ruined.” There was another long pause, and then she said, “Yes, ma’am, I understand.”

“So?” Betsy asked.

“Declan, you are supposed to take Betsy to the back side of our property and turn her loose. You can let her use your phone if you want to, so she can call for someone to come get her, or she can follow the river until she’s past Fiddle Creek and to Wild Horse. Rhett, you are to sit right here with me until more help comes,” Leah said. “Granny says we’re not even calling the sheriff because the damn Gallaghers own him. She wants you to deliver a message, Betsy. You are to tell Naomi that hell is going to rain down on the Gallagher family.”

“Hell won’t be as bad as what’s just rained down on y’all,” Betsy said, smarting off at her.

“Then you’re admitting that you did it?” Declan asked.

“I did not admit anything, and I do not know anything, so torturing me won’t do a bit of good,” Betsy said.

“Oh, I’m going to torture you all right, Betsy Gallagher. You are going to walk through this shit to the bed of my truck, where you will ride in the back of it because I don’t want a Gallagher inside it.”

She opened the door and set her fancy boots down in two inches of brown matter that made her snarl. “I hate you, Declan. I hope when you come back that you fall in this and it gets all inside your truck.”

“Feelin’ is mutual,” Declan said.

Betsy stepped on the running board of the truck, slung a leg over the side of the bed, and settled in with her back propped right under the window. Declan’s tires slipped when he first tried to drive away, but he eased off the gas and finally got enough traction to disappear into the darkness.

“Now what?” Rhett asked.

“When Declan gets back, he’ll take you home to Fiddle Creek and then me to the house. We can’t clean this up until morning,” Leah said. “Your truck is probably totaled. I’ll have the guys haul it to a barn and spray it off. You can send your insurance people here to assess the damage.”

BOOK: One Texas Cowboy Too Many (Burnt Boot, Texas)
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