She planned the trip months ago, writing away to the various ranches, looking over their brochures with the scrutiny of an auditor. Everything needed to be perfect. It had been years since she had time off beyond a long weekend but this year, things would be different. She finally convinced her boss he could survive without her for two weeks. Two whole weeks of a vacation without being known or recognized in the Colorado Rockies was all she wanted. No family or friends imposing wishes or demands on her, no reporters asking for a comment only to change her meaning through selective editing, no rush hour bumper to bumper traffic congestion--just fourteen days of wide open spaces on horseback.
Stephanie Jackson worked as the assistant to a popular city councilman in a vacation community with one of the best sandy beaches the state had to offer. Fort Lauderdale was known for "fun in the sun" ever since the old beach party movies of the ‘50's. The area also contained a large retiree population, retirees who voted in packs and served as high maintenance constituents. Congregate living facilities and high-rise condominiums filled their municipality with residents who were far from feeble or frail and some never hesitated to enter a conflict at the slightest provocation. It wasn't uncommon to see fights break out over the most mundane of transactions. Once, while shopping at a fresh produce market, Stephanie watched two elderly citizens argue over who first touched a grapefruit. Before her astonished eyes, canes were drawn like sabers in a duel that brought a pyramid of grapefruit rolling like marbles in the aisle. She grappled with the women to end their attack only to receive a black eye for her efforts. Even paying for groceries became a negotiation to some of the residents, arguing with the cashier over five cents. Her stamina to remain polite was depleted while any enthusiasm for their problems vanquished long ago. She needed this vacation, had earned this vacation and by hook or crook, she was going on it. This was her first solo vacation in five years and she couldn't wait. The thought of escaping the high humidity of a Florida summer just served as an added bonus.
She had packed light, figuring not much would be needed beyond jeans, boots, T-shirts and essentials. The brochure warned temperatures in the mountains dropped to the high forties on occasion, so layers of clothes were a must. It was hard to imagine such cool nights in the sultry tropics but still, she packed her favorite sweatshirt just in case, along with her Levi jacket. The brochure heralded the ranch's Jacuzzis for sore muscle therapy, so in went a bathing suit. A friend drove her to the airport, dropping her off at the skycap's station and shouting "Yeehaw!" as he pulled away from the curb. Butterflies were stirring in her stomach as she walked the portable ramp to the entrance of the 727. The golden hue of the famous beaches faded from view as the jet soared over the Atlantic Ocean. After a brief layover in Atlanta, the sight of the mountains raised her excitement level. The landing at Denver was quick as Stephanie became mesmerized by the view of the not too distant snow-capped peaks on the horizon.
Once in the luggage area, she noticed her last name written on a piece of cardboard. Her laughter was immediate, for holding the sign was the classic image of an American cowboy standing with worn jeans, dirty boots and a hat that obviously was not for show. It was tipped back just enough to reveal his tanned face. The brochure promised authentic and judging by their ambassador, they weren't kidding. She grabbed her suitcase off the conveyor belt and began to walk towards him.
"Hi, I'm Stephanie Jackson." Her hand extended for a handshake. She expected to hear his name was Tex or Roy or some other "cowboy" name.
"Ma'am, nice to meet you. I'm Joshua, Joshua Horton. Most folks just call me ‘Josh'." His left hand moved to remove his hat, while his right hand had hers in a firm shake. He was a tall man, a bit over six feet tall, with a slender build, and appeared to be a few years older than herself. She was 27 last April, a birthday that passed with the usual pleadings from her parents about wanting grandchildren. Her work was her life and marriage definitely not her priority. Besides, two brothers were married that offered a far greater likelihood of grandchildren.
Josh put his hat back on his head, setting it closer to his brow, then moved towards her. "Let me get that for you."
"No, really, it's light and I can manage. Which way do we go?" Her free hand had motioned her question as much as the words, yet Josh didn't move.
"Ma'am, it's my job to take your luggage. Now, you're on vacation while I'm workin', so how bout lettin' me get that?"
"Well, I won't tell if you won't. I'm not some weak woman that you have to dote upon. Moreover, please, could you stop the Ma'am? Just call me Stephanie, okay Josh?" The suitcase now separated them, and eyes matched eyes. It was a test of wills. Some start to her dream vacation--she could see he wasn't going to yield so she set the suitcase back down. "Can we at least compromise? You carry the suitcase but drop the Ma'am. How does that sound?" She offered one of her smiles, hoping to move on, at least out of the airport.
"Well, I guess that will work, Stephanie. The van's this way." He turned to lead the way, yet not before she saw the clear grin of victory on his face. He opened the back of the ranch's van and put her suitcase inside, then reached for the travel bag she was carrying. She opened the passenger door and climbed up into the vehicle. He still had a slight grin on his face as he watched her fasten her seat belt. She noticed he didn't do the same.
