A tradition, a storm, a niece and a radical change
Author’s note: This is Part 1 of a 4 part story arc. As with all my stories, this one starts slowly with background and character development. This time I’ve tried using flashbacks during the initial setup to keep the pace up a little. I’d be interested in your feedback. Please vote — it is the only way I can see if I am pleasing you, the reader.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
We had stopped to feed ourselves and water the horses, and as we were packing up to keep going, I noticed some fairly dark storm clouds starting to drift down from the mountain tops. It was definitely starting to get darker.
“If we’re lucky, Squirt,” I told Beth, “we make it to the cabin before that hits. Looks pretty nasty, and I don’t think it’s snow. Probably a cold, hard rain.”
“Lovely, Uncle Jim,” she muttered. “I may love the Great Outdoors, but this is the part that I don’t particularly like — unless I’m dressed for it, which I’m not.”
“No poncho or rain gear?” I asked. I was suddenly realizing that all my wet weather gear was still back at Eddie’s, all neatly packed up to come up with the trailer. Cold, I thought I needed to be prepared for. Wet, not so much.
“No, my wet weather gear is back at Uncle Eddie’s, packed up,” she told me. Apparently great minds think alike.
“Well, we’re closer to the cabin than to Eddie’s,” I mused aloud. “Guess we push on and hope we don’t get soaked.”
“Wish in one hand, shit in the other…” Beth commented as she mounted up. Sometimes she sounded a lot like her father.
* * * * *
Her father was my older brother, Tom, now deceased. Beth, better known as Squirt, was my niece. We were riding up to the family cabin north of Pagosa Springs to open it for the season. It was tradition for the family to get together each Spring to open the place, a tradition started by my parents.
This year it would be the “Family Retreat That Wasn’t”. Almost.
When my two brothers and I were kids, we would spend the week of Spring Break — it used to be called Easter Break — helping our parents open the mountain cabin for the season, and then we’d get to spend part of Summer Vacation living up there. In the Fall, after hunting season was over, we’d Winter-proof it and then look forward to the next Spring.
Our Mom and Dad would trailer horses up to the cabin, to go along with the pine forests, hiking trails and “swimming hole” in the Piedra River, where it meandered through the mountains on its way to the San Juan River. Well, actually, now it’s the Navajo Reservoir covering up the confluence of the Piedra and San Juan Rivers. We’d drive up to Pagosa Springs, then stock up on food and sundries before making the long trek up to the cabin, up near Rock Mountain and the Williams Creek Reservoir.
A lot had changed since those days, but a lot had stayed the same, anchored to a more carefree time.
Then, as we grew up and got married, and had kids of our own, those of us who could would troop up to meet Mom and Dad and open the cabin for the season. Our kids grew up with summer vacations in the mountains.
When Mom and Dad passed, the cabin and its land fell to us three boys, and indirectly to our families. At the time, my older brother Tom was married and a Staff Sergeant in the Army, with three kids — two older boys and the youngest one a girl. I was an IT consultant, mostly security, and my wife and I had two kids, one son, one daughter. My younger brother Eddie wasn’t married, but he sure seemed to date a lot.
He’d actually decided to settle in Pagosa Springs, near the cabin. He didn’t want to live in it year ’round, but he didn’t mind watching the place while being an assistant manager at The Springs Resort and Spa… one of several to capitalize on the sulfur hot springs that gave the town its name. Not to mention having rich, good-looking women as a mainstay of their clientele.
Beth and I were riding up together, without the rest of the family, because Murphy had done his damnedest to conspire against us. Normally, it would have been all of us and Eddie’s big horse trailer, all going up together. Or most of all of us anyway.
For four or five years after our parents died, Tom would try to get leave in the Spring and bring his family to meet mine at Eddie’s place and we’d all trek up to the cabin and open it up for the year. Basically keeping the tradition alive. If Tom was deployed, his wife Sherry would come up with the kids without him.
Then four years ago, Tom got killed over in Afghanistan by some stupid Taliban IED. And it really ripped a hole in our families. The only good thing to come out of it was, we were all drawn a lot closer by the time the healing was done, and we made a point of not just opening the cabin in the Spring, but vacationing there in the Summer, like the old days. And Sherry, bless her heart, was a real godsend. Between Tom’s insurance and a trust that she’d inherited from her parents, she could spend a month pendik escort in the Summer, working on her jewelry business and making everyone feel at home.
