I woke to find a note on the table, scribbled on the back of the one I’d written last night.
Have to work again. I’ll find you in the cafe for lunch.
I had nearly forgotten that today was my first shift. The past couple days had seemed to alternate by the hour between lighting fast and a carefree amble. After breakfast I brushed my teeth and pinned my hair out of my face to one side. When I had spoken on the phone with the manager he had said that jeans and a teeshirt were fine so I donned both and my cowboy boots. As an afterthought I grabbed a bottle of water and a protein bar for the trail ride later in the afternoon.
I had only minor difficulties with the clutch on the way into town, but for the most part it went smoothly. The large gravel lot that sat in the middle of the store, the cafe, Colt’s shop, and several other buildings and cabins was nearly empty. The flatbed of Colt’s truck was poking around the corner of the ATV shot, but apart from that, mine was alone with an SUV and a small Ford sedan. I checked to see that my single coat of mascara hadn’t smudged and then brushed lip balm over my mouth. With a deep breath I ascended the steps to the cafe, bypassing the worn ramp on one side, and entered.
The cafe was brightly lit with sunlight that streamed through the windows set in every wall. To my right stretched a 50’s style diner bar with raw wood high stools. Beyond that was a door way partially masked by a dividing wall. Exposed beams spanned across the ceiling like the inside of a hollow ribcage and all along the upper half of the walls were the cape and head mounts of bull elk, mule bucks, bighorn sheep, a couple moose, bison, and one full taxidermy mountain lion that crouched life-like in the opposite corner facing the front door. But apart from all of the stuffed wildlife, the cafe was empty.
“Hello?” I called out softly. There was a loud clanging noise behind the dividing wall set to my right in what I assumed was the kitchen.
A weather-worn man at the height of middle age poked his head around the wall.
“Ah! New girl, come on back.” Then he was gone again.
I stepped carefully among the field of tables and chairs, sure that the modestly sized restaurant resembled a full blown carnival in peak season. There was just enough time to take in the cozy kitchen, complete with a 1970’s refrigerator before my view was abruptly obstructed.
All of the sudden a mass of curly black hair was bobbing somewhere near my eye level. I looked slightly down into one of the cheeriest, rosiest faces I have ever seen. Friendly brown eyes flecked with green stared up at me in turn.
“Hi!” the girl said in an octave I couldn’t have reached with a ladder. “Who are you?”
“Uh, Adrienne,” I said, simultaneously taking a small step in reverse to bring her back into focus.
“Oh good you’re the new girl,” she said and then in the same breath, “I’m Tuesday.”
I blinked at her dumbly. “Tuesday?” I repeated carefully, sure I’d misheard her.
“That’s right,” she said practically bouncing on the spot. “You know that whole business about the 70’s with everyone doing drugs and whatnot?”
I nodded, completely at a loss for where she was going with this.
“Well my parents were still at it in the 80’s when I came along.”
I snorted, choking on the laugh that escaped before another feminine, and very southern drawl chimed in from somewhere behind me, “Tudy, what has gotten into you today? Adrienne, forgive her, she’s usually painfully shy but caffeine brings out her kinda touchy-feely side. I’m Leanne.”
I turned to face the very blond, very made-up woman as she walked around the wall to the kitchen. Leann easily topped out above my five-foot-eight before she put on the five-inch red heels. She had to be in her early forties and looked like she was doing battle with it fiercely. Her white teeshirt was low cut and her bubblegum-pink lipstick was bleeding out of place just a little.
There was a door in the back of the kitchen and threw it came another man, young this time, with sandy blond hair and absurdly tall and gangly in build.
“Oh, hi,” said the boy looking at me and the faces of the three others. “I’m Marty, one of the cooks.”
I was beginning to feel a bit like a cornered animal. With Leann, Tuesday, Marty, and the middle-aged man all bearing down on me, I briefly entertained the idea of making a dash for the door. Instead I shook more hands and introduced myself yet again.
The middle-aged man it turned out was my new manager. His name was Darrel and to be honest, he set me on edge a bit. He showed me around, pointing out the coffee maker, the larger cooler in the back of the kitchen that housed the meats and produce separately, and made me demonstrate how the cutlery should be rolled until he was satisfied with my performance.