They drove in silence for a few minutes, along Interstate 70 heading west with Stephanie's focus steadfastly on the Rockies. The highway started to climb the ascent and began a curve, and just that quickly, they were amidst the steel gray rocky terrain. The massive sheets of the earth's crust were everything she had seen in photographs and more. Her eyes moved from one window to another, while the sun cast its fragmented rays from between the cumulus clouds. The sky was the deepest blue she'd ever seen and contrasted with the shimmering shades of gray from the granite rock. A smile formed on her face--her dream vacation was really happening.
"Is this your first visit to the mountains?"
"Yes. I can't believe how spectacular they are. They're everything I had hoped for, and more. I didn't expect the colors. God, they're gorgeous!" Her enthusiasm was barely contained. If she were driving, she'd have pulled over, just to breathe the air and stand amongst the giants.
"This must be quite a contrast for you. Do you live on the beach?"
"No, few can afford that privilege. Those that do live in high rise condominiums and try to ban people like me from walking along the beach. There is, at least, a three-mile stretch of public beach available in Fort Lauderdale. It's a popular site for the tourists later in the day but the mornings are heaven."
"But you came here to vacation?" He seemed amazed at that, and his eyes moved quickly from the road to look at her.
"I can't explain it, but I've always wanted to come here. There is something humbling about them, isn't there? Something that puts you in your place. How could anyone get filled with their own importance with one of those hanging over their shoulder?"
She returned her attention to the window, eyeing the green landscape and the trembling leaves of the aspen trees being spun by the wind. As their journey continued, they fell into a pattern of talking for a few minutes then falling back into silence. He worked the O'Neal ranch for three summers, and spent his winters at a ranch in New Mexico. The O'Neal's were good people and ran a good operation. It boggled his mind why so many people came to the mountains looking for answers to their lives.
He pulled the van to the curb at Vail's municipal airport to pick up a couple staying for a week. "I'll be back in a few minutes." He placed his hat back on his head as he strode towards the doorway. She noticed he didn't take a sign with him this time, and wondered why the difference.
The scenery was too inviting for her to remain in the vehicle. She jumped out to walk around, if only to stretch her legs. It was a quaint airport, with the alpine theme presumably designed to welcome the skiers. She could see the mountain that contained the famous resort, about five miles away. How different ski slopes looked in summer, she thought. The open areas through the timber forests looked more like scorecards from a golf course then the pastoral setting of cleared ski slopes. Her observations were interrupted by the sound of her name being called. She turned towards the sound and noticed Josh walking towards her.
"We're ready if you are. It's another hour before we get to the ranch." He lightly touched her elbow, prompting her to move forward when the traffic cleared. She started to laugh, and heard his "Now what?"
"Do you think I am incapable of crossing a street? We do have traffic in Fort Lauderdale, you know."
"Stephanie, how would I explain it to the O'Neal's if you were to get hurt before you even got on a horse?"
"Are you presuming I'll get hurt once I'm on the horse?"
He cast her an exasperated look and opened the van door for her, closing it as soon as she settled. Once again, she fastened her seat belt to his side-glance of notice.
"Mr. and Mrs. Thornton, this is Stephanie Jackson. Stephanie, John and Anne Thornton."
Stephanie turned around to shake both of their hands, greeting them. Immediately, she heard the accents and knew they were well-educated visitors from England. She learned the Sussex County vacationers had spent the last two months visiting the States. They were excited about the week away from the crowds they had encountered at some of their previous stops. Conversation flowed easily amongst the passengers, though Josh refrained from entering their discussions. Stephanie noticed he would "Hrmph!" at a remark she made, or laugh softly until he noticed her look. By the time they reached the ranch, the sun was beginning to set. The O'Neals gathered to greet them and advised who was assigned to which cabins. No keys were offered, as the doors were unlocked. Dinner would be served family style in the dining hall, in thirty minutes. Old rocking chairs lined the floor surrounding the building, with Donna pointing out the hummingbird feeders hanging from the overhang of the roof. She invited her guests to make themselves comfortable, feel free to ask questions and if they forgot any items, just let her know. There was a genuine warmth to the ranch that Stephanie welcomed. She had scrutinized other guest ranches to avoid the phony "dude" ranch where guests pretended to be cowboys. If possible, she wanted to blend in, ride and enjoy the pleasure of being outdoors.
Over ten hours of travel had her looking forward to her cabin and laying down on what she hoped would be a firm mattress, even if only for a few minutes of rest. She turned to retrieve her suitcase and noted both of her bags were gone. So were the Thornton's. A glance about the grounds saw the lean shape of Josh exiting the cabins and Stephanie began laughing at his repeated ability to be victorious.