This year, though, everything went haywire.
It started out with “growing up” catching up with us. This year, Tom’s two older boys, John and Scott, weren’t going to be there for “opening day” in the Spring. They were both off at college and their Spring Break didn’t coincide with the rest of us. So only Sherry and Squirt were going to join us. Squirt isn’t her real name — she got tagged with it from her brothers, growing up, and it stuck. Actually, her christened name was Elizabeth, and just about every nickname you could derive from that. She was usually Beth to me, when I wasn’t calling her Squirt, and to her I was Uncle Jim.
And my son, Paul, wasn’t going to make it, either. Same reason. Off at college and couldn’t get away. And then my wife, Linda, gave me the rest of the bad news. She had to take my daughter, a Senior in High School like Beth, off to visit a prospective college that opening weekend, although they could join us later that week. I was just going to put it off, but she insisted that I go ahead with tradition and go with Eddie and Sherry and Squirt, and do all the hard work of getting the place up and running for the season. Then she and Maggie, my daughter, could just mosey on up and be lazy.
I think she was joking. I hope she was joking. In any case, I called Eddie and told him I’d be coming up alone to start and I’d see him that weekend.
When I got there, the next piece of the puzzle fell apart.
Beth was there and Sherry wasn’t.
* * * * *
“Mom had to stay at the jewelry exposition because some kind of business reps wanted to talk to her and she had to meet with some people from China,” Beth explained as we sat over coffee in Eddie’s kitchen on Saturday morning. It was still frosty out.
“But she’ll be here by Tuesday at the latest, and she told me to come on up and help get the place open. Then I get here and find out it’s you, me and Uncle Eddie. And it isn’t clear he can trailer the horses up this weekend. Hell of a way to spend my eighteenth birthday, huh?”
That set me back. I’d forgotten when her birthday was, or even that she was turning eighteen. I should have remembered, though, because she was almost two months exactly younger than my daughter, and Maggie had turned eighteen two months ago.
“Not much of a birthday present to ask you to come do a stint of hard labor, opening the cabin,” I conceded. “Maybe when Eddie gets his lazy butt down to breakfast, we can figure out a way you don’t have to.”
“Oh, I don’t mind, Uncle Jim, really!” she told me. “I love the outdoors. I’m just grousing because I can.” She gave me one of those impish smiles teenage girls are good at — part little-girl and part all-grown-up. And I was beginning to notice the grown-up.
“And Uncle Eddie isn’t sleeping in,” she went on to inform me. “He beat you by an hour, easy. He’s up and outta here, as they say. Had to go in to the spa for some kind of problem. That’s why he might not be able to trailer the horses up there today. I’ll admit, I’m not looking forward to doing that with just the two of us. That six-horse trailer is pretty big to handle.”
My Dad had gotten an old World War II surplus Jeep to use up at the cabin, for running errands and such, so he didn’t do any more damage to his pickup than he had to. That old Willys MB would sure jounce us boys around a lot, but we’d eventually get from Point A to Point B. And Point B usually involved sawing and splitting wood, and hauling it back to the cabin. My brothers and I learned to drive on that old Jeep. Dad figured it had survived the war, it could survive us.
Eddie kept it at his place over the Winter now.
When there were a bunch of us going, we’d load Eddie’s big 6-horse trailer and he’d drive it up that same Forest Service access road as close as we could get and the rest of us would follow in the Jeep. Then we’d unload the horses, saddle them and ride them the couple of miles to the cabin while somebody, usually my wife, would bring the Jeep along. Then Eddie and I would take the Jeep and the trailer back to town and come back with the Jeep and his pickup, loaded with whatever else needed to come up to the cabin.
By then, somebody had a fire going and dinner ready. Pretty efficient and I didn’t have to cook.
Doing that with just the two of us was going to be rough. Even if Eddie could make it, it would still be difficult. I was seriously considering scrubbing the horses for later and just taking the Jeep up to open the house when Beth made her fateful suggestion.
Which is how we got in the position we were now in.
“Maybe we could ride up,” she offered. “You know, take a couple of horses and the gear we’d need and ride on up there and get the house warmed up. Eddie can bring the other horses later, when Mom gets here, or Aunt Linda and Maggie.”
“I’m maltepe escort sure they’d appreciate having all the hard work done,” she smiled, and there was that imp again.
