Love at Eagles Pass (2)
“He wanted what’s in the pack, not you. Lookin’ for food. He won’t bother you now.”
The voice moved around her, and she looked up into Steve’s pockmarked face. “Why are you here? Where’s Kory?”
Steve tucked the slingshot into his back pocket, added an armful of wood to the puny fire, and helped himself to what remained of the coffee.
“An emergency. Appendicitis we think. Poor woman. A lot of pain. Kory’s the only one who can negotiate the trail in the dark. He’s taking her to the hospital. I carried her here, and he took the rest of the jaunt. Told me to let you sleep, but our coyote friend decided differently. I’ve gathered enough wood to make it until morning. Go back to sleep, I’ll stand guard. Four more hours before daylight.”
The hollow in her stomach increased. “He’s gone? Will he come back?”
“No, not possible. By the time he gets down the mountain and drives to the hospital, we’ll be at our destination. He’ll be exhausted and need rest for the next week’s group coming through. I’m afraid we’ve seen the last of him on this trip. You’re stuck with me.” His mouth split open to reveal yellowed teeth, some of which were missing.
The security and warmth of the evening evaporated, and she wished she were back in Dallas at her desk immersed in a case. At least there she could push the pain and hurt aside. For one evening, the painful break up disappeared from her mind. Long forgotten emotions surfaced in a small camp, deep in the forest with an attractive man. Now he was gone. “Fool. You imagined the whole thing anyway.” She didn’t want to be stuck with Steve—didn’t like the way he looked at her.
“I can get myself down the mountain and back to the lodge tomorrow, right?” she asked.
“I’m afraid not. There’s only Kyle and me now. I can’t leave the others without proper supervision. You’ll have to finish the trip.”
Ricki slid back into her sleeping bag to wait for morning, but sleep didn’t come. She heard Steve wriggle into Kory’s sleeping bag and cringed at his close proximity. His unwashed body odor drifted through the air. She pulled the bag over her nose and closed her eyes, resigned. “ Face it. You’re never going to get it right, Ricki. Your timing’s off. Wrong place, wrong man. Get yourself together, and finish this trip. He won’t be here to distract you and get you off-track. Stop running, and deal with the fact you will live your life alone. Your career is enough for a woman like you. So prove it to yourself.”
“Get up sleepyhead, time to move.” Steve’s voice jolted her into wakefulness.
A large, black spot lay where a cheerful fire danced the night before. Steve cleaned up the last of the debris, held out an unappetizing square of hardtack and her canteen.
She grabbed the meager breakfast and hurried after Steve, already around the bend. The pace he set brutalized her back and legs, but determined to prove her worth; she kept up, thankful to focus on the trail and not Kory.
Three hours later, Steve stopped and dropped his pack. “We’ll stop here for a bite to eat. We have another two hours before we reach base camp. Can you make it?”
She removed the pack and ignored the pain in her shoulders, jaw set. “I can make it. Don’t worry about me.” She thought a shadow of a grin crossed Steve’s face.
“He can grin all he wants. I’ll never give him the satisfaction of seeing me quit.”
The beef jerky and hardtack chased by a swig of water did little to satisfy the gnawing hunger. She let her mind wander back to what Kory had told her of the week the group would endure in the wild. “Fish and berries? Trout cooked over an open fire sounds like a feast right about now.”
Steve didn’t talk much, and she passed the time comparing his looks to Kory’s. They couldn’t differ more. An unruly dark beard, dirty blond shoulder-length hair. She couldn’t determine the color of his eyes because he never looked directly at her.
“Not half the man his boss is.”
“Kory? No, he’s not married. Not now anyway. He was.”
“So what happened?”
Steve adjusted the strap on his pack and shrugged it back onto his bony shoulders. “Look, if you want to know more, ask him. He’s a private person. Not up to me to give out that information. Two more hours, and we’re there. Better get going.”
“Just passing the time, Steve. And by the way, I did ask him. No luck.”
They trudged up the trail in silence for the next two hours.
An empty camp greeted the two exhausted hikers.
“Where is everyone?” she asked.
