The Smoke of Distant Autumn Fires

by Janet Fremont

Copyright© 2015 by Janet Fremont

Romantic Story: Two strangers meet by chance. A cusp in life, no matter how small, can change everything. But once missed, can never be regained.

Caution: This Romantic Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa   Romantic   Heterosexual   .

Bob Harris again gave a disgusted look to the silent engine of the Ford and then shifted his gaze - just as disgustedly - to his watch. Then, in a way completely uncharacteristic for him, he vented his feelings with a single, loud expletive. "Shit!" The sudden profanity seemed to bring him back to his surroundings, but did nothing to alleviate his turmoil. Four o'clock! In another hour he was supposed to be in a town another hundred and fifty miles along the road. And that was with this short cut. Short cut! Yeah, on the map it had looked almost forty miles shorter to take this state road through the New Hampshire mountains.

When he had left Boston that morning, heading towards Montreal, he had been a little late, and this route had looked like a good idea. And he had to admit that the drive had been beautiful. It was Friday, the eleventh of October, 1968, and the color of the changing woods was spectacular. The sky was an unrelenting blue, the air cool, but not cold, and the sun painted the land with golden light. Along these byways, the war in Nam, the unrest at home, all seemed like something distant, a description in a book about happenings long ago or in some fictional place. Of course, he admitted to himself, he had only occasionally looked at the lovely scenery, spending most of his time and concentration on the sales presentation he was supposed to make at nine the next morning. A "must sell" client. If he could get a buy tomorrow, he would open an entirely new market in Canada. He looked up and down the deserted highway, vainly hoping for sight of another car. Not that that was likely. He had been here for an hour and a half already and only one vehicle had passed in all that time. He looked away from the ribbon of asphalt across the mountainsides of red and yellow and orange without really seeing them and then back once more at the car and then his watch. Once again, but this time just to himself, he said, "Shit!"

Bob Harris was twenty-four years old, two years out of college, with a degree in mechanical engineering. Unlike most of his class, he had never worked in actual engineering, but upon graduation had immediately taken a job in engineering sales. He did not have the driving urge to tinker with things, as did most of the other graduates, and had gone into engineering for the very practical reason that it paid well. With the Apollo program, the Supersonic Transport, the war, and a boom in technology in general, the demand for engineers was high, but the highest income was reserved for those who "went over to the other side" and spent their lives selling the products the "real" engineers produced. Bob didn't mind the jibes from those on the technical side - he had a goal of being VP of Engineering before he was thirty and in the two years he had worked for AMMANCO he had set himself well along the way towards that goal. He had been promoted twice and brought in more business than any three of the other sales engineers combined. Of course, that had it's price. Seventy hour weeks, no vacations, little in the way of outside relationships. This was supposed to be the time of the Free Love Generation, but Bob had only dated four or five women since graduation and slept with only one of them. Family and co-workers reminded him frequently to "take time to smell the roses," but he always thought he would have time for that when he had made VP. Until then every minute went towards that goal.

His car, only two years old, had never given him any trouble until this afternoon. Suddenly, as he swung around a curve in the mountain road, the engine began to miss. At first he thought he must have gotten some bad gas, but this didn't act quite like that. It would run smoothly for some seconds and then suddenly skip. It got worse. If he tried to accelerate, the engine skipped more and soon died. It restarted, but as soon as he tried to move, he lost power and the engine died again. He restarted the car a dozen times, each time moving only a hundred yards or so before it stalled. Finally it would no longer even start.

He was on a downhill stretch and was able to let the car roll to where there was a cleared area along the shoulder where he let it coast to a stop under a large maple. Bob was a mechanical engineer, after all, and he did know something about cars. He checked the carburetor and found it unclogged and delivering gas. He pulled a spark plug and found it clean and the engine compressing nicely when he turned it over. He got a spark when he held a spark plug wire near the block. Gas, air, spark. If an engine had that it should run. Unless it was timing. There was nothing he could do to check that, so he finally got out a map and tried to see how far it was to the nearest town. He thought it was about ten or twelve miles, but he couldn't be sure, because he hadn't really been keeping track of exactly where he was. Still, he was pretty sure it was too far to walk and still have enough time to get the Ford fixed. His best bet would be to hope for a lift from a passing car.

He looked again at his watch. Four ten. Even if he found a ride and a repair shop, it was getting less and less likely he was going to be able to make his nine AM Friday meeting in Montreal. And they had made special arrangements to have several of their key people in town in the morning just for him. Again, unbidden, the thought came: "Shit!"

