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Desert Rains

by Jana S. Brown

Copyright 2015 Jana S. Brown

Smashwords Edition

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Missus Davidson’s No-Fail Pie Crust

About the Author

Chapter 1

Charlene ran her hands over the heifer’s swollen belly, nodding in satisfaction. She straightened and scratched the spotted cow, tagged 52263, between its ears. “She’s looking really good, Frank. A few more weeks and we’ll have a fine, healthy pair of calves. Keep her in the closest field, okay? I want to keep an eye on her.”

Frank patted the cow and attached her lead rope. “Hear that, cow? You did good.” The cow mooed, and he smiled at Charlene over the animal’s back. “I’ll set her loose, then. Anything else you need?”

“Not in particular. Double check those three goldens while you’re out there, please. Then Gravy needs a hand setting the seedling trays so they’ll be usable tomorrow.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Frank replied with a wink. He paused. “I heard through the vine that Ted was coming back soon. Any truth there?”

Charlene strode to the cleaning sinks. She pumped waterless cleaner between her hands and scrubbed from fingertip to elbow. The cleaner stung as it hit a few scrapes, but using it was better for the cows and saved on precious water supplies. “Yep. He arrived back on planet a few days ago and met up with our new technician, but they got held up by a storm down in Granite. If we’re lucky they’ll make it back today. Otherwise, he’ll be back tomorrow morning.”

Frank pushed his hat forward, the beaten, black leather having seen better days. A bright blue feather stuck out on the band. “We’ll hope fer luck then. You work too damn hard when he’s not here.”

“I work too damn hard when he is here. You all just don’t notice.”

He grinned, a quirk of broad lips. “Oh, you’d be surprised what I notice, Ma’am.” There was a tease in the words, but before Charlene could question him Frank guided the cow out of the holding stall and into the open yard. Charlene watched him go as she toweled off. Frank had been at the Double P Ranch for a bit over 18 months. He was a good hand and a hard worker. Teddy swore Frank was sweet on her, but Charlene wasn’t interested and did her best not to encourage him.

Her stomach rumbled, and she wondered if there might still be lunch to be found. She’d missed the general call, busy with her beloved seedlings, and then the heifer had needed to be seen. This time of year, there was always something to do and a scramble to do it before the full heat of a Galilean summer set in.

She pushed away from the sink and her right hip twinged, protesting the use it’d received this morning. Charlene rubbed the heel of her hand against the joint. The pain was all the more reason to return to the house. A second painkiller would do her good and get her through the rest of the day.

As she entered the large open yard between the house and the sheds, Charlene caught the scent of freshly turned earth and the chatter of chickens. The chicken coop was the newest addition to the farm, built just to the side of the modest garden plot which helped to feed everyone. The center of the large yard was spread with ogen straw packed into the sandy ground. It was left open so wagons could be brought in and gatherings could be had without trampling crops or cows. Furrows were building again, and she made a mental note to have the men add more straw and stone after the next storm.

Charlene wandered over to check the chickens, adjusting her thin leather hat to provide more shade from the blistering sun. The heat was oppressive after the cool of the cattle shed and sweat built between her shoulder blades. She tugged the front of her shirt, sending a breeze across her skin. It was still early in the planting season and already too hot. Maybe spending the rest of the day reviewing the books wasn’t such a bad idea.

Charlene’s musings were interrupted as Tracy flew around the corner of the small chicken coop, very nearly plowing her over. Charlene pivoted to one side, catching Tracy’s arm as the teen slipped and slid on the sandy ground. The young woman was recently engaged, and had been unrelentingly bubbly all morning, singing and dancing around the ranch until even Charlene had yelled at her to get out of the way.

Charlene arched both eyebrows. “You’re certainly in a hurry, Miss Tracy. What’s going on?”

“Mister Walker’s wagon is coming up the way! Mister Ted is coming home! They’ll be at the house in about 15 minutes. Mama said you’d want to know.”

“Of course I’d want to know,” Charlene chuckled, amused by Tracy’s enthusiasm. It seemed like there wasn’t a woman alive who wasn’t a little in love with Teddy. Charlene pondered her options, glancing out over the fields. “It’s not every day my jail bird brother comes home to roost. Sound the round up alarm and get the men up to the house so they can give Teddy a proper welcome. And tell your mama I’d like slab toast for the men’s breakfast. That’ll raise a few spirits.”