“It’s a bit of a ride,” I pointed out. “You sure you’re up for that kind of punishment?”
“Oh, it’s not bad,” she told me. “It’s what? Six hours? Maybe seven at a leisurely pace. We could leave later this morning and be there late afternoon. Think of it as a birthday present… a nice long ride in the clean mountain air.”
“That clean mountain air is barely into the 50’s,” I told her. “It’ll be a bit brisk.”
“Nipply,” she told me.
“What?” I wasn’t sure I heard her right.
“Nipply,” she repeated. “It’s what Mom and I call it when your nipples stand out a mile.”
“Yeah?” I laughed. Leave it to the women. “Well, mine will be hiding underneath a down vest, if you don’t mind.”
“Ah…” she teased me. “The wisdom of the ages. Not a bad idea at all.”
“Are you calling me old?” I demanded, pretending to be offended.
“Aren’t you?” she asked, suddenly all wide-eyed innocent and batting her eyes at me. I knew she was putting me on.
“Ask me after we’ve split a face-cord of wood,” I told her.
“Okay,” she said softly with a slight smile. “So you’re up for the ride?”
“Sure, why not?” I asked. “We’ll check with Eddie when he gets back. Or does he have a cell?”
“Uncle Jim, we’re right on the edge of the cell here,” she pointed out. “Like ‘one bar’ kind of on the edge. You go to the bathroom and you’re probably out of range.”
“But he’ll be at the spa and that’s the other way. Towards the towers,” I realized. “Would you be a darling and get me a fresh cup? I’ll try him, if I can find his number.”
Taking my cup and heading for the coffee pot, she told me, “I’d bet it’s that one, on the refrigerator magnet.” She pointed to a large advertising magnet for The Springs Resort and Spa, and somebody had written a phone number on it with a Sharpie. The number might have been one of Eddie’s girlfriends’, but what the hell? I dialed it.
* * * * *
Beth and I kept riding and the closer we got, the more obvious it became that we were going to lose the race with the storm. How bad we were going to lose, I wasn’t prepared for. We’d made the Forest Service access road and were part way along it when the temperature took a steep dive and the first drops of rain hit us. It had been in the low 50’s while the sun was out. Now we’d be lucky if it was in the mid-40’s and with the wind picking up, it felt a hell of a lot colder than that.
We watched the wall of water coming towards us with the same fascination involved in watching a train wreck. We tried to stay heads down and push on, but we pulled up short when we got slammed by the icy rain. We found a little shelter in the lee of a big old oak and started discussing how we wanted to handle the storm, when there was a brilliant flash of light that seared our eyeballs and a God-Almighty crash of thunder that was deafening.
“We’ve got to move!” I shouted into Beth’s ear, over the storm. “Staying under a tree is inviting a lightning strike!”
She nodded and moved her horse out into the storm, keeping her bearings with landmarks lit by the ever increasing lightning flashes. Bless Eddie’s horses, they didn’t panic or get skittish at all. They just plodded on, heads bent to avoid the worst of the rain. We turned off the access road and made our way over open fields towards the bridge. I think Beth was keeping it together the same way I was — by thinking about that nice warm house and barn, some hot soup and coffee… definitely coffee… and a warm bed to snuggle into.
* * * * *
The cabin was pretty fancy for a place made out of logs. It had started as a one room, Franklin stove heated “hunting cabin”. By the time my father, and then my brothers and I, got done with it there were five bedrooms, a living room / dining room combination, a separate kitchen, indoor plumbing and a septic system. More of a lodge than a cabin. Sure beat the hell out of the old wooden outhouse, I’ll tell you. Especially when it got cold in the early Spring and late Fall.
We had electricity, courtesy of FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration, or at least an offshoot from it. Our power and our telephone came in over lines strung on poles from the ones that ran along the side of the Forestry Service’s access road, about two miles away. They crossed the river the same place Dad had built the bridge. We even had a satellite dish for TV and the Internet. But Dad had been a practical man, and although the electricity was a blessing, we had back-up in the form of a diesel powered generator for things like the refrigerator and the furnace fan , and hand pumps for water, oil lamps for light and so forth.
We’d pretty much insulated the barn so a single wood-burning stove could keep it above freezing, but it usually wasn’t necessary. The kitchen was electric, and we had a big kartal escort old LP gas tank out back, to help the wood burning furnace if it got really cold. Although you could live there year-round, we didn’t.