“Out finding their supper I imagine. Better get your camp set up and join them if you want a place to sleep and dinner in your belly. I’ll get you started, but the rest of the week, it’s up to you. You can team up or go it alone. Your choice. Most everyone has a partner by now, though.”
He found a spot at the outer edge of the camp, gave instructions to set up and meet him in the clearing.
She didn’t like the closeness of their tents but knew the options were slim. Thirty minutes later her tent stood proud, and she went to find Steve, nervous the others hadn’t returned.
“Guess it’s just you and me, doll.” He grinned. “Come sit next to me, and I’ll show ya the ropes.”
“I’ve got this, Steve. No worries.” His comment made her uneasy.
Finally, one by one, the others straggled back into camp, and she relaxed a little. A few came down to the water to try their luck.
While she baited the hook and listened to Steve explain the best places to put in, she found a newfound energy. “Maybe this is what I needed after all. I can do this. Survival of the fittest. Now I remember why I chose this type of retreat.” She wondered where Kory ended up…and the woman he had helped. There was something about Kory Littleton. He stirred up emotions she’d almost forgotten.
“Never mind, Ricki. Reach out and make new friends, like he suggested.”
A young woman a few feet away, and about her age, slipped into the water when her pole jerked abruptly.
“May as well start now.”
“Need some help over there?”
“I think I’ve got it now. My name’s Rebecca. Aren’t you the lady who hurt her ankle? Where’s that good-looking guide of yours?” The woman stepped back on dry ground, juggling her pole.
Ricki held out her hand.
“I’m Ricki. What do you mean where’s Kory? Didn’t they tell you he took someone back to the lodge? Appendicitis or something.”
“No, I didn’t hear about anyone being sick. We’re all here, all 9 of us. Who was it?” Rebecca asked.
“I don’t know. Steve told me about it. He came back and helped me back here this morning. Said Mr. Littleton left in the middle of the night.”
“Well, I don’t know who it was, maybe someone from another troupe. Hey, I gotta get my fire started for dinner. Want some help with yours? Looks like you have quite a mess of fish. Where’s your tent?”
“Over there, by Steve’s.”
“Ouch, how did you end up over there? He gives me the creeps. Maybe we can move it later, and you can camp by mine. I think we will get along real good.”
She stared at Steve’s tent, unable to shake the fear crawling up her spine. “I might take you up on that offer.”
The uneventful evening meal behind her, she joined Rebecca for a game of cards. She met a few of the others, but the bond between her and Rebecca grew stronger.
“Are you going to move your tent tomorrow? I hate to think of you by Steve, all alone. Wish your Mr. Littleton had stayed around. Him I could get used to,” Rebecca declared.
“Sure. We’ll try to find some time tomorrow. I think its raft building day. It’s Steve or nothing. He’s more in tune with the bears, I guess. At least, he smells a lot more like them.” She laughed.
Rebecca snickered at the joke, and Ricki rose to leave. “I’m bushed. It’s been a busy day. I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.”
She unzipped her tent door, switched on the flashlight, and let out a blood-curdling scream. Steve sat on the cot in the corner, a grin spread across his grimy face.
He jumped up and clamped a dirty hand over her mouth. “Hey, what you wanna do that for? I ain’t gonna hurt you. I just came to visit, that’s all. Now settle down, and I’ll let you go.”
She nodded, and his hand dropped from her face.
“Ricki, what’s wrong, honey? Are you all right?”
Rebecca crouched in the doorway, a large stick in one hand.
Ricki swiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Yeah, I wasn’t expecting anyone to be in here. Steve’s checking on me. It’s okay. Go on back to your tent.”
“I was worried about her after the night on the trail.” Steve backed toward the door.
“Well, you shouldn’t enter a ladies tent without asking, Steve. Now get out of here and leave Ricki alone.” Rebecca moved back to let him pass.
“Sure, sure, uppity women, I meant no harm,” he mumbled.
“You’re bunking with me tonight, Ricki. Get your cot and sleeping bag,” Rebecca ordered.
She didn’t argue.
to be continued…