The young woman nodded, running off to the calving shed where one of the alarm units was housed. Her skirts flipped in the breeze of her passing. Within seconds the ‘all in’ alarm sounded through the property. It was a lower tone than the emergency alarm, telling the men to take a minute and finish up what they were doing before coming up to the house. The emergency alarm meant they should drop it all, and was used for a bad storm or, heaven forbid, a fire.

Deciding she had time while the men gathered, Charlene checked the chickens and refilled their watering tray. She made sure the anti-evaporation lid was firmly in place and the irises the chickens drank through were clear. By the time she made it to the house proper, she was the last to arrive. The eighteen hands who worked at the Double P ranged in age, skin tone, and marital status, but they were all hard workers and currently all men. There weren’t a lot of women on planet who wanted to be ranch hands. With Ted and Mister Tyler, the new technician, they’d be back at twenty, which was pretty ideal in Charlene’s mind. The cattle still outnumbered them, but that was as it should be.

Missus Davidson and Tracy stood at the top of the porch. Charlene wondered when Tracy had slipped by her, though it was possible she’d caught a lift with someone on a horse. The carts and horses came up to the house around the edges of the cattle sheds in order to keep them out of the gardens and from kicking up too much dust in the yard.

Jeremiah Walker’s wagon trundled up to the house, the travelers within greeted by cheers and good natured cat calls. Ever the show-off, Ted stood in the back of the wagon, a large man backed by the sun, whipping his hat above his head and hollering greetings.

Charlene made it as far as the porch stairs before her hip twinged again. She dismissed the idea of climbing up the stairs, even if the higher ground was her rightful place as the boss. Instead, she moved to the left of the porch railing and settled on a large decorative log, amused to watch Teddy’s antics as the wagon came to a halt. He leapt from the back of the vehicle with a flourish, followed at a slower pace by a second man Charlene recognized from his employment application as Richard Tyler.

Richard swept his hat off and approached the porch while Ted made the rounds with the men, shaking hands and slapping each other silly; one of the many male behaviors Charlene didn’t understand. Somehow it was only a manly greeting if the other man was left with fist-sized bruises on his back.

Under the dark leather hat--it had to be new with how stiff it was--Richard Tyler was a handsome man, much more so than his hiring picture. His hair was dark-blond which would bleach gold under the Galileo sun, curling around his ears and the nape of his neck. He had a strong chin and fine features with pale blue eyes which were highlighted by skin-kissed cheeks and nose. With how clean his white shirt and dark trousers were they had to be as new as the hat. Charlene gave him about three hours before the unbroken boots wore blisters on his heels. He looked like a page from the catalog at Madam Aster’s General Store. He took all the merriment in stride. His gaze darted over the men and over Charlene herself, dismissing her dusty appearance, before he approached the porch and the five steps up to where the other women stood.

Richard approached Missus Davidson, bowing over his hat before taking her hand and kissing her knuckles. “Miss Petersmire. It’s an honor to meet you at last.”

Charlene arched both eyebrows, lacing her fingers on the porch rail and resting her chin on them. She’d never had a new hire who didn’t know who she was. Then again, Richard was the first off planet hire she’d ever made. Everyone else came from Ridgeback or Granite, or occasionally as far away as the capital city, Double Fork. She’d seen his picture, but hadn’t shared hers. A sour part of her argued he was just expecting a woman in a dress, but she pushed the thought away. She wasn’t on Central anymore; there was nothing wrong with the way she dressed for the job she did.

Missus Davidson shook her head, laughing gently. “Not that I don’t appreciate the gesture, we certainly don’t get much of that around here, but I’m not Miss Petersmire. I’m Missus Davidson, Gravy’s wife and the ranch cook.”

Richard’s gaze went to Tracy and his brow furrowed. “I see, but this can’t possibly be Miss Petersmire. She is far too young.” He noted Tracy’s dismay and caught her hand, kissing it as he had her mother’s. “And far too beautiful.”

