Chapter 23. Lex charged Thunder through the fields, leaning over his neck with a smile

Lex charged Thunder through the fields, leaning over his neck with a smile. Feeling only a slight ache in her ribs due to the activity, she laughed out loud to the wind blowing into her face. " It's a beautiful day, isn't it boy? " The racing horse snorted in disagreement. Low dark clouds had begun to cover the sky, threatening to erupt at any moment, and the cool breeze blowing through the surrounding trees brought a damp chill to the air. To Lex, the day had never been more beautiful. I must be doing something right'cause someone up there has certainly dropped a wonderful gift right into my lap. " Yaaaaa!!! " She urged the horse on, both of them absorbing the brisk air around them with joy.

Coming within sight of the jeep, Lex reigned in the large horse, walking him around to cool him off. " Doesn't look like we'll have much trouble here, huh big fella? " she aimed him towards the still running creek. " Let's take a walk down to the creek before get started, okay? " she patted his neck and they walked slowly towards the loud roar.

Amanda walked into the kitchen, her cheeks slightly flushed and a big smile on her face. Martha turned around from the pantry and grinned. " Well, wellyou must have had a good time feeding the stock. That's an interesting look on your face, honey." She watched at the younger woman blushed.

" Oh, yeahI had a great time." Amanda realized what she said too late, and lowered her head trying to control her heated face.

Martha walked over to her and pulled a few errant stalks of hay from her hair. " Mmmlooks like it."

Amanda covered her face with her hands. " Oh, god"

The housekeeper felt pity for her and relented. " Sweetheart, calm down. There's nothing to be ashamed ofI'm glad you two have hit it off so well." She wrapped her hand around Amanda's arm and pulled her towards the table. " Sit down while I get you some coffee." She grabbed a couple of mugs from the cabinet, filled the carafe and then sat down at the table beside Amanda. " Did Lexie get off to the creek okay? " she asked, pouring them each a cup.

" Ummyeah, she did. She told me that she would be checking the fence also, and not to expect her back before it got dark." The young blonde took a small sip of her coffee.

Martha appeared surprised. " She told you she'd be late? " she gave a slight shake of her graying head. " She never actually tells anyone when she'll be back. I usually just fix her a big breakfast, and plan dinner for dusk on days when I know she'll be riding fence patrol."

Amanda just stared into her mug. " Well, maybe she just said that because she we'd be worried, since she's still hurt."

" Honey, that's never bothered her before." The housekeeper patted her hand, " Not that she's unfeeling, it's just that she normally doesn't think about little things like that." She took a deep breath. " Not like she can, having to run this place all alone."

Amanda looked up. " But I thought her brother helped her." Her brows furrowed in confusion.

The heavyset woman scoffed. " Hubert? Help? Not in this lifetime, sweetheart. Sometimes I think his sole purpose in life is to aggravate poor Lexie, and of course to mooch money off of her." She took a sip of coffee and sighed. " He's seven years older than her, and never done an honest days work in his life. Oh sure, Lexie lets him keep the ranch's books, and he has that accounting office he runs in town, but he's no good." A quirk of her lips. " He's hated Lexie ever since her daddy signed the ranch over to her, not to mention he's just plain mean." She took another sip of coffee. " I normally wouldn't be telling anyone this, but I trust you, and I want you to be aware of just how nasty that man can be." She paused, studying the young woman across from her.

Amanda had a pretty good idea where Martha was heading with this conversation. She met the wise brown eyes across from her. " Lex told me about Linda." She saw the housekeeper's posture relax somewhat. " Hubert threatened Lex last night - about my staying here. So she decided to tell me why he was sohostile." A sad look crossed her face. " Did Linda actually dump Hubert for Lex? "

Martha took a deep breath. " Oh yes. You see, Hubert is quite handsome - tall, dark, with blue eyes like Lexie'sonly his are crueler. Women just seem to throw themselves at his feet, until they get to know him - then the smart ones run like all get out." She finished her coffee and began wiping the table with a damp dishcloth. " He's also got Lexie's temper - they both got that from their daddy, but he never learned to control it like she did." Took her until she was almost twenty-five, but she finally got it under control. " I think Linda finally got tired of Hubert taking his mad out on her, and so to get back at him she latched onto Lexie."

