Farmer Boys and City Girls By K. Rowe


Mary Jane reared back and let fly, kicking the daylights out of the bottom link on the three-point hitch. “Oh, you bitch!” She kicked again. The 4 X 4 post holding up the 500-pound moldboard plow teetered and dropped. The plow toppled over, landing on the soft, damp morning grass with a heavy thud. There was no way her one hundred fifty pounds could wrestle the hefty farm implement back to upright.
 Farmer Boys and City Girls
 Farmer Boys and City Girls 


“Argh! Now what am I gonna do?” She took a wild swing in the cool October air. “I got five minutes to make it to my exhibition, and now I can’t get the plow attached.” Taking a step back, she looked at her tractor. It was nothing fancy, just a sixty-year-old hunk of rusting metal. What possessed her to think she had something special to show off to the world? Why was she wasting a perfectly good weekend on this? She realized she must be crazy.

Looking around the fairgrounds, she noticed all the beautifully restored tractors. There was a multitude of brilliant colors: yellow and green John Deeres, orange and yellow Cases, fire-engine red Farmalls, dark orange Allis Chalmers, and brilliant blue Fords. The area was awash with the chugging sounds of vintage engines, crowds chatting, and bluegrass music, not to mention the occasional resounding crack of an engine backfiring. And the surrounding hills were clothed in vibrant fall shades nearly matching those of the tractors. The rich aroma of BBQ competed with exhaust fumes.

“Need some help?” a male voice called from behind; it was laced with a thick Kentucky accent.

Mary Jane turned around. She was face to face with a dashingly handsome man. Well, as dashing as his torn green t-shirt, faded jeans, and work boots would allow. He carried a rag, and there was a rather large grease smear down his left cheek. His eyes were dazzling Ford blue.

“Uh…” she stammered, surprised to see someone wearing a t-shirt in the chilly morning air.

He gestured. “Need help with your plow?”

“Oh, yes. I can’t get it attached.” She stared up at him, guessing he stood close to six feet tall. His hair was dark brown with a little bit of wave to it. He was of average build, maybe a little on the lanky side. What caught her eye was his right arm. His tanned forearm was quite disfigured and scarred. MJ guessed it was from a farming accident. He looked to be in his late 30s, maybe early 40s.

“Well, it goes on better when it’s upright.”

“Yeah, I…I know,” she replied sheepishly, knowing her temper tantrum was inexcusable.

He bent down, grabbed the plow by the hitch points, and with a loud grunt, hefted it back up.

Mary Jane quickly shoved the 4 X 4 post under it. “Thanks.” She was amazed at his sheer strength.

“No problem.” He went forward to the tractor, popped the foot brake, and returned to the plow. Using his strength, he pushed against the large rear wheel of the tractor to bring the linkage points back to the plow. Within thirty seconds it was attached.

“Wow, thanks!” Mary Jane said, trying to keep her jaw from hanging open.

“Welcome,” he said with a polite nod and a broad smile. “I’m Toby.” He tried to wipe the grease off his hands before offering one. “Toby Farmer.”

Mary Jane wasn’t going to be discourteous to her knight in faded blue jeans. She readily took his hand. “Mary Jane Ripley, but everyone just calls me MJ.”

He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “You don’t sound like you’re from around here.”

“Um, no. Actually I moved here from Chicago.” As her hand slid, she gestured to his face. “You, uh, umm, have—”

“What?”

She pointed. “Uh, grease. You got a big smear of grease on your face.”

Toby laughed and wiped it off. “Chicago? What’s a pretty, big-city lady like you doin’ out here in the Kentucky country?” He walked with her as she went around and prepared to climb into the hard metal pan seat of the tractor. As she put her back to him to step up, he liked what he saw. She was a good few inches shorter than he; her shoulder-length hair was medium brown with some blonde highlights. Her jeans conveniently hugged her hips, showing off all her lovely curves.

“I left to get away from it all.” She settled into the seat, giving the stick shift a wiggle to ensure it was in neutral. “I have an ex-husband there and I wanted to put some distance between us.”

“Oh,” Toby said softly. “Well, I’d say this is some distance…But why the country?”

“Always loved animals. When I was younger, my parents wouldn’t let me have any pets.”

“That ain’t right.”

“We lived in a high-rise apartment. Mother wasn’t going to deal with them.”

“Mmm. I guess I was just the opposite. I had all sorts of critters. But Ma drew the line when I brought home a baby coon.”

“Coon? As in raccoon?”

Toby smiled. “Yeah, the little bugger got into the kitchen cabinets and made a huge mess of the place. There was chocolate sauce, ketchup, and flour all over the place!”

“Oops!” She giggled and flicked the key to the start position. “Uh, hey, I gotta run. I’m supposed to be exhibiting this hunk of junk.”

He stepped back and gave the tractor a looking over. “Hmm, I’d say she’s a ’53 Ferguson.”

Mary Jane finally let her jaw drop. “Yes! How’d you know?”

“Been on a tractor all my life. You get to know ’em.”

“Her name’s Fergie, and she’s been a real bitch lately.”

Toby rested his hand on the weathered red hood. “She’s not the color she’s supposed to be.”

“Yeah, I know. According to what I saw on the internet, she’s supposed to be a darker gray.”

“Yup.” He pointed. “There’s a restored one over there.”

“Yeah, saw it. Drooled.” She pushed the button, the engine grumbled to life. “Oh, at least you decided to start this morning!”

He chuckled. “Lemme guess, she’s a work in progress?”

“Completely.” MJ pushed her left foot on the clutch arm. “My dream is to restore her.”

“Good luck on that.”

Giving the throttle a bump with her hand, she reached behind her left leg and threw the power takeoff, or PTO lever, which turned on the rear driveshaft used for running farm implements. Then she reached behind her right thigh and yanked up the draft lever. Gently lifting her foot off the clutch, she watched the three-point hitch raise the plow a foot into the air. “Ah, maybe this will be a good morning after all.”

The loudspeaker announced the parade of tractors from the 1940s and 50s.

“Oh, that’s me!” MJ said. “Do you have a tractor here?”

“Yeah.”

“Aren’t you going to show yours too?”

Toby gestured over his shoulder. “Mine’s a weeeee bit older.”

“How much older?”

“Nineteen twenty-nine.”

She shifted into first gear and slowly let out the clutch. The tractor bucked and the engine coughed a couple of times before moving off at a leisurely three miles per hour. “And what do you have?”

Toby easily kept pace with her. “My gal is a Case L.”

“Really?”

“Come by after you get done, I’ll introduce you to Mable.” He stopped, letting her pass.

MJ turned and smiled over her shoulder as she headed to the exhibit area. “Okay!”





The arena set aside to exhibit tractors was about the size of a football field. MJ wafted her hand in front of her face. The old tractor ahead of her was belching out acrid blue smoke from its smokestack. She coughed once and tried to slow down some. Glancing back, she saw another tractor not far behind. She was stuck. A dozen tractors were chugging around at turtle speed.

Now she really hated the idea of showing her tractor. As she looked at the others, noticing they were in near factory-mint restored condition, MJ realized this looked bad. And then to add insult, Fergie’s engine died.

“Hey! Move on!” the exhibitor behind called.

MJ pivoted in her seat. “Sorry, she died.”

He steered his tractor around and kept going. She tried several times to start the engine but with no luck. All MJ could do was sit there and look stupid as tractor after tractor passed her. She put her face in her hands.

The clanking of metal got her attention. Looking up, she saw Toby had come from out of nowhere and sprang into action. With a wrench in one hand and a pair of pliers in the other, he was feverishly working on the engine. “Can you fix her?” MJ asked, hopping down and going around to him.

“Maybe,” he replied, keeping his concentration focused on the job at hand. “These old engines are temperamental.”

“Tell me about it!”

“My papaw had a similar tractor, and he was always complainin’ about the fuel system or the points.” He worked the line loose from the fuel filter to the carburetor. Gasoline dribbled out followed by some gunky brown chunks. “Yup, same problem.” Toby bled the line for a few moments before reconnecting it. Then he took the rag from his back pocket and wiped any spilled gas from the engine. “Okay, give her a try.”

MJ scrambled into the seat and fired up the engine. It spat, coughed, and finally came to life.

“I suggest you take what good fortune you have and get her back to where you had her.”

“I’ll try!” She slipped it into gear and gently eased out the clutch. The engine sputtered momentarily and then gained strength. “Come on, Fergie, you can do it! Please, get me back to the display area.”

The tractor slowly left the exhibition arena, MJ careful to keep it running. Some of the crowd applauded Toby’s valiant efforts to repair the tractor on the fly. Toby followed along, happily enjoying the view of MJ’s backside wobbling in the pan seat.

