Chapter 4

I woke to the scent of fresh coffee again. Hazelnut too if I wasn’t mistaken. It was delicious and I dressed quickly in basketball shorts and a sweat shirt before heading for the kitchen.

Colt was seated at the kitchen table, a steaming mug of coffee in one hand a newspaper propped in the middle of the table against the napkin holder. He looked so picturesquely domestic that I couldn’t help but laugh softly.

Blue eyes met mine and a slow smile crept across his face.

“All you need is a briefcase and some kids running around,” I said. “Now what are you smiling about?”

Colt’s smile turned into a full fledged grin. He looked me over once before saying, “Your hair looks like you’ve been electrocuted.”

That wiped all the amusement off my face. I scowled and bee-lined for the coffee pot, trying to run my fingers the tangle of waves as I went. Colt closed the newspaper and continue to watch as I poured a generous splash of cream and two heaping spoons of sugar into the bottom of my cup. Living with him was going to have perks and downsides I thought. I guess what you see really is what you get here, Bucks.

I set my coffee on the table and after a directed glance from Colt, pulled my breakfast out of the microwave. The plate was again piled high with sausage, fried eggs, and a waffle.

“Thank you,” I said and sat across from him at the table. The syrup on the counter was still warm in the bottle and I groaned indulgently with the first couple bites.

“Who taught you to cook?” I asked when my mouth wasn’t so full.

“My grandmother,” he answered. “I wasn’t sure you would wake up in time for breakfast though.”

I looked at the clock on the oven and scoffed at him. Eight in the morning was by no means late, and frankly it was earlier than I typically liked.

“What time did you get up then?” I asked in a voice that came out sounding more impish than I had meant for it to.

“Five.”

I grimaced at him, recoiling slightly. Colt laughed and returned his attention to the paper.

“You’ll get used to it soon enough,” he said.

God I hoped that I wouldn’t have to. I finished my breakfast and grabbed both his and my plate. I rinsed each in the sink and deposited both in the dishwasher. I looked for the pans next but Colt must have done them already.

“Thank you,” I said again. Colt put down the paper again, this time folding it up and leaving it on the table top. Once more those ice-blue eyes seemed to look right through me.

The side of his mouth quirked upward. “Come on, I have something for you.”

I jumped to my feet instantly excited. Curiosity has time and time again driven me into both trouble and enjoyment. Fight though I may, temptation usually gets the better of me and when someone is straight up offering something new, well I nearly skip like a little girl. Colt crossed the kitchen floor and unlocked the back door. The solid wood scuffed lightly on the linoleum floor and I could see the subtle groove from years of opening and closing this door. The sunlight felt decadent against my face and I pushed the sleeves of my sweat shirt up to indulge in more.

The tiny back patio had room for maybe two lawn chairs and a tiny table. The wooden railing was splintering and the paint or stain had worn off years before. Beyond the deck I could see a sparse sprawl of other cabins throughout the meadow. The porch faced east and to the north I could make out the silvery lining of a thin river. The meadow ran due east until it slammed into the base of the mountains. From there the trees again rocketed upward, breaking at tree-line where the winter’s snow still clung.

Colt had turned to the right and walked down a flight of stairs. I trailed behind him and noticed childish shapes and human figures carved into the steps. How long ago had children made these I wondered. Had it been Colt who drew them or someone else entirely? Somehow I couldn’t imagine this man as a four year old, sweet and innocently etching family portraits into the grain. At the bottom of the steps a worn path curved left again and doubled back beneath the cabin. I hadn’t noticed before that the entire structure was built on a hill but now I could see that the majority of the cabin had been built atop a concrete garage. More gravel was squared off before the sliding barn-style door of the garage. And there, parked on the opposite side of the gravel lot where the driveway looped back up to the front of the cabin, was the navy blue truck I saw on my first night.

Colt’s grin was back in place and I almost laughed as he grabbed the brim of his ball cap and gave it a happy tug lower on his brow. His excitement was palpable and infectious and I found myself hoping desperately that I was right in thinking this was my new truck. Colt confirmed by suspicions by reaching into his pocket and pulling out two keys on a ring. He tossed them toward me and as the silver arced through the air I felt the swell of elation as my own freedom and ability to roam came sailing with them. I snatched them out of the air and couldn’t help the little whoop that escaped my mouth.

“You’ve got one to keep on you and one to put in the house as a spare,” said Colt.

I ran to the truck and slid the key into the door lock. There was a soft click as the manual lock popped up inside the window and I pushed with my thumb on the button to open the door. Colt’s brows rose appreciatively as I vaulted smoothly into the cab and since I was feeling peachy already, I gave myself a little mental pat on the back for the minor display of athleticism.

