He sat silently on the porch, the old rocker creaking quietly under him as he waited in the darkness. All the lights in his cabin were off and he had turned off the automated lights in the yard as well. The night was clear and cool, the first hint of fall in the air and a soft breeze was flowing down the mountainside.
He was, by nature, a patient man, content to sit and wait as long as it took. He let his eyes roam the forest edge, never stopping, never resting on one spot for very long. He knew his peripheral vision would pick up any movement, anything that didn't belong. The moon was high in the sky, the pale light casting sharp shadows around the bases of the trees at the tree line, and the few small bushes that had come up between the trees and the cabin since the last time he cleared the land there.
He knew his target was out there, he could feel it creeping, stalking, watching. The feeling was like a prickle on his skin, an itch between his shoulder blades. The rifle that lay across his knees was a solid, dependable presence as it rested under his hand. It was just a matter of time.
A hour passed, then a second hour before he sensed movement off to his left. He didn't turn his head or look directly, instead allowing his eyes to scan near where he thought he had spotted the shape. The moon had moved on and was at an angle that cast longer, sharp-edged shadows and the shape he was watching was softer, rounder. It was this difference, as much as the slow movement, that caught his attention.
He could see it now, not clearly, but as a lighter shape against the darkness. It was creeping closer, angling towards its prey on the north side of the cabin. He moved slowly, a glacial pace, raising the rifle towards his shoulder until the butt was firmly wedged in place, the sling tight around his supporting arm. He put his eye to the scope and hit the button, the light gathering mechanism silently began to brighten the scene in a phosphorescent green glow.
He breathed out, then in and, on the exhale, let half the breath go and held, his finger caressing the trigger. He found his target and slowly squeezed the trigger, almost, but not quite, surprised when the shot broke. The recoil was negligible, just a strong push, but the noise, after hours of silence, was startling.
He rode the recoil, bringing the scope back on target quickly in case he needed a follow-up shot, but it was all over. His target thrashed for a moment then stopped moving. He watched for a minute longer and then sighed, heaving himself up out of the rocker and stepped down off the covered porch.
He walked the thirty or so yards to the body and nudged it with his toe, rolling it over. He shook his head, saddened, but not remorseful. Life was tough out here on the mountain, and beautiful female or not, he couldn't afford to lose his hens this close to the beginning of winter.
Slinging his rifle across his back by the strap, he crouched down and worked his arms under the mountain lion, feeling his shoulders and his quads strain a bit as he took up the seventy or so pounds of weight. Carrying it back to the cabin, he laid it inside the steel cage, on top of an old blanket that provided some padding. He dug a small flashlight out of his back pocket and turned it on, holding it in his mouth as he worked the dart out from the mountain lion's fur, taking care not to injure it further. The dart had small barbs, enough to hold it in place so the tranquilizer inside could work its magic without being dislodged.
Once the cage was closed and latched, he headed back inside, unloaded the rifle and ran a patch down the barrel before setting it in the rack alongside half a dozen of its more deadly brethren. He would have to be up about sunrise, so sleep was going to be lacking tomorrow, but it was not the first time by a long shot, and almost certainly not the last.
Not bothering to get undressed, he kicked off his boots, stripped his pistol holster off and set it on the bedside table before laying back and closing his eyes. He was asleep almost instantly.
The sun filtering through the cabin window woke him, just like on every other day, and he groaned as he levered himself up off the soft mattress. Mornings were tough on him, had been for years. Decades of abuse and injuries had made mornings a symphony of creaking joints, aching bones and sore muscles.
He stripped off his shirt, giving himself a quick wipe-down with a medicated cloth and then used the aloe lotion that he bought on his monthly trip to town. He spread it evenly across his chest, left arm, neck and as much of his back as he could reach. If he skipped his daily treatment, he would regret it later.