Back in the display area, MJ parked Fergie and shut down the engine. She rested her elbows on the steering wheel and leaned forward, putting her face in her hands. “I can’t believe you’d pull something like that.”

“It’s just a tractor, we’ll get her fixed,” Toby said as he approached.

“Oh, my God, you heard that?”

“Yeah. It’s cool. I have words with Mable on occasion.”

“I bet yours doesn’t give you as much grief as Fergie gives me.”

“Not often. But I’m also used to working on her.” He pulled the hood forward and looked at the engine. “How long have you had her?”

“About five months…Five months too long.”

Toby went to work checking the oil, transmission/hydraulic fluid, the belt, and the distributor. “Why do you say that?”

“Because she’s become just another money pit.”

“Antiques tend to do that.”

“As if I don’t have enough problems at home.”

“Where’s home?”

“I live in Laurel County.” She climbed down and hovered around him while he checked engine components. “Have a thirty-acre farm there.”

“Nice county.” He didn’t say much for a few minutes as he continued to work. “Just you running the farm?”

“Well, when I bought the place, the previous owner had a land-lease agreement with a cattle farmer. He had fifteen head on the land.” She leaned against a back tire. “So I wake up every morning to fifteen white-faced black angus staring at me.”

“Not a bad thing to wake up to.”

“I figured I better keep the agreement; I don’t think I can manage thirty acres myself. The cattle do a good job of keeping the majority of the fields down.”

“Yeah, can’t see you doin’ an awful lot of farming with this little girl.”

“And I also bought a house that seems intent on falling down around me. Inspection or not, I think I got screwed on that deal.”

“Got a good handyman?”

“I wish. Try finding someone to do work around here.”

Toby nodded. “Folks in these parts aren’t too keen on doin’ an honest days’ labor. Time and government benefits have made ’em lazy.”

“Is that what it is?” She folded her arms. “Happen to know of anyone that does wanna work?”

“I got the farm for the most part, but my brother, Nate, does some handiwork.”

“And where does he live?”

“With me.” He closed the hood and wiped his hands. “We got two hundred acres over in Clay County.”

“Wow! And you run it all?”

“For the most part. My youngest brother, Dewey, ain’t any help. So me and Nate handle most if it and hire day labor when we need to.” He motioned to her. “Give it a try now.”

MJ climbed up and started the engine. Blue smoke belched from the tailpipe and the engine grumbled. Toby went around to the right side. She couldn’t tell what he was doing, but all of a sudden the engine started running much better. “What’d you do?”

“Adjusted the flow on the carburetor…You might wanna get that looked at.”

“By whom? I hardly know a soul in the county, let alone the state.”

“How long have you lived there?”

“Not quite a year.”

“Mmm…Maybe I can be of help.”

“You’d work on her?”

He held his hands out, greasy palms up. “Well, I have been.”

She shut off the engine. “I’d like that.” Hopping down, she stood in front of him. “How about I buy you lunch?”

“Never had a woman buy me lunch before.” Toby wiped his hands.

“Never?”

“Nope.”

She grabbed his hand and tugged him along. “There’s always a first.”

“Uh, hey, you wanna meet Mable? She’s on the way.

“Sure.” MJ let Toby take the lead as they maneuvered through row upon row of tractors, riding lawnmowers, and farm implements. He stopped at the end of one row. A heavy-framed dark gray tractor was parked, the sun shining off the deep, glossy paint. “Meet Mable.”

“Oh, she’s lovely!”

“Took me three years to restore her.”

“Three?”

“Well, I had to work and save up money…And I had nearly a year where I didn’t work on her at all.”

“Why was that?”

He ran his hand over the hood and gazed into the distance for a few moments, collecting his thoughts. “Had some problems…Life took a different path for a while.” Toby shook his head slightly. “You know, I had to hunt high and low for some of the parts, even digging through junkyards to find a few.”

MJ leaned over and admired the large, colorful decal of a bald eagle standing on a globe. “I bet you found this on one of the tractor parts websites.”

“Luckily, yes. One place had all the decals I needed. Still cost me a pretty penny.”

“But she’s worth it.”

He took out a cloth and rubbed a bit of dirt from the rear tire hub. “She sure is.”





There was decidedly more that was finger lickin’ good as MJ tore into a pulled pork sandwich. She was starved and didn’t realize it. Barbecue sauce dribbled between her fingers and she frantically licked them trying not to get sauce everywhere. Toby watched her with amusement. He held up a pork rib. “Perhaps you should’ve gotten something with a handle!”

She set down the sandwich, licked her fingers a bit more, and then finally grabbed a napkin. They were sitting on straw bales under the warm afternoon sun. A stage was a few yards away and a bluegrass band plucked out some earthy tunes. MJ looked to her right. There was a tall flagpole with the American flag wafting gently in the breeze. Below it, a lovely restored red and white International tractor. It was a little bigger than Fergie, but not by much. What made a lump rise in MJ’s throat was seeing a For Sale sign tied to the front bumper. “So sad,” she said softly.

“What?” Toby replied.

“A tractor for sale.”

“What’s so sad about that?”

“Does it mean that person is giving up on farming?”

“No, not necessarily. Maybe they have a couple and restored one in order to sell.” He bit off a hunk of meat. “I sold one last year. A real nice little Farmall. Got a good enough price it helped keep us goin’ most of the winter.”

“Farming’s that hard, huh?”

“Don’t you know?” He cocked his head.

“Well, I’d like to think of myself as a farmer, but in truth, I have a job.”

Toby decided to dismiss her insinuation that farming wasn’t a job. “Work in town?”

“No, I actually work in Chicago.”

“Heck of a commute.”

“I telecommute.”

“Oh, that work from home computer stuff?”

“Yeah.” She took a drink of sweet tea. “I’m a graphic designer for an advertising firm.”

“Artist?”

“I’ve done some paintings besides what I do for work. My hopes are one day to sell some.”

“So what do you paint?”

“I did oil paintings of a couple Chicago cityscapes. Now that I live in the country, I wanna paint scenery.”

Toby finished a rib, wiped his hands, and took a swig of Mountain Dew. “Plenty of scenery around here.” He paused, looking to the west, over the hills. “Uh oh.”

“What?”

He stood. “We better make tracks, gonna get mighty wet here in a minute.”

“Huh?”

Toby pointed to a dark mass of clouds surging toward them. “Here comes the rain!”

“You sure?” She got up, juggling her lunch tray and drink.

“Yup. Come on.” He headed for the exhibit area, making a beeline for a beat-up old red Ford F-150 truck. It had a white low camper shell on the back.

They were twenty feet away when MJ saw a wall of white approaching. “Rain?!”

“Crap!”

The noise of pounding rain drops was nearly deafening. The heavens opened up and dumped thousands of gallons onto the fairgrounds, sending everyone running for cover. Lightning crackled and thunder boomed over the clatter of rain.

Toby got to the truck and yanked open the door of the camper shell. Before he could get the tailgate down, the rain washed over them.

MJ squealed, trying to cover her head. “Oh, my God!”

He helped her into the back, quickly scrambling in. “Whew!”

The roar of the rain lashed down on the fiberglass camper shell. It was several minutes before the rain lessened and they could actually hear one another. He found a towel and offered it to her.

“I can’t believe it rained that hard.” MJ looked out the window.

“Oh, this is normal. Summer’s full of violent storms. Kinda late for fall, but you never know in these parts.”

Wiping her face, MJ finally got a look around. She was sitting on an old mattress. A sleeping bag was rolled up toward the forward part of the truck bed; clothes were stuffed in a tattered gym bag. A well-worn Bible was tucked next to a pillow. Looking at Toby, he seemed a bit embarrassed.

“Uh, is this where you’ve been staying?”

“Yeah,” he replied sheepishly, grabbing a pair of dark blue boxer underwear and shoving them in the bag.

“You didn’t get a hotel room?”

“Naw, I can’t afford it.”

“If money’s that tight, why’d you come?”

“It’s something I love…Something that gives me joy in an otherwise dull existence.”

MJ realized it might not be something he wanted to talk about. “So, tell me about Mable.” She watched Toby’s face light up.

“Well, my papaw got her when he was just out of high school. He worked her hard on the farm up ’til she blew a transmission and was too expensive to repair. Then he bought a used John Deere and ran it ’til it dropped. Then my pa took over the farm and got an International. We had that quite a few years. I found Mable in a ruined barn back on the property. She was in a sorry state. Covered in old rotted hay and being used by a family of mice for a nest.”

“Ew!”

“I took pity on the poor girl and spent all the money I earned from working at a filling station to fix her up.”

“Why Mable?”

“That was my mamaw’s name. Papaw named her and I didn’t have the heart to change it.”

“How sweet.”