My delight however was short lived. There on the vinyl hump on the floor sprouted a stick shift. I looked at Colt and back at the manual shifter and back to Colt again. Thankfully he caught on immediately.

“You can’t drive stick?”

“No,” I said quietly.

“Move over,” he said and climbed into the cab practically shoving me across the bench seat. I yelped and tried to rearrange myself as the latch  of the seatbelt cut into my backside. Colt put his hand out palm up and when I did nothing, he flicked his fingers in and out a couple times until it occurred to me to hand over the keys. The engine roared to life as all of the indicators and dials on the dash light up.

“Time to learn,” he said over the whirl of the engine as he pulled up to the dirt road in front of the house.

 

An hour later the truck ground to a grateful halt in front of the house. My nerves were completely fried but I’ll be damned if I didn’t learn to drive the thing. My teacher looked as comfortable and calm as could be. His arm was draped over the back of the bench seat and he had his head half-hung out the window, whistling of all things. I had the clutch pinned to the floor as hard as my leg would enable—a considerable pressure considering I had grown up playing hockey with my brother. Thankfully for me and the truck, the vehicle wasn’t so old that I was able to put my foot through the floor. I had learned that my new blue ride was a 1992 Ford F150 and it didn’t particularly like hills. Then again, neither did I.

Over all, considering that the insurance was filed under Colt’s ATV company and I didn’t have to pay for it, I was still beyond ecstatic, if a little strung out from learning to drive it. I put the truck in first gear and turned the engine off—remembering to leave my foot on the clutch until doing so.

“Good work,” said Colt. How he managed to stay calm even when I’d nearly catapulted us into a ditch remains one of the great mysteries of the world. But as I was finding out, quite a lot about him remained a mystery. Nothing seemed to cause him stress. His moods shifted from playful interest to disengaged in the blink of an eye. And apart from vague single phrase answers, he talked about himself pretty sparingly. He was all business while teaching me to drive, including repeating insistently that I “turn it back on” at least half a dozen times when I stalled the truck. Now it seemed he was all youth and playfulness again.

Colt had his chin up and was looking at me out of the corner of his eye. Wintery blue glittered through dark lashes and he was smiling again with half of his mouth. Arrogant, I thought. But strangely, in Colt, it didn’t rub me wrong, didn’t bother me the way it usually did when guys hit on me usually. Perhaps it was because he had never blatantly come on to me, or perhaps because it seemed he was entitled to whatever confidence he projected. During the lesson I had learned that at twenty-four years old, Colt had a bachelor’s degree in Resource Management, was running his guide business, and planned on leaving the valley to work alongside a college friend who’s family was prominent in the oil industry. He was also patient, focused, and thankfully understood my sense of humor that fluctuated between cynical and outright nerdy.

“So why are you here?” I had asked him during one of the longer stretches where I didn’t stall.

“Because I’m not done having a good time yet,” he replied.

I wasn’t so sure how I felt about this answer, but I also didn’t get the impression that he was lacking anything in the way of ambition or aptitude. Perhaps it’s this place. I looked at the pine trees the soared upward just west of the cabin, at the gentle slope of wildflowers and the late morning sunlight that seemed to sparkle of its own accord in the cloudless day. Maybe I’ll get locked in too.

“What about you,” he asked as the truck clicked, popped, and finally settled into silence facing the front door.

“Long term?” I said and momentarily wondered at the fact I hadn’t given any thought to much beyond the present moment for a couple days. “Or ideal?”

“What the hell, ideal,” he said.

“I’d own a guest ranch in Montana, work as a doctor, read a new book every week, and paint on the weekends.”

Colt’s laughter rang in loudly in the confined space and I found myself grinning with him.

“Well one of those at least might pay for the others,” he said.

“Medical school it is then,” I answered and we both laughed again. Once we had both settled down again I said, “I’ve got time though. Even if I do go that route, it won’t be right out of college.” The university I attended was barely thirty miles back down the mountain in the lower basin. But although it was in another small town and I’d spent almost two years there already, it felt like a world and a lifetime away.

I turned to face Colt, propping my back against the closed door and tucking a leg beneath me. “It’s like living in a bubble up here isn’t it?”

“What do you mean?” Laughter had put a rougher edge on his voice and it had dropped in pitch slightly. The effect was subtle but sexy.

“I mean it’s easy to forget that anything else exists. We’re so isolated and there’s no traffic, no large buildings, no rush of people all about. It’s like time just stops passing as soon as you hit the reservoir. Nothing changes here does it?”

The last thing I said caused Colt’s eyes to darken and his smile dropped again. “It does,” he said. “It would be nice if it didn’t. But that feeling you talked about is what brings people here. Chasing that standstill is probably what keeps people here too.” He pulled his arm from the back of the bench and opened the passenger door. “You did great by the way,” he said. “Now, let’s get some work done.”