Charlene’s amusement soured further at the compliments, as smoothly turned as they were. Tracy was too young and beautiful to be Miss Petersmire? What did beauty have to do with running a ranch? What did this man expect her to look like? Some hardened hag or withered sand rock?

“So, if I might ask, where is Miss Petersmire?”

He had no sooner spoken the question, when Ted stomped up the stairs, catching Tracy and Missus Davidson in a joint hug and spinning them away. “Ah, my two best girls. Please tell me there’s something in the kitchen for a starvin’ man? My stomach is convinced it’s been cut off from my mouth.”

“Only if you put us down, Mister Ted,” Missus Davidson protested, trying to straighten her skirts. “Landsakes, what a reception today.”

Ted lowered them to the ground before realizing he was missing someone. “Hey, where’s Char?”

Charlene shook her head and tapped her hat so it fell back on its string to rest against her back as she rose. “Down here, Teddy, in all of my too old, but certainly not too beautiful, number three best girl glory.”

A deep frown fell across Richard’s face as the hands within earshot broke into hearty laughter. Ted jumped down the stairs in two long strides, grabbing Charlene in a bear hug and spinning her around as well. Finally, he put her down and kissed her forehead. “Now why would you go and say a thing like that? You know you’re my number one sister. Anyone who thinks you ain’t beautiful needs his eyes checked, an’ that ain’t jus’ brotherly love talkin’. Right, boys?”

The hands cheered in agreement. Charlene smiled, her ill spirits eased by Ted’s good cheer. “Now, now, you know I’m immune to flattery, but you can speak the truth all you want.”

Ted squeezed her shoulder, leaning in and whispering, “You’re standin’ funny. Hurtin’ today?”

“Just a little. It’s all good.” She murmured, before breaking away and holding out a hand to Richard, who had come down the stairs. “Mister Tyler, I presume. I’m Charlene Petersmire. Welcome to the Double P Ranch. ”

Richard stepped forward, taking her offered hand. He didn’t bow over it as he had Missus Davidson or Tracy, awkwardly shaking her fingers. “It is good to meet you, Miss Petersmire. I apologize for the confusion. Your response did not include a picture, and I admit I thought, given your position, you would be older. I apologize for the assumption.”

He didn’t look directly at her, as though he was put off by her look or smell, focusing on a point just above her left shoulder. Charlene glanced down at herself, noticing she’d picked up some dirt smudges, and there was a spot of manure on her left boot. That wasn’t so out of the ordinary. There might be a little smell, but she wasn’t going to sniff her armpits or shoes to make a point. “Is something wrong, Mister Tyler?”

He fidgeted and shook his head. “Of course not, Ma’am. I’m just not accustomed to women in your form of dress. When my sisters wear trousers they are not…” Richard fumbled for words. “Ahem…form fitting.”

Laughter roared, reminding Charlene they weren’t alone. The ranch hands were obviously enjoying this small piece of theater. Even old Jeremiah was leaning on his wagon, the brim of his hat low, but there was no mistaking the amused shake of his shoulders.

Charlene rested her hands on her hips. Her pants fit well in her opinion, comfortable and durable without too much material flapping around to get caught in machinery.

“I see,” She looked over the gathering, raising her voice to carry. “All right, you reprobates. I don’t pay you to stand around gawking and laughing. You’ve all welcomed Ted back, get back to work. Frank, Gravy, help Jeremiah get those boxes down to the seedling lab, we’ll need them tomorrow. It’s too damn hot to stand around talking in the sun. We’ll do a proper celebration of Ted’s return at breakfast tomorrow.” She saw Richard flinch at the mild curse and decided to cuss more often. She was certain he expected her to behave much more like the society women on Central. His unspoken expectations were too close to the shouted criticisms Carl had left her with, drawing up painful memories.

The ranch hands dispersed, and the Davidson ladies slipped into the house, leaving Charlene, Ted, and Richard standing in the yard. Charlene pushed away her annoyances, trying hard to give Richard the benefit of the doubt. He couldn’t know about her past engagement, and it wasn’t fair to judge him based on what he didn’t know, even if he felt free to judge her based on her trousers.