* * * * *
We were freezing cold, wet completely through and bone tired before we got to the bridge. Seeing it was like a kick in the gut.
A big tree had fallen into it and crushed it, maybe two-thirds of the way through. And the tree had taken down the power and phone lines as well. They lay twisting and sparking like hissing snakes. There wasn’t any way we were getting across that bridge with the horses. Or maybe even just crawling across by ourselves. I felt my anger towards the Powers That Be rising in my chest. Better to be pissed than admit you’re sad and scared.
“Dammit, dammit, dammit…” I was muttering to myself as I surveyed the damage, and a few other choice words as well.
“Now what do we do, Uncle Jim?” Beth asked me, and the despair was right under the surface. I felt so bad for her right then, my heart literally ached. Me, I was used to getting fucked over by Murphy. Her… she shouldn’t have to deal with this crap.
“We go upriver a little,” I told her, loudly against the storm, “by the old swimming hole. There’s a gravel shallows there we might be able to use as a ford!”
She nodded and waited for me to lead the way. So I did.
* * * * *
While we worked our way through the storm to the ford, I thought about how much better this morning had been and how disappointing this had to be for Beth.
I remembered it had been late morning and we were getting ready to mount up. We had two of Eddie’s horses saddled up and our personal gear either in saddlebags or strapped in a bedroll tied behind the saddle. Beth and I both had carbines in scabbards and revolvers in holsters on our hips. Tools of the trade — it didn’t hurt to go prepared.
“Just for shits and giggles,” Eddie was telling me, “you’ve both got first aid kits and a few MRE’s, each, in your saddlebags. I have to go back to the spa and fire one of the assholes, but I’ll be back here this evening. Give me a call when you get settled in. I’ll wait for Sherry, Linda and Maggie and then come on up with the rest of the horses and the Jeep.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I told him. “We’ll ride along the highway to the access road, then up to our usual spot. We’ll cut over to the cabin per usual. Just in case anybody’s looking for us. I’ll have my cell on, but I don’t expect it to work about three steps out of your driveway.”
“Naw, you won’t get any signal once you’re past Presser’s ranch, ” he told me. “You want radios?”
“I don’t think we’ll need ’em,” I told him. “We’ll call you when we get there.”
Now, see? Right there? That was me being stupid. I make my living cleaning up after Murphy and his damned Law. I should have known better.
“Okay,” he held out his hand. “Good luck. Better get going if you want to beat the dark.” I shook it and he walked over to Beth, who leaned down and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
“Thanks, Uncle Eddie!” she told him. “This beats the hell out of the city!”
He smiled, stepped back and gave her horse a light slap on the rump. And we were off.
Off on what started out as a pleasant and boring ride. We headed out of town, following the shoulder of the highway, getting pleasant smiles from the locals as we rode past. I got a chance to chat with Beth and get caught up on her life, and just became more and more amazed at how much she had grown up.
She was still in the Spring of her Senior year, and although she’d been accepted at several colleges, with scholarships even, because she was a talented musician on several instruments, she didn’t know what she wanted to do. The only thing she was sure of was that it had to involve the outdoors. She was seriously contemplating everything from Park Ranger to Veterinarian. And from my point of view, no matter what she chose, she’d excel at it.
When I asked her about boyfriends, she just sort of pooh-pooh’d me with an “Uncle Jim!…” kind of whine that told me it must be a sore subject. So I pressed it a little and was told she was too busy with the rest of her life and wasn’t dating at the moment. When I asked about Prom — it was her Senior year, after all — she told me she was going to go with a long-time friend, a guy she’d known since grade school. They’d decided it would be a nice, uncomplicated way to enjoy the prom without the drama… according to her, he was gay and wasn’t looking to get laid afterwards.
“Are you a lesbian?” I asked point blank. I’m not really good in the subtle department, especially when it comes to matters of romance and so forth.
“Not exactly,” she told me with a sort of warning tone in her voice that made me decide it would be a really good time to just drop it.
We drifted to reminiscing about previous family reunion vacations and some of the neat memories we had. I filled her in on some of the adventures that were well before her time, and she didn’t mind me talking about her Dad at all. In fact, she encouraged it. She liked knowing some of the stuff he did growing up, before he got all serious about being a responsible parent.