Amanda frowned. " She didn't love Lex, did she Martha? "

" Oh, I think she did, in her own little wayshe just wanted a little fancier lifestyle than what Lexie could give her." Martha remembered grimly the month long bender that Linda's desertion had wrought with the impressionable young woman.

Lex would get up before dawn - feeding the livestock and handling the general ranch business before the rest of the hands even stirred. Martha could sometimes coax the sullen woman to eat breakfast, but not often. Then Lex would lock herself in the office, drinking until late afternoon, when usually a carload of 'friends' would pick her up and take her into town. They'd spend the rest of the afternoon and all of the evening, bouncing from bar to bar, generally raising hell, and even once or twice having the law called on them. After the bars would close, these so-called friends would bring Lex home, and Martha would usually find her passed out on the porch swing the next morning.

After this had gone on for nearly a month, Martha quit pleading for Lex to come to her senses, and took direct action. One morning after finding Lex once again sprawled unconscious on the front porch, the angry housekeeper mixed up a large bucket of extremely muddy water, and dumped it on the unsuspecting rancher.

" Whoa! " Lex sputtered, " What the hell did you do that for? " her head was spinning, and she imagined she was about to toss the contents of her stomach all over the porch.

" If you plan on letting this ranch run itself into the ground and sit out here smelling worse than a pig farm, I thought that maybe you'd want some mud to wallow around in." She dusted off her hands and walked towards the door, turning around, continuing her tirade. " So either clean yourself up, or find a new babysitter - 'cause I'm not gonna tolerate one more minute of your self-pitying garbage, you hear me?! " She shook a finger at Lex.

" Yes ma'am." A chagrined Lex mumbled to the housekeeper, mud dripping down her face.

Martha almost laughed out loud at the figure before her. Blue, bloodshot eyes stood out starkly in the mud-covered face, which was puffy from the alcohol abuse. The tall frame, which had lost too much weight, stood quietly on trembling legs.

" I'm sorry, Martha." Lex took a couple of steps forward, until she was standing less than a foot away. " Please don't leave me." She whispered, her eyes filling with tears. " I'll get my act together, I promise."

She looked like a beaten child, so Martha wrapped her arms around the younger woman and pulled her into her ample bosom. " Oh sweetheartI was just so angry, watching you throw your life away like that." She rocked the now sobbing woman gently, then pulled back and used her ever-present dishtowel to wipe her charge's face. " Now get this porch cleaned up, go upstairs and take a long hot shower, and come into the kitchen for a big breakfast. I'll tell the boys to handle the chores for the next couple of days, 'cause you're gonna eat and then go straight to bed." She wiped a spot clean on Lex's forehead, and gave her a gentle kiss. " Now go on, and be quick about it." She turned and moved back into the house, grumbling under her breath about crazy kids and how she had to go and change into a clean apron.

After that, Lex rarely drank, except for the occasional beer or two with the hands on poker night. But she never touched hard alcohol again. Martha knew the young woman had scared herself, and she herself was glad that Lex had promised her to stay clean. Hubert had teased her, saying she was too weak, not being able to handle her alcohol. He constantly belittled her, trying to knock Lex off the wagon. But Lex just put up with his taunts, saying she had given her word, and that he wouldn't know anything about keeping a pledge to someone.

" Martha? " Amanda became concerned at the look on the older woman's face. " Are you alright? " she grasped the hand that had been absently wiping the table.

The housekeeper shook her head and gave Amanda a small smile. " Sorry 'bout that, dearI got a little lost in my memories." She placed her other hand on Amanda's. " C'mon. Let's get to work on those cabinets."

