“Ramen?” I said and this time it was my turn to raise my eyebrows. “I thought you said your grandmother taught you to cook.”
“She did,” said Colt smirking. “She taught me how to make breakfast. My folks always worked during the day but that was pretty much the only meal I had to deal with on my own while growing up. There are hot dogs in the refrigerator too, and would you mind handing me that pot under from under the counter?”
I retrieved the pot and then began opening and shutting cabinets at random. Each revealed the same. I walked down the three steps to the entry hall and opened the two large metal lockers against the opposite wall. Colt or his family had stocked piled enough food to feed half the town for a couple months by the looks of it, but everything was freeze-dried, or just add water! The refrigerator wasn’t a whole lot better. I took inventory, beer, ketchup, hot dogs, sausage, eggs, a loaf of bread, one jar of pickles, and a jug of orange juice.
“Seriously,where do you keep fruit and vegetables and stuff?”
“You think I’m keeping rabbit food here?” He laughed at the dumbstruck look on my face. “Hey, what do you want? I go to the grocery store maybe twice a year, and it isn’t to buy a bunch of green stuff.”
“Bucks, seriously. You have to eat fruit and vegetables too.”
“Tobacco is a plant,” he said slyly.
I snorted at him in a way that was probably more un-ladylike that my mother would have appreciated. “I’ll go after church tomorrow then,” I said and then warned as an afterthought, “and if I cook you’d better eat.”
“Gonna drive yourself?” he asked.
“Yep,” I said stubbornly. “I’ll practice more first. I still want to see the stables today anyway.”
“Why didn’t you apply to be a wrangler?” he asked.
“I did, everywhere. But I waited too long.”
“Well I’ll go with you this afternoon,” said Colt as he set two massive bowls of noodles on the kitchen table. “Maybe keep you from running yourself off the road.” He winked at me. “But we’ve got to put in a little more on the firewood first. Trust me you’ll want it on the nights that it gets cold here, even during the summer.”
I registered the mini thrill of excitement but pushed it back down the best that I could. Like the others, the ranch in Powder Ridge had long ago completed their hiring process. I knew because I’d checked and been told the same thing as before, try again next year. But I had no intention of doing so. Life had to start eventually and after my junior year I knew I’d be expected to find internships in the medical field and start truly fleshing out my resume. Some agonizing part of me felt like the only time to enjoy a simple life and Colorado summer was now.
I poured two tall glasses of juice and joined Colt at the table. I looked for coasters but ended up just placing each of the glasses on the table. Water rings already marred its surface and scratches and minor dents were visible along the edges. At the corner nearest me I noticed the faint images of a child’s drawings in relief in the wood. A sun was easily visible, a lopsided circle drawn with projecting rays in squiggly lines. It was a beautiful table nonetheless though. Three massive slabs of dark wood had been joined, stretching a good five feet long and three and a half feet wide. The table top itself must have weighed a ton because it was an easy three inches of solid hardwood. Rather than four stalks, it had one flared leg on each end that culminated in two separate feet. The legs had been decoratively but simply carved and the overall result was one of solid strength and rustic charm.
“Where did this come from?” I asked and indicated the table with a tap of my fingers.
Colt looked up at me briefly and then returned his attention to his noodle bowl. “I built it,” he said in between bites.
“You built this?” I said in wonderment. “It’s gorgeous! But it’s got to be several years old at least?”
“Eleven, actually,” he said. “I was thirteen and really scrawny back then. My father had to help me lift the planks so I could fit them.”
I found that I appreciated the table even more. “Do you like to draw?” I asked lightly.
“Nope,” he answered. “Never did.”
I traced the little sun with the tip of my finger but didn’t say anything else.
He drained the remainder of his bowl and I rushed to catch up. Once both dishes were loaded into the dish washer I followed him out the back door and down the stairs to the wood pile.
Colt put his arms above his head and stretched. From where I stood I could watch as the muscles in his back were pulled taut or flexed. The top of his jeans dropped about half an inch but no boxers peeked over the top—just the subtle arch outward where his lower back ended. I snapped my gaze back up when he moved to turn around and the momentary illusion of Colt as an awkward teenager dissipated in the thin air.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Yes, what do I do?”
