THE TRIPLE J
By Atonia Walpole
Billie Johnson wiped the sweat from her forehead with the tail of her blue tee shirt, replaced her hat, and turned up the music before heading out of town in her old faded blue Chevy pick up truck. Rascal Flats was sounding good today. Out on the long straight highway she sped along bouncing her hands on the steering wheel in time with the music. If she timed it just right Cort might be back about the same time she would.
Cort, now there was a piece of work. Woo hoo, but he was fine. Never mind what her sister said about him being too old for her. After all nineteen was nothing to be laughed at, Bobbie needed to lighten up a bit. It was awfully hard on a girl with all those good looking cowboys around in the summer.
The heat haze on the highway shimmied and wavered in front of her, so she almost missed the man walking along. She stopped her pickup and looked back at him, dressed in black jeans, cowboy boots, and a black shirt. He was carrying a saddle. Too hot for that today she figured, and backed up.
"Hey whatcha doin’ out here? Lost your horse?"
The man stopped and dropped his saddle beside him, adjusted his black hat. "Looks like it, don’t it."
"Wouldn’t mind it."
"Well, put your saddle in the back. Mind you don’t break open one of them bags."
"How far you going"?" the man asked, shutting the door of the cab.
"You mind bein’ a little more specific?"
"You ain’t heard of the Triple J? Then you ain’t from around here, are ya?"
"No, I ain’t"
"Where you headed?"
"As far as I can get." He settled back in the seat and pulled his hat down to his eyebrows.
"What happened to your horse?"
"Mind turnin’ that music down? I sold it."
"Well, I’m Billie Johnson and I live at the Triple J Ranch. You lookin’ for work?"
"I reckon I might be."
"I’ll take you home with me then. You’ll have to see my sister. My brother’s off somewhere. What’d you say your name was?"
"I didn’t say. Didn’t your mama warn you about pickin’ up strange men along the road?" He turned to get a look at her, just a kid with freckles across her nose.
"Yeah, I’m sure she did. Is that what you are, a strange man?"
"Well, you see, you can’t never tell, can you? Name’s Ben Wade."
"What happened to your hand?"
Ben looked down at his right hand, flexing his fingers, it was bruised and swollen. Damn Jimmy D to hell and back. "Nothin’."
"You been fightin’, ain’t ya. What happened?"
"Ain’t none of your business, is it, Miss Billie Johnson?"
"Nope, I reckon it ain’t, but if you’re lookin’ to work at the Triple J I’ll tell you right now, Bobbie ain’t gonna put up with fightin’. You’ll be back out here on the road in a flash."
"I ain’t lookin’ for a fight. Your brother ain’t gotta worry about that."
"Bobbie’s my sister, brother’s name is Terry." He looked over at her and grinned. "Guess your daddy had to make do with what he got, Bobbie and Billie."
"That’s not a nice thing to say, is it?"
"I never said I was…nice."
Billie was beginning to wish she’d left him on the side of the road. She might just be bringing a load of trouble home with her. "Here’s where we turn." She slowed and turned onto a dirt road. All the land was fenced. There were a few trees, but mostly grassland.
"What kinda ranch you got?"
"Cattle mostly, but we got some horses too. What kinda work can you do?"
"Most anything, Billie, most anything." He rested his arm on the window and tipped his hat back.
Billie chanced a glance at him, good looking dude. Now just what would Bobbie think about that? She noticed a cloud of dust ahead of her and slowed, pulling to the right.
"Wonder what he’s doin’ out here, eh? Ah, prob’ly after Bobbie again. Yeah, just payin’ a visit, I reckon."
Sheriff John Biebe slowed when he saw the pickup, "Hey Billie, doin’ all right?"
"Just fine, John. Been into town. We got trouble at the ranch?"
"No, just checkin’. Don’t go pickin’ up no strangers now. See ya." He waved and drove on.
"Oops, I already did," she giggled and looked over at Ben, who seemed to have found something interesting out his window to look at. "The sheriff likes Bobbie, takes her out sometimes." She pulled back on the road and headed for the ranch.