An outsider, looking at him as he worked, would see a tall, powerfully built man with skin like well-tanned leather. A full beard with streaks of gray and a salt and pepper head of hair that hung between his shoulder blades in the back would catch the eye. With his shirt off, the eye would be drawn to the horrendous burn scars that covered his torso and his arm. It looked as though he was made of wax and left in the sun for too long, as if his skin had run and then been frozen in waves and curls. The color was an angry red in places, with strange purple highlights accented by the white of hard scarring at the peaks. With his shirt off, no one would even notice that he was a handsome man under the beard, not that he ever let anyone see the scars.
Finished with his lotion ritual, he set the coffee pot working and then pulled on a clean, long-sleeved shirt and a light jacket to ward off the morning chill. He slid his feet into his boots and buckled on his pistol, settling it around his waist with a practiced flip. He clipped his badge to his jacket pocket, the gold of the metal bright against the green Park Ranger jacket.
With his thermos full of coffee, he set his battered straw hat on his head, locked the cabin behind him and started up his truck. Letting it warm for a moment as he sat and looked around his property.
His cabin was thirty miles from anywhere, and there was only one dirt track of a road that led this far into the mountains. There was a clear firebreak for fifty yards around the place, the forest was like a living wall, circling on all sides. It was quiet out here, the idling truck the loudest thing for miles, and he loved the peace and quiet.
The cabin was built from one of those kits companies, but for all of that it was a sturdy, warm structure that had lasted for ten years now, and looked to stand a hundred more. It had almost two thousand square feet of floor space, including a large basement that had been dug into the rocky ground. Power was supplied by solar cells on the sharply slanted, A-frame room and a pair of windmills, one on each end of the peak.
The windmills did double duty as backup pumps for the well that supplied running water, though there was also a hand pump if he ever needed it. A septic tank and leech field got rid of waste and a one thousand gallon heating oil tank supplied emergency heat if he ran out of wood for the franklin stoves. Even the chicken coop had heat for the winter months!
There was a second building, not quite as large, but big enough to park his truck, a 6-seat snow cat and a pair of snowmobiles. Along the back wall of his garage were the heating oil tank and a thousand gallon gas tank. As he sat there thinking, he made a mental note to get them filled again before the snows set in. Better safe than sorry.
Today though, he would have to head down to the main ranger station, drop off the cat he had captured last night for relocation. He hated to do it, but he hated to have to go and drag the body of some hiker or camper out of the mountains come spring even more. Folks came up here to enjoy nature, or so they pretended, but they really wanted to take pictures and pretend. His job was to protect the land, and to protect the visitors, the two sometimes mutually exclusive.
He sighed and put the truck into gear, backing it up near the porch where the big cat lay, still unconscious. The weight of the mountain lion, plus the cage, was just over a hundred pounds, but he didn't have any problem sliding it off the porch and onto the tailgate of the truck. Securing the cage was the work of a moment.
Going down to the station, which meant going into town, was his least favorite thing to do. He didn't much like people in general and actively disliked people in groups. He had chosen this line of work because it afforded him the peace he needed, away from civilization, away from the life he hated.
The ranger station sat on the edge of town, a picturesque building in a bucolic setting, designed by some famous architect whose name escaped him. Around the back of the building there were animal pens, and that was his first stop of the morning. He would drop off the mountain lion, fill out the paperwork and let the vet know she had another patient.
The pens were a series of eight foot by ten foot covered, chain link enclosures with small, cozy dog houses on one end. There was running water and, even though they were only intended for short term stays, they were kept clean and neat by the staff. One the end that had the entry door, there was a sliding hatch that mated with the cages the Rangers used. He could attach the cage to the hatch, raise the doors on both and leave it in place. The creature in the cage would wake, eventually, and find its way out of the box and into the larger cage. Then the portable unit could be detatched, all without coming into contact with the animal.
Inside, the station was modern and up to date. Clean and brightly lit, but he scowled at the fluorescent light fixtures as he entered. They would give him a headache if he stuck around too long, something about the frequency and the damage done to his eyes years ago, didn't mesh.