I knew I had said something wrong. His guards were up again but he was doing pretty well shaking them off. I pushed thoughts of Colt’s inner musings from my mind. With the key ring slipped into my pocket I faced forward and patted the dashboard fondly. You’ll do, I told the truck before climbing down from the cab myself.

The driving lesson had only taken an hour and a half or so and I was still full from breakfast despite the attack on my nerves. I expected Colt to head for the cabin but instead he paced across the gravel drive and unlocked his own truck. A plume of black diesel smoke gushed from the exhaust pipe and held its shape in the air for several seconds. I dashed around to the passenger side and climbed in before he had the chance to say load-up again.

“Ok, where are we going?”

Colt chuckled softly and through the truck in reverse. A little squeal escaped me as hammered the accelerator and whipped the truck ninety degrees to the right in reverse. Although neither of us were wearing a seatbelt I was the one that got tossed across the cab. My left hand landed on his thigh and I wrenched it free trying to paw my way back into my seat. I felt the blush creep across my cheeks and tried to slow the wild rhythm of my pulse after the rapid turn around. We faced up the road away from Coal Creek’s center. I could see that the road ran parallel to the evergreens for about five-hundred yards and then launched itself north into the timber.

Colt shifted straight into third and punched the accelerator. I barely caught the words, “hold on,” before we were flying over the rough road, skipping over small holes and giving the suspension a vicious workout

He must have noticed that I was nearly shredding the upholstery in an effort to keep my seat because he slowed down just long enough for me to get a belt over my lap.

“The road is actually better if you drive this way,” he said conversationally.

I doubted this and as though reading my mind, he let off the gas until we were creeping up the path. Unfortunately he was right. The frame of the truck slammed over the next dip and we felt every rock larger than a golf ball as it passed beneath the tires. I meant to say something to the effect of you can speed up again, but bit my tongue on the next lurch. Colt saw and had the good grace enough to wince before laying pressure on the gas pedal again. Once again the truck seemed to float rather than crash over the road and I did my best to relax the death grip.

“So?” I prompted after a couple minutes. “Where are we going?”

“To get firewood.”

“It’s summer,” I told him dumbly. “Don’t people usually do that in the autumn?”

“Yes, but I may be gone after this summer and when I come back now and again throughout the winter there needs to be wood. Green wood doesn’t really burn so you can’t do it on an as-needed basis. Plus if we start now you’ll have long enough to forget you don’t like it by the time we need the next load later this summer,” Colt said.

“What do you mean you may not be here?” I asked. “You don’t stay year-round?”

He shrugged. “Pretty much no one does. Maybe one or two but they’re nuts. The weather drops to negative fifty Fahrenheit up here, and that’s before you factor in wind chill. The town shuts down all running water so that the pipes don’t freeze and explode. Folks learned that one the hard way. There was a year in the ’90’s where we didn’t break negative forty for two weeks solid. A huge portion of the mule deer froze to death. I come up when I can’t stand staying down the mountain longer.”

Negative fifty, I mused. My college town would hover around zero, but there was nothing within my scope of experience that even enabled me to imagine what negative fifty would be like.

“How does that feel?” I asked.

“Everything below negative ten feels about the same,” he said. “But spit will freeze as it falls.”

The idea of spit plinking like beads made me giggle. “Now how do you know that?” I asked.

Colt raised his eyebrows and reached for his back pocket. The truck veered slightly to the left and I let out an involuntary gasp. I wondered briefly if I would ever get used to his driving before he produced a silver can emblazoned with the stamped label, “Copenhagen.”

I frowned and stuck my tongue out.

“Not a fan I take it,” he said.

“Afraid not,” I said, “but that whole pre-med major business sort of dictates that I couldn’t if I wanted to.”

“You could,” he said wolfishly. “I wouldn’t tell and how do you know if you’ve never tried?”

I mimed gagging slightly. Colt laughed, returning the can to his pocket and his attention to the road. Following the path of his hand, I noticed the edge of a white ring worn into the back of his jeans that I hadn’t seen previously.

We drove about half a mile up the road and pulled off to the right and pointed through the windshield.

“That’s mirror lake,” he said. “Not much in the way of fishing but it’s beautiful isn’t it.”

The reverence in his voice made me wish I’d someday hear someone describe me that way. It was beautiful. Shoots of vibrant green reached upward from the bank and pale blue irises fanned across the opposite banks. The lake wasn’t very large, maybe a long stone’s throw across, but it sparkled fiercely in the May sun so that light trembled along its surface like skipped pebbles. I could see a wooden dock bobbing lazily in the water.