"Your sister not married?" He cocked an eyebrow.
"Not for about five years now."
"Ya’ll run this ranch by yourself?"
"Yeah me, Bobbie, Terry and Sarah, that’s Terry’s wife. Mama and Daddy passed on."
"Sorry to hear that, ‘bout your parents. How many people workin’ here?"
"Right now the bunkhouse is full, so that’s eight, then we got the cabins, that’s another eight, no, that’s seven cause Bo left. It's summer, you know. We always have a crop of cowboys in the summer."
A crop of cowboys mused Ben. Oh well, maybe he needed to stop for awhile and get himself back together, do some real work for a change. He looked down at his hand again and made a fist. Poker was gettin’ a might rough. He sure hated to lose Ribbon. Damn fine horse. There was, of course, the outside chance he’d get him back...one way or another.
"You weren’t part of the rodeo, were ya?" Billie was still wondering about him
"Nope, can’t say I was. Never saw the sense in bustin’ my balls for entertainment purposes."
Billie grinned. He sure had a way with words. "Well, this is it. You to wait on the front porch and I’ll find Bobbie." She parked her truck by the front steps, jumped down, and surveyed the yard, looking to see if the boys were back yet before running in the house.
"Hey, Bob-bie, where are you?" she called, letting the screen door slam behind her.
"I’m in here in the office. Are you just getting back?"
"Yeah. Hey, I got a man for you outside and he’s a hottie!"
"I really don’t have time for this right now, Billie. What are you talkin’ about?" Bobbie put down the stack of invoices she was fanning through.
"I picked up a good looker looking for work. Thought you might hire him on."
"We got enough boys right now, Billie."
"This ‘un ain’t no boy. He’s on the front porch." She grinned and wiggled her eyebrows.
Bobbie stood up. "Where’d you find him?"
Billie tilted her head. "Walkin’ down the road carrying a fine-lookin’ saddle."
"Billie, you don’t go pickin’ up guys off the road, for God’s sake. No tellin’ what he is. You’re damn lucky to be alive, you know. There’s all kinds of weird ass people around here right now. Always is after a rodeo. Take him back to the road."
"I can’t do that. I told him you’d hire him on. He says he can do anything."
"I’ll just bet. Well, I’ll tell him we haven’t got…anything." She came out from behind her desk and went to the front door.
He was leaning against one of the porch supports, looking out toward the fields in front of the house. Tall, broad shouldered, black hat. Bobbie hesitated and opened the door.
"Hey, I’m Bobbie Johnson. Billie says you’re lookin’ for work…" She caught her breath when he turned around. Damn, he was a looker. His eyes held her and wouldn’t let go.
"Ben Wade, ma’am, at your service. " Holy shit, what a beautiful woman out here in the middle of nowhere. "Your sister says you might be, ah, lookin’ for a hand." He removed his hat, ran his hand through his hair and smiled.
Unconsciously Bobbie smoothed her blonde hair back. "Well, as a matter of fact we…ah…could use another m…man." His voice, honeyed and low, had crawled up her spine and settled over her shoulders like a warm blanket on a cold day. He was just holding his hat and looking at her, but she felt he had physically touched her. Regaining her senses…
"Follow me. I’ll take you down to see Jake. He kinda runs things…hirin’ and all, I mean. Billie says you can do anything?" She raised an eyebrow and smiled, settling her hat on her head.
"I have done…most everything." A small smile on his lips as he stepped off the porch and fell in beside her. "Nice place you got here."
"Yeah, I reckon it is, we raise free range beef cattle here."
"Billie says you also got horses."
"Yeah, well, we do some. We take in wild horses and train ‘em. Once they’re saddle ready we sell ‘em. Where’re you from, Ben?"
"I been so many places, I don’t rightly remember anymore."
"Billie says she picked you up on the highway out of Amarillo. You part of the rodeo crowd?"
"'Cause if you are we’ll stop right here." She stopped, meeting his eyes, trying to hold her own. She felt like she could just get lost in that blue gaze.