The paperwork didn't take long, and he headed into the Vet's office, almost smiling when he saw that Wendy was here this week. The vets changed weekly, some being more personable than others, but he actually liked Wendy. She was always pleasant, but never insisted on filling the air, and the silence, with a lot of meaningless babble. That she was nice looking never hurt either.
Wendy was a handsome woman. She was striking, but too big to be pretty, standing at almost six feet tall and built like a tank. Not fat, but muscle filled out her lab coat. She had shoulders damn near as wide as his and rock hard thighs bigger than a skinny woman's waist. She was a weight lifting fanatic and she knew, he could tell by the way her eyes tightened when others were in the room, that she was considered a bit of a freak. But she had always been kind to him.
"Morning Henry." Wendy said with a smile as he walked through the door, sweeping his hat off and setting it on the counter. She was the only person in the world that called him Henry, most folks seemed to think Hank was okay, even if he despised the diminutive. Well, the only person since his mother had died more than twenty years ago.
Henry nodded, almost smiling, and leaned over the counter separating the waiting area from the actual vet hospital section, and grabbed the clipboard he needed. He pulled out his pen and began filling out the form required by the government for any catch and release of a protected species.
"Number 10?" Wendy asked, her bag in hand as she stood at the rear door that opened into the pen area. Number 10 was the pen closest to the office, and the logical place to put an animal if it was unoccupied.
Henry glanced up and nodded, then returned to his paperwork.
Wendy watched him for a moment, her mind filled, as it always was when Henry came down off the mountain, with questions. She was fascinated by the taciturn man, wanting to know his story, where he had been and what had made him so stand-offish. He was a handsome guy, under that beard and that long hair, and he had strong, rough hands that made her warm inside, just looking at them. His broad shoulders, thick arms and legs spoke of real strength, something she could admire, and she could tell that there wasn't an ounce of fat on the man.
She ruminated for a moment on his arms, how it would feel to have them around her. He was the first man in a long, long time that she actually had feelings of that sort for. She wondered, not for the first time, about his habit of always wearing long sleeved shirts, even in the heat of the summer. She had daydreamed about rolling up his sleeves and finding dark, intricate tattoos covering him from wrist to shoulder, but had never been able to confirm if it were true or not. She knew that those arms, that chest and those shoulders would be strong enough to match her, and that alone was enough to make her nipples tingle.
Any man who could give her a run for her money was something different, but the ones that weren't assholes were hard to find. She had known, when she had started bulking up, that she would face body image issues, but she loved the feeling of the weights, of the power they gave her. She felt safe and secure, knowing that she could stand up against just about anyone if she needed to. Her own demons demanded it, for sanity if for no other reason.
With a silent sigh, she cast one more longing glance at the Ranger and went out to check on his latest catch. The mountain lions were creeping back into the area again, and it was too damn popular with tourists to allow that. She had the feeling she would be seeing more of them before the first snows fell.
Henry finished his paperwork and, with a glance towards the door where Wendy had exited, he had the urge to follow her and watch her work. Old habits were hard to break though som with a shake of his head, he went out the way he had come in.
Since he had been forced to come into town anyway, there were a few supplies he needed, and he wanted to take a look for a couple of odds and ends to while the time away once the snow started. As far as he was from town, it was not unusual for a hard snow to strand him there for a month or more at a time. He considered that a bonus, drawing pay and not having to actually work. Well, not unless there was an emergency.
He drove further into town, stopping by bank to cash a check and then the feed store. Two 50lb bags of chicken feed went into the back of the truck, along with two more of rock salt. Next stop was the general store where he picked up a hundred pounds of flour, a couple of cases of beans, a couple of mixed vegetables and four cases of that Ramen soup he liked.
His next stop was to pick up oil, spark plugs and a spare set of tracks for his two snowmobiles. Things that he might need in the dead of winter, if he was forced to go out. Last, but not least, he wandered into his favorite store in town, B&B Guns.