The cabins were actually A-frame buildings divided down the middle to form two separate cabins. Her cabin was the closest to the woods and the furthest from the main house and barn, which suited her perfectly. Indoors, there was a wood burning stove, dresser, queen size bed, nightstand with a small lamp, and a private bathroom. Outside, off her balcony, was a private Jacuzzi. She was already feeling proud of herself for picking the right place to spend two weeks. She grabbed a glass of water and returned to watch the sun set behind the mountain. Its location meant she would wake to the sun rising off her balcony, with the rest of the ranch clearly in view. She sat in the porch chair, feeling very comfortable and closed her eyes for just a few minutes.
"Hey, wake up."
She felt someone jabbing her in the arm. A man was leaning over her, and she was startled at the sight of him. "Steve? What are you doing here?"
"Pretty obvious, isn't it? I'm on vacation. Funny isn't it? We both chose the same ranch for a vacation from south Florida. What's your boss up to, Stephanie?"
Her perfect vacation in the middle of the mountains had just been contaminated by Steve Bowers, the political columnist for the Fort Lauderdale News. He had just finished a series blasting the city for the use of cellular phones and laptop computers by police officers. They walked towards the dining room to the sound of his non-stop questions about city business and partisan politics--subjects she had hoped to leave behind. She silently wondered if the scene was ludicrous to anyone else and looked towards heaven. Are you having fun up there? Do I really deserve this? Of all the ranches in the West, this is the one he had to come to? Gee, how lucky can I get?
The dining room contained an open pit fireplace in the center of the room. A long picnic table that easily accommodated twenty adults was poised on one side, with a pool table on the other side of the room. In the middle was a worn out couch and a few over-sized chairs made of rough-hewn logs. The dinner was heavy food, mainstays of hearty appetites that took Stephanie back to childhood meals. Heart-healthy took on a whole new meaning with meat loaf, gravy, buttered corn and buttermilk biscuits. The iced tea was sun steeped and lemonade home made. Any attempt to silence Steve on politics or divert his attention to other conversations fell on deaf ears. Worse, it was readily apparent that the "group" thought the two an item since they hailed from the same area and their cabins were located side by side. Attempts to proclaim the irony of the situation only seemed to confirm suspicions, which left Stephanie with only one solution, a long solitary walk.
Destination Known, Chapter 2
The morning began with the herald of a new day, full of nature's glory. The cry of a hawk soaring overhead could be heard and its shadowed figure crept up the hillside in sinister fashion. Stephanie dressed and headed to the stables, volunteering to groom a horse. Her proposal was almost accepted by Tommy, who looked all of eighteen with freckles spread across his fresh face. Josh stepped forward, "Morning Stephanie. I believe we have everything under control here but you'll find the other guests on the dining room porch."
She could see victory would not be hers this morning and slowly made her way to the dining hall to wait with the others for breakfast. Their first ride was scheduled for later in the morning, after horse assignments were dispensed. She shuddered at the thought of the horse Josh would select for her.
Steve was quick to greet her, "Morning neighbor. You certainly get out of bed early, don't you?"
If things weren't suggestive enough, she thought. This is not going to continue for the rest of the week! With the most authoritative tone to her voice she spoke, "Steve, I came here to get away from you, to get away from my work and all that irritates me back home. If you need a clearer picture than that, then I'll be happy to draw one for you. In the immortal words of Billy Crystal, ‘I'm on vacation!' and would like it to be memorable for all the right reasons." She heard the screen door open and the stifled chuckle of yesterday's chauffeur walk behind her as Donna hesitantly offered, "Soup's on, take your seats."
Stephanie knew the look that would be on everyone's faces before she turned around. It seemed everyone heard her dressing down of Steve. She was marked the villain while Steve walked to the table smug in his role as the innocent victim. They sat at opposite ends of the table. By the time dinner rolled around, the conversation remained stilted and she felt an apology had to be offered. She got it over with as quickly as possible then exited the dining hall. At least Josh assigned her a great horse that was a light touch and agile athlete.
By the close of the first week, any conversation that found Steve a participant centered on politics. Even the Thorntons were pulled into the fray with discussion of their new Prime Minister. A simple game of eight-ball became a test of forbearance. Steve wouldn't play but seemed to have a natural instinct for either standing in the line of the shot or talking as the cue stick struck the ball. Solitary walks became her only peace and were accomplished if she silently exited the dining hall. She would change her direction each time, growing more familiar with the terrain and less frightened of the perils of the scrub versus the verbose nature of a reporter. It was Friday night and most of the help had gone into Steamboat for entertainment. Stephanie found a large rock to sit on and watched the mule deer come in to feed as the sun set behind the mountain.
"This might not be the safest place for you to hide."
"Josh, you startled me, I didn't hear you walk up."
"Yep, what does that tell you?"
"That it is incredibly peaceful watching the sun fall and the moon rise. What brings you this way?"
"I wanted to make sure you didn't get into trouble."