“Tuck that end in a little tighter. Ok, better.”
I resisted the urge to tell him a seven-year-old could easily complete what he had made a complicated process. Instead I tucked the bottom end a bit tighter before wrapping the white paper wrapper around the base. Then he showed me how the computer for payment worked.
“Just run credit cards like normal and keep all the cash in this zipper pouch in your apron.” He handed me a navy blue zipper bag slightly larger in dimension than a dollar bill. “You cash out at the end of your shift at two. You’re only on for four hours at a time.”
“Got it!” I said confidently.
Darrel raised his eyebrows quickly and his mouth flattened into a crease.
The lunch hour crept up slowly and I spent the remainder of my shift following Tudy and Luanne. Three people were honestly too many to work prior to the tourism picking up for the summer, but I appreciated the need to train someone new before the mayhem began.
Right at two, as Luanne was demonstrating how to cash out, Colt strolled through the front door. I was dying to watch that swaggering gait as he approached, but my coworkers had caught my attention. Tudy had dropped her cash bag and Luanne trailed off mid-sentence. Marty on the other hand, who was just walking out of the men’s restroom into the main seating area, stopped stock-still and his expression flickered between uncaring boredom and flickering contempt.
I cast my eyes downward again and prodded Luanne. She started slightly and then returned to showing me how to count out cash and tip the kitchen.
Darrel had already posted everyone’s schedule for the week and I learned that the day was divided into two shifts: six in the morning until ten in the morning, and then ten until two in the afternoon. I had the next two days on at ten, then Thursday off, then Friday and Saturday opening shifts.
My apron went on one of the open hooks in the kitchen while Colt made polite conversation with Luanne. The poor woman was having a terrible time stringing coherent sentences together. She kept losing her train of thought and compulsively raking her fingernails over her brow.
“Ready?” asked Colt turning to me.
“Yeah, I’m starving,” I said.
I couldn’t tell if Luanne looked relieved or miffed about Colt’s abrupt entry and retreat.
“What’s up with her?” I asked after Colt led me out the front door and toward his shop.
“Let’s talk about it another time,” he said. His response struck me as odd, but then, a great deal of the things he did struck me as odd sometimes. I skirted the edge of a broken ATV and had to jump over a couple spare tires after the path I’d chosen through the debris turned into a dead end. We had rounded the corner of the last building and for the first time the garage door was lifted and I could see the inside of Colt’s shop.
It really was any testosterone-fueled male’s dream come true. An enormous peg board dominated one wall, decorated with all manner of hammers, screwdrivers, hand saws, extra rubber tubing, coils of electric wire and tape, and all manner of other tools which I didn’t have names for. Several long power cords were on rotating arms attached to the ceiling, two of which connected to an impact drill and an air compressor. The floor had space for two full sized ATV’s and two snow mobiles along the opposite wall. The floor itself was slightly sloped inward and fully covered in a rubberized mat with holes punched in it to allow drainage into the central grate.
“Where does that drain to?” I asked Colt, convinced that leaking oil and fuel into ground was probably cause for alarm.
“There’s a holding basin down there, only ten gallons or so. Don’t worry, it’s most for when I have to scrub this place out and the water had to go somewhere. I empty it at least once a week,” he said. “Still, don’t throw a match at it or anything.”
I still thought breathing it couldn’t be good for anyone long term, but I followed Colt through a narrow doorway into a small room that functioned as an office. From the mini fridge in a corner, Colt pulled half a fried chicken and a couple soft drinks. I parked myself on the corner of the desk and started tearing into the plastic container holding the chicken before beginning to rip pieces free.
“Where’d this come from,” I said around a mouthful.
“Cafe,” he said simply and then, when I looked surprised, “I dropped in earlier when you were busy and picked it up. Anyway, eat quick, Charlie is expecting you.”
I set to work double-time and pretty soon there was just a pile of discarded bones and I was polishing off the rest of the cola.
“Thanks!” I said as I dumped the empty container in the waste basket by his desk.
“No problem,” said Colt. “Come find me before you head home?”