The owner of B&B, Bob, of the first B, was a garrulous old fellow who liked nothing more than to spend the day yakking with customers, seeming to prefer gossip to business. He kept up a running monologue while Henry browsed, not minding at all that Henry never said a word in return.
"Got lots of visitors in town to see the leaves change color. Not sure exactly what draws 'em, ceptin maybe cause they cut all theirs down to build malls or somthin'. Theys all bundled up with scarves and mittens like it is dead of winter, half still have tags hangin on 'em!" he chortled, shifting his ever-present, but never lit, cigar from one side of his mouth to the other.
Hank picked up a five pound tin of powder and three boxes of primers, two for his pistols and one for the big 44-40, then added in a new skinning knife to replace the one that was almost worn to a splinter, it had been sharpened so much. In the cabinet to the left of the register, his eye was drawn to a revolver, one that he hadn't seen last time he was in here.
With a blunt finger pointing the way and an inquisitive look, Bob got the message and pulled the revolver out, laying it on a padded matt atop the glass case. Henry picked up the revolver an examined it closely, confirming what he had hoped. It was a 3-screw Blackhawk, and by the feel when he thumbed back the hammer, it was unmolested! Not often you can find one these days, he thought as he used his flashlight to check out the rifling in the barrel.
"Yes sir, you got you an eye for the right guns, I can see. That there Ruger is lightly, lovingly used, prolly no more than a box of ammo has been through it. It ain't had the lawyer job done to it neither. I still can't believe they converted all those old single actions just cause one idjit shot hisself. Some of the folks that had them stayed smart and ignored the recall, so the action is still smooth as a baby's ass. Got that one at an estate sale this spring..."
Henry ignored the chatter but he couldn't bring himself to set the revolver back on the counter. These were hard to find and the old geezer was right, it was in fantastic shape. The conversion the old man was babbling about was the result of a lawsuit. Someone had been carrying the pistol with 6 rounds in the cylinder and the hammer cocked back, dropped it and the revolver fired. The conversion would stop that from happening, but it made the action on the revolver feel gritty, clunky even. The pre-conversion guns were as smooth as silk and much sought after.
He laid the revolver down, finally, but not back on the mat, instead he laid it on top of the gear he was buying. If he could avoid shooting himself in the foot, he was thinking it would give him a hobby for this winter. On that topic, he added a case of .357 rounds to the growing stack of purchases, and sketched a mock salute to the old man as he left.
"You come back any time, Ranger! Anyone as talkative and all around charming as you are is always welcome in my store!" Bob cackled, slapping the counter and smiling at his own wit.
His shopping done, except to stop and order a fuel delivery for the cabin, he left his truck in front of the gun store and walked down the block, headed for Mom's diner. It was a kitschy little place, designed to look like it was a 50's diner for the tourists, but Janet, the owner, was a hell of a good cook no matter the decor.
Inside the diner, brushed stainless and red vinyl furniture lent a malt-shop feel to the place. There were a dozen customers, seated two or three to a table, but the counter was empty so Henry close a stool and laid his hat on the next one.
Lucy, the waitress, ambled over and smiled at him, quirking an eyebrow. "Whatcha having, Ranger?"
"Coffee, waffles, bacon, wheat toast, orange juice please." Henry ordered, saying more in that short sentence than he had said in days. His voice showed it too, being rough and raw, rasping like the rusty hinges on an old barn door.
The waitress did a double-take, eyeing him thoughtfully. In her mind, she was seeing an old trapper like in the western she and her husband had watched the night before. She enjoyed making up stories about her customers, this one was on the run from the law, that couple was stepping out on their respective spouses and the lone guy at the table in the corner was a reclusive millionaire. This Ranger was a trapper that came to town once a year to sell his pelts, get drunk and visit the whore house.