“Mister Tyler, you’ll find a lot of things are different here on Galileo, and I’ll hardly be the only woman you’ll meet who wears pants. You’ll get along better if you put your expectations aside. I don’t need anything out of you today. Ted will show you the grounds and your room in the bunkhouse. You’ll be doubled up, but I’m sure you can manage. We’ll review your duties and the shift schedules tomorrow. They’re due to change in a couple days anyway, so it’ll be easy enough for you to learn the new rotation with everyone else. Any questions?”

Richard shook his head, though hints of a frown still clung to his lips. “No, Ma’am.”

“Good. Go on then.” Charlene paused, one foot on the stairs to the house. “And don’t call me Ma’am. Charlene will do. Except for Miss Tracy and Missus Davidson, we pretty much stick to first names around here. It’s too confusing to try to yell for Mister this and that when we’re chasing a cow through a field.”

Richard’s lips pursed. “I’m not sure I can do so. It goes against every bit of proper training I’ve had. My mother would pale at the very thought of me calling a woman I’ve just met, much less an unmarried one, by her first name.”

Charlene sighed, forcing herself to walk up the stairs without favoring her hip. Five stairs; it wasn’t so bad. “Try, Richard.”

He startled and Charlene ignored him. “Ted, get sandwiches for both of you from the bottom locker and get him taken care of. I’ll be in the den and I want to hear all your stories.” Aware that Richard was giving her a look that was just shy of a glare--at least he was looking at her--Charlene kept moving, stepping through the door and letting it fall shut behind her. “Not young enough or beautiful enough with pants too tight to be proper, huh? Well screw you too, Mister Tyler.”

***

Richard watched the door slam and frowned. He was uncertain of what he’d done wrong, but very certain he’d offended the woman. He was trying to show her the proper respect due her gender and her position. It wasn’t his fault if he expected her to dress appropriate to her role. What kind of woman was offended by being treated well?

Next to him, Ted snickered, “Still glad ya came?”

“I’ll make that judgment tomorrow. Your sister seems rather…” Richard tried to think of a description which wasn’t outright offensive. He wanted to give both of his new employers the benefit of the doubt. “Prickly.”

“Well, we did walk right by her to greet the cook and her daughter first, and then ya stared at her legs like you’d never seen a pair before. She would have slapped you if you’d been staring at her ass.”

“Ted! I would not stare at your sister’s…er…bottom,” Richard protested. He admitted privately Charlene filled out her trousers nicely, but wasn’t that exactly the problem? He shouldn’t be thinking about how a woman filled out a pair of trousers when it wasn’t the woman he was in love with, and certainly not when the woman was his employer.

Ted snorted, “I’d ask ya whether her bottom weren’t good enough fer ya, but that just gets right into disturbing territory.” He turned away from the house, “Give her a little slack though, huh? We probably just caught her on the end of a long shift. She can be downright pleasant when she’s well rested, you’ll see. Come on. Jere’s got our stuff. We’ll get some grub and radio him ta stop back by the bunkhouse and drop it off.”

Richard shot a final glance at the house, catching the swing of a faded curtain and wondering if Charlene, no, Miss Charlene--he could at least be polite in his own head--was watching them. Just in case, he bowed towards the window before sticking his hat back on and following Ted across the yard.

Chapter 2

Charlene was half asleep in one of the big wingback chairs when Ted strode into the parlor, bringing a big plate of currant muffins with him. She forced herself fully awake and shifted in the chair, wincing as she realized, not for the first time, that dozing in a chair was a horrid idea. Ted put the plate down on one of the battered end tables. He took her hands and helped her to twist around until she was sitting forward.

“Did ya get yer second pill today?”

Charlene groaned, pins and needles running down her legs. “No. I got distracted by your return home. Then I started reviewing the figures on the seeds we’re going to put in on the top forty. Then it was too late if I wanted to sleep tonight.”

“That explains why ya missed the dinner call.” He pulled over the matching chair and nudged the muffins towards her. “Eat and talk. Are those the seeds with the accelerated germination you were messing with?”

