Love at Eagles Pass (1): A light, misty fog wet her face and chilled her ungloved hands, while blood pounded in her ears. She fought to stem the rising panic. Breathe, Ricki, you didn’t go over. You’re okay. Crap, maybe this retreat was a bad idea.
The edge of the narrow, rocky mountain path gave way, and Ricki Sheridan’s boot skidded over the side. Unbalanced, top-heavy, and frightened, her terrified scream echoed across the deep ravine.
She shrugged off the pack, lowered it to the ground, and eased her sore body onto the makeshift cushion. A filmy mixture of grit and sweat, created by unbidden tears, slid down her brow and stung both eyes. A ragged tail of her faded denim shirt erased the telltale signs of trail dust and tears before the team caught up.
“You all right?”
The deep, masculine voice caused her to jump up, teeter to the right, and kick another spray of gravel.
“Whoa, let me help you.”
Ink black eyes and a gorgeous smile caught her off guard.
“I can handle it, the trail’s soft right there. Better warn the others.”
His lopsided grin made her realize she must look like a gangly 12-year old kid with wind tousled curls and the hated freckles (probably covered with grime by now). Her slim figure, at least, was disguised by the last-minute choice of a baggy shirt. Still, the picture in her mind made her cringe. “I said I could handle it. It’s steep here, that’s all.”
“What’s your name, freckles?”
Oh great, the freckles do show. She ducked her head. “Ricki.”
“I’m Kory Littleton, trail boss.”
The others in the group arrived in single file impatient and unable to pass. A short, scruffy man in the group scanned the sky and looked back at Kory. “We gonna stop on this narrow ledge or what, chief? It’ll be nightfall soon.”
Littleton stepped around to stand in front of her. “Why don’t you go on ahead, Steve? The lady experienced a small set-back. Her ankle’s bleeding. I’m gonna doctor it. Oh, by the way, I didn’t notice last week, but watch the trail over there, it’s soft. Don’t want anyone to slip off the mountain.”
Steve eyed her ankle, shook his head, and spit a stream of tobacco juice into the dirt.
For the first time, she looked down. Blood oozed over the ankle sock onto her low rider leather boot.
“Next time, try the high-tops. They’re safer,” Steve said. He brushed past, and the exhausted band disappeared around the bend.
“Sit down, my first aid kit’s in my pack.” Kory ordered.
Her chin rose in involuntary defiance. “Thanks, I can bandage it. You catch up to the group. I’m fine.”
“I guess you haven’t heard of me. I’m the famous Eagles Pass trail boss, ma’am.” He swept his arm in a mock bow. “Wouldn’t do to lose one on the trail.” The bulky pack slipped off his back easily.
“Why do you call yourself famous? Every troop has a guide, don’t they? What makes you so special?”
“Oh, I don’t know, probably because I’ve been around longer—saved a few more lives.” His teeth ripped through the adhesive bandage. “Now hold still, I’ve done this a couple of million times, we’ll be through in a flash.”
A shock rippled through her leg when he touched the ankle.
She outlined the rugged face, the sparkle in his eye, and the well-muscled torso. The stereotype of a trail guide didn’t fit Kory Littleton. The image brought to mind included, flannel shirts, knee-high boots, gruff personality, and five o’clock shadow. This one’s different. Clean-shaven, strong white teeth, and weather-roughened skin. He works out. Those legs are like tree trunks. He did sport a red flannel shirt, protection against the cool mountain air. The color, bold against his dark hair, made him hard to ignore.
She shivered again, only this time not from the cold. “Look, Mr. Littleton, I’m sure you’re a fine guide, and I appreciate your help. The backpack got the better of me, I admit…packed too heavy. I’ll fix it and be right along. Please go catch the others. They need you more than I do. My father took us backpacking every summer. I know my way around a mountain.”
“The name’s Kory and Steve is my back up. I’ll help you rearrange your load, and we’ll both catch up. I can’t leave anyone behind. ‘Fraid you’re stuck with me.” He slung her pack over his shoulder, heaved his over the other arm, and called over one shoulder, “Better get a move on. There’s a clearing a few feet ahead. We’ll reorganize there.”
She hurried after him.
Sprawled on a rotten log, he’d already unloaded the first contents of her pack. “Ah, reading material. A little antisocial isn’t it? This is a retreat, I know, but don’t forget there are nine other people here.”
She closed the gap between them in a sprint and snatched the book from his hand. “Put it down. It’s my journal and none of your business. I said I’d redo my pack.”
Kory drew his hand back. “Sorry Ricki, I meant no harm. Chill out, I didn’t peek.”
She turned her back and flung the remaining contents of the pack on the ground. “This trip’s a big mistake. I’m heading back to the lodge.”