Toby shifted slightly on the firm mattress. “I never knew her. But Pa said she was one tough woman.” He looked out the window, the rain showed no sign of stopping. “I think we’re gonna be stuck here for a while.”

“That’s okay.” MJ played her finger on the stained material. “It’s nice to finally meet someone and have a conversation.”

“Are you that lonely?”

“Kind of. It’s not like I live in the city anymore and can call up a friend and meet them for coffee.”

“Country livin’ does require some gettin’ used to.”

“The cows are lousy conversationalists.”

Toby chuckled. “Can’t say they know much.”

“No, not at all.” She looked at him as he sat cramped in the camper. Somehow she found him to be absolutely beautiful. There was a rugged handsomeness coupled with something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Deep in the back of her mind, she thought innocence. No, Toby wasn’t innocent. He was a red-blooded American farmer who lived every day by good fortune and the few dollars he made. His life was hard, far harder than hers would ever be.





2





MJ flashed her exhibitor’s badge at the parking attendant. It was Sunday, the last day of the tractor rally. She was sad to see it all end, but at least she’d met someone who held her interest. Her evening with Toby had been quite pleasant. They talked about tractors, farming, and even a little politics, which MJ quickly realized Toby didn’t care too much for the current regime. She liked him. He was a good Southern gentleman. As the rain finally ended and MJ was getting ready to head back to her hotel, she wished he would’ve kissed her. There was definitely something about that farm boy that she liked.

Pulling up near Fergie, MJ scanned the area. Where was he? His pickup and tractor were gone. She blinked a couple of times thinking it was a mistake. No, Toby was really gone. Had she said or done something to offend him? Her mind spun into high gear. She couldn’t think of a single thing that she could’ve said that would make him leave. Was there something else to it?

She got out of the truck and stood looking at it. MJ bought the later model Dodge 2500 before leaving Chicago. It was metallic silver and possessed a few minor scratches and dents. The mileage and price were good, so she used it to pack up her belongings and move south. So far, it had served her well. The neighbor she bought Fergie from loaned her a flatbed trailer in which she could haul the little tractor to the show.

A stiff breeze blew across the fairgrounds. MJ shivered. She reached in the truck, grabbing a jacket, and also her camera. With all the beautiful tractors, she wanted to take some more pictures in hopes of doing paintings from them. Living in the city, she’d noticed her paintings were linear. Everything was a straight line, a cube, or a rectangle. The country presented its share of challenges. Trees did not grow straight, leaves and flowers were not square, and wildlife tended to move at the most inopportune moments. The country seemed soft and rounded compared to the rigidity of the city.

As she went over to take the tarp off Fergie, MJ thought she saw Toby’s pickup. She strained to see into the parking lot. The truck parked far to the rear. Was it Toby? If it was, why was he not parking with the other exhibitors? MJ climbed onto one of Fergie’s narrow running boards and stood tall. She watched as an older overweight man in coveralls got out, carrying a white Styrofoam cooler. No, not Toby—quite far from it. Her heart sank.

The hours seemed to drag on. MJ decided she’d call it a day. Storms were moving in, and she wanted to get home before it got interesting. It was 2 p.m. when she hitched up the trailer and loaded Fergie. The drive home was a long one. She couldn’t get Toby out of her head.

Then panic set in.

After such a wonderful, if not somewhat unplanned evening, MJ had failed to get Toby’s phone number. How would she find him? He lived in another county. Granted, the counties were small and rather sparsely populated in comparison to Chicago, but there were a lot of miles, roads, and farms out there. She wasn’t even sure if she acquired a Clay County phonebook that she could find him. Experience taught her not everyone wanted his or her name plastered all over a public place.





Tuesday morning rolled around and the weather cleared. MJ decided to venture into London. It was the nearest “city” in Laurel County, and was one of the only places she could get a Starbuck’s coffee. She’d also heard about a livestock auction that took place just south of downtown. While she wasn’t interested in buying any sort of livestock, she’d been informed that a flea market usually accompanied it and plenty of antiques could be found there.

She pulled into the parking lot and was stopped dead with a tangle of cars and trucks attempting to navigate the narrow rows. There were trucks pulling long stock trailers trying to back into the loading dock of the auction building. And strewn between the chaos was a flea market. MJ shook her head in disbelief of the apparent randomness, yet the patrons and sellers seemed blind to the goings-on. Cows lowed, roosters crowed, and hunting dogs howled. Somewhere in the mess she could hear a banjo being played.

Careful driving and patience finally resulted in a parking spot near the white painted building. It was a massive structure covered with a rusty tin roof, and had seen many years of use. MJ hopped out, grabbed her purse, and locked the truck. It seemed a bit inundating. A middle-aged man dressed in jeans and a red flannel shirt wandered by carrying a shotgun over his shoulder. She wasn’t quite sure what to think. Firearms were strictly forbidden in Chicago. Here, they carried them around like a set of car keys.

MJ wandered to the flea market area. Tables were set up on either side of the twisting parking lot; cars and trucks wove their way around. She looked at what was being sold: mostly old clothes and rusty junk, much of it she didn’t even recognize. Occasionally she’d find a vintage Mason jar filled with colorful marbles, a cast-iron skillet, or parts for oil lamps. And the people who were there selling looked as sad as the possessions they were desperately trying to part with in order to make a few bucks. The economy had not been kind to the countryfolk.

As she made her way around, the crowd got thicker. Toward the north end of the parking lot were quite a few spaces set up for selling animals. MJ saw a wide variety of chickens, ducks, rabbits, turkeys, guinea fowl, and even a peacock that was restrained in a feed sack, its head poking out through a hole. She wondered what fate most of the animals would have—the frying pan? This was, after all, an agricultural community, and most animals weren’t pets. When times got tough, the farm rooster would find his way into the pot for supper. It was a rude awakening for MJ, who all her life saw meat from a grocery store come in tidy little Styrofoam trays with clear wrap over the top. And she still bought her meat that way. She shook her head. Would she ever truly become a farmer? Or was she just a city girl who wanted to think she could be a farmer?

Stopping at a busy table filled with fresh produce, MJ squeezed her way in. She saw some delicious-looking corn. Just as she was reaching to take some, a scarred arm reached over the top of hers. Could it be? MJ leaned forward and peered around the large gentleman that stood next to her. There was Toby, dressed in jeans and a faded tan t-shirt. He wore a tattered red Case baseball cap and dark sunglasses.

“Toby?” she said tentatively.

He turned his head, making eye contact with her. “MJ?”

“Hi!”

“Hi,” he replied, a bit caught off guard. “What are you doing here?”

“I was about to ask the same of you. Don’t you live in Clay County?”

“I had to come over to the Case dealer to pick up some parts for Mable.” He pointed to the west where a sign across the street read Case IH. “The parts store in Manchester isn’t helpful. So I come here to get what I need. And I like coming to the auction.” Toby picked up an ear of corn. “Fresh!”

“Yeah.” She wasn’t sure how to respond. “I thought I’d see what was here.”

“First time?”

“Uh huh.”

He selected a dozen ears of corn, handed them over to the seller, and took out his wallet. “It’s a great place. Good bargains, decent stock, and always friendly faces.”

MJ didn’t respond. She’d found everyone rather sad looking. How could Toby think this was a friendly place? Sure, she’d heard a few outbursts of laughter, but for the most part, they talked in rather hushed tones. Men of all ages carried a variety of rifles, shotguns, and handguns. They formed tight groups while they talked and traded. This was a very different world than what MJ was used to. She felt like an outsider looking in on a private world.

Toby paid for his purchase and tucked his wallet back in his pocket. “Hey, you wanna get a drink?”

“Sure, I’d like that.” She felt her heart beat faster. Drinks with a handsome guy; what could be better?

“Were you gonna buy some corn?”

She looked at the table. Hands, money, and produce were going everywhere. It seemed like a bother at the moment. MJ wanted that drink, the corn could wait. “Naw, I’ll get some later.”

He wagged a grease-stained finger. “Might not be any later.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“All right. I need to drop this in my truck. It’s over there.”

“I’ll follow you.” She happily tagged along as he elbowed his way through the crowd. His truck was parked in the lot across a narrow cement bridge. MJ looked down and saw cattails, minnows, and even a crayfish in the tiny stream that cut through the auction lot.

He led the way to his truck and dumped the bag of corn in the bed, closing the camper hatch. “Right, let’s go get that drink.”

MJ surveyed the area. “Uh, where?”

“Big Poppy’s. Used to be called The Dairy Dawg. They make a good root beer float.”

“Oh.” She felt her hopes fade and had to remind herself this was not Chicago. When someone in the city said they wanted to go out for drinks, it usually meant getting dressed up, going to a nice bar or restaurant, and partaking of alcoholic beverages. Evidently going out for drinks had a whole different meaning in Kentucky. She liked Toby a lot, but could she get past his country boy persona? Was there more to him than the faded jeans and dirty fingernails?





