Jody looked down at the gauges quickly as the engine of her small car started to sputter. The vehicle chugged down the road a few more seconds before giving out completely. Jody steered it onto the shoulder of the road and shut the motor off after putting it in park. Her heart seemed to beat a hundred miles an hour and her hands trembled on the steering wheel. She never had liked driving, and now she knew why. What had gone wrong? She was all alone, out in the middle of nowhere. What on earth was she supposed to do? At least when she'd gotten lost three times, she'd been able to ask directions! After a moment's hesitation, she got out into the hot sun and opened the hood of her car. Steam billowed out, and she stepped back quickly, letting out a small wail. "I don't know anything about cars!" she cried desperately. She looked left and right down the road, but all she saw was flat, dry, Texas country. "I knew I shouldn't have come," she mumbled to herself. She bit her lip to stop the tears from forming in her eyes. She was twenty-one years old. She was supposed to be able to at least take a road trip by herself! But she obviously couldn't even do that right! Jody closed her eyes and counted to ten until she had forced herself to calm down. "Lord," she prayed, "I don't have a clue what I'm doing and could use a little help right about now. Anything would be appreciated." She waited several seconds, and then slammed the hood of her car in frustration. It was at least ten miles back to the nearest town. It wouldn't be very pleasant in the afternoon sun, but she had no choice; she had to start walking. Since she had turned onto this road, she had not seen any other cars and didn't have much hope of anyone driving by. Even if they did, there was no guarantee that they would stop. Jody pulled her dark shoulder-length hair back into a ponytail, grabbed her purse, and pulled the keys out of the ignition. If she didn't start now, she'd never get anywhere. Not that it really mattered. She was already a day late. Just as she locked her car, she heard a noise. She squinted in the sun to focus on the small moving object in the distance.
Eric finished the rest of his soda pop and tossed the can into the back seat of his pickup. He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel to the beat of a country song playing on the radio, but kept his eyes on the road ahead. He yawned and tipped his cowboy hat back on his head. He hated this stretch of road. It always seemed to take forever. Suddenly, he noticed something alongside the road. A car? That was unusual. As he neared, he saw a young woman standing next to it. She waved as he approached, and it was obvious she needed help. Eric shook his head. He never stopped for strangers. Someone else would always come along.
Jody's heart sank as the pickup sped past without the thought of slowing. Oh well. She hadn't expected anyone to come along anyway.
Something made Eric glance in his rearview mirror as he passed the stopped car. He noticed the woman begin to walk down the road in the opposite direction. She'd never make it to town in this heat. It was apparent she didn't carry any water with her, and in this kind of weather, that could be dangerous. He sighed and rolled his eyes at himself. He was running late as it was, and he certainly wasn't in any mood to stop and help someone. But something made him change his mind just this once. He slowed his truck to a stop, put it in reverse and backed up to the broken-down car.
Jody turned in surprise as the strange pickup returned and slowed to a stop beside her. The driver gestured for her to open the passenger door, and Jody hesitated, remembering that not all strangers could be trusted. After a moment, she slowly opened the door. Eric couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at the young woman's attractive features, but his dark sunglasses hid his surprise. "Trouble?"
Jody nodded and swallowed hard. "Yes. My car died, but I don't know what went wrong."
Eric nodded. That didn't surprise him. He shut off his pickup and got out, reminding himself that he really didn't have time for this. "Let's see what ya got." He took off his hat to toss it on the hood of the truck and set his sunglasses up on his blonde head, exposing his light blue eyes.
Jody forced a smile. "Thank you."
Eric ambled to the front of the car, lifted the hood and squinted into the engine. As he poked and prodded, Jody couldn't help but grin to herself. In her opinion, this young man was the perfect example of a cowboy. He was tall and lanky, tanned from obvious days in the sun. Jody knew she must stick out like a sore thumb with her pale skin and expensive clothing, if her Virginia license plates didn't give her away.
After a few minutes, Eric stood up straight and shook his head. "Well, ya got overheated for sure. Don't know what caused it, or if ya did any more damage though."