“Kids will float homemade sail boats there,” said Colt. “There’s not really enough water for real sized ones though, and it’s way too cold for most people to swim in.”

“Have you been in?” I asked.

He smiled and I watched the skitter of memory in his gaze. “I was baptized there,” he said. “My parents wanted me old enough to decide for myself.”

“How old were you?”

“Probably too young to be making the most informed decision,” he replied.

The truck turned back onto the dirt road and we climbed several more miles to the edge of tree line. Colt took a final side road and parked about a quarter of a mile into the trees.

“I don’t like how aspen burns,” he said. “We’re only going for the pines.”

He swung half way out of the cab and climbed up onto the flatbed. From the enormous mounted toolbox he produced two pairs of leather gloves and a chainsaw wrapped in a blanket. A gasoline canister was tied to the headache rack against the back of the cab but he must have filled the saw before because he left the fuel there.

“Alright, Let’s go.”

I followed him off the path into the timber, trying to keep up with his longer paces.

 

Two hours later Colt had the last long log propped against the edge of the truck bed. We had alternated between cutting down mid-sized evergreens and carrying six foot long pieces back to the truck. There we propped each on the bed and Colt sawed off pieces in foot and a half long increments.

“We’ll split it all back at the house,” he said and I suppressed the urge to groan. In all we’d probably fallen and hauled out four good size trees, stripping the branches with the help of the saw for the larger ones, and a hatchet for those slim enough.

He finished cutting up the last trunk and I climbed up on the bed to stack the short cylinders. We built a pyramid against the tool box, five cuts deep and stacked as high as my waist. Colt tossed the smaller ones to me to stack and set the heavier ones on the edge so I could roll them into place. By the end each of us was drenched in sweat and the sticky resin had caused bits of bark and needles to stick to flesh and clothing alike.

I’d finally caved to the heat, stripping off my sweat shirt and working in a sports bra. Colt had no reservations and had pulled his teeshirt over his head far earlier than I did. I’m sure we would have been quite a sight if anyone has wandered passed us. Me in my red sports bra and basketball shorts, complete with my cowboy boots, and Colt bare-backed in snug jeans and leather work boots.

I drug a hand across my brow and instantly wished I hadn’t. Pine resin clung everywhere and I succeeded only in wiping dirt onto my face rather than  taking the sweat off. My dark hair was caught in a messy knot on top of my head so at least that was reasonably clean.

Colt pulled off his camo-ball cap and had about as much success wiping his face as I’d had. I pointed and laughed as a black smudge streaked his cheek.

“Like you did any better,” he responded smiling in turn.

He was right. One look in the reflection of the back window revealed as much and I fought the urge to scrub at my own arms and stomach.

“Alright that’s the last of it,” he said. “We’ll deal with some of it when we get back but the majority can wait. I’m starving.”

As soon as he said it I realized that I was too. We’d easily burned all of the calories from breakfast and I suddenly felt famished and even a little shaky. We both stuffed ourselves into the cab, trying not to touch too much of the interior.

Colt drove even faster down the hill than he had on the way up. I rolled down the window and hung my head out to enjoy the rush of cool air, dodging branches now and then as he called them out.

“Hey, Bucks?” I asked as we turned into the drive and cut down the side path to the garage. “Where are all the people? There are dozens of cabins in here and in Powder Ridge, and I saw at least fifty trailer hookups by the reservoir. But this place is a ghost town.”

“They’ll get here mid-june,” said Colt as he turned off the engine and opened the door. “We’ll be swamped in Powder Ridge before too long, but Coal Creek stays pretty deserted. Families will float in and out for a week or so here and there, but we’ll have most of this to ourselves except on Sundays.”

“What happens on Sunday?”

“That little church right after you pass under the town gate gets packed to the gills at ten every Sunday morning. How do you feel about church anyway?”

I thought about my answer for a moment and then said, “I suppose that I’m not opposed to going, but I’ve never been before. My parents are atheists.”

“Well that’s a good thing. Like it or not, pretty much everyone goes. You’ll find out why soon enough.”

I followed Colt out of the truck and joined him on the truck bed. Together we began tossing wood off the platform toward the small stack already started to the left of the garage door.

“Will we go tomorrow?” I asked.

“I will. You’re more than welcome too if you’d like to go.”

“I would,” I said and continued tossing pieces of tree trunk.

We finished unloading and then kicked, threw, and rolled the mass into some semblance of order on one side of the gravel lot. It was after one and I was really, really getting hungry now.

“You know,” said Colt looking from me to the wood pile. “Let’s call it until after we eat.”

Thank god, I thought gratefully. “What’s for lunch?”

 

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