Orchard Flower (Version Charlie)

by Lubrican

Chapters : Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8-16 Available On

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Chapter One

In the western part of South Dakota people stop for folks in trouble. It's as unlike Chicago as it's possible to be. And it wasn't just because they had their dog with them, which might have made them feel safer.

Lynne Simmons and her daughter Jill were something of a shock to my system. Lynne was one of those women who looks a little older than she really is, because she spends so much time outdoors. She had a windblown kind of look to her. But at the same time, her body just didn't match the impression of being older. Her face made her look like she might be in her forties, but her body said she was Jill's big sister. It was the kind of body that draws a man's eyes like a magnet. She was wearing tight jeans that were faded almost white in places, and a checkered shirt that was packed full of femininity. Wisps of sun bleached hair fell from under a cowboy hat that sat over pale blue eyes that didn't look at me suspiciously at all. She later told me that was because their dog, Buster, had given me his seal of approval. She trusted that dog's judgment.

Jill, on the other hand, was thirteen and looked exactly like thirteen-year-old girls do everywhere. She was kind of lanky and gawky, with a pony tail. She was slim, but had fresh young curves that were well on the way to becoming lush, like her mother's, some day. Jill was one of those girls who promised to be a looker in a few years. What made her a shock to me was how willing she was to talk to me as Lynne drove me to Bud's Auto Repair, in Hot Springs.

A lot of thirteen-year-old girls are uninterested in strangers, and in strange men in particular. Not Jill. She practically interrogated me, asking dozens of questions about where I was from, and what Chicago was like, and why I left. Her mother finally barked at her to stop being a "nosey ninny." I swear that's that she said.

Jill was undeterred.

"I'm just trying to learn something, mom. Aren't you always harping on that ... telling me to read books and all that?"

"There's a difference between learning things and snooping into other people's business," said Lynne.

"I don't mind," I said. "Back in Chicago a girl like Jill wouldn't even talk to me."

Lynne darted me a look as she steered the pickup down the road. Jill was sandwiched between us. Buster was happily letting the wind rush by in the bed of the truck. It was fairly close quarters in the cab. But it was Jill who spoke.

"Why's that?" she asked. "Are you some kind of sex offender?"

I was impressed with Lynne's ability to recover her equilibrium and get the truck back on the highway so quickly.

"What?" asked Jill, sounding injured. "I've heard about registered sex offenders. There's even a place you can go on the Internet to see where they live and stuff. We don't have any in Hot Springs, though."

That was Jill. She was - and I say it fondly - a motor mouth who saw no problem with saying exactly what was on her mind, whatever that might be. She wasn't trying to push anybody's buttons. She was just honest and curious.

Her curiosity (and probably my desire for somebody to feel sorry for me) was how my situation came out. I told them I had set off into the big wide world to find my fortune, just like some boy in a fairy tale. Jill thought it sounded cool. Lynne thought I was crazy.

"You were a CPA making good money and you threw all that away because a woman broke your heart?" she asked, shaking her head. "There are more women in the world, you know."

"I can't believe you said that!" said Jill.

And THAT is how I found out that Lynne's husband, who was Jill's father, had died when he was struck by lightning when Jill was six. Jill had been trying to get her mother to go on dates in the last couple of years, probably because Jill was at the age to think about boys, and dates, and all that sort of thing. Lynne was resisting.

"Let's not go into this again," she sighed, as her daughter ratted her out to a complete stranger. "I told you, I still have feelings for your father."

Jill turned her curious face towards me. "Do you still have feelings for your girlfriend?"

I felt my heart wrench in my chest. I was really feeling sorry for myself.

"I guess I do," I said. "I don't want to, but I do." Lynne had helped me out, picking me up like that, so I tried to help her out by passing along some of my wisdom to her daughter. "So I guess I know how your mother feels."

It backfired on me. Maybe on Lynne too, because Jill slumped.

"I hope I never fall in love, then."

At Bud's Auto Repair there was actually nobody named Bud. I found this out when I tried to be friendly and asked jovially if Bud was around. I later found out there had been no Bud since 1953, when Bud retired and sold his business. There had been four owners since then, none of whom felt the need to rename the business. The current owner was named Randy, and he said he'd have my car towed to his shop.

"It'll take me about a week to get a radiator and get it installed. Cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of eight hundred dollars," he said, wiping his hands on a rag.

I had about fifteen hundred in my bank account. More Americans live paycheck to paycheck than you would believe. Most Americans really ARE three paychecks from being homeless. But that wasn't my primary problem. My problem was that staying someplace at tourist rates for that week would eat up the rest.

"Know anybody who's hiring?" I asked Randy hopefully.

"Nope." He was a man of few words. "So you want me to fix your car or not?" He also got right to the point.

"Yeah," I sighed. "I guess so. Where's the cheapest place to stay. And where do you recommend I start looking for a job?"

"Beats me," said Randy. "I got a place to stay, and I ain't looked for a job since I bought this place."

I could tell I was going to like the people around here a lot.

I turned to find Lynne still standing there. Her hands were on her hips and her head was tilted slightly, like she was looking at a picture in an art gallery, trying to figure out what it meant. Jill was peering into the open hood of a car that had been left for Bud - who didn't exist - to repair. Buster was sitting on the ground between Lynne and me.