Lex stood at the edge of the creek, mesmerized by the still rapidly flowing water. She shifted her gaze slightly downstream, happy to note the little Mustang was still in the same place, It's rear bumper just barely visible above the water line. Lex looked behind her, mentally calculating the path she would use to pull the car from the water. How to get it from there to here that's the sticking point. One of the chains from the jeep should be long enough, but how in the hell do I get the chain on the car? She looked at the water, and then down at herself. Well, I could just tell them I fell into the creek. She smirked, imagining the looks on their faces. Ahno not a good thing to doMartha would use a spoon on me then! She relegated that problem to the back of her mind, deciding to worry more about it when she got the jeep out of it's muddy nest. Turning away from the churning waters, Lex walked back over to the patiently waiting Thunder, and rode back towards priority number one.

An hour later, an angry and mud-covered Lex finally drove the jeep towards the creek. Even with using the wench attached to the front of the vehicle, Lex still had to dig and push to extricate the buried jeep. She had removed her ever-present black cowboy hat and duster to save them, but she was almost solid mud from the tip of her head to the sole of her boots - and she was mad enough to spit nails.

The tall rancher backed the equally mud-coated jeep to a large tree ten yards from the bank of the creek, until it was almost touching the heavy oak. Lex wound a length of chain around the trunk of the tree, and the other end around the back axle. She then pulled a longer stretch of chain from the jeep, and attached it to the steel cable that she unwound from the wench. Lex then tied one end of rope to the chain, and the other around her waist. That's itI've got to be certifiable - jumping into this damn creek not once, but twice in one week. Martha is gonna have me committed. She looked down at her clothes, barely distinguishable under the mud. At least I can use the excuse that I needed to get the mud off of me, so I rinsed off my clothes - don't have to tell them it was in the creek.

Lex slowly waded into the creek, noticing how much the current had slowed down since Friday. " Damn, but that's cold! " she grumbled, as the water slowly made it's way to her shoulders. Once again, she let the current do most of the work, moving her downstream. When she got near the partially submerged car, she took over, her strong stroke cutting through the water easily. Gently bumping the car, she grimaced. Easy, Lexdon't put anymore dents in than it already has. She pulled herself up on the trunk, and began dragging the rope across the creek, finally getting the chain into her hands. Greatnow I get to play Jacques Cousteau, and try to find the damn axle. Taking a deep breath, Lex slid off the rear of the car and slipped under water. Being familiar with cars, it only took her a minute to wrap the chain around her target and return to the surface. All rightnow to get back to the jeep. The rancher pulled herself back across the creek, a strange sense of dé jà vu invading her senses.

It took Lex over two hours to pull the small car from the creek. At times she feared the old oak would fall and crush both vehicles, as well as her. And although the huge tree creaked and complained, in the end it stood strong. Her jeep didn't fare much better, and once the little Mustang was safely ashore, she patted the bedraggled jeep on the hood and promised it a nice cleaning. The old vehicle was Lex's pride and joy, having rebuilt it herself while in high school.

After securing the waterlogged Mustang to the jeep, Lex walked over to the patiently waiting Thunder, and removed his saddle and bridle. " Okay, old buddy, I'll race ya home! " He snorted and started towards the trees, content to take the shortcut back to the barn. The rancher returned to the jeep and fished her cell phone out of the pocket of her coat. She dialed the number for the ranch hoping Martha, and not Amanda would answer.

On the third ring, her wish was answered. " Walters residence."

" Martha, it's me." Lex smiled into the phone, imagining the shock on the older woman's face. She rarely used the cell phone, saying she'd rather speak to someone face to face.

" Lexie? Honey, is everything okay? " the housekeeper sounded a little nervous.

" Everything's wonderful, Martha. I got the jeep, and I'll be making a stop at the maintenance shed before I get back to the house." A not so subtle hint.

" Good lord, sweetheart. Don't scare me like that - I thought for sure something was wrong when you called." Martha sighed heavily.

" Sorry - wasn't trying to scare you. It's just that I sent Thunder on ahead, and I didn't want you to worry when you saw him and not me. The road's still pretty muddy, and I thought it would be too dangerous for him to be led behind the jeep." Lex tossed the saddle, blanket, and bridle in the back of the jeep. " I should be in sight of the house in about an hour or so." She hinted, hoping Martha could keep a certain blonde away from the windows.