She grinned as she wrote up his order and turned to pass it back to the kitchen. As she continued her duties, cleaning up behind the counter, she kept half an eye on the Ranger and her mental fantasy dressed him in furs. The beard and long hair was perfect the way it was, and she could even imagine that he had propped his rifle against the counter and that he had a pair of pack mules tied to the rail outside. She brought him his coffee and juice, and had the almost overwhelming urge to ask about how many skins he brought this time. The thought made her chuckle.
Henry, sitting quietly and listening to the conversations going on around him, was aware of the waitress's scrutiny, but it didn't feel predatory in any way. She wasn't scoping him out as a possible date or a mark, and he wasn't sure why she was fascinated, but as long as she didn't expect anything from him, he didn't much care either.
As he sipped his coffee and waited for his food, memories crept up on him. It always seemed to happen when he came to town, another of the many reasons he avoided civilization unless forced. He would be around people and the memories would come, rarely would they be pleasant.
This diner evoked memories of a little place called Morro Bay, down the coast in central California. It was a place much like this where his last real relationship ended, damn near ten years ago. He had been back from Afghanistan for almost a week and was finally getting some much needed leave time. He had called Maggy, Margaret Alson, his fiancé, telling her he was back in town and she had said that she couldn't get out of work for an hour, to meet her at the Bayside Cafe for lunch.
He had arrived early and grabbed a booth, sipping iced tea and snacking on some french fries while he waited. She had arrived in cloud of dust, sliding to a halt in the dirt parking lot, her little convertible being driven way too fast, like always. She strutted to the diner and Henry watched, smiling. She was a beautiful woman, slim and refined with raven hair that shone in the sunlight when she pulled off the scarf that had protected her from the wind.
She smiled and waved at him when she entered the diner, spotting him in the back corner where she expected to find him. Henry just raised a hand, then smiled hugely as she strutted through the place and slid into the bench across from him. That was the first sign, he knew now. He had been gone for ten months and not even a kiss hello?
"Hank, I am so glad to see you are back, safe and sound. I know I didn't write anywhere near as much as I should have, but there is a reason for that. You see, I wanted to have this conversation face to face." She paused and sipped from the glass of water, her eyes not meeting his.
"I met someone, Hank. He's a stock broker, a wonderful man who doesn't go traipsing off playing soldier and trying to get killed." His profession had long been a bone of contention between them, but he had thought they were at an impasse, agreeing to disagree. Evidently he was wrong.
He sat and studied her for a moment, his face expressionless. He had known for a long time that he wasn't in love with her, not in the story-book fashion anyway, but he did love her and would gladly have spent his life with her. Thoughts of her, memories of their times together, had been the one bright spot in a string of shitty deployments, fighting for a goal no one could see in a war that no one could win.
Meanwhile, she had been fucking someone else. Wasn't that special. He could feel his temper simmering, just below the surface. The rage that always seemed to be just a heartbeat away from breaking free. Henry closed his eyes and counted to ten, then again. When he opened them again, she was staring at him like he had two heads.
"Aren't you listening to me, Hank?" she asked, annoyed.
"I heard you, Margaret. You found someone else to fuck while I was away. I get it. Now, if you will excuse me?" he growled, standing up and walking out, leaving her sitting there with her mouth open.
"Hank? Hank! Don't walk away from me!" she cried out behind him, but he wasn't inclined to give a shit.
Henry shook his head, trying to clear that memory. He had left the diner, spent the next week so drunk that it was all a blur and, when he had sobered up, had signed in early from his leave and volunteered for the next deployment. Not his most shining moment, he thought.
When his meal was done, he left enough money by his plate to cover the cost and a generous tip as well, before settling his hat on his head and walking out. The sound of his boots on the linoleum seeming to echo strangely in his mind.
On the drive back out of town another memory surfaced. This Oregon town wasn't much like his home town, but it had enough similarity that the street he was on could well have been the one that led to his childhood home. Another leave, another heartbreak, though of a different kind this time.