"I don’t do rodeos. I was just passin’ through."
"Carryin’ a saddle?"
"Well now, I had to sell my horse. Been awhile since I worked and I needed the money." He smiled and tilted his head.
"Where was the last place you worked?"
"Oklahoma, ma’am, I worked in Oklahoma."
Bobbie didn’t believe a word he said. Why was she walking with him down to see Jake? Oklahoma, my ass, she thought. "And how long ago was that?"
"Last month. I got a feller’s name you can call if you want to check me out."
"I’ll let Jake take care of that." They reached a little clapboard house set back in the trees and Bobbie called out for Jake.
Jake was a tall lanky fellow of undetermined age who walked with a considerable limp. He came around the house with his dog. "Hey, Bobbie, whatcha got for me?"
"Jake, this is Ben Wade. He’s lookin’ to hire on. I leave that up to you." Bobbie looked up under the brim of her hat, meeting Ben’s eyes, then turned and walked off.
Ben turned, watching her walk away in her tight jeans and boots. Damn good lookin’ woman.
Billie laughed when she watched Bobbie lead Ben toward Jake’s house. That might just take some of the starch out of her, she thought. Out the door she climbed up in her truck, taking it down to the stables, hoping Cort might be back. He’d ridden out with the rest of the men that morning to move cattle. Cort was her special project for the summer. Unlike the rest of the young men, he was quiet and reserved, and Billie was attracted to him in a big way. She parked her truck and jumped out, going around to open the tailgate. She had forgotten about the saddle and climbed up to get a good look at it.
"Hi, Billie, need some help?" Cort walked up to the tailgate with his hands on his hips. "What have you got there?"
Billie felt as she always did when he was around, her heart doing flips in her chest. "I didn’t know you were back, Cort. I was just havin’ a look at this saddle."
Cort jumped up on the truck bed. "Where did you find this, Billie? That’s an expensive-looking saddle." He bent down, running his fingers over the tooling.
Billie was caught up in watching his fingers work over the leather. "Oh…um, it belongs to a guy I picked up on the road comin’ back from town. He’s down with Jake now."
Cort looked up. "You picked a guy up on the road? Billie, that’s not good, honey."
He’d called her honey. "I know. I already heard all that, but he’s okay. I brought the oats." She looked into his eyes and smiled.
Cort dropped his head, a small smile playing his lips. "I’ll help you unload." He jumped down, pulling one of the bags out.
"You’re back early, ain’t you?"
"Yeah, I think Pearly must have picked up a rock or something. Need to get Jake to take a look at her. I can’t find it."
"Aw, poor Pearly girly." Billie ran her hand over Cort’s horse, turning her head to catch the site of his strong back as he lifted the bag of oats off her truck. She’d like to run her hands across that back of his. "Pearly, Pearly, what are we gonna do?" she said quietly.
"Billie, you wanna come hold this saddle up so I can get this bag out from under it?"
Anything, Cort, she thought as she jumped up on the truck bed. Oh, she had it bad for him. "You goin’ down to Rounders tonight?"
"Think I could come along?"
"You can’t get in, Billie. You have to be twenty-one. Besides it's not a place I’d take you anyway."
"Bobbie goes to Rounders."
"Bobbie is ten years older than you, my friend."
She followed him back in the stable. "You think I’m just a kid, don’t you?"
"I know you’re a kid, Billie, but that’s not a bad thing, you know."
"Well, I’d like to know how old you have to be not to be a kid. I’m nearly twenty. Only 28 more days and I have a birthday." She picked up a brush and started helping him brush down Pearly.
"I didn’t know you had a birthday coming up. Twenty is pretty special."
"Will I still be a twenty year old kid?"
Cort stopped brushing and looked at her. Nothing about her looked like a kid but he couldn’t, he just couldn’t. He sat on his heels, having another look at Pearly’s hoof.
"Can’t answer that, can you, Cort?"
"You aren’t twenty yet. We’ll have to wait and see."
