(I have finished the book and am moving forth with the arduous task of editing, polishing, hammering the rough hide into an eye-catching suit of clothes. Should have it up on Amazon tomorrow or Wednesday--MP)
Jake moved carefully through the brush beyond the camp. He came to the creek that was only a couple of feet wide, sounding like chimes as it rippled over and around stones, flashing in the starlight, and dropped to one knee, looking around.
He felt an adrenaline rush of adventure. Suddenly, he was a character in one of his westerns, stalking someone on a dark night in the mountains—a bank robber, say. Only, when he stepped across the creek and a heard a woman’s musical voice off in the darkness beyond the stream, the fantasy was gone and the rush turned to dark shock.
The shock grew darker when he heard David’s voice.
Jake’s heart thudded heavily.
He continued forward, setting one hiking boot down slowly before lifting the other, gritting his teeth at the soft grinding of grass and ferns beneath his feet. The voices were coming from behind a dark screen of shrubs in the tall pines, dead ahead.
“...the opportunity arose and I decided to tag along for the ride and the hike. I wouldn’t have come if Seth hadn’t wanted to come, but his friends were going and...”
The girl let her voice trail off. The voice belonged to the blonde with the dreadlocks, nose ring, and copper-toned legs.
“Seriously?” David said on the other side of the shrubs. “You seriously expect me to believe that in the entire state of Colorado, teeming with mountains and hiking trails, you just happened to show up at this somewhat obscure hiking trail on the very same day that you knew I’d be here with my wife and a friend?”
A friend? Jake thought, momentarily losing track of the gravity of the situation. That’s all he was—a friend?
I thought we were best friends. Lifelong bros!
For some reason, Dave’s passing him off as merely a friend rather than a best friend irked him more than what was happening, but likely only because he still hadn’t wrapped the girl and David around his alcohol-sodden brain yet.
The girl. The beautiful blonde. And David.
No way. This wasn’t happening. Dave wasn’t boning that girl in the shrubs while Ashley lie sleeping in their RV. Jake was still lying by the dead fire, sound asleep, dreaming.
“Come on, hon. Let it go. Okay, I made a mistake. I’m jealous, all right? You said you’d tell her about us and you haven’t, and I can’t stop thinking about you.” The girl groaned. Jake saw her grab the collar of David’s pullover. She pulled him down to where she lay on a sleeping bag.
“Let’s fuck,” the girl coaxed. “Come on, hon—fuck me, honey.” She was fairly mewling with need, like a wild animal.
Jake couldn’t deny that she was making his pants get a little tight in the crotch.
David sagged down on top of her. Jake heard the rasping of their clothes, the saliva-crackling sounds of kissing. The girl sighed, moaned.
David lifted his head and laughed. “You damn near gave me a heart attack, Jas. I mean, when I saw your Tyler’s Jeep pull into the campground, I damn near kicked the bucket.”
“You should have told her by now, darling. I love you so much. You said you’d tell her.”
“I know, I know. But it’s complicated. We have the girls. We have the house. Christ, we have the dogs!”
“I was going to spring it on her over the trip. I was gonna sort of filter it through my buddy, so I could hear how it sounded first, and see how he’d react. Then I’d have a better way of knowing—”
“She’s not going to like it,” the girl, Jas, said. “Of course she’s not going to like it. But you said yourself there’s no passion between you anymore. Tell me something, David—you haven’t been fucking her, have you? You said you wouldn’t fuck her again before you told her...”
“No, of course not. Hell, we were hardly ever having sex, anyway. She’s got it in her head she’s fat.”
“Personally, I thought she was a little chunky.”
David laughed. “Christ, you’re sexy.”
“And I’m all yours.”
Jake heard the sound of a zipper. He could see David and Jas’s shadows moving around on the other side of the shrub. They were breathing hard, grunting. Jas giggled. Then Jake saw David mount her. She spread her knees and wrapped her long, bare, beautifully tanned legs around his back. The soft, blue starlight glistened on her shins. The voyeur in Jake wanted to stay and watch the show, but the better part of him knew it was time to leave.
Moving furtively, he swung around and stole away from the shrubs on the balls of his hiking boots. He crossed the creek and returned to his chair by the cold, dark fire.
“What just happened?” he asked himself, his mind swirling. “What just happened over there?”