" That sounds great, Lexie. I thought Amanda and I would go over to my place for a whileI've got some pictures she might be interested in seeing." She laughed, knowing that Lex knew exactly what pictures she had in mind. Also knowing that the road to the maintenance shed was not viewable from her house. " We'll be back in a couple of hours, that should give you time to take care of your horse and get yourself cleaned up too."

Lex laughed too. " Uhwell, I was pretty muddy, but it's mostly cleaned off now." She climbed into the jeep. " I'll see you at the house later, then. Bye, Martha." She disconnected the call before the older woman figured out what she had said. I'm gonna be in so much trouble for that. She grinned to herself. It was one of her favorite past times, teasing the housekeeper to keep her on her toes. But she gives as good as she gets, that's for damn sure.


Chapter 24

" Oh, Marthathese were priceless! " Amanda was seated in the den, several photo albums strewn about. They had spent the last hour or so talking about each other's families, and just enjoying the companionship of each other.

Martha looked at the clock on the mantle. Been almost two hours since Lexie calledguess we should get back to the main house and get dinner finished up. " Amanda? Do you want to help me with dinner tonight? Lexie should be back any time now."

The young blonde jumped to her feet, scooping several of the albums up. " I'd love towhat do you need me to do? " She practically beat the older woman to the door. " Ohwhere do you want me to put these? " She indicated the books in her hands.

The older woman laughed and took the albums. " I'll take those, dear." She put the items on a nearby desk. " C'monI put a roast on earlier today - let's go see what we can find to put with it, shall we? "

Lex put the Mustang in the shed, telling herself she'd be back after Amanda went to bed to begin working on it. She was amazed at the lack of damage it had sustained; a medium-sized dent in the rear left panel, and of course the water damage as well as the kicked in back window. But at least the window is still in one piece - shouldn't be too hard to put back in place. She had even found Amanda's purse, and laid it on the workbench to dry out. Can't give it to her yetshe'd be too suspicious.

Now the dark haired woman was busily brushing down Thunder, who was munching contently on the hay she had given him. Reward for beating me back to the barn, she mused. She had actually finished his grooming some time ago, but had allowed the time to slip away form her as she daydreamed. C'mon, Lexingtonget your damn head on straight! She patted the horse on his broad shoulder. " Enjoy your snack, boy, " then left the stable and walked up towards the house.

Stepping up onto the porch, the tired and dirty rancher stopped and removed her boots. Let's just see if I can sneak upstairs before Martha gets a good look at me.

Slowly opening the door Lex peeked inside, hearing voices in the kitchen. Greatwell, maybe I can get by the door without them seeing me. No longer dripping creek water, her jeans and tee shirt were still damp and heavily stained with mud. She could also feel small bits of mud and debris in her hair, but thankfully her hat covered most of her head. Her socks, which had been white this morning were now a reddish brown, and squished on the hardwood floor, making Lex wince with each step. She eased her head slowly around the kitchen door, hoping to get past the housekeeper. Good! They're both busy. She continued down the hallway, walking quickly.

" LEXINGTON MARIE!! What on earth have you done?!? " A very familiar voice boomed.

Uh-oh. Lex spun around in mid-stride, causing her wet feet to slip out from under her, and landing on her rear end with a sodden thump. " OW! " The muck-covered rancher slowly stood up, rubbing her backside with her hands. " Hi, Martha. Did you get your cabinets all straightened out? " she asked, backing up towards the staircase. That's it, Lexact casual.

" Don't you 'Hi Martha' me, Lexington! You're soaking wet! And I know for a fact that it hasn't rained at all today." The heavyset woman stomped up to Lex, placing her hands on her hips and cocking her head to one side.

" Ummmwellyou see, the jeep was really buried in the mud, and I, umm" she trailed off, seeing the look in the older woman's eyes that said she meant business.

" Yes? " the word was drawn out, and Martha was impatiently tapping her foot.

How does she do it? One look and I feel ten years old again! " Aw hell, MarthaI was covered in mud, and thought I'd better rinse off before I came into the house." She looked down at her soggy socks.