Toby carried a tray to the table. He set it down, and then slid onto the rickety old white fiberglass and metal seat. A few dark clouds passed over, looking threatening, but not producing rain. The traffic on the road nearby was noisy. A gentle breeze blew, and the day was surprisingly warm despite being fall.

MJ watched him. “Where were you Sunday?”

“Huh?”

“The tractor rally. I got there Sunday morning and you were gone.”

“Oh, sorry.” He handed over her drink. “Got a call late that night. Uh, family matters.”

The way he talked led MJ to divert the conversation. “I thought I scared you off.”

“No.” Toby took a sip of his root beer float. “Too bad this place will be shuttin’ down for the winter soon.”

“Yeah? And?”

He played his finger around the edge of the cup. “Look, MJ, I’m not too good about conversing with the female of the species.”

“You didn’t have a problem the other night.”

“We was talkin’ about tractors and stuff—things I know.”

“So?”

“So, uh, things are different.”

She folded her arms. “How different?”

“I seen the way you look at me. You like me, don’t you?”

“Is there a problem with that?”

Toby was silent a few moments. “No.”

“Then what’s the deal?”

“I ain’t had many girlfriends.” He pointed to his scarred arm. “Most see this and it scares ’em off.”

“Doesn’t bother me, and I’m sure there’s a story behind it.” MJ sensed he was uncomfortable. The last thing she wanted to do was drive him away. “Friends?”

“What do you mean?”

“How about we just be friends and see where it takes us?”

He pondered her words. “All right.”

MJ took out her cell phone. “You said your brother is a handyman?”

“Nate? Yeah.”

“Well, can I get a number for you guys so I can call him? I need to have the roof fixed.”

Toby slowly told her the number while MJ entered it into her phone. “Thanks,” she replied. “I really need some help.”

“He’ll do you right.”

She almost wanted to snicker at Toby’s choice of words. Were countryfolk that naïve? She looked at him, wishing that he would do her right. It’d been a long time since she’d been with a man, and there was an undeniable ache between her legs. So far, Toby Farmer had been the only man to elicit a response like that, and just her luck, he wanted to be friends.

He pulled a wristwatch out of a pocket. The band was broken on one side. “Hey, I hate to run, but I told the preacher I’d be around in the afternoon to work on his lawnmower.”

“Oh, well, duty calls.”

“Sorry.” He got up and grabbed his drink. “That number’s our home one. Give Nate a call. I don’t think he has any plans this week.”

“Okay…Hey, Toby?”

“Yeah?”

“Would you like to come over for dinner one night? I make a mean deep-dish pizza.”

“Mmm, that sounds mighty fine.”

“How about Friday night?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll call Nate, and he’ll have my phone number and address.”

“All right.” He turned to leave. “I’ll see you Friday.”

MJ smiled to herself as she watched him walk off. It might take time, but eventually Toby Farmer would come around.





Wednesday morning brought the rumble of a pickup down MJ’s gravel drive. She’d just gotten up and was in the kitchen making coffee. The tan late model Ford truck stopped in front of the house. After several moments, a man got out. MJ knew it was Nate. The family resemblance was unquestionable. He stood perhaps an inch or two shorter than Toby, had the same color hair—except a little longer, and his physical frame was similar yet more compact. He wore faded jeans, a blue flannel shirt, and a brown ball cap. Even at a distance, she could tell his eyes were the same fabulous blue as Toby’s.

She wandered onto the porch wearing a white ankle-length silk bathrobe over her pink slinky sleep shorts and t-shirt. A cup of coffee resided in her right hand. “Nate Farmer?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied, tipping his hand to his cap. “Here to get ’er done.”

MJ felt the ache between her legs. Two ruggedly handsome brothers? What were the chances of that?

Nate looked up toward the roof. “Yup, needs help.”

“Definitely.” She tried to fight the sensations that jolted through her body. “And I hear more rain is on the way for the weekend.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll have it done by Friday afternoon, maybe sooner.”

“Great, thanks.” She returned to the kitchen and finished making breakfast. Toby and Nate. Toby and Nate. MJ couldn’t get them out of her head.





After breakfast, MJ decided to get a shower. She could hear Nate up on the roof working, and felt a little strange at opting to bathe with a stranger around. Still, she couldn’t help herself. The ache nagged. She wanted release.

The hot shower felt good. MJ let the water run all over. Tingles of pleasure wormed their way through her body. She slid her hands around, first caressing her breasts, giving each nipple a little squeeze, then working down her abdomen until they reached her curly mound. Her right hand slid between her legs, index finger stroking and feeling. Tension began to build. Lovely, gorgeous tension. She closed her eyes and saw Toby and Nate. Who was going to pleasure her?

Each man stood ready. MJ tried to envision what they would look like naked. Tanned skin, muscles, and blue, beautiful blue eyes. Her heart swung more to Toby. Physically flawed yet downright manly, MJ wanted him in the worst way. But it seemed that she wasn’t going to achieve her goal. Toby kept a distance between them; something she didn’t understand.

Nate, on the other hand, appeared quite likeable. He was polite and friendly in his interactions with MJ. She found him equally attractive, perhaps a bit more since he bore no wicked scars. Opening her eyes for a moment, MJ stared at the shower wall. “Which one?” She listened to the noise from the roof. Toby or Nate? Toby or Nate?

Making her decision, she closed her eyes again. She could see Toby’s hand and disfigured arm reaching toward her. It didn’t scare her. MJ saw past his defect, only wanting the pleasure he desired to give. Her finger moved in time to what she envisioned Toby would do. She moaned loudly, feeling the tension building. MJ longed to feel his touch, his lips on hers, his body moving against her. More, more, more. Faster, harder. Delirious tension twisted in her body.

A moment later, she climaxed. MJ wanted to cry out, but stifled it, fearing Nate might hear. Her body twitched and spasmed; glorious endorphins flooded over her like hot shower water. She bent down, resting her hands on her knees. Release, finally.

Catching her breath, MJ picked up the bar of soap. She kept wondering what magical spell these two brothers held over her. Why them? And why now?





3





The sound of the pneumatic nail gun was enough to drive MJ insane. It was Thursday, and Nate had been working on the roof two solid days. She had to admit, he was a hard worker who took pride in his job. Shingles had to be removed, wood and gutters replaced, and more shingles nailed back down. By the time he was done, she’d just about have a new roof.

She turned off the computer. With all the racket, she couldn’t concentrate on work. The advertising agency needed a design completed by Monday. MJ figured she’d spend part of the weekend getting it finished. It wasn’t difficult work; it just required a clear mind and along with some peace and quiet to accomplish.

Going downstairs, she went to the kitchen. It was late in the afternoon, and she was hungry and thirsty. MJ made a turkey sandwich and poured two glasses of sweet tea, figuring she’d be hospitable and offer one to Nate. Opening the door, she realized all was quiet. The ladder next to the porch rattled and Nate climbed down. He skipped the last two rungs, dropping to the ground. “All done!” He tromped up the steps and onto the porch.

“Some tea?” MJ said, trying to bite her tongue. Nate was wearing a gray sleeveless shirt that showed off all his muscles. His skin was tanned, and he had a small tattoo of a lion’s head on his right shoulder. The faded jeans he wore clung close to his body, outlining everything she wished she hadn’t seen. Nate evidently had plenty to offer in the manhood department. The ache returned to her body. She looked at his left hand and noticed no ring. MJ didn’t recall Toby saying anything about Nate being attached.

“Thanks,” he said, taking the glass. “Tobes said you’re from Chicago?”

“Yeah. But I needed to get away from it all.”

“So you moved to Kentucky?”

“I thought it was pretty here.”

“Got that right. No place as pretty.”

MJ was going out of her mind. What was it about these two brothers? Her body screamed for him. Despite her longing for Toby, she wanted Nate, and she wanted him bad. Perhaps all the months without the affections of a man had driven her to this. Nothing in her mind was making sense at this moment. She only knew what she needed. “You wanna come inside for a bit?”

“Uh, sure, if you’re okay with that.”

“I wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t.” She opened the door and held it as Nate went in. MJ loved the jeans he wore; they fit snugly, outlining his rounded, muscular behind.

“Nice house,” he said, looking around. The place was decorated in a hodgepodge of antiques and modern furniture. Some of the paint on the walls and trim was peeling. A large bank of windows lit the entryway; they were covered with lacy off-white curtains.

“It will be, if I can get everything fixed.” Closing the door, she went past him, leading the way to the living room. She hoped he’d be taking notice of the jeans she wore. Granted she bought them at the local Walmart, but they were skinny jeans designed with a womanly figure in mind. MJ felt they showed off all her assets.