He pointed to a much larger tree cut propped to the side of the existing wood pile. “Roll that over here and onto one of its flat sides. We’ll use it as a chopping block. I’m going to get the maul.”
He disappeared through the side door to the garage and by the time I had maneuvered what was essentially a medium-sized tree stump to the front of our freshly cut pile he was back.
Dozens of blade indentations in the face of the block and Colt added another by lodging the sharp side of the maul to one side. The back side of the tool resembled a long sledgehammer, blunted and worn from repeated striking with another metal object. I grabbed a chunk of wood and set it on the block on one of its narrow ends.
Colt smiled and loosened the maul before saying, “Close your eyes when I bring it down.”
With a smooth heave and staggered hands he lifted the tool above his head, bringing the higher hand to meet the one lower on the handle right before driving the blade completely through the fresh pine. What had been a solid piece of wood split into two fragments that flew away from one another like opposing magnets. I stood directly opposite of Colt between him and the wood pile so I was able to grab the next piece and place it on the block. With another jerk he loosed the maul and brought it down like a medieval executioner, cleaving the second piece.
Over and over I placed, he swung and the ground became littered with splintered wood and bark. More and more frequently I had to hoist larger pieces onto the block, each of which had to be split multiple times. Occasionally he would have to help as my forearms passed the leather gloves became scratched and raw from gripping the huge rounds.
About fifteen minutes in, Colt stripped his shirt over his head again and I followed suit. Rivulets of sweat beaded and fell from his skin as the late spring sun bore down on us. His swing never wavered, never missed, and he never once asked for a break. He made it look so graceful that I eventually felt the desire to try in turn. I liked how his shoulders lifted and the rhythmic crack as the maul fell.
“Can I try?” I asked after another five minutes or so. We were making good time and I had watched long enough to understand the proper mechanics.
He dropped the maul into the wood again and spread his palms, inviting me to swap sides. I stepped over the carnage of split wood and gripped the long handle. The damn blade was lodged like Excalibur. I could sense the broad smile that crept across Colt’s face even before I looked up.
“Ok, it’s heavier than I expected,” I said blushing. I placed my foot on the block and wrenched. The blade can free and I had to fight the weight to keep from hacking at my own feet as it swung down. I staggered my hands as I had watched him do and hefted the metal end into the air. I let my hand stack on the downward swing and felt the sharp vibration as the blade embedded part way in its target.
“That wasn’t too bad,” Colt said and I was pleased to hear a subtle note of surprise in his tone. “Now put your back into it properly and you’ll split them in one or two blows.”
My swing had felt awkward, probably because my gloves were at a least a size too big and the maul had nearly slipped free. I placed my palm on the half cracked log and pried it free. Then I shook off each glove and tossed them to the side of the gravel lot. Colt’s eyebrows rose slightly but my second swing sent the two halves spinning away from one another. I grinned, pleased with myself, and raised the maul again as the next piece was placed before me. This time the cracking of wood resonated loudly and the impact’s vibration wasn’t as severe. The wood was split cleanly and it was easier to yank the maul free of the heavy cutting block than a moving piece of wood.
I managed for about ten minutes until every heft of the maul sent a shrieking pain through my shoulders. My hands burned and stung viciously and my stance became wider as I tried to steady the wobble of the lifted blade. Gradually, my swings no longer split each piece. I needed two, then three full swings to produce the same effect. Colt didn’t say anything, never tried to take the tool back, just dutifully placed the next piece. Finally a larger block was set down and I only managed to put a two inch deep dent in the surface.
“Can we trade again?” I asked with bruised pride.
Colt looked around at the considerable amount of destruction we had caused and then walked to my side of the block. He took each of my hands in his and gently pried my grip open. I swore quietly when I saw the torn blisters and slight tinge of blood mingling with sweat.
“You could have stopped sooner.” He said examining the various holes in my palms.
“I wanted to see how long I could go,” I said before adding, “and you didn’t ask for it back.”