Charlene picked up one of the breads, pulling the top off and taking a bite. The berries inside were tart in contrast to the soft, sweet breading around them. They were good, but she had little appetite and set it aside after one bite. “They are. I’m convinced if we can get the plants up to size faster we won’t lose nearly so many of them during the stormy season. It’d be even better if we can harvest before the big storms hit. These seeds are crossed with those high protein strains which did so well last year, so the hope is to get a fast grower with the higher protein content in bigger yields. If it works we’ll be able to get two early plantings in the future.”

Ted nodded, eyeing the set-aside muffin. “Sounds like a good enough idea. There’s plenty of market for it, even more so before the rains.”

“Yeah. The three month travel lock out always puts us behind the growers off planet. If we can beat it, even with part of the crop, we’re going to be in good shape.”

“Right.” Ted handed her the muffin again. “Speakin’ of shape, yours is rough. You’ve dropped weight while I was gone, don’t tell me you haven’t. I can tell ya hurt. You’ve been workin’ too hard.”

Charlene broke the muffin into pieces, making a face at Ted. “Don’t you start mother henning me too. Missus Davidson already does enough of that. I’m eating. I’m just not hungry very often. And I hurt all the time whether I work or not. I may as well accomplish something.”

Ted frowned, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. “That ain’t normal, Char. Maybe we need ta take you back to the doctor and try something different. There has ta be a treatment we haven’t tried yet.”

Charlene groaned, stuffing the muffin in her mouth and chewing even if she didn’t want to eat. She swallowed. “No more doctors. He’s just going to say the same old thing, take your pills, do your exercises, don’t work so hard, drink lots of water, sleep better, and eat your vegetables. Go to the Pristine Pain Clinic every other week, which just isn’t possible. I’m tired of being harassed about it.”

“Well maybe if you’d do even some of those things we could stop harassin’ ya cause you’d feel better! I feel like I’m watching ya come apart a little at a time, an’ I hate it.”

Ted’s voice rose in frustration and Charlene looked away, chastened. He hadn’t been back even a full day, and she was fighting with him. She knew he was trying to help, there was just so little that could be done. She sighed, rubbing her eyes before resting her hands on his knees. “Teddy, I’m sorry. I’m just tired. It’s been hard running things by myself, and it’s not like I can tell the men that I’m not working on one day or another because my hips hurt.”

“Have you ever tried?”

Charlene shook her head. “I don’t take excuses from them. I’m not going to give them any either. I can work, but I’m glad you’re back so you can take over the heavy lifting, and I can keep to breeding my cows and plants. I promise I will try to do better.”

“Mmhm.” Ted didn’t sound convinced but he didn’t push the point. He bit down on another muffin, blowing a few crumbs at her when he spoke. “So what do you think of Rick?”

“Rick?” It took Charlene a minute to figure out who Ted was referring to. “Oh, Richard Tyler. He seems nice enough for all that he’s ranch green. I’m just hoping he has the technical skills to go with his manners. I’ve already got a field generator and a seeder that need to be fixed. We’ve got to start planting tomorrow, and there’s not enough time to get someone else in if he can’t manage.”

“Well, if’n it makes ya feel better, he patched out and reconfigured a bunch of field generators on the way here. We were down in Granite, and he managed in about 15 minutes with a storm bearing down. Ernest was impressed, and ya know how he can be.”

“Huh,” Charlene finished the muffin, thoughtful. If Ernest was impressed, it meant something. The old man didn’t impress easy. Maybe this would turn out to be a good hire.

“There’s a lot Rick don’t know about ranchin’ and all, yer right about that. He’s definitely city bred, but he’s a quick study. I think we need ta give him an opportunity with an open mind.” Ted covered a yawn before reaching for a third muffin. “That said, I’m knackered. You want any more of these? And can ya get upstairs okay?”

Charlene stretched her legs and decided she could manage. She’d just go slow. One day she was going to build a bedroom on the main floor. “No more, and I’m good. I’ll take him out to the misbehaving generator tomorrow and see what he can do.” She got to her feet, only wobbling a little, and kissed Ted on the cheek. “Good night, and welcome home. I’m glad you’re back.”

“Good night, Char. Love ya.”

Chapter 3

Richard rolled over in his narrow bunk, trying to find any position which didn’t irritate his stiff, aching muscles. Compared to his restful sleep in Granite, last night had been a nightmare. Combining the thin mattress and the narrow bunk with a body already sore from two full days of wagon travel was wretched. He already missed the conveniences of his father’s home on Central. He’d read up on Galileo during the six month transport but details like horse-drawn wagons, which had seemed interesting on paper, were much less interesting in person.