“I can certainly help with that,” Nate replied.

MJ stopped in the narrow hallway. She turned and gave Nate her best sultry look. The ache had grown to a near painful throbbing, and she wanted it satisfied. “I’d like your help,” she whispered.

Nate nearly dropped his glass of tea. “Huh?”

She let her left hand slide down the front of her jeans, resting near her hip, fingers curled slightly between her legs. “My basement has a leak. Can you fix it?”

He licked his lips and swallowed hard. Taking a step closer, he shifted the tea to his left hand. His right hand touched her left arm, gently tracing down until it rested atop her hand. “You want it fixed?”

She uttered a little gasp. “Yes.” MJ took his hand and led him to the living room. Nate found a table and set down his glass. With it out of his way, he firmly grasped her hand and spun her around until she faced him. He stepped in closer, his head bending over hers, his breath hot on her forehead. His left hand took her right, bringing it between them, pressing against his crotch.

MJ let out a louder gasp as she felt the firmness of his arousal. She got a whiff of his sweat—manly, earthy, and with a hint of roofing tar.

“I’m not too good on plumbing, but I think I can fix your leak.” He caught her lips, kissing her hard. MJ reciprocated. With lips locked, Nate worked to get into her jeans. She had the same idea and was frantically trying to get the top button undone on his jeans.

A heated wrestling match ensued as each tried to get into the other’s pants. Nate proved victorious. He had the zipper down and a hand inside her underwear, fingers diving between her legs. MJ moaned as he touched her, giving gentle strokes with his finger. She kissed him voraciously, her hands still fighting to get into his jeans.

Nate drew away. With his free hand, he popped the button on his jeans and tugged down the zipper. “Hmm, I’d say you got a real wet basement.” His finger wiggled more.

“Fuck,” she moaned and shoved her hand into his jeans. Getting inside the fly of his underwear, MJ wasn’t disappointed. He was hot and hard; just what she wanted. She attacked his lips again, forcing her tongue into his mouth. Nate opened wide and gave her some of his own tongue. She tasted of sweet tea. Delicious. Nate wondered how the rest of her would taste.

Keeping his hand firmly in place between her legs, he remained lip-locked with MJ. He gently guided her to the sofa, helping her sit. Nate knelt on the floor in front of her. He took his lips away and slid his hand out. Grasping the waistband of her jeans and panties, he began to work them down. MJ didn’t argue, she lifted her hips.

Once her jeans were down to her ankles, Nate moved back in. He rested his forearms on her thighs, took his fingers, and parted her hot, wet folds. MJ watched as he leaned in and nuzzled her with his nose, moving her curly hair apart. He used his tongue to stroke and massage. MJ felt herself getting a whole lot wetter. She decided it was time to lose her shirt and bra.

“Oh God, I really got a leaky basement now,” she said between gasps of pleasure.

Nate looked up at her with devilish eyes. “It’s gonna get a whole lot wetter.” He cupped his lips and sucked, flicking with his tongue. She threw back her head and cried out. He pressed more firmly, his tongue finding its way inside her. MJ tasted wonderful. He took a deep breath and inhaled her scent, finding it intoxicating. The discomfort in his jeans was nearing critical. Nate slid one hand away and put it between his legs, trying to free the engorged and encumbered body part.

It took him a minute, but all the while, he kept his lips sealed against her, his tongue flicking and stroking. MJ writhed under him, her body building delicious tension. Once Nate was comfortable, he took the opportunity to give himself a few firm strokes. He wanted something else, something more, but didn’t know if she was game.

Taking his mouth away, Nate slowly rose; his prominent erection coming into MJ’s view. She gasped. He flipped his shirt off and worked his jeans and underwear down, letting them fall around his ankles. “I brought my pipe wrench to fix the leak.” He grinned widely, grasping hold of himself.

“Yes, you did.” She sat forward, bringing her head closer. MJ could feel his heat even before her lips touched. She opened wide and let her mouth close around him. Nate hissed and groaned. He watched with a building fervor as MJ licked and sucked away.

“Oh, fuck yeah,” he said, gasping. When he could stand it no longer, he nudged her away, kicked off his boots, and stepped out of his jeans. Nate bent down and found his wallet. MJ observed with amusement as he whipped out a condom and quickly put it on. “I don’t like my tool to rust.” He grasped her hands, stood her up, and then put his hand between her legs, a finger probing deeply into her. “And your basement is mighty wet.”

Spinning her around, he gave her a little push, bending her over with her hands resting on the sofa cushions. MJ looked back at him. “The basement, not the back door.”

He chuckled and smacked her on the behind. “I only like the basement.” Nate grasped himself and held against her. With gentle wiggling, he found that MJ took nearly his entire length. He ran one hand down her right buttock, letting out a sigh. “Shit, you got a nice ass.”

“Lots of roller skating when I was young.”

He slid both hands around her front, caressing her ample breasts. “And what about these?”

“Heredity.”

“Mmm, good genes.” Nate let his hands wander to her hips, holding them rather firmly. He started making slow, gentle strokes. There was no question that MJ was wet for him.

She moaned and pushed herself back, wanting everything he had.

“You like this, huh?” Nate hastened his strokes.

“Yeah.”

“Faster? Harder?”

“Yeah.”

He happily obliged. She gasped and moaned even louder, playing with her breasts. Nate slid a hand between her legs and added to her pleasure. MJ cried out. This only spurred him on. He thrust forcefully, not giving much consideration that he could be hurting her. MJ responded with more gasps and moans. Even though it had been a while, something about this rugged country boy made her want it rough.

A flood of emotions washed over her as he pumped away. She closed her eyes; the sight of her ex-husband filled her mind. MJ had to tell herself that he was gone. He would no longer lie and cheat on her, or make up false rumors. Bradley was history. This was a different man having his way with her, and she liked it.

Strangely, it felt liberating. She still had feelings for Toby, but for right now her needs were being met by his younger brother. MJ needed to be with a man who could cool the passion that burned inside her. She needed someone for sex and nothing more. Her basic primal instinct hungered for male company, and now she was getting it. The whole situation seemed quite absurd, yet she wasn’t complaining.

Nate grunted and groaned. He thrust powerfully, his body slamming against hers as he reveled in his sex. As he neared climax, he reached up, grabbed a handful of her hair, and pulled her head back slightly. He arched his back, leaning over so his head was near her ear. “God, you’re a good fuck,” he whispered before thrusting deeply one more time and then came.

All in the same moment, MJ felt powerless and empowered. She’d shed the heavy mantle of her disappointing marriage and conquered her fears about being with another man. Yet Nate was a powerful man in his own right. She almost couldn’t believe that she’d let a man have his way with her after knowing him less than a week. Somehow it felt good even though there was no orgasm in it for her. Just having a man inside her again felt good.

“Did I fix the leaky basement?” Nate teased as he withdrew.

MJ stood up, but didn’t turn to face him right away. “Yeah, I think you got it.”

“Good, good.” He slid off the condom. “Uh, where can I deposit this?”

She pointed. “The kitchen’s that way.”

“Thanks.” Nate disappeared around the corner. MJ heard the sound of the garbage can lid shutting. He returned, still quite aroused. “I’ll be nice and not charge you for repairing the leak.” He chuckled at his own joke, then grabbed his jeans and started to dress.

“I’d hope not.”

He pulled up his jeans, tugged the zipper, and stood looking at her. “You like Toby, don’t you?”

MJ decided she better get dressed as well. “Umm…”

“Hey, I’m cool with that. Tobes is a good guy. Just don’t expect him to put out.”

“Huh?”

“Years ago, when we were young pups, he fell in love with the Bible.” Nate sat down on the sofa. “He’d spend hours readin’ and learnin’ all he could…Well, it must’ve had a big impression on him, ’cause about high school age, he said he wasn’t gonna be with a woman ’til he got married.”

“Toby’s a—”

“Yup.”

She sat next to him. “I had no idea.”

“You won’t hear him cussin’, see him drinkin’, smokin’, or find him in some woman’s bed…But you will find him in church on Sunday.”

“Is that where he was?”

Nate squirmed a bit; he was feeling the discomfort in his jeans. “What?”

“He wasn’t at the tractor rally Sunday. And when I saw him Tuesday, he said it was family matters.”

“Oh, no, it really was family matters…Dewey, our little brother, got himself in a heap of trouble. Tobes had to go bail him out.”

“Out of what?”

“Jail.”

“Ah.”

“Dewey used to be a good kid—well, he’s twenty-three now. Somewhere in high school, he fell in with the wrong crowd and they got him hooked on meth, crack, heroin, blow, pills, anything…It’s everything we can do to keep him out of mischief.”

“Oh, God.”