“It’s not my job to tell you what you’re capable of,” he said. “I think we’re done. You did a great job though. I haven’t seen a girl, no offense, go for that long in a while.”
“None taken,” I said. “Who was the last one?”
Colt smiled and gently directed me toward the stairs with a hand at the small of my back. “My mother,” he said.
“Mother f….” I began and then choked the curse down midstream.
Colt had splashed hydrogen peroxide over my palms and the fizzing sting was almost worse than trying to scrub out the sweat and grime.
“You should have kept the gloves on,” he said and I felt a fleeting urge to sock him with once of my newly bleeding hands. “We’ll get you another smaller pair,” he added.
My temperament spike deflated again as he patted my hands dry and then dotted on antiseptic ointment. The cold cream felt heavenly and I mentally amended that it was my own fault. Apparently I wouldn’t need anyone to teach me about the dangers of pride since Colt was going to let me do it myself.
My palms didn’t look so bad once they were cleaned up. I cut several thin strips of gauze and taped them over the open blisters.
“Leave them open to the air to dry out tonight,” Colt said. “They’ll only be tender for a day or two anyway. Now go put on jeans and we’ll drive into Powder Ridge.”
I thanked him and each of us retreated to our separate rooms to change clothes. I stripped off my resin spotted clothing, carefully washed my face in the freezing sink, and redressed in jeans and a white ribbed tank top. When I walked back into the living room, Colt was in the process of upending a small paper bag on the table. A key and a little keychain with a 3D plastic figurine of a moose landed on the table. Colt fitted the two together and then handed them to me.
“Put your truck key on there too,” he said. “I never lock the cabin unless I’m going down the mountain but you should have a way in just in case.”
I looked at the little brown moose, his knees were knocked together and it had a silly smile molded into into his tiny face. It was adorable and I felt my heart soften in the way that’s usually reserved for baby animals and the miniature versions of shopping carts for children at grocery stores.
“Thank you,” I said sincerely. I used my nails the pry open the ring and slipped one of the truck keys on. The second one I handed to Colt and he deposited it in the junk drawer beside the stovetop.
“Alright,” he said gesturing toward the front door. “You’re driving.”
It took me fifteen minutes to make the two mile drive down the dirt road into Powder Ridge. The big truck still intimidated me, especially when I had to back it slightly uphill out of the driveway, but it was getting easier. Parking it was going to take a little more getting used to, but for the time being both towns were still pretty quiet and the parking lot in front of the general store only held three other vehicles.
Colt had asked me to stop by the store and I trailed in after him unsure of what to expect. Coal Creek was due east of Powder Ridge but the dirt road approached slightly from the south. The lot was shared by the general store to the right, the cafe to the left, a couple other buildings without names, and Colt’s garage tucked into the back. The entire town center probably occupied a soccer field’s worth of land.
The store had a thin porch that had been added sometime in the last couple decades or so, and over the main facade was a simple wooden sign with the word, “Castle,” carved in and decorated with peeling yellow paint. Colt skipped the concrete block and stepped directly onto the porch through the gap in the thick wooden railing.
“These are still used as hitching posts,” he said before reaching for the screen door.
I copied his stride over the concrete step and took note of the weather-worn posts before following him over the threshold. My eyes struggled to adjust in the sudden gloom. Apart from the single pane behind the register, there were no other windows in the store. A couple fluorescent lights hung at random from the ceiling and I could barely see over the heap of canned good and souvenirs stacked in rows on metal army shelving.
Colt strode through two of the shelves, passed a refrigerator with a hand written index card that said, “live bait,” and straight to the register. Only then did I notice the older gentleman as he stood up from behind the counter.
“Yeah, Walt that’d be great. Adrienne grab whatever you like.”
I hesitated momentarily then grabbed four green apples from a basket and placed them on the counter.
“Walt, this is Adrienne Morgan. Adrienne this is Walter Castle.”
“Is that your given name?” the old man asked.
I was taken aback and I’m sure my eyes widened. “I beg your pardon?”
“Is that the first name on your birth certificate?” the man prompted.
“Adrienne is not a biblical name,” he stated dryly. “Where are your parents from?”