"Me? I thought I passed your test already, you let me tack up Ranger."
He seemed to bristle at the characterization. "That's not what I was doing. Can I get you anything?" His eyes flicked about, unwilling to settle upon her.
"A beer would taste great but I don't suppose..."
He pulled his hand from behind his back that held two long necks and passed one to her, but not before twisting off the cap. "Cheers." He clicked his bottle to hers with a satisfied smile spread across his face. Stephanie stood then walked behind him, and pulled his arm in front of his body, "What is it," he asked.
"I was just trying to see what else you might have to offer." His look of surprise had her revisit what she said and a blush fell over face. "I didn't mean you physically, I meant a hidden treat, as in dessert, okay why don't I just shut up before I dig myself any further into the ravine."
Josh was laughing then took another swig of beer, seemingly content to stand quietly without need of conversation. Stephanie returned to her seat and waited for him to say or do something. Her eyes took in his lean frame and wondered what looked different about him, then it dawned on her, his hat was missing, he was clean- and in a clean but faded blue twill shirt. "Would you care to sit? There's plenty of room," she offered while gesturing with her hand to the area beside her.
"How about a walk further up the hill?" His hand gestured to another rock that looked about a hundred yards up from their current location. She nodded her head in agreement and began to make the climb. Once they reached the uneven footing of the rocky terrain his hand reached to steady her. "How are you managing this footing with cowboy boots? I was just thinking how glad I was to have my hiking boots on."
"They're what I always wear, as natural as being barefoot I suppose."
She started to laugh, "But you would go barefoot on the beach, wouldn't you?"
"I reckon I would."
"Star light, Star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight." She closed her eyes and pulled the beer bottle to her heart as she finished the childhood poem.
"What did you wish for?" He asked as he sat on the rock and motioned for her to join him.
"Nope, won't come true if I tell and boy do I want it to come true." She put her foot up on the rock, leaning towards him but unwilling to sit beside him. "Is this allowed? Socializing with guests?"
"No, not on ranch property."
"And yet you brought me a beer, why?"
"If I didn't find you I would have been sitting here drinking two beers." His eyes darted up to the sky. "Can you read the stars Stephanie?"
"No but don't change the subject."
"I can, come here. See that row, that's Ryan's belt. And over there, that's the Big Dipper." He stood besides her moving her body around so that she was able to follow the point of his arm and used the neck of the bottle for further extension of his hand. She could feel his breath against her ear and the smell of his after-shave. "You haven't answered my question. Do you do this often? Bring a female guest up to this rock, offer her a beer and point out the stars?"
"No, I never have." He moved away from her and walked several feet before stopping. "Where'd you learn to ride?"
"Oh, from one of those wild horses displayed in front of K-mart that get all charged up for a quarter." He gave her an impatient look. "We used to have a couple of horses, and you?" She watched him kick at the ground, reminding her of a teen-age boy standing by her car and kicking at the tires.
"My uncle's ranch. I worked there after school and during the summer."
"Does he still have the ranch?"
"No, he died and my aunt sold the place. She lives in Tucson now."
She didn't have to walk far to be by his side, he had meandered back her way as he spoke. "I'm sorry to hear of the loss. About the beer," she began the question but finished with a gentle kiss on his lips. "Thank you."
She had begun to walk back to the ranch not really sure why but feeling the need for distance all the same. "Stephanie!" He slowed his jog to a walk as he caught up with her and pulled her to a stop. His arm wrapped around her waist as he lowered his lips towards hers. Their lips melded together in a heated rush and just as quickly, she pulled away.
"This has ominous undertones, just where would this lead for either of us?" She tried to bring reason back into the fray.
"I'm willing to find out. What are you scared of?"
"Repercussions. I'm already in hot water for my treatment of Steve, to lead you into trouble against ranch policy seems to be pouring gas on an open flame."
"Hold on a minute here. You think you're leading me into trouble? Why don't we try to figure out what's going on between us before we take on the ranch and a witless reporter. Besides, Steve leaves tomorrow to take a rafting trip. Tommy's driving him in the morning over to Bond to catch some river outfitters."
Her face lit up with pure delight, "My wish came true already! Will we still camp out tomorrow night?"
"Why would that change? We always camp out on Saturday nights."
"I thought there might not be enough of us to justify the outing. No tents right, just sleeping under the stars?"
"You are a constant surprise, do you know that? Just when I think I have you figured out you show another side."
"Is that some form of a compliment? Why do I have this feeling you pigeonholed me from the moment we locked horns over my suitcase? Or worse, before I even exited the plane?" She was using her hand to emphasize her point and he reached for it, then pulled her back towards the rock.
"I guess I did. I guess I figured you to be a city slicker lookin' for answers so the thought of you roughin' it in the mountains seemed pretty remote." He watched her laugh at his characterization and fought the urge to pull her into his arms again. Something told him to be patient and not rush things.