“And late Saturday night, the sheriff pulled him over…Wouldn’t have been so bad, but Dewey was driving on a suspended license, and he’d been hittin’ the booze and pills hard. They threw him and his skank woman in county jail.”

MJ rubbed her face. “And you can’t get help for him?”

“We’ve tried…And Tobes had to be the one to spring him; I couldn’t.”

“Why not?”

He got up and walked around. “I ain’t the purest angel in the family neither. I’ve done some time.”

“For what?”

“Theft. Was caught stealin’ in an auto parts store. I got nine months, but served six and they let me out on good behavior.”

“Gad.”

“Life in these parts ain’t easy. For hundreds of years, folks have done what they needed to survive. Sometimes it’s not all on the right side of the law.” He stopped and looked out the window. “You’d do right with Toby. He’s a good man.”

“But—”

“I won’t say nothin’ to him about us. I’m gonna tell him I fixed your roof and took care of a leak in the basement.”

“Nate!”

“What? It’s the truth. You wanna be his girlfriend, that’s all fine and dandy. And when those womanly urges hit, you just give me a call.”

“Isn’t that two-timing?”

“I’m just providing a service that my dear brother won’t. No strings attached, no charge for the maintenance.”

MJ shook her head. “I can’t believe you!”

He walked toward the hallway. “Admit it, you enjoyed the sex.” With that, he left.





4





The whole next day it seemed like nothing could go right. A red washcloth accidentally got tossed in with a load of white clothes, turning everything pink; the handle on the toilet broke, and now, MJ realized she was running out of mozzarella cheese for the pizza. Anything else? she pondered, trying to spread the cheese evenly over the whole pan. Her mind was cluttered with what happened with Nate. Sure, he was attractive, but did she love him? No. MJ refused to let herself love Nate. Toby was the one that warmed her heart. Nate would be there to provide a service, nothing more. And MJ decided that his services would be used sparingly.

She looked at the clock on the kitchen wall—almost 6 p.m. Toby should be arriving any time. The oven beeped, indicating it was preheated. MJ finished fussing with the pizza, grabbed the hefty pan, and shoved it in the oven. Setting the timer, she went to the sink and washed her hands.

“Hello?” a male voice called from the front entryway.

A quick jolt of terror shot through MJ. No, this wasn’t Chicago.

“Hello?” the voice called again.

She let out a sigh, realizing it was Toby. With kitchen towel still in hand, she went out to him. “You scared the life out of me! Don’t you Southern boys know how to knock?”

He lowered his head. “Sorry. Knockin’s something you don’t always think about in these parts. Most folk are familiar.” Toby turned, heading for the door. “I can go out and knock if you want.”

“Don’t be silly!” She grabbed his arm. “You gotta understand, I’m from the big city.”

“Yeah?”

“And folks that don’t knock are usually burglars.”

“Oh. Guess I’m lucky you didn’t come out shootin’.”

“Darn straight!”

He looked at her. “You even own a gun?”

“No.”

“Should.”

“Why?”

“’Cause not all the folk in these parts is polite and kind.”

She led him into the kitchen. “Haven’t had any problems.”

“Yet.” He leaned against the heavy oak table and watched as she cleared up from making the pizza. “Home invasions are on the rise. Just about every day you hear about it on the news.”

“Is this a lecture?”

“No. Just want you to be safe.” He went to the sink, grabbed another towel, and started drying dishes that were in the rack. “You live pretty far from town; it’d take the sheriff quite a while to get out here if something happened.” Toby dried a plate and gently set it on the pale gray and white marble countertop. “There’s been real problems with the meth users. They ain’t afraid to rob someone for a few bucks so they can get a quick fix.”

“Like Dewey?”

He froze. “Nate say somethin’?”

“He told me about Dewey, and you having to bail him out.”

“Family matters.”

“I see.”

“I love my brothers, but I ain’t too proud of what they’ve done.”

“Or are still doing.”

Toby took another plate and dried it. “Nate’s on the right path. He did wrong, paid for his mistake, and now works real hard.” He set the plate on top of the other. “I just wish I could get Dewey to do the same.”

“Nate said you’ve tried to help Dewey.”

“Nothin’ works. Even God can’t fix what’s wrong with him.” He took a glass and turned to her. “Ma and Pa would be rollin’ over in their graves if they saw what Dewey’s become…That boy is hell spawn.”

MJ felt uncomfortable with the conversation. She put away the flour container and then went to the refrigerator, taking out a bottle of white wine. Realizing that Toby wasn’t going to join her for a drink, she was just about to put it away when he stopped her.

“I don’t mind. If you wanna have a glass of wine, that’s cool with me…I’ll take some of that fantastic sweet tea Nate told me about—if you have any left.”

She paused before setting the bottle on the counter. “Yeah, I have plenty.” Taking out a large glass pitcher, she set it next to the bottle of wine. It was odd being involved with two brothers. There seemed to be open communication between them. MJ wondered how much Toby knew. Nate told her he’d say nothing about their agreement, but somehow, she knew in time, Toby would figure it out.

He finished drying dishes, laid the towel over the edge of the sink, and sat down at the table. “I’m not meanin’ to be forward or anything, but I was wonderin’ if you had plans this weekend?”

MJ poured a glass of tea and brought it to him. “Uh, I have some work I need to get done. Why?”

“I thought maybe if you were up for it, we’d go to Hell for Certain.”

“Excuse me?” She raised an eyebrow.

Toby chuckled. “Oh, my nephew, Collin’s, in Hell for Certain.”

“Is this a joke?”

“No, no. Hell for Certain’s a little place over in Leslie County. Its real name is Dryhill. But folks started calling it that because it sits on the Hell for Certain Creek.”

“What a name!”

He took a sip of tea. “Mmm, mighty fine tea.”

“Thank you.” MJ poured a glass of wine and settled at the table. She glanced back and checked the oven timer. Still ten minutes to go. For some reason, it felt like an invisible wall had been built between them. After what Nate said about Toby, MJ was seeing him in a different light. She still liked him, but wondered if it would work out. His rather conservative Christian beliefs had her befuddled on how to act around him. Her big city upbringing was far more liberal and opinionated.

“Collin told me a story of a preacher who went there, and when he got home, he was asked where he was. He said he had no idea but it was hell for certain.”

“So much myth and legend in these parts.”

“And a good helpin’ of folklore.”

“You’ve lived here all your life, right?”

“Uh huh.”

“Tell me, what’s with all the licks?”

“You mean Red Lick, Blue Lick, Flat Lick, Paint Lick, Grant’s Lick, May’s Lick, Bullitt’s Lick, Knob Lick, Beaver Lick, and Big Bone Lick?” He took a long swallow of tea. It was cold and perfectly sweetened to his liking. “Licks.”

“What?”

“Each of those places got their name because of licks—usually salt or mineral licks where wildlife would come and lick the ground. The Indians knew them as good hunting spots. And during the time of Daniel Boone, they learned about ’em too.”

“Oh, that makes sense.”

“And what were you thinkin’ it was all about?” he said with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

“I dunno…I’ve learned that countryfolk are strange.”

“We are, huh?”

“Uh, well, some are.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. We eat strange stuff like possum and grits, drink pop with strange names like Ale-8-1, or Nehi, and call each other strange nicknames like Cooter, Whitey, Rooster, Duck, Squirrel, Rabbit, Hubcap, Cutworm, Bull, or Stinky.”

“So what’s yours?”

“What?”

“You got a nickname?” MJ saw his cheeks flush red. “Well?”

“Uh…”

“Come on.”

Toby tried to hide his embarrassment by looking down at the table. “Digger.”

“Digger? How’d you get that name?”

“Nobody calls me that.”

“Yes, but how’d you get it?”

“I was maybe ten. We had a real bad winter. Money was tight, times tough, and I figured I’d help out by digging through garbage dumpsters tryin’ to find stuff I could sell…Some of the bullies from school saw me and called me that all around town.” He rubbed his face. “They really called me Trash Digger. Or even worse: Dumpster Diver.”

MJ so badly wanted to reach over and take his hand. She wasn’t sure how he’d react after what Nate told her. “That wasn’t nice.”

“Why I don’t like being called that.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.” She edged her hand closer to his.

“It’s hardscrabble around here. You do what you can or learn to live without.”

“When were you going to Hell for Certain?” MJ felt absolutely stupid saying it.

“Saturday. Little more than an hour’s drive from here.”

“Sure, I’ll ride along. Just don’t make me hold the shotgun.” She winked at him.

Toby smiled. “Naw, the shotgun’s usually in the back.”

The oven beeped. MJ got up and rescued the pizza. “I hope you’re hungry.”

“Always.”

She went to the fridge. “More tea?”

“Please.”

Retrieving the pitcher, MJ filled his glass as full as she could. “So I make good sweet tea, huh?”