Martha relented. " I appreciate that, honeybut why all the sneaking around? "

The tall woman looked up, her eyes barely visible under her hat brim. " I wasn't actually 'sneaking'just didn't want to disturb you while you were cooking dinner." She gave a small smile.

Amanda witnessed the entire scene from the kitchen doorway. She covered her mouth with her hand, not wanting to interrupt. The poor rancher looked socute, standing there with Martha chewing her out like a recalcitrant child.

The housekeeper yanked the black hat off of the damp woman's head. " Good lord, childwhat is all of that stuff in your hair? "

Lex closed her eyes and sighed. " I told you I got really muddycan I please go take a shower now? " She grabbed her hat from the older woman and made her way up the stairs.

" Dinner should be ready in about thirty minutes." Martha called after her.

" Thanks." Lex smiled, then squished her way up to her bedroom.

Martha turned back towards Amanda, who was barely containing her giggles.

" I swear, that girl can get into trouble just climbing out of bed in the mornings! " she sighed, leading Amanda back into the kitchen.

The young blonde finally lost it. She had to sit down on a nearby stool to remain at least somewhat upright. " She looked so pitifuldoes she do that often? " she wheezed in between her giggles. She looked like a drowned cat that had been drug through too many mud puddles.

" Unfortunately, yes. Mud must be one of her favorite accessories, because she's forever covered in it." The housekeeper stirred a pot of something on the stove. " I swear she could find mud in a drought! "

Amanda laughed. " She was rather grimy. But did you really have to fuss at her like that? "

Martha turned away from the stove, meeting the younger woman's eyes. " Nobut if I don't throw at least a token fit, she'll think I don't love her anymore. I think she secretly enjoys the attention."

" Well, I don't think it's hurt her anyshe speaks of you with the utmost respect and love." Amanda sobered, wanting this sweet woman to realize just how devoted the young rancher was to her. " She told me the night I met her how much she cared for you - said you were the only mother she'd ever had."

The older woman wiped an errant tear from her eye. " That goes double for meshe's one of the main reasons I never married - I had the only family I ever needed right here." Martha smiled. " I've had several offers over the years, but I never could bring myself to leave her. And I couldn't see me ever having a child I would love half as much."

Amanda walked over and gave Martha a hug. " Well, for what it's worth, I think you've done a fine job of raising her. Lex is a wonderful person."

" Thank youI'm very proud of the woman she has become, although I think she had more to do with it than I did." She took a deep breath. " Nowlet's get dinner on the table - she should be straggling down anytime."

" Martha." Lex admonished, leaning in the doorway, " You talking 'bout me again? " her hair was wet, and she was wearing jeans and the ever present tee shirt, which for once actually had a design on it.

Jake's John Deere? Amanda smirked. Bet ol' Jake would sell more tractors if his billboards looked like that! She helped Martha move the food to the table. " So, how did the fence by the creek look? Did you have to make any repairs? "

Lex reached for a bowl on the cabinet, only to have her hand slapped by Martha. " Hey! I was just trying to help! " she yanked her hand away quickly.

The housekeeper shooed her away. " We have it all under control. Now go sit down." The rancher affected a hurt expression, and Martha turned her around and slapped her gently on the rear. " Don't give me that look. You've been out working all day, and you need to sit down."

Lex raised an eyebrow, but did as she was told. " You two have been working all day too. What's the difference? "

Amanda looked at the housekeeper, who had a perplexed look on her face, trying to think of a good comeback. " Because we actually sat down once in a while and took a break." The blonde replied, " And we know you didn't."

The dark woman frowned. " What makes you think I didn't? "

Martha butted in. " Two reasons: Oneyou never take a break when you work in the field. Twoyou look like you can barely stand up."

Lex opened her mouth, but promptly shut it at the housekeeper's upraised hand. " Nodon't you argue with me - I've known you far too long." She smiled triumphantly. " So just sit there quietly while we get dinner on the table."

She knew when she'd been beaten. Lex smiled. " Yes ma'am."


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