The solid thump of footsteps on the wood floor interrupted his attempts at dozing, and Richard reluctantly opened his eyes. The room wasn’t very big, consisting of a bunk on each wall with a narrow walkway between. His belongings were piled up at the foot of his bed and a shared table spanned the distance at the head of the beds for books and other minor necessities.

Frank sat on the edge of his cot, exchanging light weight slippers for heavier pointed-toe boots. Unlike Richard’s boots, Frank’s were highly patterned with some kind of reptile skin worked in patches along the toe. Richard had met the man--who turned out to be his bunkmate--very briefly the night before, but he hadn’t registered much more than swarthy, dark-haired, and a quiet sleeper, the last fact being perhaps the most important. Noticing that Richard was awake, Frank tapped the brim of his worn hat.

“Mornin’, Rick.”

“Good morning.” Richard pushed himself up, swinging his feet out of bed and trying not to groan.

“The ladies are setting up breakfast in the main hall. You’ll have to hurry if you don’t want to miss out, you know? We’re having slab toast in celebration of Ted getting out of the clink.”

Richard pulled one of his new cotton shirts over his head, wishing he’d asked about things like laundry and bathing options. Even with all the efforts to conserve water in the red rock environment, he was certain they didn’t go without cleaning. He shook his hair out of his face, paying attention to Frank. “Slab toast?”

Frank grinned, “Yep. Thick, chewy toast with a slab of ham tucked inside, dipped in egg and fried. Don’t have many pigs around here, so pork products are something Charlene saves for special occasions.” He stomped his feet, setting his boots, and rose. “The pisser is out back, but there’s a little sink in the dining if you just need washed hands. Hurry up, it ain’t like anyone’s going to save you a share if you’re not there to fight for it.”

He clomped out of the room, leaving Richard pulling on pants and thick stockings. He had questioned Madam Aster’s wisdom at insisting he buy the socks, but, after a day in the new boots, he was certain her advice was saving him blisters. He hesitated over his coat, feeling odd going in nothing but a light-weight shirt, but the temperature was already too warm. He left it behind.

By the time Richard had made use of the outhouse and returned to the hall he found all the other hands seated around a long table. Missus Davidson and Miss Tracy were making the rounds with a giant platter of slab toast. As fast as the toast hit mismatched ceramic plates, men poured sweet fruit syrups or preserves over them and dug in. If there was grace to be said, Richard had missed it.

He slid into one of the remaining open spaces, the seats just a long bench on either side of the table, and grabbed a plate. As the ladies came by, he received sunny smiles and two pieces of toast. Richard set the plate down, amused by the weight of the thick slabs. “Good morning, Missus Davidson, Miss Tracy. I had not expected to eat so heartily. If we always eat so I will have to beg someone to alter my pants.”

Missus Davidson chuckled indulgently, brushing a wisp of graying hair back from her face. “It’s not always this way, but we’re at the beginning of the season when transports can get in and the roads are passable. Y’all work very hard, and a man can’t work on an empty stomach.”

“Try some of the cherry preserves, Mister Tyler,” Tracy urged, pointing out a little jar near his plate. “I made them myself.” She paused, looking at her mother with a sly smile, and added, “Maybe with a little help.”

Obediently, Richard picked up the jar of preserves, the cherries bright red behind the glass. Chunks of the fruit swam in a thick, sweet gel, and he scooped some onto his plate. He cut a piece of toast, dipping it in the preserves and taking a bite. To his surprise, the tart berries went well with the toast, bringing out the meatiness of the ham and contrasting with the texture of the bread. He swallowed, noticing Tracy watching him. “It’s most excellent, Miss Tracy. The best cherry preserves I have ever been graced to try.”

She started to reply, but was cut off as Ted threw the front door open. “Ya better have saved some for me! It’s my party after all.” The comment was addressed to everyone and no one, and two of the men who had already cleaned their plates jumped up to make space for Ted at the table. He was followed by Charlene, and Richard finally got a good look at the woman when he wasn’t busy taking his foot out of his mouth.

