Tumbleweed

Cynthia Overton


A half a dozen or more skipped across the rutted road that led to the pale yellow house sitting at the end of the driveway. There always seemed to be plenty of them, darting across the New Mexican desert and stopped only when they hit a fence - tumbleweeds. They were like most men, Tessa McKane concluded bitterly, always on a roll from town to town or woman to woman.

Standing in the midday sun, she reflected on her past. Tessa blamed herself for a one-night stand with a rodeo star who had promised to return. Of course, she scowled, that day never came. She wouldn't have traded that one night, though, because of its lovable outcome . . . her son, Travis. The rickety school bus would be dropping him off any minute.

"Mama, Mama," he shouted as he flew into her open arms, nearly knocking her backwards.

"Goodness, Travis, slow down." Tessa absorbed the comfort of the small arms entwined around her neck.

"The teacher gave me a book to bring home. Will you read it to me, please?" he begged cheerfully.

"You know I have to go to work and you have to go to Millie's house. How about before bedtime?"

"Okay, Mama. Promise?"

"Promise. I won't forget." Tessa stood up and dusted off her worn work dress. "Come on tiger." She grabbed his hand and escorted him into their small house. "I'll be right back, as soon as I change," she said, giving Travis a quick kiss.

Glancing in a mirror, she pulled her strawberry blond hair back into a bun. She brushed a hint of powder over her cheeks. She switched well-washed green dress for a less faded one made out of blue denim. Her small salary barely covered the necessities, let alone new clothes. "Let's hurry, Travis. I can't be late for work," she called to her son. Fifteen minutes later she dropped Travis at the baby-sitter's house and continued on to work at The Last Chance Truck Stop.

"Grab an order pad and get hustlin' McKane. Brenda called in sick again and piled up back here," Hewey Crowe bellowed from the steamy kitchen. Dishes clattered loudly onto a ledge as he frantically jabbed a bell. "Pick up, pick up! Food's gettin' cold!"

"No way, Hewey. You just put those orders there." Tessa grabbed a tray, slung several platters of hot food onto it, and carefully balanced the load. If it wasn't for the tips she earned for Travis's college education, all she'd get out of that job would be groping hands and loud cowboys. Tumbleweeds, all of them.

"Miss?"

"Be right with you, cowboy," Tessa called over her shoulder. Something about the courteous way he spoke made her look twice.

"What can I get for you?"

"Tessa, is it?" the dark-haired stranger asked, spotting her name tag. "Pretty name. I'll bet you hear that a lot."

The words rumbled like a distant thunderstorm while she stared at the stranger. The man might have stepped from the pages in a western novel. Hair as black as midnight complemented a stern, hawkish appearance. His eyes glinted like chips of amber from a tanned face. Lips, mostly concealed by a coal-black mustache, repeated the question.

"Tessa?"

"Yes?" she stammered.

"Would it be too much trouble to get a menu?"

"I'll get one right away, sir." She grabbed one off the nearest table and quickly handed it to him.

"What do you recommend?"

"Nothing from this menu or anything within fifty miles of here," Tessa responded dryly. "The beef ribs are the best of the worst."

"That's okay."

"Anything to wash it down with?"

"An ice cold beer, if it's available."

"That's one of the few things there's plenty of in this town . . . besides tumbleweeds."

"That bad?" He grinned at her. His voice felt like dark velvet sliding down her arms. "Tessa?"

"Yes?"

"Your eyes remind me of columbines blooming in a meadow. Have you ever seen columbines?"

She shook her head.

"They're unforgettable."

Tessa tried to calm her hammering heart and took his order to Hewey.

"Stop gawking at the rich cowboy and get this food out, McKane."

Cheeks burning with embarrassment, she pulled several more plates onto her tray and hefted it to her shoulder. Tessa delivered the stranger's order and kept on hustling dishes. When she thought to check on him again, the seat was empty. All that remained was a twenty-dollar bill. Your eyes were pretty unforgettable too, mister, she thought to herself as she sighed. Just another tumbleweed.

Bone-tired at the end of her shift, she drove in the dark to pick up her beloved Travis. The baby-sitter handed her the sleepy boy and settled him and his book into their truck. Tessa climbed in beside him and turned the ignition key. The engine remained still. "Come on baby, please start," she urged the lifeless machine. It refused. Tessa wanted to cry.

"What's wrong, Mama?"

"Just a small problem. Let me see if I can fix it." An exhausted Tessa got out and reached for her tool box in the bed of the pick-up. Finding a flash light, she took it and walked around to the hood of the vehicle. She released the latch and flashed the light around the engine.

"Need some help, Tessa?"

The velvety voice eased out of the darkness until the darkly-dressed cowboy stood beside her. Frightened by his noiseless approach, Tessa lifted her head abruptly and hit it on the open hood.

"Damn." She grabbed the back of her head.

"I know that hurt. Let me look at it." A pair of strong hands gently removed her own and parted her hair where she hit her head. Tessa found herself enjoying the contact.

"Ouch."

"Sorry. Didn't mean to hurt you. No skin broken, but you'll have a big knot there soon."