He had been all of nineteen when he took emergency leave to come back to the town where he had been raised. He had been contacted by the Chaplain who had a Red Cross telegram in hand. There had been a fire at his childhood home, his parents and little brother didn't make it out. The Army, as bad as it was about a lot of things, did one thing right every single time. For compassionate leave, when a family member was killed, they would pull out all of the stops and have the soldier on the next available transport, leave orders and advance pay in hand.
He had taken a taxi from the airport, traveling down a tree-lined residential street much like the one he was on now. As the taxi turned onto his street, he could see the burned out shell of his parent's house at the top of the cul-de-sac, a line of yellow tape surrounding the front of the property to warn off the spectators. The house was not recognizable, a pile of blackened remains with a few bones raised to the overcast sky. The only part still standing, seeming undamaged except for the soot, was the chimney.
He asked the cab driver to wait as he got out and stood there on the sidewalk, not sure why he had come but knowing he had to see. It wasn't like he could do anything now, there was nothing to salvage and the bodies were already gone. Still, he stood there and stared, a million memories vying for time behind his eyes.
He wasn't sure how long he stood there, but when he got back into the cab, he had to wake the driver who had been napping behind the wheel and asked him for the nearest motel.
Henry, back in the present, left the town behind him and soon was back in the forest, turning off on the long dirt road that would take him to his sanctuary, his only respite from the memories that threatened to overwhelm him. It was the only place he had found where he could sleep without nightmares.
When he turned on the last dogleg up the mountain before his cabin, he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. He slowed the truck, creeping along as he examined the feeling, his eyes scanning, searching for what his subconscious already knew.
There were tire tracks on the road that were not his own. Someone not familiar with the road had gotten too close to the edge and he could see where the grasses were broken down along the soft shoulder. Henry had been here for years and knew every inch of that road, and he knew how easy it was to get stuck along the shoulder when the rains came. He was careful, even when it was dry, to stick to the higher areas closer to the hillside.
He stopped the truck shy of the clearing and reached for a set of binoculars that were in the glove box. He scanned through the trees, seeing his cabin past the myriad tree trunks, looking for movement or for anything out of place.
A truck. A Ranger vehicle, was parked alongside the house ... Henry took a deep breath, stowed the binoculars and let off the brake. Why someone from the station would be up here when he had just been down there this morning, he didn't know. Come to think of it, he still had his radio ... Henry glanced down and grinned, he hadn't turned it on. He had been cited three times this year already for not following protocol and having his radio turned off.
As he drove into the clearing, he was not sure whether to be pleased or alarmed. Wendy, the vet, was sitting in his rocking chair on the front porch. He turned his truck and backed it up to the porch, to make unloading easier, and shut it down.
"Hey Hank." Wendy said, rising up from the chair self-consciously.
"Wendy." Henry replied, nodding at her and waiting patiently. He figured that she would tell him why she was here in her own good time.
Wendy shuffled her feet nervously, staring down at him, then bent and picked up a satchel that sat by the chair.
"You, um ... You had some mail." she said, holding out the satchel.
Henry just nodded, not speaking.
"I ... I thought I would bring it to you, seeing how you don't get down to the station very often." she explained, then paused, her cheeks flushed. "Damn. Okay, that is not true. It is mostly junk, and I wanted to see where you lived." Her eyes didn't meet his but if they had, they might have seen the corner of his mouth quirk, as if in amusement.
"Coffee?" Henry asked, motioning towards the door with his head.
"I'd love some!" Wendy said, smiling. She couldn't have explained how she knew, but she was certain he wasn't angry at her just showing up, in fact, if pressed, she would say that he was glad for the company.
Henry unlocked the door and motioned her inside, grabbing an arm full of gear and following her. He set his packages down by the door and headed to the kitchen, starting a pot of coffee to brew.
He made four more trips out to the truck, leaving the feed and the rock salt on the porch, before he had his purchases stacked inside the house. Then, hanging his hat and jacket on a hook by the door, he glanced around to find Wendy slowly making a circuit of the living area, her eyes taking in everything.