She was younger than Ted, in fact younger than most of the hands, but carried herself with an easy, absolute authority. Her bound up hair gleamed a rich black, which many of the socialite ladies tried to duplicate, but they never managed such sheen without going a little purple. She dressed like the rest of the workers in a lightweight tan cotton shirt and sturdy brown breeches, though she filled out both very differently than any of the men. Richard looked down at his plate, shaking the thought from his head, ashamed at his lack of self-control. She was his employer, and he hadn’t even seen Anna yet. He shouldn’t be noticing anything about how Charlene wore her clothing. The clothing did not make the man…or the woman.

“Hey, Rick!”

Ted’s voice broke through Richard’s musing, and he looked up as the large man plucked the bottle of preserves away. “Yes?”

“Char’s been trying to get your attention. I know the toast is good, but it ain’t that good.”

Richard cleared his throat and looked at Charlene, whose expression was bemused. “I beg your pardon. I was distracted.”

“Seems so.” She gave a smile, a few of the men snickering, and Richard wondered if he’d ever go without an audience for his stumbles.

“When you get done pondering your distracting toast, come join me outside. I’ve got work for you to get to.” Her gaze rose to the rest of the table. “As for the rest of you, new schedule comes out in two days. If you need time let Ted know, and we’ll work it in. We start planting the top forty today.”

A few groans greeted the announcement, and Charlene rolled her eyes. “Oh, knock it off. You’ve known this was coming all week. We’ve got to get the crop in if you want to get paid. Ted will take first shift with the seeder that’s working, and, if our new tech genius can get the other one going, we’ll start a following shift. The sooner we have seed in the ground, the better.”

She walked out and Richard glanced at Ted while the men doubled down on feeding their faces.

“Is the planting really that bad?”

Ted swallowed a bite of toast, chasing it with a slug of milk. “Naw. These guys just like to bitch and moan to give Char a hard time. It’s hot work, but crops in now will be ready to harvest before the rainy season.”

Frank cocked his head to the side. “We trying new seed again? I know the stuff from last year had to hold over the rains, but we got paid good for it. Seems we’d stick with what works, you know?”

“We’ll be doing a combination of crops. Top forty and west forty get new seed with a faster germination time. The central fields will use the stuff from last year. We’ll hedge our bets to make sure we’ve got a crop no matter what.”

“Good enough.” Frank headed out, and within a few minutes most of the men had cleared out along with Missus Davidson and Tracy.

Richard finished the last of his toast, stacking the plates that had been left behind. He wasn’t sure where they went next, but it seemed rude to leave everything for Missus Davidson to clean up. Ted was still mopping up preserves with the last bite of toast and watched Richard stacking.

“If ya keep Charlene waiting much longer she’s going to think yer avoiding her. She ain’t that bad of a taskmaster.”

“I’m not avoiding her. It just seems rude to leave all of this for the women.”

“It ain’t. Cleaning up is what we pay the Davidsons for and fixing the seeder is what we’re paying ya for.” Ted pushed back from the table, licking a smudge of berry from his thumb. “So stop stalling and get working.”

Richard rolled his eyes. “Yes, Sir.” He left the rest of the dishes behind and walked out, finding Charlene leaning in the shade of the front porch. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

She looked up, watching him under the wide brim of her much abused hat with dark, amused eyes. “No problem.”

Chapter 4

Charlene tried not to be impatient waiting for Richard. She couldn’t blame him for finishing breakfast, but there was a lot to get done today, and she wanted to get to it. When he finally joined her, she pushed away from the wall.

“Sorry to keep you waiting.”

“No problem.” Charlene walked away from the bunk house, trusting him to keep up. “This way. Teddy tells me you worked on a field generator down at Stacia and Harold’s place. The ones we’ve got are from the same batch, so it should be a straightforward repair. Then we’ve got a seeder that needs some loving care, and it needs to be out on the fields today.”

He chuckled. She liked the sound, a warm laughter that invited her to be amused too. “I’ve never had a job where I was very literally hands on the first day. I suspect this position will represent many firsts. The field generator is a simple enough design that I’m sure I can assist, but I haven’t seen a seeder before.”


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