"Who goes on these overnight camp outs?"
"Everybody's there for dinner. We grill steaks on a barbecue we built up there. Donna and Bob drive up with the fixin's and return to the ranch, with anyone else who has a change of heart. Les, Tommy and I usually stay with the guests but you're right, with only three of you, I imagine we'll reduce our numbers too."
"Why do you keep dwelling on people backing out? We're safe up there aren't we?"
"We'll there's coyotes, bear, rattlesnakes, but you can handle them--you're fearless." He was laughing by the time he finished.
"You do enjoy having fun at my expense, don't you? Are there any tricks you play on guests up there, sound effects, a rubber snake in the sleeping bag?"
"No but those aren't bad ideas. So just how often have you roughed it?"
"Don't worry about me, I'll be fine. There's a bathroom up there right?"
"Oh yeah, a big spacious bathroom with running water and decorated with lots of greenery."
She fully comprehended his meaning, but wouldn't give him the satisfaction of a reaction. The night sky had deepened from lapis to a deep navy blue with more stars than she had ever seen in her life. She could hear Carl Sagan's voice, "Billions and billions of stars in the universe." He was right. What was it like to be an explorer venturing across the land and seeing those twinkling lights up in the sky? To be crossing huge mountains by day and sleeping under the stars at night--the affect on her was no less humbling than during the daylight hours. She felt a chill creep up her spine and the shudder emanated through her jaw. Josh instinctively pulled her against his chest and wrapped his arms around her.
"I should have grabbed my jacket but to be honest, I would have ventured back by now."
"I'll walk you back, if you want."
"Will you be missed?"
"Nope. Donna and Bob go to bed early and Les and Tommy took the other guests into town."
"Do you ever go?"
"Uh-huh, usually it's a Friday night tradition and next Wednesday we have a rodeo coming to town."
"Do you compete?"
"Not anymore, but it's still fun to watch. Shall I sign you up?"
"For what?" He was laughing that contemptuous chortle. "What have I amused you with now?" There was feigned exasperation in her voice.
"Bull riding? Bronc bustin'? I'll bet that job of yours gives you plenty of opportunity to hone your skills."
"Stop that, no talk of work, I'm on vacation, remember?" She was laughing at the image he had gathered of her. She wished she was that effective. "Hey, are there speed events at the rodeo? Keyhole? Cloverleaf?"
"Don't tell me you...you competed in speed events?"
"A long time ago so don't get any ideas but are there? It would be neat to watch."
"I couldn't agree more."
"So Josh, it's getting kinda cool out here and if the others are otherwise engaged, is it possible we could be sitting in the warmth of my Jacuzzi?"
He pulled his arm up to expose his wristwatch, "Yeah, we could manage that for a bit. Hand me back that empty bottle." She complied and noted he held them both with one hand. His other hand wrapped with hers as he guided her around the tufts of sagebrush and rocks. Their return to the ranch brought about a brief parting as Josh went to dispose of the bottles and grab his bathing suit.
Stephanie had just reached her cabin when she noticed the glare of headlights pull into the ranch. She heard Steve enter his cabin and if possible, she despised him even more. There was no way Josh would come up to her cabin now. She gave Steve a few minutes to settle in, then quietly slipped out of her cabin into the warm water.
"I was wondering when you would come out since I heard your Jacuzzi running."
Stephanie started at the sound of his voice then dread filled her. Well, at least this is his last night here.
"What a dive Steamboat was, nothing like back home. The whole place is one big western movie lot. I've never seen so many cowboy hats in one room. It was all country music too, so I asked Les to drive me back. I figured you'd still be up. How boring was it around here? Bet you can't wait to get back to civilization. I'm going down the Colorado River tomorrow, white water rafting the rapids. Have to have something exciting to talk about, you know?"
Stephanie wondered just how many more waking moments would be spent in his presence, probably an hour, tops. A smile formed on her lips as she sunk underwater for as long as her breath would allow.
Destination Known, Chapter 3
In the middle of the night, Stephanie awoke to the howl of coyotes behind her cabin. The sounds were neat at first but as their volume increased, she knew they were getting close. From that moment forward, every sound or break of a branch carried suspense. The wind, moving branches in the woods behind her cabin that had previously been soothing, now kept her wide awake. The howls continued for nearly an hour then just as suddenly as when they arrived, the group departed.
The sounds must have been heard by all ranch occupants and Stephanie was certain Josh would find some way to tease her on the subject. She changed her morning routine after her jog by going directly to the dining hall, anxious to hear the British visitor's views on Steamboat. It wasn't surprising to hear the words "interesting" and "lively" used as well as their regret the evening came to an end so quickly. Almost in the same breath they asked about the howling sounds during the night. Stephanie could feel Josh's eyes on her and instead focused hers on Bob.