He shook his head, wondering what was on her mind. She would get to the point when she was ready, he supposed, and he headed back to pour coffee into a pair of mugs. He joined her in the living area, handing her one of the mugs with a questioning tilt of his head.
"Black is fine, thanks." Wendy answered, not even thinking to wonder how she knew that had been the question in his mind.
Henry's house had a very simple floor plan. It was mostly open on this floor, only the bathroom and bedroom were behind doors, kitchen and living area were all one big space, only delineated by a change from tile in the kitchen to hardwood elsewhere. There was a ladder in one corner, leading up to a loft area that he used for storage, and leading down into the basement that he used for his reloading bench, weight room and, along the wall where the bedroom lay above, more storage.
There wasn't much in the way of decorations, though he had gotten a wild hair a couple of years ago and hung a dozen pictures on one wall. There were photos of his parents, his brother and some shots taken during half a dozen deployments in the military. The rest of the walls were bare of decorations, but there were tools, a rifle rack, rope, snow shoes and other bits and bobs hanging here and there.
Wendy completed her circuit of the room, sipping her coffee silently, and ended back in front of the photographs again. She studied each one, sneaking sideways looks at Henry where he sat in a recliner near the cast iron stove. When she turned to face him again, he waved a hand at the couch, an invitation to sit and let him know what she wanted, why she really came.
Wendy sighed and sat down, her eyes on Henry.
"I know I shouldn't have come up here, uninvited." she admitted, shaking her head. "The thing is, you don't talk much and the other Rangers just shrug a lot when I asked about you. Seems like no one really knows you down there. They all say you are a good man to have at their backs if there is trouble, and that no one knows the mountain like you do, but beyond that you are a mystery to them too.
"I was curious." she paused for a moment, her eyes unfocused, then gave a little shiver. "Can I tell you a story? I ... I am not sure, really, why, but I feel like you should know. I am pretty sure you won't be blabbing it to anyone." she said with a tight grin.
Henry just nodded, the corner of his mouth quirking again.
"I was fresh out of college, working at this clinic way out in the boondocks. They mostly dealt with cattle and horses, with a few pets thrown it. It was my dream job, I love the big animals. We had gotten a call on a lame horse, a show horse that was headed for some competition in another week and they were concerned. The other vet was out and it was just me and the receptionist, so I volunteered to go and have a look.
"The ranch was about fifty miles out, dirt roads like yours, and I took my Bronco, all loaded up with everything I thought I might need. Turned out to be just a bruised hoof and I was back on the road within the hour. That's when things started to go wrong. The Bronco broke down about halfway back to town, overheated and wouldn't start even after it cooled down. No cell phone service and my CB radio wasn't getting anything but static, so I gave up and started walking.
"I had gone maybe ten miles and I was sore as all get out. Back then I was a skinny little thing, about a hundred and twenty pounds, and exercise is what I called my weekly game of tennis in college. A truck rolled by and I waved it down, asked for a ride into town. The guy driving it, no one I had ever seen before, gave me a creepy feeling but my feet were hurting and it was at least another fifteen miles so I ignored it and got in.
"He pulled off the road a few miles further and demanded payment for the ride. When I told him that I didn't have any money..." Wendy stopped, tears streaming down her cheeks and her breath coming fast and hard. Several minutes passed before she was under control again and, after scrubbing at her cheeks with the back of her hand, she continued.
"He said he wasn't talking about money and grabbed me. He raped me. Several times over the next couple of hours. He left me, naked and bleeding from just about every opening, two black eyes, a broken wrist and a broken nose. I don't remember much about the next day, but I somehow made it back to town, naked and afraid. A local woman saw me, wrapped me in a blanket and called the police."
She was silent for a long while then. Henry got her a fresh cup of coffee and some napkins to blow her nose. Then he waited, knowing she wanted, she needed to get this out.