“Hey slow down. You’ll never make it back down the mountain before dark. The weather calls for a storm by morning. I can’t let you go. It would ruin my reputation.” One by one he picked up each item she threw and organized them according to weight and size.
“You can’t stop me. I paid my money and it’s on my head now. Get your hands off my stuff,” she yelled.
“Ricki, sit down. You’re exhausted. Six miles is a lot when it’s uphill luggin’ a pack. I’m here for a reason, let me do my job.”
Suddenly, weakness overcame her, and she collapsed against him. Both his strong arms encircled her drained body. “I’m sorry, I never cry.”
He held her a little too tight and whispered a little too softly in her ear, “Maybe it’s time to let go.”
She pulled away from him and wiped her eyes on one sleeve.
He grabbed a bedroll and spread it on the ground. “Sit.” His voice left no room for argument. Kory rearranged each item in her pack, buckled it up, re-cinched the straps, and laid it against the dead log.
“All done. Feelin’ any better?” He squatted on both heels in front of her. “You’re in no shape to hike down the mountain. Steve can handle the rest of the group. Let’s see if we can sort this out before we rejoin them.”
“Everything okay here? Can we help?” the groups’ leader asked.
“Hey, Kyle, we’re fine. Ankle problem, takin’ a short rest. Nothing to worry about,” Kory answered.
Kyle’s tall, skinny body bent slightly under the weight he carried. “Oh, right, Kory, I gotcha.” He winked. “We’re out of your way, then. See ya on the other side.”
Ricki heard the snickers and hoots of laughter a few minutes later. She turned and faced the trail boss, “Sounds like your reputation precedes you, Mr. Littleton. You do this for all the women, right?”
He sat down, reached for his canteen, and offered it to her. “I know why I do this, why don’t you tell me why you’re here?”
She ignored the gesture.
He sloshed the liquid in the container until she jerked it out of his hand and took a swig. The cool water soothed her parched throat, and she allowed herself to savor the refreshment.
“Sorry, it’s your job to help, and my problems aren’t part of it. Retreats help people step out and make a change in their lives, broaden their horizons. I get it. Anyway, I chose the wrong venue for my escape. I should have gone on a long cruise, alone. I’ll follow you to the camp, and in the morning, I’ll head back. I know it’s a three-day hike to the lake. I don’t need this.”
“Too late, Ricki, the sun’s gone. We can’t make it to the first camp. We’ll have to stay here, catch ‘em in the morning. I suppose you forgot how quick the night falls in the mountains.”
Ricki looked around at the dark sky. The last glow of the day dipped behind the tallest peak until only a sliver of light remained. Panic gripped her. “I can’t stay here with you. The others will think … Well, we need to find them. You have flashlights don’t you? It can’t be far.” She jumped up and grabbed her pack.
“Troop Ten won’t make it before dark, either. We always make camp in the dark the first night. Tests the camper’s mettle. If they can make it the first night, the rest of the week goes like clockwork. We plan it that way. You can’t maneuver the trail in the dark though. It’s too treacherous, and the mist is rolling in. We’re stuck here.” He picked up a few dried limbs and gathered a couple broken logs.
She stared at him, pack in hand. “What are you doing?”
“Building a fire, it gets cold on the mountain. Grab the rotted log over there, it’ll burn nicely. The longer you stand there, the longer it’ll take to build the fire, and believe me, you’ll want a fire in about an hour.”
She dropped the pack and shuffled over to retrieve the wood.
In no time, a fire danced within the ring of stones Kory gathered. Bone tired, she settled against the log and tried to relax.
“Hungry?” he asked. He rummaged in his pack and brought back two foil pouches.
“What are those?”
“Campers MRE’s. We use these the first night. The rest of the week you rely on your wits, fish, berries, and the like. These are pretty good if you heat them.”
He positioned a flat stone at the edge of the fire in the coals and placed the pouches on the rock to heat. “I made some coffee. Why don’t you pour? I’ve got all we need in my pack.”
She found the tin cups and a ragged, blackened hot pad, and grabbed the pot from the coals. The aroma of hot coffee signaled the hunger in her stomach. The smell of beef stew tickled her nose. “Beef stew?”
“Isn’t it amazing? They can do so much with this stuff now. Here, I think it’s ready.”
She poured the black java, while he ripped open the meals, and dumped them in the metal plates.
They sat side by side in the quiet of the wood while they ate. The darkness heightened the night sounds of frogs, and owls awakened for the night’s prowl, eerie and unsettling.
Kory cleaned up and settled beside her, a fresh cup of coffee in his hand.
“Would you like to talk about him?”