"We didn't hear it. Were the coyotes back last night Josh?"
"Yes sir. I believe they came behind the far cabin before cutting over to the open field. We'll check the herd on our way up the south ridge and take the rifles to be safe." Stephanie missed the wink Josh shared with his employers. Thankfully, the Thorntons asked the pressing question, "Would they approach us?"
Bob O'Neal was quick to calm the rising concerns of his guests, "No, they're opportunists so a stray chicken would be up their alley, but mostly they go after the rabbits and rodents. We haven't had any problems with them and our campsite is established so the smell of humans will keep them away. Don't you worry about a thing, we're gonna have a good time up there tonight."
Tommy and Steve left prior to breakfast with Donna keeping a plate set aside for her son's return. By noon, the group would begin the ride to the campsite, with the O'Neals arriving by pick-up truck. Packhorses were outfitted with sleeping bags and any overnight supplies of the guests. Les tucked his guitar onto the truck with a wink, "For later, we have to sing around the camp fire." Stephanie readily concurred.
The riders took a different, though obviously well traveled, trail and after two hours found the herd of cattle lazily grazing without a care evident. The presence of nine horses and six riders didn't seem to justify more than a casual glance. Josh turned his Appaloosa around and collected the lead rope to the chestnut packhorse from Tommy; satisfied that all was well with the herd. Riding in the mountains meant a lot of climbing and descending that took a toll on a body unaccustomed to the severe saddle positions. Most of the time, the view was of the horse in front, and a close scrutiny to the drop off at the edge of the narrow trail. Few vistas could be seen from the horse's back, so at one location riders were given the opportunity to climb to a noteworthy lookout. Boulders that were seemingly positioned with little support had to be crossed with the uncertainty of traction offered by hard-soled boots. Stephanie's hesitancy was easily understood. No other rider even tried. Josh continually pressed her to step closer to the edge, with the promise she would enjoy the view. When she would move no closer, he moved around her like a mountain goat, sure footed with ease and confidence. Once at the very edge, his hand extended to hers, "Trust me, I won't let you fall."
She looked back to see anyone else's recommendation but saw the Thorntons content to stand near their horses. Tommy interjected, "It's cool Stephanie, check it out." Her hesitation was promptly answered with her name softly being called.
"There's no way I am jumping around on these rocks with these boots." She moved to sit on the rock and heard another piece of advice.
"This isn't a sandy beach, leave them on."
She braced her hands on one boulder and swung her feet around, content to move from one rock to another without standing. It took considerably more time but she felt secure that her arms would be able to stop any false move. "You know what you look like? Les, doesn't she look like a child scooting down the stairs one step at a time?"
Her eyes met his in a challenge then joined his laughter. "Hey, I'm getting there and this view better be magnificent." Just when she neared him, he moved further away, placing one foot on a spot not much wider than the sole of his boot.
She looked at the path he had just crossed, then met his eyes, "I can't, this view works for me."
"That's not the view. Come on, you've almost made it." He stretched his arm over the piece of granite, "Just reach for my hand."
She looked at the drop off then the six inches of trail that cradled the side of the boulder. "I can't, I'm sorry, I just know I'll fall."
"No one ever has now stop looking down and focus on my hand."
"I'll never forgive you if you let me die out here." Her body quickly left the sight of the other riders and there were hoots and hollers as she announced she made it. She hadn't bothered to look at the view, content to feel the safety of strong arms holding her and a smiling face looking down at her. When Josh turned her around she gasped in awe at the scenic vista. His arm stayed wrapped around her shoulders, "That's worth it, isn't it?" The magnitude of the scene seemed to steal her voice, as she softly answered yes. "See the ice over there, that's an active glacier. Think of it, these mountains are still changing, still evolving. You can see the timber line, the valley, everything about being in the Rockies is right here."
Her hand reached up to hold his as she inhaled deeply, breathing in all the fragrance the mountain breeze had to offer. His description of the scene before them had moved her beyond her own appreciation for the snow-capped masterpieces. She cradled her head against his shoulder. "I would never have made it here without you, thank you." His arms pulled tighter as he placed a kiss just behind her ear. "So how high up are we?"
"See the peak behind the first range? That's Mount Powell, a bit above 13,500 feet and the tallest peak in these parts but we're probably about 9,200 feet. The ranch is at 6,700, to give you a comparison. We're in the White River National Forest and this part of the Rockies is called the Gore Range. You can't see it but the Colorado River is cutting in between those peaks. With any luck at all Steve has been baptized in the cold water of the river for interrupting us last night."
"I couldn't believe it when I saw the headlights then he was waiting at my Jacuzzi. But he's gone, finally." He nodded then pulled her face towards his own for a kiss.