As he sat in the chair and let it sink in, he gradually became queasy. His guts writhed like poisonous snakes. Suddenly, he started to feel his meal and all the alcohol he’d drank work its way up toward his throat. He pushed out of the chair, knocking it over, and stumbled back through the shrubs. He dropped to his knees, and the contents of his belly shot up out of his belly like a geyser, and splattered on the rocky ground by the creek.
He vomited several times, the roiling, half-digested steak and booze searing his tonsils and throat, until there was nothing left to come up.
“Oh, shit,” he said, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. “Oh...oh, shit.” He wasn’t sure he’d ever felt this miserable. His head pounded. His stomach churned. His throat was burning. His tongue was swollen. It felt like a dead snake in his mouth.
His knees quivered. Cold sweat was popping out on his forehead and dripping down his cheeks.
The ground pitched around him.
If a gun were handy, he probably would have stuck the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
He drew a ragged breath and then walked over to the creek and bathed his face. He sucked several mouthfuls of water and spit them out, trying to rid the sour taste from his tongue.
As he sat back on his heels and stared at the sky, he could hear the girl moaning softly. It was a quiet night, and sound carried. Jake gritted his teeth and turned toward the RV. Ashley probably couldn’t hear the girl in there. The windows were likely closed.
What if the other young folks heard? He assumed they knew about Jas and David, but they probably didn’t know what was happening just now behind the bush. That had the earmarks of a tryst. If they did know, they might stumble around and wake Ashley.
Oh, hell—why should Jake care?
He didn’t know, but he did. He didn’t want Ash to find out this way.
What would happen when she did find out? Would she and David split?
If so, that would leave an opening for Jake to make his long-anticipated move...
Jake leaned forward and retched once more. There was nothing more to come up. He leaned forward with his forehead pressed against the cold, gravelly ground, and wished that he would die and spare himself the misery of this night and the rest of his life.
“Jake?” It was Ashley’s voice.
He turned. She stood a few feet behind him in baggy gray sweats and slippers, a gold and brown wool Buffaloes cap pulled down over her ears. Her honey-blond hair slithered over her shoulders. She wore long, brown knit mittens.
Despite his misery, Jake tried to pitch his voice with joviality. “Ye-yep?”
His heart thudded like cymbals in his ears. He glanced in the direction of where David was throwing the blocks to the blonde, but he could see only starlit leaves and dense shadows. There were no sounds.
“What’s the matter?” Ashley asked. “You don’t sound so good.”
“Just...” Jake ran his hand across his mouth and smiled wryly. “Lost my cookies. Embarrassing. Man, I’ve become a lightweight.”
“Yeah, I’m not feeling so good myself.” Ashley rubbed her belly and looked around. “Have you seen David?”
Jake’s heart beat a war rhythm against his ribs. “Isn’t he in the camper?”
Ashley shook her head. “I woke up and he was gone.”
“He must’ve come out when I was...”
Jake let his voice trail off. A shadow moved behind Ashley. There was the soft crunch of footsteps.
“Hey, what’s goin’ on?” David said, moving through the brush. “What’re you two doing out here?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” Ashley said.
“Trip to the crapper.” As though for proof, David pulled half a roll of toilet tissue out of his sweatshirt pocket. “After all we ate and drank”—he grinned and shook his head—“I would have stunk you out if I’d used the commode in the RV.”
“Right, thank you,” Ashley said.
“Hey, what’s wrong, bro?” David knelt down beside Jake, who fought off the urge to punch him. To wipe that smug, self-satisfied look off David’s dimple-cheeked, cleft-chinned, handsome face. It just occurred to Jake that Dave was playing a game. He didn’t really mind that Jas was here, and that she’d even walked into their camp earlier, where Ashley had gotten a good look at her.
It excited him.
It was a game.
Jake doubted that David had any intention of telling Ashley about Jas.
It was a game. A dangerous game. But his life was so boring otherwise, and he’d attained so much that he’d stiven for, that he needed some spice in his life. Two women was pretty good spice.
“Jake had the same problem, I think,” Ashley said. “Only his came out the front end.”
“Well, bro, I can sympathize. Man, what lightweights we are. A couple of old goats who can’t hold their hooch.”
David helped Jake to his feet. “Why you sleeping out here?”
“Felt like getting out under the stars, inhaling some fresh air sans the Denver smog.”
“He probably heard us arguing.” Ashley smiled and rubbed her cheek against David’s shoulder. “Don’t worry—we worked it out. All better now. Sometimes I get jealous and more than a little owly when I’ve been drinking. It’s the wine, I think.”