“Darn fine for a city girl.”

“Actually, I got the recipe from Auntie Flo next-door…Her husband, Brewster, sold Fergie to me. He was kind enough to lend me his trailer so I could take her to the rally.”

“Did she give you any more recipes?”

MJ pointed out the window. “Got an apple tree out back. Auntie gave me a recipe for fried apples.”

Toby groaned in a rather seductive way. “Oh, I love fried apples.”

“Well, that’s fortunate, ’cause I was planning on making ’em for dessert.”





The evening ended with Toby being sent home with leftovers for Nate and Dewey. MJ enjoyed her time with him and wondered if they could actually have a relationship. She was a bit disappointed about not receiving a good-night kiss from Toby. But things were still quite new between them, and she realized rushing it would only spell disaster. He was a farmer, and as such, MJ figured she’d have to cultivate his affections toward her. Being friends was just the start.

She went upstairs to her “office” and sat down at the computer. She’d turned one of the bigger guest bedrooms into her work area. Large windows on two sides gave her a great view. The room badly needed paint, but she figured that could wait in favor of making money. White walls seemed too stark for her taste. MJ thought about buying some colorful curtains to liven it up. The wood floor creaked loudly whenever she walked across it. A corkboard was the only item that hung on one wall.

Opening a computer folder with photos she’d taken at the tractor rally, MJ found one of Mable. The dark gray tractor sat against a background of wildly colored fall leaves and a crystal blue sky. It seemed perfect. The red rims of the wheels contrasted with the deep green grass, and behind her waved the American flag.

Turning on the printer, MJ printed out the photo. She took the page and pinned it on the corkboard near her easel. Then she went to a pile of blank canvasses and found one that appealed to her. It was large, nearly three feet by two feet. She placed it on the easel and stepped back, looking at it. The white canvas seemed so bare and empty. It was time to change that.

MJ picked up her pallet and set it on a table. She rummaged around a moving box, finding the right colors of oil paints. Once she had everything together, she approached the canvas, brush in hand, and started to paint. A deep passion welled up inside her. She knew she was an outsider and desperately wanted to find a connection to these people. This was her life now; there was no changing it, no going back. Soon, a tear rolled down her cheek, followed by more. Her hand kept brushing, the paint flowing like a river onto the canvas. Colors melded, the image slowly taking shape.

Hours later, she collapsed into bed. The painting was not quite half complete. She’d keep it from Toby until it was finished. MJ wanted to show that she had empathy for the hard life he lived. He deserved something nice. Mable was very special to him, and Toby was very special to her.





5





The red Ford F-150 cruised along the Hal Rogers Parkway heading east. Toby tapped his fingers on the steering wheel as a country song played on the radio. MJ sat quietly looking out the window watching the miles pass. There was an awkward silence between them. She was trying to think of how to get him to open up.

And then it dawned on her. “Didn’t you say your grandfather had a tractor like Fergie?”

“He had a TO-35. Didn’t keep her long before he bought a bigger John Deere.”

“Oh. But you know about fixing them?”

“Sure.”

“Do you think you could help me with Fergie? I’d like to restore her.”

He glanced over, a little smile on his face. “Sure.”

“I don’t even know where to start.”

“You start with the money. How much you have depends on how much you can do.”

“True. And I have no idea where to get parts, except for the internet.”

“There’s places that’re local. You’ll learn ’em.”

MJ straightened up in the seat, rubbing her hands down her jeans. “Oh, it’d be so nice to show up at the tractor rally next year and have Fergie all restored. I felt like such an idiot out there with a broken-down excuse for a tractor.”

“Aw, don’t say that about her, she’s just goin’ through a rough patch. Some TLC, and she’ll be runnin’ just fine.”

“I’m glad you have optimism and the know-how to fix her. I could never do it.”

“Sure you can, ’cause you’re gonna help me.” He slowed down and put on the turn indicator. “When we’re done, you’ll even know how to rebuild a carburetor.” Turning left, they traveled down a narrow road. The hills seemed to close in around them. Finally they came out into a small clearing. “Welcome to Hell!”

She giggled, looking about. “Actually, it’s kind of pretty.” Tall trees were swallowed up by acres of kudzu as it slowly strangled everything in its path. A creek ran to one side of the narrow valley, and a few houses dotted the landscape, looking quite out of place amongst all the green.

He pulled up to a pale gray double-wide mobile home and turned off the engine. The residence appeared to have been revived from a junkyard. “Collin’s lived here all his life. His kin were some of the original settlers of Hell.” An assortment of dogs, large and small, barked frantically and rushed up to greet them. Several of them stood on hind legs and clambered at the truck door. “Hey! Hey! Get down! Don’t you go jumpin’ on guests now, you hear!” He shooed the dogs away. Most of them retreated to the porch, but three smaller ones hung back, choosing to remain annoyances.

Getting out, he scurried around and opened the door for her, offering his hand to help her out. MJ took his hand. Little tingles ran up her arm. “Thank you, kindly,” she said, hopping out, and not immediately letting go of his hand. His skin was rough and calloused, but she liked how it felt. It wasn’t soft and doughy like some of the upper-crust city guys she’d dated. No, Toby’s hands worked for a living. She didn’t want to let go.

Realizing that it was now an awkward moment, she let her hand slide. MJ looked up and saw his eyes sparkling and the tiniest hint of a smile on his face. He turned and went to the back of the truck, grabbing a beat-up silver toolbox. “I promised Collin I’d help finish putting the new engine into his ’65 Shelby Mustang GT.”

“Sounds nice.” She tried to dodge the ankle-biter-sized dogs swarming around her feet.

“It will be when he gets it painted.” He led the way onto the rickety wooden porch. Various potted plants dotted the railings, and an old rusted metal gliding porch swing sat pushed against the house near the front door. A tattered American flag hung on a pole, waving gently in the cool morning breeze.

The front door opened, and a man shoved open a torn screen door. “Toby!” He came out, dressed in ratty faded blue jeans, a camouflage shirt, and heavy work boots. His hair was long, blond, tangled, and greasy. He wore a camo-colored ball cap, and a lit cigarette was stuck between his lips. MJ guessed him to be in his early forties.

“Collin!” Toby replied, setting down the toolbox and offering his hand. The two men shook.

“Well, well, you brought along a lovely assistant.”

“Collin, this here’s MJ Ripley.”

“How’d do,” Collin said, extending his hand.

MJ was a bit apprehensive, but took it, shaking it quickly. She didn’t immediately dislike Collin; he did, however, give her a good case of the creeps. “Hi,” she said politely.

“Tobes, where’d you find this pretty little filly?”

Toby shot him an angry glare. “I met MJ at the tractor rally.”

“Oh, was she impressed by the size of your Case?”

“Collin!”

He burst into raspy laughter. “Aw, come on, I was just joshin’.”

“How about less talk and more work?” Toby picked up his toolbox. “I didn’t drive all the way to Hell for nothin’.”

“All right, all right.” Collin opened the door. “Miss MJ, you might wanna sit a spell and chat with my woman, Rhonda. I don’t think you’d be interested in greasy guy stuff.”

“Umm, thank you,” she replied, going past him into the house.





Five hours later, and MJ was glad to be heading home. Her visit with Rhonda had been unusual and she was quite happy to see Toby come in and announce they were done. After saying polite good-byes, it was back in the truck for the ride home. The weather had changed, and dark clouds swirled around the hilltops and valleys casting gloomy shadows on the normally vibrant green foliage.

“More rain?” MJ said as they drove down the Hal Rogers.

“Looks like it.” He fiddled with the heater. “You cold?”

“Yeah.”

“It’ll take a few minutes, but I’ll warm us up.”

“Thanks.” She tried to hide a little smile. I’ll warm us up. Yes, that would be nice in a different situation.

“How was your visit with Rhonda?”

“Ummm…”

“Sorry. I shoulda warned ya, she’s a bit odd.”

“Understatement…The woman smokes like a chimney, drinks way too much coffee, and seems to have little regard for anything…Although I did get a good recipe for apple cider.”

“Leaded or unleaded?”

“Huh?”

“Alcoholic or nonalcoholic?”

“Non.” MJ looked out the window; large raindrops were starting to fall. The noise was quite loud on the truck roof. “You know, I swear I saw marijuana growing in some of those pots on the porch.”

“Probably did.”

“That’s so illegal!”

“Folks in these parts tend to skirt the law. Collin only grows a few, just for personal use.”

“But what if he gets caught?”

“He’s been caught twice. Don’t stop him none.”

“Are all the folk around here as hard-headed?”

Toby chuckled. “Probably more!” He turned on the heater and adjusted it. “I know of at least five stills in Clay County.”

“As in moonshine?”