"Okay, this may be the last of the ‘kid’ you get to see." Billie threw the brush down and stalked out of the stable.
"Billie, you didn’t find that brush on the ground." His voice was so soft and deep she wanted to cry.
"I’m sorry. Guess that’s the kid still in me." She stooped and picked up the brush and put it away.
Cort stood and came around to the side of the stall. "Billie, I didn’t mean to upset you, honey. You aren’t cryin’, are you?"
Billie had her back to him, biting her lip to keep quiet while tears gathered in her eyelashes. "No," she croaked, "I’m not cryin’, not over you." She turned and ran toward the house.
Cort leaned against the side of the stall wondering what he was going to do about her. He was eight years older, and older in more ways than one. He turned and saw Jake and a stranger walking up toward the stables.
"Hey, Jake, when you get a chance can you look at Pearly’s right hoof? Think she might have picked up something."
"Sure thing, Cort. By the way this is Ben Wade. Thought I might put him in with you since Bo’s gone. ‘ Bout the only bed we got left."
"Nice to meet ya." Cort shook Ben’s hand
"Same to ya, Cort." Ben sized him up as he usually did when meeting a stranger. He liked what he saw.
"This must be your saddle then. Nice piece of work there."
"Yeah, it is. I hear we’re roommates?"
"Seems like it. Get your gear and I’ll take you around. You can leave your saddle here in the stable if you want. Ain’t nobody gonna bother it."
Ben climbed up in the truck bed and got his saddle, handing it to Cort. "Where do you want me to put it?"
"Put it back here with mine." Cort watched him for a minute, trying to figure him out.
"Cort, looks like she’s got a little pebble in there. I’ll go get my tools. Go ahead and take Ben on up to your cabin and get him settled in." Jake limped back down to his place.
"Well, come on with me to the plantation." Cort ran his hand through his hair and grinned. "That all you got?" he asked ,noticing the leather bag Ben carried.
"Yeah, travel light. Best way you know," he grinned
"I do know. Where you from?"
"Lastly or firstly?"
"That bad, huh? That’s a fine saddle to be carryin’. Where’s the horse that goes with it?"
"Prob’bly still in Amarillo." Ben gave him a side glance
"You gonna leave it there?" Cort met his look
"Hell, no…first chance I get."
"Here it is, Ben, home for the moment. It’s really not that bad since they partitioned off the bedrooms." He opened the door to a small neat cabin with a one counter kitchenette, bathroom, two bedrooms and an open living area. "This is your room."
Cort went over to the little fridge under the counter and took out a bottle of water. He’d bet a dollar to a doughnut Ben was a gambler, probably poker. He was familiar with eyes like that.
"You got anything stronger than a bottle of water?"
"No, might go to Rounders tonight. Wanna come along?"
"Just outside Amarillo."
Ben sat down in the old overstuffed chair by the pot bellied stove. "Which side would that be?"
Cort grinned, "Top side."
"You got a trailer?"
"I got a truck. East’s got a trailer."
"Horse breaker here at the ranch. He trains the wild ones."
"The best I ever come across."
"I can’t pay nobody."
"Wasn’t askin’ for nothin’."
Ben sat back and smiled. He was rarely ever wrong about a man.
Cort finished his bottle of water. "So you wanna tell me how you lost your horse?"
"No, but I will. I lost him in a card game. Been playin’ for three days and winnin’. Along comes this cowboy and his buddy, all of a sudden I start losin’, and bein’ in the heat of it I put up Ribbon. My mistake of course. I lost him. I saw the look the two fellers exchanged and knew I’d been had, so I called ‘em out on it, turned into a brawl, him and another feller in jail and his partner left with my horse."
"I figured somethin’ like that. Let’s go look up East, make sure he ain’t got a hot date tonight."
They walked away from the cabins and up through a path to the corrals.
"East part of the summer crop?"
"Ah, somethin’ Billie said, a summer crop of cowboys."
Cort smiled, "No, East ain’t a summer crop. He’s been here for about six years. He’s an Aussie, come over from Australia. "There he is, workin’ the paint."