"They never found him. I spent the next couple of years terrified he would find me again. I left that practice and moved home with my folks, saw a therapist. Nothing seemed to help the nightmares. It was in physical therapy, exercising as part of my treatment, that I found out how to get a decent night's sleep. If I worked myself hard enough, was exhausted, then I would just collapse at the end of the day. It became a cycle and I was killing myself. I was down to less than ninety pounds, throwing up blood when a lady who, frankly, scared the hell out of me, pulled me aside one day.
"She was a body builder, and she told me about her abusive ex, how a desire to protect herself had started her on the road to getting stronger. The more she talked, the more I saw of myself and the more I wanted to be like her. Strong. Independent. Powerful. It's been almost ten years, and while I never had the competitive bug, I still love the feel of working out, the endorphins and the confidence it gives me. Most men, hell, most people of both sexes, look at me like I am a freak.
"But you never have. You come in to the office a few times a year and have always looked at me like a person. I never saw that distaste or the fear in your eyes that I see from the rest of them. You are a big man, strong and independent, something I found attractive. I guess that is why I came. I wanted to know more about you."
Henry sat quietly, mulling over her story, watching her face. He could tell that she was hurting, reliving stuff like that took a toll on a body, but she seemed less tense now, relieved to have told someone else, shared the burden.
"Want to stay for dinner?" he asked quietly.
Wendy's head snapped up, her eyes wide. In the three years she had known him, she had rarely heard him speak beyond saying her name. His voice was raw, hoarse, and she could tell that he didn't talk much to anyone, not just her.
"I would love to, Henry." she said, smiling shyly at the Ranger.
The afternoon passed in quiet companionship. Neither one of them had much to say as she helped him stow his purchases and followed him, helping when she could, as he attended to some chores around the place. When the sun started to set, she followed him into the kitchen, sitting on a stool and watching him while he gathered the ingredients for a meal.
The menu that night was chicken breast, butter-flied and sautéed with garlic and onions. Baked potato and a side salad filled out the menu, and Henry poured a couple frosty mugs full of apple cider from an earthenware jug in the fridge.
Wendy watched him, still fascinated after hours together, and was surprised to find herself relaxed, enjoying her time. She felt at home here, with this man, for the first time since her ordeal so long ago. She found herself wondering if he would allow her to visit again since he seemed to enjoy her visit as well.
After dinner, Henry surprised her by opening a bottle of wine and pulling out a pair of dusty wine glasses from the back of the cupboard. He rinsed the glassed, poured them half full and handed one to her, not bothering to ask. They moved out to the porch, Henry sitting in the rocker and Wendy on a small bench next to him, and watched the sun sink behind the trees.
"Road gets tricky in the dark. You can stay, if you like." Henry said, not looking her way, his eyes still on the tree line.
Wendy considered, wondering if he meant that to be an invitation to his bed, or just an invitation to sleep on the couch; not sure which one she hoped it would be. There was much about the strong silent man she found fascinating, but this once she found herself wishing he were a little more talkative. She smiled at the thought, and instead of saying anything, she simply nodded.
When the wine was finished, Henry went back inside, put away a few last things and went into his bedroom, returning with a pair of sweats and a thick robe, holding them both out to Wendy, asking her which she preferred.
Wendy chose the sweats and, when Henry nodded towards the bathroom, she took that as an invitation to take her shower first. Under the sink in the bathroom she found a half-dozen unopened tooth brushes and fresh towels.
Henry waited until she had gone into the bathroom and closed the door, then headed down to the basement. He had some spare blankets and even a pillow that he had bought and found too soft for his liking. He was assuming she would want to stay on the couch, but he was going to offer her the room and take the couch for himself. He found them on a shelf, still wrapped in plastic, and had them laid out on the couch when Wendy was done showering.
When she came out of the bathroom, almost glowing from the hot water and her hair still damp, Henry felt a stirring. She was a very attractive woman, and he hadn't felt this kind of desire in a lot of years.
He gestured towards the bedroom and, when he saw her eyes go wide, he shook his head.
"Sorry, not used to talking much. You take the bed, I'll take the couch."