"Josh! Think it's time to move on." Tommy had hollered out then added, "Stephanie, try walking over the rocks this time, will you?" The sound of laughter made it to their ears and Stephanie looked up at Josh, "Does he suspect us? Was this too obvious?"
"Only if we keep looking at each other like this."
He managed to give her a quick kiss before moving around the boulder out of her sight. She took in a deep breath and with one foot reaching the farthest point of easy placement, her arms hugged the boulder for balance. This time she didn't look down and felt fingers reach for her right hand. With a quick leap she felt his arm grab her elbow and steady her balance before he jumped to the next rock. Their progress continued in this vein, her watching the rocks he stepped on and following in his exact footsteps. Once away from the steep embankment, her eyes met the waiting riders and a smile encompassed her face. "That was spectacular, to see so much from that small area of ground. How in the world did you ever find it? Who ventured there first?"
Tommy answered, "Dad but he's too fat to make it there now. I knew you'd make it Stephanie. Cool isn't it? Hey, remember that time there was ice on the rock and I slipped off? You guys had to get a rope to pull me back up. When was that Josh---two, no three years ago, wasn't it? Do you remember Les?"
Stephanie's eyes flashed at Josh's for confirmation, who defensively answered, "He slipped on ice, there wasn't any chance of you falling, this is late July." She walked past him to take Ranger's reins from Tommy and mounted up, leaving Josh to do the same. About an hour later they reached a gentle slope below the timber line that offered their camp for the night. Dinner preparations were well underway by Bob and Donna as the riders set about unsaddling their horses and leading them into a waiting corral. Les recommended they use the saddle pads as a mattress pad under the sleeping bag, and to find a spot under the bough of a pine tree but still near the campfire. The tree branch would collect the evening dew keeping them dry while the saddle pad would help them stay warm. One last piece of advice was to strip down in the sleeping bag and let the body heat the air space. If it had been Josh or Tommy offering that last bit of advice, she would have doubted it, but Les didn't seem the type to intentionally mislead and Donna didn't contradict him. Stephanie collected her belongings and sleeping bag and found a tree to claim as hers. The Thorntons followed suit, selecting a pair of evergreens to spread both their sleeping bags under. They had already zipped the two singles together to form a "double" and caused at least one rider to watch with envy.
Large sections of logs formed a broken circle around the campfire and after enjoying a tossed salad, baked potato and rib eye steak, the group fell into relaxed story telling. Stephanie was able to hear Anne and John talk about their vacation without political intervention. There was a way the couple told a story, confirming the points with one another, which really contributed to the pleasure of hearing their observations of the United States. They had already traveled the northeast, starting in New York City then heading north up the coast all the way to Bar Harbour, Maine. They traveled west through Pennsylvania's Amish country and the Gettysburg National Military Park, on through Kentucky's horse country, further west to St. Louis Missouri, crossing the Mississippi River. They planned to continue their travels ending in California and flying home from Los Angeles.
Stephanie sat in amazement at all they shared of their travels and observations. "You have seen more of our country in two months then I have in my entire life! What made you want to take this memorable journey?"
John began their response, "Really, it's been something we've always wanted to do. Anne, didn't we talk of this trip during our courtship?" "Yes, I think you're right John, though perhaps not quite so extended of a vacation. I think we first wanted to see Philadelphia, wasn't it?" "Oh yes, you are quite right. It was the site of such fierce debate as your country fought for independence." The couple seemed to phrase their responses in perfect synchronization to keep the flow of conversation rolling merrily along. When the sun started to set, Les brought his guitar into the circle.
"We have a tradition of singing a few songs in friendship. Now I don't claim to be the next best thing to Garth Brooks but if you have requests, and I know the song, let's give it a whirl.
Donna seemed to sense the hesitancy of volunteers so she started things off with "Crazy" and Tommy soon followed with "Mama's Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys." Bob requested "Desperado" and John and Anne asked for "You've Got a Friend" leaving Les to close with "Rocky Top." When Les plead for a break to give his fingers a rest, Josh borrowed his guitar. Stephanie sat waiting to see what song he might choose but instead, he delivered the guitar to her. "Didn't you say you play? We didn't hear your selection yet."
She looked about the group and saw eyes waiting for her next move. "I have nowhere near the talent of Les so lower those expectations right now." She held the guitar against her leg and strummed a few chords, "Since I hail from south Florida, I feel it is incumbent upon me to sing a song of our beloved troubadour Jimmy Buffett. Anyone familiar with Margaritaville? Come Monday? Yes? That was a big hit of his but that's not the one we're going to sing. The song is ‘Door Number 3' and the refrain is ‘My whole world lies waiting behind door number 3!' I'll point to you when it's time to sing it and feel free to shout it out, Jimmy does." She looked at their expectant faces and took a deep breath.
"I took a wrong turn but it was the right turn -- my turn to have me a ball.
The boys in the shop told me just where to shop, if I wanted to play for it all.