Ben leaned against the corral and watched the young man work. "He’s good, works ‘em with his body. How’d you end up here, Cort? Been here for awhile?"
"I come in April, just a saddle bum."
Ben narrowed his eyes. There was more to this young man than that but he’d let it ride...another time
East, satisfied he’d worn the paint down for the day, dismounted and led him over to Carl, the Mexican who took care of the horses. Carl handed him a bottle of water and he walked over to the fence.
"Hiya, mate. What’s up?"
"Hey, East, this here’s Ben Wade. Hired on today,"
East narrowed his eyes, taking in Ben, not sure what to make of him. He extended his hand. "East Driscoll. Glad to meetcha."
"Mighty fine work you’re doin’ there, East." The man had a good firm handshake.
"Yeah, he’s comin’ along. Are you a horseman?" East took a long swig from his bottle.
"I know a fine mount when I see one, and recognize a trainer."
"Whatcha doin’ tonight, East?" asked Cort
"Drinkin’ and fuckin, why?"
"Reckon we could borrow your trailer?" Cort tilted his head.
"Somethin’ wrong with Pearly?"
"No, just need to pick up a horse, Ben’s horse."
"Where is he? Why not just take it now and go get it?"
"Well, it ain’t quite that simple. East," said Ben. "Ya see, I lost him in a crooked card game and I aim to get ‘im back."
East grinned, "We stealin’ a horse?"
"Ain’t no stealin’ goin’ on. He’s mine."
"East, you don’t have to get involved in this. We just need your trailer," Cort said.
"Crikey! Hey, I’m in. Where we goin’?" East asked, climbing through the rail fence.
"I reckon he’s corralled somewhere this side of Amarillo," offered Ben.
"Pretty wide open area there, Ben. Gotta do better than that." Cort leaned against the fence and crossed his arms.
"Well, I don’t know much about this area, Cort. Card game was in the back of Rosita’s place. I don’t think either of the men were locals, but the one in jail mentioned a motel named Silver Moon."
"I know where that is," said East. "Its on past Rounders, up toward the hills."
"Been there, East?" asked Cort with a smirk.
"Mate, I know them all," he grinned.
"Well, I figure the buddy is waitin’ on the scum in jail to get out. That’s why I’d like do somethin’ tonight. I really appreciate your help. Can’t offer nothin’ else."
"Hey, mate, no worries. Cort, just hook my trailer up to your truck. I might need mine tonight."
"Yeah, right, East. See ya at Rounders around 8:00." Cort clapped East on the shoulder and they turned to go.
"Ah, Ben, welcome on mate." A wink from East
"Thank ya, East, ‘preaciate it." Ben touched the brim of his hat. He fell in beside Cort as they walked back toward their cabin. "Nice feller, East. Ladies man?"
"He’s always got ‘em all over him at Rounders."
Ben thought about Bobbie. "What do you know about Bobbie?"
Cort gave him a quick look. "She’s datin’ the sheriff, Ben."
"I ain’t privy to all that. He’s out here a lot."
"Well, that’s good to know, ain’t it?" A small smile teased his mouth.
Bobbie finished up entering her invoices and filed them away in a drawer. She stretched her arms over her head and looked out the window to see the boys coming in down around the bunk house. Her thoughts went to the new man. Ben Wade, he sure didn’t look like the usual cowboy looking for work. For one thing his clothes were a cut above. She remembered his boots, hand made to fit. Jake had come by and told her he’d hired him on and she trusted his judgment, still there was that niggling thing in her gut. She looked at her watch. Better go tell Marie she wouldn’t be there for dinner. John was taking her to a new restaurant that opened up. The thought of John made her smile. Was this going to get serious? She kept her feelings for him locked up in a closet in her mind, not wanting to examine them too closely.
She found Marie in the kitchen, and Billie sitting on a stool eating something.
"Marie, I won’t be here for dinner tonight. Sorry I didn’t tell you sooner."
"Oh, that’s okay. Billie will eat for two, I’m sure."