“My paternal grandfather was from France. My folks are from California.”
“Hmm,” he mused quietly. “Do you have siblings, Adrienne?”
“Two,” I said. “Both older.”
“And what is their coloring?”
I was beginning to resent his grilling me. “Both blond,” I said.
“Interesting,” said the old man. “In your case I suspect Adrienne stems from the French boy’s name Adrien, which means something along the lines of from the Adria, or dark one.”
I had no reply to this. Walt turned and pulled a silver can from a tobacco dispenser mounted on the wall. Colt paid for the apples and the Copenhagen before wishing him a good day. He finished the statement with the word, “sir,” and we both left through the front door again.
“What in world was that about?” I demanded once I was sure we were out of earshot.
“Keep your voice down,” said Colt. “The Castles own this whole town and half the land surrounding it. They’re also extremely old fashioned and religious. It took weeks of persuasion to convince them that having you stay with me wasn’t some grand violation of God’s will.” He opened the driver’s side door for me and then handed over the plastic grocery bag. “They also inspire similar feelings in most of the people here.”
He closed the door and walked around to the other side where he climbed in.
“Thank god you aren’t five-one or five-two by the way,” he said surprising me again. “There’s no way my knees would fit if you had to have the bench seat moved up farther.”
I rolled my eyes at him and deliberately made a show of removing one of the apples from the bag. Colt laughed softly and pointed me back down the road toward the reservoir. The road hooked sharply to the left and we drove on pavement for about a mile and a half.
“We’re back behind Coal Creek aren’t we?” I asked.
“Yup,” he responded. “If you head up the road to mirror lake and then cut about half a mile over the ridge to the left and you’ll hit the back side of the corral. You’ll need to know this way in though.”
We rounded a final right turn and the trees once again flared out into a gently sloping meadow. Right in the middle the grass had worn away to a large spread of open dirt surrounding a two story barn with large sliding doors.
“We call these open spaces ‘parks’ by the way,” said Colt. “They’re everywhere and a good place to find elk during hunting season.”
I was too busy checking out what was really a small ranch and wasn’t really listening. In front of the barn doors two long lines of hitching posts were staked in the ground and protruding from the sides of the building I could see the fence line of the larger corral. I parked the truck where Colt indicated to the downhill side of the barn and leapt from the truck. He joined me and together we walked toward the barn just as a thin but very fit man stepped through the broad doors.
“Bucks! Good to see you,” said the other man, slapping Colt on the back as they embraced. “And who is this fine thing?”
I blushed furiously but couldn’t help smiling. Then I noticed that his gaze had never wavered from the man standing beside me.
“This is Adrienne Morgan,” said Colt while holding eye contact. “She’s the one staying with me over the hill. Adrienne it’s my pleasure to introduce you to Charlie. This man single-handedly runs this whole operation.”
Charlie’s smile flickered as he finally gave me the once over. “Is that so,” he said more to himself than either of us. “You haven’t been around once this year, Bucks. Then you call out of the blue,” he trailed off and crossed his arms. I saw the sinewy cords of muscle flex beneath tanned skin. “It was nice meeting you Adrienne, now I’m afraid I have a lot to get done…”
“Charlie,” he interrupted. “Come on man, you know why I brought her.”
The man watched Colt intently, bristling fiercely as I looked from one to the other and back again.
“Come on, Charlie. As a favor to me?” said Colt.
I knew the moment the older horseman softened and tried not to show my mounting excitement.
His stance relaxed and he called in the direction of the barn, “Hey! Boy!”
A thatch of dirty blond hair whipped around the door. The nameless boy was probably sixteen or so and from the waist up had the promising build of someone still waiting to grow into their own body.
“Go get that paint mare,” said Charlie. “And a release waiver!” he yelled as an afterthought. He rocked back on his heels, facing Colt again. “For you, fine,” He said. “But her trial’s by fire and it’s goin’ to be now. If she can ride Prism, she can work.”
I looked at my bandaged hands, looked at Colt and eventually just shrugged. I didn’t care if he brought a buffalo out and told me to ride side-saddle in a tiara—this was all I had ever wanted from summer.