I nodded and backtracked through the clutter in and outside of the garage.
“How do you find anything?” I called over my shoulder.
“This is the only way I can keep track of it,” he answered grinning.
* * * * *
Thankfully the stables was a straight shot down the dirt road Colt had showed me the day before. There were a couple turn-offs to the left and right but I just stuck to the worn middle and soon enough the road dead-ended in the parking lot of the barn.
Charlie was crimping a metal clasp onto the end of a piece of synthetic rope.
“I can’t wait till you start doing these,” he said before gathering the finished lead rope into a coil with several others. “Alright, if let’s go get ‘em,” he said.
I was beginning to appreciate more and more how tight of an operation Charlie ran. The man knew what he was doing in terms of business and horses—a rare combination together. The herd was kept in a large corral at the back of the barn. There was a covered area to one side and the water trough was deep and clean. We passed by the big buckskin on the way—the horse stamped one foot and flared his nostrils but didn’t lunge at the fence again.
Thankfully we didn’t have to bait the horses with treats to catch them, which was another testament to Charlie’s skill. He pointed out quite a few of them as we walked among the dozing horses.
“Those two there,” he pointed to two short bay colored geldings, “those two are great with kids, but they don’t lead, and they don’t really do well outside at least a six-horse ride. The light one there and that little white mare, both of them will prefer the back and are great for whoever rides sweep.”
I tried to commit as many to memory as I could.
“Those four,” he indicated another cluster. “They’re very reliable if you match ‘em with someone who knows how to ride. They’re a little pushier with beginners.”
All in all there were about twenty-five horses within the corral. Twenty of them were ridable, a couple were temporarily lame or were out on rest. There was also one pair that stuck right beside each other and were so old that their backs swayed deep, their hooves had grown long, and ribs showed through their dulling coats.
“That’s Moon and Rose,” said Charlie affectionately. “They’re both at least thirty and I’ll be damned if I don’t let ‘em die of old age happy and spoiled ’til the end.”
I guessed that the end wouldn’t be too far off. Horses kind of fade out slowly. They’ll keep eating for most of the time but eventually the oldest ones just seem to call it quits and just calmly wait for the end. Or they’ll continue to eat and drink some, but their weight gradually declines. I had no doubt that these two were being well taken care of as Charlie rubbed both horses on the necks and each of them leaned contentedly into his hands.
I had a halter and rope in hand and was aiming for Prism when Charlie stopped me.
“We’re taking two of the others,” he said. “We’re covering a lot of ground and she needs a little more time to adjust.” He pointed out a red roan and a very pretty dapple grey, one gelding and one mare. “You grab Malaqui, the grey,” he said. “The roan is my girl, this is Tequila.”
“You have an amazing variety of colorings here,” I said, haltering Malaqui.
“We do that on purpose,” he said. “The tourists love it. But don’t let them bully you into which horse they wanna ride—the herd dynamics are very particular.”
Once both horses were tied in the barn, Charlie showed me how to quickly identify their saddles and hackamores by the little squares of duct tape with their name on it.
“We’re bit-less here. Everyone gets a mini-lesson in the arena before a ride, but I won’t have ‘em destroying one of my horse’s mouths. Also the horses can graze when the people are eatin’ lunch on full day rides,” he said. “We usually tack up outside when there’s more than just us ridin’ too.”
I nodded approvingly and had my mount brushed and saddled almost as fast as Charlie got Tequila done. We lead both of the horses outside and checked the cinches again before swinging up into the saddles—I still preferred bareback, but there was no denying the leather was more comfortable for a longer ride. A happy sigh escaped me and I patted Malaqui gently on the rump.
Charlie headed around the back of the barn and I rode beside him in companionable silence for the first quarter mile or so.
As the back corral faded from view Charlie said, “I try to get people to ride out of a line. It’s better for the land and the horses.”
“Do we offer any advanced rides?” I asked.
“Yes, but in groups of six or less,” he said. “And nothing at a full gallop.”