"Mama, are you okay?" Hearing the conversation, Travis had scrambled out of the truck. He stopped, staring at the stranger.

"Did you hurt my Mommy?"

"No, Travis," she answered for the cowboy. "I hit my head on the truck, and he was checking to see if it was bleeding."

"I want to see."

The tall man kneeled to the level of the youngster. "My name's Shane. What's yours?"

"Is it okay to tell him, Mama?" She nodded. "It's Travis. Are you a real live cowboy? You look just like the one in my book."

"Travis, hush. Cowboys are only in history books."

The man's golden eyes glittered with amusement in the beam from the light propped on the engine. "Yes, I'm a real cowboy. You and your mom get back in the truck while I see what I can do to fix this. We wouldn't want your daddy to worry."

"I don't have a daddy, Mr. Shane. I help protect my mama," Travis responded proudly.

"Travis, hush."

"And she needs you to keep on protecting her like you just did," Shane told him seriously. His soothing voice calmed Tessa's jangled nerves. She strapped herself and her son into the front seat once again, and listened as the man called Shane probed underneath the hood.

"Now try it," he called out to her.

She did. The engine roared to life. Tessa got out of the truck and went to tell him thanks. The inky blackness had swallowed him up as if he had never been there.

"He's gone, Travis!"

"Where did cowboy Shane go, Mama?"

"I wish I knew, son." Tessa's brief hope sunk like a pebble in a pond, along with many of her dreams. ~ A hot breezy spring blew into an even hotter summer. Tessa's routine remained the same. In the sea of faces drifting through the truck stop, the one Tessa longed to see never reappeared. Always when the late afternoon thunderstorms hit, she recalled Shane's throaty chuckle. His handsome face rolled in and out of her thoughts like the ever-present tumbleweeds.

One sizzling mid-summer afternoon, Tessa found herself sprinting from her pick-up so she would get to work on time. Edgar, the local postman, called to her from across the parking lot. "Got a postcard for you that came today." "I'm in a real hurry, Edgar. Could I pick it up tomorrow?" Tessa knew of no one that would be sending her anything.

"You young folks. Always in a hurry. Wait just a minute, and you won't have to make a special trip tomorrow."

"Thank you," she murmured as Edgar handed her the card. She shoved it into the front pocket of her apron. Tessa did not want to aggravate her boss by being even seconds late.

Tessa slid into her truck to go get Travis at the end of her shift and felt the postcard she had put in her pocket earlier. She pulled it out, switched on the overhead light. The card was addressed to her name at the post office of Dry Creek, New Mexico. The space for a message was blank so she turned the card over. Tessa's pulse quickened. A glossy field of columbines filled the picture side. She turned it over again trying to make out the blurred postmark - without success. She clutched the card to her chest. Maybe this tumbleweed will roll back into town after all, she sighed.

Hot days blew by one after another, and the only change Tessa saw was Travis growing a little taller, which increased her determination to give him a brighter future. She stopped looking for the glittering amber eyes with the voice as soft as black velvet. The dog-eared postcard found its way into a trash basket. ~ When school began again, Travis entered the first grade. Tessa thought about either getting a second job or taking classes at the nearby junior college. The classes won. It was her chance to rise above The Last Chance Truck Stop.

Tessa eagerly looked forward to the start of two courses. She knew Hewey would throw a fit when he found out that his best waitress was going to reduce her hours. Dreading the moment of telling him, Tessa put it off until the lull between the lunch and dinner rush.

"Hewey, I got to talk to you."

"What is it? You pregnant?"

Tessa's composure wavered. Don't stop now, she scolded herself, or you'll be tied to this man for longer than you want to be.

She plunged ahead. "I need to cut my hours back."

"How much?"

"Half."

"How soon?"

"Two weeks."

Hewey Crowe screwed up his beady dark eyes and didn't hesitate for a breath. "Can't do that. I'll keep you on until then. Consider this your two-week notice."

Tessa's hand froze after picking up a plate. "Hewey, you can't do this. You know I need this job. You can't be serious."

"Sorry, McKane. Already got someone in mind to replace you. Bart's little niece can work any hours. Take it or leave it."

Just like all the tumbleweeds in this town, Tessa thought bitterly. Tears stung the back of her eyes, but she wouldn't give Hewey the satisfaction of seeing them. Tessa was furious with herself for not leaving sooner. There had to be something better for her and her son . . . somewhere.

Buried in frustration, Tessa delivered the steaming dishes to her customers. Slapping a bill on the table, she reached for several platters from an empty table. What else could go wrong today, she wondered.

"Would it be too much trouble to get a menu, Tessa?" Distant thunder rumbled, and a velvety softness wrapped around her. A pair of amber eyes returned her gaze as she whirled around. A black hat lay on the table, and a thick mustache barely covered a grin.

"What do you recommend?"

Tessa's spirits soared. "Depends on whether you're stopping or rolling on, Tumbleweed."


© Cynthia Overton

Cynthia Overton is an Indiana resident. She is currently marketing a romance novel and writes CD reviews for The Circle Magazine.


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