Jody sighed. "Well, thanks for trying. I guess I'll just start walking back to town."
Eric shook his head. "City slicker," he muttered. "Where ya headed?"
"Lone Coyote Dude Ranch."
Eric looked at her in surprise. "Tourist season don't start 'till a few weeks yet."
Jody raised her eyebrows. "You know the ranch?"
"Well, I ought to." Eric started back to his truck. "Hop in. I'm headed there myself."
Jody bit her lip. "Are you sure? I don't want to trouble you anymore."
Eric put his hands on his hips. "Look, I only offer once, miss. You can sit out here and roast in the sun for all I care, but if ya wanna get to the ranch, I'm leavin' now."
Jody swallowed hard. Did she really want a ride? This stranger certainly didn't act like he really wanted to help. But what choice did she have? She was scared to death, but she had to do it. Finally she nodded. "Thank you. I just want to get where I'm going."
Eric grabbed his hat and slapped it on his head after moving his sunglasses down on his face. "Get in, then. Bus is leavin'."
Jody took a deep breath and stepped up into the pickup. She couldn't help but notice the empty pop cans strewn all over the back seat, amongst old potato chip bags and candy bar wrappers. Several brown paper grocery sacks were stuffed in on one side and the whole interior needed a good vacuuming. Well, it was a ride, despite the mess. As Eric started the engine and began driving, Jody shifted her weight uncomfortably. "So...you said that you were familiar with the dude ranch?"
"Yep." Eric kept his eyes glued to the road.
Jody waited for him to elaborate, but it became obvious that he wasn't going to. "Do you live around there?" she asked.
Eric shrugged. "That's where I'm headed."
Jody thought for a moment. "Oh, so you're actually from the ranch then."
Jody smiled weakly. Should she keep trying at conversation? At least that way, she wouldn't have to sit in uncomfortable silence, even if she hated talking to strangers. "Well, I guess I'll be seeing a little more of you then. I'm Jody Myers, here to do a story on the dude ranch."
Eric cocked his head slightly. "Don't know nothin' about that."
"Oh." Jody paused. "It's been set up for a while now. I work for a magazine back in Virginia, and they wanted to start a short series of stories about life on a dude ranch."
Eric frowned. Now he remembered Tom mentioning something about someone coming. "So you"re a reporter."
Jody shrugged. "Kind of. But not like a newspaper reporter." She grinned. "Don't worry. I won't hound you with questions in front of a tape recorder."
Eric nodded. "Well, don't you worry none. I won't be around to get bothered by no reporter. Just leave me outta your story, and you'll be glad you did."
Jody bit her lip at Eric's harsh tone. Okay, so this wasn't working at all. Perhaps if she got to know him? "Can I ask your name?" she asked politely.
Eric sighed. Would she ever be quiet? Why had he even stopped to help? "Eric Chambers."
Jody nodded. "Nice to meet you."
Eric shrugged. "Your opinion might change before you leave." Before Jody could even wonder about his statement, Eric leaned over and turned on the radio, increasing the volume. After the kind of morning and afternoon he'd already had, he didn't want to chat. He was just giving a tourist a ride and wanted her to leave him alone.
Jody sank down lower in her seat. She could tell that Eric was annoyed, and she felt badly. She knew when she was nervous that she talked too much. For the next twenty minutes, she tried to get used to country music and forced herself to stay positive. She was only going to be here for a couple weeks or so. She had to be strong. She couldn't fail this time.
Though it seemed Eric completely ignored Jody during the drive to the ranch, he would throw her a sidelong glance every so often to try and read her face. Despite her square shoulders and her lifted chin, fear rested beneath her dark eyes and Eric knew it. He had always had a talent for reading people, and could tell from Jody's lame attempts at conversation that she was very nervous to say the least. How on earth had she managed to come all this way on her own? And what was someone like her doing as a reporter anyway? Eric had never gotten along well with people, but he had a keen dislike for nosiness, and hoped that Jody would not be staying long at the ranch. No matter the length though, he would be sure to avoid this newcomer and give himself plenty of excuses to get away from her questions.
Copyright © Rachel Burkum
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