I found that I was growing to respect this man rather quickly. He had good sense and obviously cared a great deal about what he did. The desire to thank him again bubbled up but for whatever reason, he didn’t strike me as the type to get overly sentimental. Instead we wandered up the neck of the valley that ran north—west of the slope that lined the boundary of Powder Ridge and Coal Creek.
“Do you know why they named these towns what they did?” he asked as we walked through grass and wildflowers along the floor of the valley.
I shook my head at his questioning expression.
“It’s for the mine that caused this area to boom in the first place. They thought they’d get Coal outta it, but turns out the thing was full of Molybdenum. They’re still block caving massive amounts of ore about ten miles west of here—actually the mine borders wilderness land.”
I stared at Charlie and tried to imagine a giant mine in the midst of what I was beginning to think of as unblemished nature.
“That’s actually a huge controversy here,” Charlie continued. “Some people think we ought to let the mine expand toward us more, while others think its existence is a tragedy already.”
“Who decides,” I asked.
“The Castles own all of it,” said Charlie, then added pointedly, “Including the mine.”
I rolled that over in my head again as the contoured muscles of Charlie’s back became visible as he and Tequila pulled ahead a bit. The Castles owned all that land and an enormous mine. I didn’t know exactly how Molybdenum was used, but I knew it was involved in making steel alloys. It was a lot of power and wealth sitting beneath the Castles’s bank account.
“How big is the mine?” I asked, jogging Malaqui to catch up.
“There are only about fifty men working their now,” said Charlie. “They come into town sometimes for goods, food, and entertainment. Can be a real rowdy bunch. Some people think it might have been one of the workers there that got to Alice several nights ago.”
I had nothing to contribute to that line of thought so I asked, “What keeps the Castle’s from expanding?”
Charlie scowled and said, “The grace of God and hopefully it’ll stay that way.” Then he continued without his usual eloquence, “We’re all fucked otherwise.”
We rode for several miles, heading up in elevation mostly. From horseback, Charlie pointed out landmarks for keeping on the correct path and narrated a lot of interesting facts about the region and the valley that I could use to entertain guests during rides. He told me about the fur trappers after the mining crash, about how mercury was used to treat beaver skins and so the term ‘mad as a hatter’ was coined. He pointed to shafts that delved into the ground as old mine vents and entrances.
Along the top of the ridge, we startled a couple cow elk and their calves on the opposite side. I stared in wide-eyed disbelief at the incredible size of the animals. Their flanks heaved as they nearly flew across the arid landscape, bounding in enormous strides that somehow the calves kept pace with. They were almost the size of the horses—just as tall with slighter bone structure. The power and grace they seemed to have on tap at the slightest disturbance was something I’d never bore witness to before.
After another hundred yards or so along the ridge, Charlie reined in his mount and stopped to look out over the mountains. We were too far for me to make out the mine and so the rock and trees spanned before us, raw and uninterrupted. This was evidently as far as we would go. After drinking in as much of the view as I could, we allowed each of the horses to pick their own most comfortable path back down the slope.
Charlie had been riding comfortably beside me for over an hour and a half now. Our conversation flowed easily and he made frequent eye contact. As we neared the valley floor again however, he was growing tenser and most of his cheerful narration had dried up.
“So how’s living with Bucks?” he asked out of the blue.
I looked at him as he steadily looked anywhere but back at me, and I started to pick up on a glimmer of understanding. His back was rigid but it was obviously that he was listening carefully for my response.
“It can be sort of challenging,” I told him. “Bucks seems to know everyone so well. I haven’t gotten a handle on it yet.”
I hesitated for a moment then charged ahead anyway, “Today Luanne in the cafe was acting like a high school girl around him. Any idea what’s up with them?” I knew that I shouldn’t have asked as it was obviously Charlie and Colt were tight, but I was curious for someone else’s opinion on my tempting and confusing host.
Charlie’s shoulders dropped after he drew out a long sigh.
“Adrienne,” he started with a defeated smile. His voice was sad and his somewhat vacant expression suggested his mind was no longer with me.
“Half the town is in love with Colt. You’ll get used to it,” he said.
He looked older than his thirty or so years for a moment. After giving me a guilty little smile he changed the subject back to the operation of the ranch. I understood. Half the town was in love with Colt—Charlie among them.