But I didn't know I'd find it, on daytime TV"
Stephanie gestured for their part, "My whole world lies waiting behind door number 3!' Good, okay next verse,
I chose my apparel, I wore a beer barrel and they rolled me to the very first row.
I held I big sign that said ‘Kiss me I'm a baker and Monty I sure need the dough!'
Then I held that sucker by the throat until he called on me."
Again she stopped playing and pointed to them, "My whole world lies waiting behind door number 3." She was glad to see them laughing and enjoying the song.
"Now I don't want what Jay's got on his table, or the box Carol Merrill points to on the floor.
No I'll hold out just as long as I am able, until they unlock that outer door.
Oh she's no big deal to most folks but she's everything to me." She motioned for their line,
"See my whole world lies waiting behind door number 3!
Monty, Monty, Monty, I am walking down your hall.
I got beat, lost my seat but I'm not one to crawl.
Though I didn't get rich you son of a b----, I'll be back just wait and see." Stephanie used her hands to encourage them to holler out, "Because my whole world lies waiting behind door number 3. Yes my whole world lies waiting behind door number 3!"
She strummed the guitar a few extra chords and applauded everyone's participation. Les was encouraging her to lead them in another song and soon the others joined in. "All right, but Les, you have to promise to sing one more too. This is the first song I learned to play on the guitar and hopefully, I'll play it better tonight then I did 15 years ago. Les's Martin guitar ought to help my efforts. It's a James Taylor tune and seems perfect for the night, ‘Sweet Baby James'." Everyone seemed to sigh in recognition except Tommy. She started it off, "There is a young cowboy who lives on the range. His horse and his cattle are his only companions" but soon she heard voices joining hers, which was a great feeling. Afterwards, she ceremoniously presented Les with his guitar and urged him to sing his favorite. He chose "Amazing Grace" and it seemed the perfect song to end their sing-along.
Donna and Bob offered to drive anyone back who may have changed their minds, but had no takers. There were hugs good night and wishes for pleasant dreams as the couple climbed into the pick up truck. Stephanie approached Anne and asked if she'd mind serving as her lookout at the rest room. They exited to teasing remarks about women always leaving in pairs to the bathroom. Their return to the campfire noted most settling in for the night. Stephanie tried to see if anyone was remotely following Les's advice but couldn't tell. Certainly boots had been removed that much she could see, but she decided to sleep with her clothes on, just in case something happened during the night. She used her jacket as a pillow and rolled on her back to stare up at the sky. It was a big full moon that lit the sky and it was amazing how peaceful it was. The air was crisp, with temperatures expected to bottom out at 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
Josh was softly prodding her to wake up and she rose with haste, thinking she somehow overslept. But she saw the darkness had not yielded to morning light, and softly asked, "What's up?"
"Join me down the hillside?" She nodded her concurrence and looked around to figure out where things were. Anything that became too constrictive had been removed and she had to admit, Les was right, she was warmer wearing just her cotton shirt. But now, getting dressed in the limitations of the sleeping bag in a hurry wasn't proving itself an easy task. As she crossed the campfire to walk downhill, she heard Les stir.
"Stephanie, are you okay?" She nodded her head with that deer-in-the-headlights look, certain he knew what she was up to. "Here, take the flashlight with you. Have you got tissue?" Her eyes suddenly popped open, "Oh, thanks. I'm sorry I woke you." He shook his head, "That's what we're here for. I'll keep an eye out for your return."
She didn't know what else to do but take the flashlight from him and return in the appropriate amount of time for a middle of the night bathroom run. Josh was waiting for her 50 yards down from the campsite. "I heard. We don't seem to get a break, do we?"
"You don't suppose that's an omen, do you? Divine intervention to keep you out of trouble." She certainly was leaning in that direction.
"You're making me feel like I'm 16 and cutting class to see you."
"And just how is that? How am I making you feel that way?"
"By repeatedly bringing up us getting caught."
"Oh, so you take this lightly, your obligation to your employer?"
"Could we start over? This isn't exactly what I had envisioned?"
"And just what did you envision?"
"We'd pick up where we left off before the interruptions."
"Come on, it'll be fine."
"Now you sound like a 16 year old. Maybe you can do this but I can't. Les is back at the campsite waiting to make sure I'm okay. I'm not going to disrupt his sleep any further."
"But I saw the longing in your eyes when the Thorntons settled in together. I feel it too."
"Josh, good night." She turned and walked back to the campsite, pausing long enough with Les to return the flashlight and thank him for his concern before wishing him pleasant dreams. She took off her boots and dropped her jeans and jacket before slipping into her sleeping bag. Her anger at his selfishness burned in her stomach. She rolled over just at the moment he entered the campsite and she wasn't alone in the observation. Les's eyes went from Josh over to where she lay and his response furthered her discomfort.
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