This is the last excerpt from “Patch of Dirt” prior to publication of the novel May 6th. For pre-publication orders please contact: www.hawkinspublishinggroup.com. For the latest updates go to www.patchofdirt.net.
Down to his last few dollars Joe has had enough—it’s time to move on and forget about the last couple of days.
The sooner he found a ride the better. A few cars roared by, each sending up sprays of rain, but the drivers didn’t stop to look. Once it had been easy to catch a ride in the rain. Somehow people always took pity on a lone figure beside the road. It was different these days—people thought they were going to have their throats cut for the change in their pockets.
A familiar pickup with EAGLE CREEK RANCH painted on the passenger door stopped several feet ahead of him. The door swung open in invitation.
He backed up a few steps.
“Get in,” said a deep voice.
The driver moved as if he was readying to get out of the truck. Joe didn’t need another fight. The guy looked like he meant business. He climbed in quickly. The cab smelled faintly of Rita’s perfume. He couldn’t forget how she had aroused him as he carried her back to this same truck.
Was this square-jawed driver Rita’s husband? He was rugged-looking, with large calloused hands. He had graying hair and wore jeans, a plaid shirt and a sheepskin jacket. On his left hand he wore a wedding ring. Under bushy brows, his deep set green eyes were intent on Joe.
Joe’s suspicion grew. His stomach twisted into knots and he clenched his fists. He imagined being driven to a deserted spot, beaten and left to rot.
“Where you headed?”
“Billings,” said Joe.
“I'm not going quite that far,” said the man.
“That's all right,” said Joe. “Just drop me anywhere.”
“Not sure I can do that.”
Joe couldn’t read the expression on his face. His throat felt dry. What had Rita told him? He readied himself for the worst.
“What happened to you?” said the man. “Jealous husband? I hope she was worth it. I hate to see a man get beat up for nothing.”
Joe was silent. He didn’t like being toyed with. He thought of how to escape.
“Love’s a funny thing if you ask me,” said the man. “I'm still finding out. You'll get over it. That's the way it is.”
Something was wrong; either Rita had told him about last night and he was taking his time before he did anything, or she hadn’t told him. If that was the case, then why not? In spite of the way she had treated him, he knew there had been something between them. Not like when he first met Anna, but something.
Joe drummed his fingers on his thigh and looked at the passing ranches. “I wasn’t in love with her,” he said.
“That's what they all say.”
“I wasn’t.” He tried to hide his irritation by glancing out the window.
“What do you do?” said the man.
“Ranch work mostly,” said Joe.
The man nodded.
“I was like you once. Never could settle down, even after I got shot up in Vietnam, then one day I fell in love, I mean really in love. I was knocked right on my ass. It happens. After thirty years I’m starting to live again. It’s quite a feeling.”
Joe stared out the window. Rain slashed at the pickup.
“I got a nice little ranch near the Eagle Creek. Not big, but enough. A few cows and a couple of hay fields. I want to build it up into something to be proud of.”
He had described the kind of place Joe dreamed about. He tried to hide his envy with a cough.
“I found I had oil under my place. Only a small well now, but there'll be more. I'm in no hurry. The price ain't going nowhere but up. It’s like I won the lottery.”
“Sounds like quite a setup,” said Joe.
Was this the same Frank Hill that Gunnar had told him about?
“I could use some help, if you're interested?”
What was going on? His stomach churned.
“I got two, maybe three month’s work, then I’ll have to let you go. Pay you in cash. How much money do you have on you right now?”
Joe began to squirm. “I'm going to Billings.”
“Sure you are. Four thousand. There'll be a bonus in it too if you do a good job.”
“What kind of bonus?”
“The best kind.” He looked Joe in the eye. “The kind men like you wish for,”
he said in a condescending tone Joe didn’t like.
“What would I be doing?”
“You'll find out.”
“I want to know,” said Joe, trying not to anger the man.
“Of course you do,” said the man. “Five thousand?”
“I still want to know what I'll be doing?”
“Seven thousand, and that's my final offer.”
Joe stared out the window at a vacant ranch house. He knew the fear in a rancher’s eyes, not knowing whether he would make it. He wondered if the man next to him had ever known such a feeling.
“If I was in your place, I'd jump at the offer,” said the man.
“Well, you're not,” said Joe.
“Touchy, aren't you?”
“What if I am?”
“I just like to know the kind of person I'll be hiring. What do you say?”
The seven grand was more than he’d ever made at one time. If this guy wanted to throw his money away, it was all right with Joe. If he was careful with his money this time he might be able to get his life back on track.
“All right,” said Joe with some hesitation.
Frank reached into the glove compartment, found a bottle, which he offered to Joe. Joe shook his head. The man took a swig, put the cap back on, and placed the bottle on the seat between them.
“I’m Frank Hill.”
Frank extended his hand. The grip was strong.
Joe stared at him hard. What twist of fate had brought them together? He had never been one to believe in such things, but this meeting with Frank was more than a coincidence. It had to be.