As he continued to look disgustedly at the motionless vehicle, a sound began to penetrate his mind. A car! He quickly stepped into the road and looked back towards the top of the hill down which he had rolled earlier. A jeep, top down, suddenly appeared, rising above the crest and starting down the road towards him. Bob began to wave his arms and as the jeep approached, the driver began to slow.

As the oncoming vehicle neared, Bob could see that the driver was a young woman. She pulled the car off beside his own and came to a halt. "Having trouble?" she asked.

"No kidding," he answered. "I seem to have a timing problem or something and I have to be in Montreal tomorrow morning. Can you tell me where I can find a garage around here?"

The girl smiled at him. He noticed, but his mind didn't really register, that she was about his own age, maybe a little younger. Her blonde hair, long and straight, fell half way down her back in the current "in" style, and her eyes were a dark, indigo blue. Her face was quite pretty even though she wore no makeup. She had on jeans and a bulky sweater which hid her figure, but she looked slim. She turned off the jeep engine and stepped out of the car. The jeans fit her like a second skin and Bob saw that her legs were long and tapered. As she turned and closed the car door, he noticed that the jeans fit her rounded buttocks even more closely.

She walked over to peer into the engine compartment of the Ford for a second and then she looked around at the deserted countryside and said, "Around here? No, but Frank Arrons runs one in Oakwood. That's about a dozen miles down the road. Are you sure it's not just flooded or something?"

"I'm afraid it's not that simple," he answered. "I've already checked the easy stuff and I'm pretty sure it's either the valve or spark timing."

"Well, I can offer you a lift into town. How's that sound?"

"That would be wonderful! The best thing that's happened all afternoon." He reached back into the car and pulled out a leather briefcase before climbing into the right side of the jeep. As the girl got into the driver's side he said, "I'm Bob Harris."

She replied, "I'm Susan Martin." She put out her hand and he took it, receiving a firm, warm shake in return. She started the car and pulled back out onto the highway. "So, what are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere anyway?"

Bob told her about the short cut and his meeting in Montreal the next morning. He found himself telling her about the company he worked for and his sales job. Suddenly he realized he had been running on - probably just because of the relief of seeing another car and the renewed chance of still completing his trip - but he forced himself to stop and instead asked her, "Do you live around here?"

Susan nodded her head. "Sort of. I'm in grad school over at the college." She jerked her head behind her in the direction of the college town Bob had driven though a couple of hours earlier. I don't have any Friday classes so I decided to come back to Oakwood for the weekend. I have a house - or rather my parents have a house - just outside of town. It's their house," she added, "but they don't live there any more. Moved south where it doesn't get so cold."

In twenty minutes they pulled into a small New England village. Bob could see a central square with an open green, a couple of churches with tall steeples, and a number of older buildings. As they pulled into town, he noticed a sign: OAKWOOD, Pop. 340. Susan swung a quarter of the way around the square and another block down a side street before pulling up in front of an older brick building with a large garage door and a pair of gas pumps out in front. A sign proclaimed "Frank's Standard Service."

She shut off the engine and got out along with Bob. As they started towards the door, the sound of a compressor suddenly stopped and a few seconds later the lights went off in the service area. A man, about forty, came out of a small door, wiping his hands on a red rag. He stopped when he saw Susan and said, "Hi, Susan. Back in town for the weekend?"

"That's right, Frank, and I've brought along someone who needs your help. Bob, here, has his car stuck off the side just below the pass on Greentop."

Frank looked over at Bob. "Stuck?" he asked.

"More stalled," Bob replied. "I checked and I'm getting gas, compression, and spark, so I guess it's something with the timing. I really, really need to be in Montreal tomorrow morning. Any chance of getting it fixed tonight? I'll pay extra."

Frank ignored the monetary offer. "I can't know until I see what's wrong." He looked at his watch. "I don't have anyone else here now, but I was just going to close, so I'll take the truck out there and tow it back in. Where are you going to be and I can give you a call in an hour or so?"

"I don't know where anything around here is. Any chance I could rent a car somewhere and pick mine up next Monday?"

"No place I know of closer than Concord. Afraid you're out of luck there. And before you ask, no bus through here until tomorrow afternoon."

Bob could feel the tension throughout his whole body. How was he going to work around this? "Then I guess I'll just have to wait and see if you can fix it. Any hotel in town?" he asked without much hope.