He kept his head turned toward the fire, the coffee cup relaxed on the top of one knee. “The guy you’re running from.”
“Well, if it’s no big deal, why are you out here with me?” He faced her and grinned.
She surprised herself and laughed. “I’m out here because you forced me. I’d be back at the lodge if you hadn’t been so stubborn.”
“You have a pretty laugh. It’s good to hear. That’s not what I meant though. Why’d you run?”
A coyote in the distance held her spellbound for a moment. Such a lonely cry. “I’m not running. I wanted a change of pace, a fresh start, out with the old, in with the new.”
“Men can be pigs, can’t they? Although I don’t see how he could leave a gorgeous girl like you? He must be blind.”
She continued to stare into the fire.
“You mentioned a friend. Good friend? Were you stabbed in the back twice?” He picked up a long stick, and poked at the fire. Flames shot up and lit the perimeter of the camp for a brief time until the blaze dwindled, and then smoldered.
“Sort of, we didn’t hang out much. She set her sights on him from the get-go. I didn’t see it coming. You would think I’d learn.”
He shot her a look. “It’s happened before?”
“I hate to admit it, but yes, once.”
“You need new friends, Ricki.”
“Yeah, I need a whole new life. Guess it’s why I ended up here.”
His voice lost his arrogance. “Where are you from?”
“Dallas? And you came to the Rockies for a retreat?”
She reached for more coffee. “I suppose I ran back to my roots, the peace of the mountains. Not much calm in the city.”
“How do you make a living?”
“I’m a detective for the Dallas P.D. Surprised?”
His laugh was easy. “No, I’m not surprised. Takes guts to do a twenty mile hike, up hill, and a fifty pound pack on your back. He’s a cop, right?”
It was her turn to shoot him a look. “How did you know?”
“Lucky guess. We need to hit the hay, get an early start. You look better after fillin’ your stomach, but you need rest. Sleep here, in front of the fire. I’ll be behind you.”
“What do you mean? Can’t you sleep on the other side of the fire?”
He shook his head. “You’ll be thankful for my body warmth. We’re on an open ridge. The wind’s gonna blow hard tonight, and it’s damp. Our base camp sits in a stand of trees, protected from those gales, but on this ridge it’s wicked. I’m use to it. This is survival, Ricki. You need to put modesty aside.”
The wind took the opportunity to whip through the makeshift camp and sent sparks flying into the air. She nodded.
“The fire is about out. I better stoke it up for the night.”
He rose, and in the dim light of the dying embers, she could make out his form loading dead branches in his arms. “Can I help?”
“No, can’t take a chance on the ankle in the dark. Why don’t you undo your bedroll, we’ve got a lot of trail to make up tomorrow.”
The cord on the sleeping bag didn’t cooperate. Her fingers picked at the knot, over and over. She wrenched the knot free and flipped her wrists to unroll the bed.
Pine resin popped deep inside the fire. Logs shifted, sparks danced, and the darkness deepened.
“I’m gonna turn in,” she stated.
He continued to place larger sticks on the blaze. “Yeah, me too. We’ll have a hard day tomorrow. I’ll make sure our fire makes it through the night. Good night Ricki.”
The fire blazed, the stars twinkled, she snuggled inside the downy sleeping bag, and watched Kory secure the camp, packs between the fire and their bedrolls. Coyotes roamed the hills at night, and raccoons scavenged the forest.
A hammer echoed in the dusky night. She poked her head out of the bag. “What are you doing now?”
Without missing a beat, he said, “Settin’ up a lean-to. I might be use to this, but I don’t enjoy a cold backside.”
The plastic tarp crackled and whipped in the breeze, secured by ropes, one end almost to the ground to break the wind.
In a semi sleepy state, she noticed the chill on her backside disappear. He lay next to her, and she drifted off in a cocoon of warmth.
She wasn’t sure what woke her. Dying embers greeted her unfocused eyes, the fire almost gone. He’s dead tired, forgot the fire. Ricki struggled out of the sleeping bag, grabbed a jacket and boots, and tiptoed to the dead log. Let him sleep. I can build up the fire.
She tugged at the rawhide bootlaces, and froze, a strap in each hand. Afraid to move she listened for the low growl again, and cringed at the guttural sound. Coyote. A quick glance and a shiver ran down her back. Kory’s sleeping bag was empty.
I need to stay calm. Her head moved to face the threat. Two yellow eyes glowed at the edge of the darkness.
“Sit still, don’t move.”
The voice sounded familiar, but it wasn’t Kory’s. Whoever it belonged to stood behind her. “Where’s Kory?”
Something whizzed by one ear, followed by a thump, and a yelp. The golden eyes disappeared into the abyss of the night.