"Not if she keeps eating salsa and chips. What’s the matter, Billie? You’re awfully quiet."
"Nothin’ is the matter, Bobbie. I just have a need to feed myself. I do that you know…eat."
"How come your eyes are puffy? Been crying?"
Billie dropped her head, pushing a chip around in the bowl of salsa. "How long am I gonna be a kid, Bobbie? Till I’m old and gray, hobbling around with a cane?"
"Hey, what’s brought this on? You’ll always be my kid sister, you know."
"Yeah, I know but I ain’t talking about kid sisters."
"Okay, who is he? Is it East? No, well let me see…you’re not still mooning over Cort, are you?"
"He thinks I’m a kid, Bobbie. I’m almost just about twenty, you know."
"Billie, he’s got to be about twenty eight years old. That’s a lot of years between you two."
"Does that matter really? Dad was six year older than Mom. What’s a couple more?"
"Mom was twenty four when she met Dad. You’d be surprised the difference a few more years make. You’ve still got three more years of college left. "
"I can’t help it. My whole insides just turn over when he’s around. I can’t even breathe right. I think I’m in love, Bobbie."
Bobbie gave her sister a hug. "My advice is not to go around him then. Sounds like you’ve got a big crush on Cort, and he’s just a bit out of your league, Billie."
Billie looked up and met her sister’s eyes. "He’s not, you know. He just doesn’t realize it."
Bobbie saw something in Billie’s eyes. "You haven’t...Billie tell me you haven’t been to bed with Cort." Fear was rising in her throat.
"No, I haven’t, if you must know, but not for want of tryin’. Yeah…that’s how it is…he won’t."
Bless you, Cort. "Please don’t go there, Billie. He’s a good man. I’d hate to lose him."
"Well, I guess you don’t have anything to worry about there, Bobbie. Why would you fire him if I did?"
"To protect you, Billie. I’d fire the lot of them if I thought they couldn’t be trusted around you. You’re my kid sister, for cryin’ out loud."
Billie bit her lip. Bobbie never knew about her and East when she turned seventeen. Something that just happened one day and was never repeated. East was more like a brother now, and set the tone for the rest of the guys, but he’d been the first and she’d never forget him.
"I’m gonna take a shower. So you’re goin’ out tonight with John?"
"Yes, he’s takin’ me to dinner."
"How nice for YOU," said Billie, and she flounced out of the kitchen and up the stairs.
"Oh, Marie, what am I going to do with her?" Bobbie sighed, standing with her hands on her hips, staring after Billie.
"She’s growing up, Bobbie. She really ain’t a kid anymore, you know. She’s a young woman. Ha I was married with a baby when I was her age."
"I don’t want that for her, Marie. I want her to finish school and get her degree, find some nice man to marry someday. I don’t want her to throw her life away on a cowboy."
"But what you want and what she wants might not be the same thing, Bobbie. You just picked the wrong cowboy, that’s all. Me, I picked a good one and never looked back. Jake is the best."
Bobbie turned and smiled. "He is that, Marie. He’s a good man, and they are hard to find."
"You should look at your sheriff, Bobbie," Marie said, pushing her red ponytail over her shoulder.
"Hmm, you think so?" she smiled and walked out of the kitchen.
Jake Carpenter hung up the phone, he’d just got a call back from one of the references he’d checked on. This one a woman in Oklahoma, and by her conversation he figured Ben had been doing more than herding cattle. He ran his hand over his face. Now that was something he hadn’t considered. Maybe he’d better keep an eye out for Bobbie. She seemed to be getting on just fine with her sheriff. Looking out his door he saw the boys were filtering back down to the bunkhouse. Better go see how things went today. He put on his hat and hitched up his jeans.
Walking down the path he caught of whiff of something good coming from the ‘chuck wagon’, as they had dubbed the dinning hall for the men. Carl’s wife had turned out to be a treasure when old Sam had to quit because of his arthritis. The men had certainly appreciated the change of menu.
ON TO CHAPTER 4
BACK TO LIBRISCROWE