“Yup. Nate occasionally brings home a pint or two…Says it helps with his bad back.”

“I’m sure it does.”

“Don’t get me wrong, he’s no drunk. I told him to keep it locked away from Dewey.”

“Good idea.”

“I got enough trouble with him as it is.” He turned off the Hal Rogers and got on I-75 South. Rain pounded down, the windshield wipers barely able to keep up with the deluge. “What a day!”

“Started out so nice; now all this rain.”

“How it goes here.” He got off at the next London exit and headed west. MJ’s “farm” was a few miles down Route 192, not far from Laurel River Lake. The sound of the rain was so loud it made it nearly impossible to carry on a conversation. Thunder and lightning only punctuated the rain’s roar.

As Toby pulled into the long gravel drive, he was met by eight frightened cows standing in the middle of the road.

“Oh, no!” MJ said, digging in her purse for her cell phone. “The cows got out.”

“Looks like they broke through the wire.”

“I’ve got to call Mr. Marcum.”

“Aw, don’t bother him now; we can get ’em back where they belong.”

“I don’t know anything about herding cattle.”

“Easy—they’re dumb!” He parked the truck and got out. The rain poured down, instantly soaking him. Toby walked along until he found the break in the fence. Moving the wire out of the way, it took him several minutes before he gently coaxed the creatures through the gap.

MJ climbed out. “Do you need help?”

“I got some bailing twine in the back of the truck—see if you can find it.”

“Okay!” She went to the rear and opened the camper shell. Climbing up the bumper, she swung her leg over the tailgate and got inside, happy to be out of the pouring rain. After some rummaging, she found a ball of thick orange poly twine wrapped around a short piece of metal pipe. MJ carefully got out and hurried over to him. The rain was cold; she shivered as it soaked through her clothes. “This?” she said, offering the twine.

“Yup, thanks.” He quickly made repairs to the fence by tying the twine to one post and running it back and forth between posts, creating something of a zigzag spider web. “That should hold ’em. But I guess you should call him in the morning and let him know he needs to mend the fence.”

“Right.”

Toby hurried back to the truck, getting the door for MJ on the way.

When they were both in the cab, she looked at him. “You’re drenched.”

“No big deal. I’ll get some dry clothes when I get home.”

“That’s like a forty-minute drive.”

“So?” He pulled up to the house.

“I’m not letting you go home in wet clothes. You’ll catch a cold.”

“Done it a million times, never caught one.”

MJ opened the door. “Toby Farmer, you’re gonna come in and get dried off,” she said in a stern voice.

He turned off the engine and got out. “Yes, Ma’am.” Following her onto the porch, he stood dripping. “I’m gonna drip all over the floor.”

“So am I, don’t worry about it.” She worked the key in the lock and opened the door. “There’s a bathroom next to the kitchen. Go get out of your wet clothes and I’ll see if I can find something for you to wear.”

“It’s really not necessary.”

“Go!”

“All right.” He did his best to tiptoe across the wood floor and down the hall toward the kitchen. Reaching the bathroom, he went in and closed the door. It was a full bath, so he took off his clothes and tossed them into the tub. Grabbing a towel, he wrapped it around his waist and came out. MJ was nowhere to be found. He thought he heard noise upstairs. A teapot sat on the back stove burner. Toby figured something warm would be nice. He checked the amount of water, put it on a front burner, and turned on the stove.

A few minutes later, MJ came downstairs dressed in a fluffy pink bathrobe and carrying her wet clothes. She stopped dead when she came into the kitchen. The sight of Toby wearing only a towel almost made her knees go weak. “Oh.”

“I found a towel,” he said. “Do you want my clothes?”

“Uh, yeah,” she stammered. His bare chest was driving her nuts.

“I’ll get ’em.” He went into the bathroom and came out with an armload of soggy clothes. Handing them over to MJ, he returned to the stove. “I hope you don’t mind, but I put the kettle on.”

She went down another hall into the tiny laundry room. “No, not at all. Do you want coffee or tea?” Truly, she wanted to end the sentence with “or me?” but realized that probably wasn’t a good idea.

“Tea sounds good.”

“Okay, lemme get everything in the dryer and I’ll get it.” She dumped the clothes into the dryer and turned it on. Taking a moment, MJ gathered her composure and returned to the kitchen. She found Toby standing in front of the stove. He looked great in that towel. The throbbing ache returned between her legs.

Toby turned away slightly and MJ saw a line of scars going diagonally across his back. They were made by something evenly spaced, and whatever did it appeared quite sharp. Did she dare ask? Going to the cupboard, she got out the tea, sugar, and two mugs. “So when can we start?” she asked.

“Huh?”

“Working on Fergie.”

“Anytime. The winter’s good. Crops are in, and not much to do because of the weather.”

“I’ve been fixing up the barn. Not long after I moved in I had a contractor work on the electric and also put in water.”

“Good, we’ll need both.” He went to the table and sat down. “How’s the lighting?”

“Decent. I had him install a couple fluorescent lights.”

“I don’t suppose you have many tools?”

“Uh, no.” The tea kettle let off a shrill whistle. MJ snatched it off the burner.

“Don’t worry, I got plenty.”

“Shouldn’t I go buy some, just in case I need them?”

“Naw.”

She made up the tea and brought over the mugs. Then she grabbed the sugar, a spoon, and settled down in a chair next to him. “I don’t know how you take it.”

He gave her a quizzical look.

“Your tea. How do you take it?”

“Oh, sweet, of course.” He smiled, reaching for the sugar bowl and spoon.

MJ felt a mass of frustration building inside her. “Toby?”

“Yeah?”

“Uh, I don’t know how to say this—”

“What?”

“I…I…like you.” She eagerly waited to see his expression. There was none. Toby sat stone-faced. “Did you hear me?”

“Yes, I did.”

“And?”

He stirred in two heaping spoonfuls of sugar. “Why?”

“Why?”

“Why do you like me?”

MJ’s mouth opened but no words came out. It took a few moments. “I just do.”

“Why would anyone want broken merchandise? Just look at me, I’m a mess.”

She reached over and put her hand atop his. “I don’t see that. I see a wonderful guy who has so much to offer.”

“Are you sure that’s what you see?”

“Yes!” She gave his hand a little squeeze. “I see someone that makes my heart beat faster, my skin go clammy, and my mind go crazy.”

“I do?”

Deciding to throw caution to the wind, MJ leaned over and caught his lips in a gentle kiss. As she drew away, she noticed the expression on his face; it was still rather expressionless. “Toby?”

He didn’t move.

“Toby?”

Finally he looked down at his deformed arm. “You’re much too good for the likes of me. You should find someone who can take care of you and give you everything you want.”

“I think I have.”

The chair scraped on the wood floor as he got up. Toby walked to the sink, his back to her. “I don’t seem your type.”

“Type? How do you know what my type of guy is?”

“You’re from the big city. Girls like you probably wanna guy who’s wealthy and has a good job. A stockbroker, banker, or company CEO…Not a poor farmer.”

“Just because I come from the city doesn’t mean I like those kinds of guys.” She rested her elbows on the table and put her face in her hands. “Yes, I’ve dated those types—shit, I was married to one, and it didn’t bring me happiness.” MJ stood and went to him. “When we’re together, I feel a happiness unlike I’ve ever felt. I can’t explain it, but I love being with you.”

He turned to face her. “Really?”

She put her hands on his arms. “Really.”

The faintest hint of a smile curled to Toby’s lips. He leaned down and kissed her.





6





It was still dark when MJ woke. She swore Toby’s kiss still lingered on her lips. Her heart beat faster and her mouth went dry. Yes, she was in love with him, no doubt. But how could she handle an old-school relationship? Sex was a part of her life and she loved it. Nate? No, absolutely not.

But…

Soon the throbbing between her legs preoccupied her thoughts. She slid her hand down her loose sleep shorts and played her finger about. Oh, it felt so good. Could she get Toby to go that far? Nate was certainly game. No, not Nate, get him out of your mind, she scolded herself. Her finger moved faster, and soon tension filled her body. “Toby,” she gasped, trying to keep her mind on the man she loved. Images of Nate kept popping into her head. “No, no.” MJ wanted Toby in the worst way, but why could she only see Nate?

She cried out as she climaxed. Her body flushed and twitched with nervous excitement. “Toby!” she called. But Nate kept filling her mind. Oh, what to do?

The old springs creaked as she got out of bed. A faint light shone from behind the curtains. Daylight was breaking. As MJ walked to the bathroom, she saw the phone sitting on the chest of drawers near the door. “No,” she said, carrying on. Toby was the man she wanted, not Nate. She wondered how she could get it clear in her mind. Yes, she’d had wild, frantic, fantastic sex with Nate, and that was certainly good, but her heart belonged to another man.





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