“Oh. Okay. Good.”
“Come on inside,” Dave said.
“I’m good out here,” Jake said. “The cool air feels nice...under the circumstances. Clears my head. And, who knows, I might need to use the crapper later.”
“Right—well, okay.” David stretched, yawning, holding Ashley taut against him. “It’s back to bed for me—what says you, Mrs. Whitfield?” He kissed her temple.
“Mrs. Whitfield seconds the motion. ‘Night, Jakey.”
They strolled arm in arm to the RV.
Jake crawled back into the sleeping bag. He thought long and hard about Dave. He was back to feeling envious now of David having Ashley and a beautiful blonde on the side. Two beautiful blondes, one young and supple and child-like, the other mature and supple and likely knowing her way around a man’s needs.
No, Ash knew her way around them, all right. Jake knew that from experience. Even as a teenager, she’d known how to please him. Not at first, but she’d been a quick study.
Ashley would have been enough for Jake.
“Don’t worry about it,” he silently told himself, feeling the fatigue of the day weighing on him. He yawned. “You’re rich, F. Scott. You’ll have a bigger house than David and Ash’s. Might even buy one close to them up Four Mile, so Brenda and I can drive by their place in our sports cars, toot the horns. They can see all our wine deliveries. Hah!”
Suddenly, he missed her. He wished she’d come along. He couldn’t wait to give her the good news.
He sat up suddenly, looked around. He’d heard something moving around out in the shrubs near the creek. Now as he stared, a shadow moved quickly, briefly. And then it was gone.
Apprehension wriggled like a snake across the back of Jake’s neck. A bear? The bow-and-arrow killer?
Then he smiled, realizing.
“’Night Jas,” he whispered, and lay back down.
Something woke Jake at dawn.
Blinking and shivering against the cold, he sat up and looked around. Gray light filtered into the campground. Birds were chirping. But the birds were not what had awakened him. The dull thudding sounds were what had reached into his sleep and pulled him into consciousness.
The smell of fresh horseshit laced the breeze. Then Jake realized that the large shadow moving through the shrubs at the edge of the camp was a horse and rider silhouetted against the eastern sky. Beneath the thuds of the shod hooves were the softer thuds of the apples the horse was plopping onto the ground as Jerry skirted the camp aboard the chestnut.
The old cowboy wore his quilted tan jacket and gloves. He wore a blue sweatshirt under the jacket, and the hood was drawn up over his dirty green feed cap. He had something strapped to his back. It was still to dark for Jake to see clearly. It was probably the crossbow and quiver. The saddlebags draped across the chestnut’s rump were bulging with gear. There was a leather scabbard strapped to the saddle, and the rifle shoved down into it was probably the .30-30.
The heeler, Otis, trotted along behind the horse, nose to the ground.
As he rode, Jerry pulled a flask out of the inside of his jacket. He took a long pull and then returned the flask to the inside of his jacket. He shook his head, smacked his lips, and shivered.
Jake watched as Jerry rode around the edge of the young folks’ camp and then swung left, angling toward a green steel stock gate that marked the beginning of the Paradox Falls trail, a hundred or so yards beyond. Jerry dismounted, and there was the clank of a chain and the squawk of steel hinges as he opened the gate. He led the chestnut over the cattle guard and onto the trail. He closed the gate and chained it. Otis slipped under the barbed wire fence left of the gate, avoiding the cattle guard.
Jerry hadn’t bothered to sign his name to the notebook the forest service kept in a wooden box near the entrance to the trail, under a roofed wooden sign that had pictures of mountain lions, black bears, moose, elk, and other possible trail hazards tacked to a board behind glass. There was the obligatory Smoky the Bear warnings, as well, of course. And emergency phone numbers though those did little good out here, where there was no cell coverage, no landlines.
On the other side of the gate, Jerry swung up into the saddle. In the gray light, Jake could see the flash of a white sneaker.
Jerry batted his heels against the horse’s ribs, and they started off along the rocky trail that curved up through towering pines. In seconds, horse, rider and Otis were gone.
Shivering, his head feeling as though an angry, brawny lumberjack were attacking it every three seconds with a sledge hammer, Jake collapsed against his air mattress.
“See ya later, Lone Ranger,” he said, and squeezed his eyes closed against the lumberjack’s blows.