When she spoke, Lynne's voice sounded distinctly wary. "I could use some temporary help at my place," she said.

Randy's head whipped around and he stared at her. You'd have thought I was a known serial killer or something. I later found out that he was among the dozen or so men who had tried to get her to go out on a date with him in the time that had passed since Paul died. She had turned them all down, and had never had a hired man.

Jill thought that was a capital idea, and bounced around like a basketball being played with by the Harlem Globetrotters.

All that to explain the string of coincidences by which I landed on Lynne Simmons' horse ranch and apple orchard, forty miles east of Hot Springs, South Dakota.

Lynne was in the unhappy situation where she had a ranch that could produce a good living, except that she didn't have enough help to make that happen. And hiring full time people would eat up the added income, so there had never been a strong drive to do that. Agriculture is one of those occupations that requires you to borrow a hell of a lot of money on the faith that the crop will come in, or the herd will sell later, and you can repay the loan. If you can't repay that loan, you can lose the farm, literally.

Instead of taking that chance, Lynne took what she knew about horses, quarter horses in this instance, and what she knew about running an orchard, and eked out a living for herself and her daughter. The land had belonged to her father and grandfather before him. When she married Paul, the plan was to have a son to carry on the tradition. Jill had come along and they were working on having that son when Paul got killed.

It was just a fluke - or coincidence - that Lynne's parents had planted the apple orchard at all. If you talked to commercial growers, they'd say South Dakota was all wrong for apples. Lynne would have told them to tell it to the apples that rotted on the ground each year because she couldn't harvest the entire thirty acres and get them to market.

And while she knew a lot about horses and apples, there are things to do on a ranch that take a man's hand. I'm not being sexist. There are differences between women and men, and some of those differences are physical.

I know what you're thinking, but that's not what I'm talking about. Sure, a woman might be able to lift as much as a man - a few times. But it's going to wear harder on her body than on the man's. That's just a fact. And another fact is that a woman who is five-eight and weighs a hundred and twenty, just isn't likely to be able to perform the same physical feats as a man who is almost six feet tall and weighs two hundred pounds. It's not gender bias. It's simply physics. Give me a two hundred pound six-foot female body builder and she'll probably be able to work me into the ground.

But neither Lynne nor Jill were that woman.

As a result, there was about seven years of semi-neglect all around the ranch. It wasn't all because they were women. A lot of it was because there were only two of them, and they were both busy putting out this fire or that one, trying to make a living. And when the tractor stopped running, and it cost too much to have somebody come out and fix it, and neither woman had time to learn how to trouble shoot and repair a tractor ... well it just sat there and they improvised.

Of course I didn't know how to repair a tractor. Not when I first got there. But I could do many of the hundred other things that needed doing, as long as I was supervised by somebody who could tell me what the heck to do.

That turned out to be Jill, mostly.

Which is how coincidence led me to have, as one of my best friends, a thirteen-year-old girl.

There was a bunkhouse on the ranch. It hadn't been USED as a bunkhouse for sixty years, but it was there. It was full of junk, having been turned into storage when America no longer needed horses in quantity to pull freight, or act as primary transportation for people.

So my first job was to clear me a place to stay. It was June which, in Southwestern South Dakota, is like the fall weather I loved so much back in Illinois. That night Lynne gave me some blankets and a pillow, and I was as happy as a pig in shit.

Or whatever pigs love to be in. You know what I mean.

For two days I worked around the house and barns, cleaning stuff up, and hauling trash off. The stables were clean, but the manure pile was about ten feet tall. The tractor had a bucket on the front, but the tractor didn't run. I wasn't a mechanic, but I had two arms, which is all that's required to use a shovel. I can't complain, because Jill was right there with me, shoveling it in the back of the truck and then back out of the truck a mile away into a draw that was the equivalent of their land fill. I thought I might actually die.

It wasn't because it was back-breaking work.

OK, maybe it was.

But it wasn't because the manure pile was wet in the middle, and greasy and smelly and soaked through my shoes within an hour while Jill's boots repelled it like Rain-X on a windshield.

OK, maybe it was that too.

But it was honest work and I got to talk to Jill all day while I did it, and she didn't mock me when I had to sit down and rest my back. She did that too, but not every ten minutes, like me.

And I felt pretty proud when that fricking pile of fricking horse shit was gone. I mean I'd helped make it be gone, and from now on whenever I uttered the term "Horse shit!" it would have a hell of a lot more emotion behind it than it ever had before.

Then I fixed fences for three days, and I was SURE I was going to die. Again, it wasn't because it was back breaking work.

OK, maybe it was.

But it wasn't because it was dangerous, pulling wire with the pickup, and then getting it even tighter with a come-along until the wire was taut as a guitar string. And if it snapped, it could wrap you up in barbed wire like a birthday present for a cannibal.

OK, maybe it was that too.

All I know is that each night, when I got back to the bunkhouse and fell into bed, I felt like it would be easier to just expire and get it over with than get up and take a (cold) shower in the bunkhouse bathroom (and I use that term with tongue planted FIRMLY in cheek), so I could get up at five the next morning and start all over again.

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