"Nope, sorry, " Frank answered.

Susan spoke up. "Why don't you come over and you can stay at my place until we see what Frank can do?" She looked over at the older man. "Give a call out there when you find out something, OK?"

"Sure, Susan. Have you got the keys, Bob?"

Bob handed them over and only belatedly, as Frank climbed into the tow truck and drove off, did he think to say, "I'm sorry, Susan, I don't want to put you to too much trouble. I can just wait here until Frank comes back."

"Don't be silly," she replied. "It's going to start cooling off pretty soon and the station doors are locked. Besides, I told him to call at my place. Come on."

His mind still raging at his problems, Bob mumbled his thanks and opened the car door for her before climbing in the other side himself. He sat in silence as Susan drove out of town on a small road. In just a couple of miles she pulled into a gravel drive beside a line of old oak trees. The drive ran for a hundred feet or so and ended beside an old, two story frame house. Bob had the impression of a typical Georgian, central front door, matching chimneys at each end, and then Susan pulled around to the back corner. She shut off the car and got out. "Welcome to sanity," she said.

Bob gave her a funny look, but she was already climbing the back steps onto the porch and unlocking a door into the house. He followed her inside and entered the large kitchen just behind her. She led him into a front living room and over to a large side window. Here she stopped and raised an old fashioned roll-up blind and stood looking out through the glass. She let out her breath in a relaxed sigh and said, "After a few days at school I need this view. It's the best tension reliever in the world."

Bob moved over behind her. He stood looking over her shoulder and noticed for the first time that they had come far up the side of a mountain. Before him stretched an open view of thickly wooded hills and distant ridges, the sun just beginning to slide below the farthest and above it he could already see Venus emerging as the evening star. Standing behind her, he also noticed for the first time that the girl was tall - at least five eight. Bob stood six foot one himself and was used to towering over most women, but Susan's head came within several inches of his own. He could also now see that the bulky sweater concealed what looked to be nicely shaped breasts and lower down, a very small waist. Now that she was standing, the sweater fell from her shoulders and clung to the curves of her body, revealing a very nice figure indeed. His mind took all of this in, but again most of it did not register. He was still occupied with twisting, tumbling thoughts of how he could handle his meeting the next day. He had worked for this for months and now he still didn't know when - or even if - he would get there. If he could get the car fixed, he could drive all night if necessary and maybe make the meeting.

Susan was very aware of the man behind her. From her first sight of him as she had stopped beside his disabled car, she had been attracted. Part of it was physical: he was young and attractive, well built even if he looked like he spent too much time indoors. But there was also something else, something she could not quite define, something which had, if anything, grown stronger in the forty minutes since that meeting. Now she stood looking not at him, but out of the window. Still she suddenly felt a shiver begin between her shoulders and slide down her back to the bottom of her spine. It took all of her willpower not the let her body visibly shake with the effect of it. He didn't really seem aware of her as a woman even though she was well aware that she usually rated second and third looks from most males. For a brief instant she wondered if he might be more attracted to men than women, but almost instantly dismissed this: he just didn't seem that type to her. No, she decided, it was just that he was fixated on some inner problem. Probably his meeting and car problems. After a half a minute she turned slightly so she could see him and asked, "Would you like something to drink?"

Bob seemed to come slightly out of his inner world and smiled at her. "That would be nice, if it's not too much trouble. Thanks."

"No trouble at all. I have soda or a jug of rose."

"The wine sounds good, but I still hope to be driving tonight. I'd better stick to soda."

"Hey, look. By the time Frank gets your car back and fixed, one glass will have worn off. Splurge, and have the rose."

Laughing, Bob answered, "I guess you're right. I will have a glass. Thanks again."

Susan headed back into the kitchen, calling over her shoulder, "I'll get it. Be right back." He looked out of the window, really seeing it for the first time. As he stared at the setting sun, he heard her clinking glassware in the other room and then as her footsteps returned she asked, "Is that meeting really that important? Why not just relax and forget it tonight. You can call them in the morning and tell them you won't be able to make it."

He took the proffered glass of red liquid and replied, "I can't do that. I asked for the meeting and they arranged for a bunch of their big cheeses to come in for it. If I don't make it, they'll never want to sign on." She looked questioningly at him and suddenly Bob found himself explaining about his driving attempt to score not just this client, but also the whole VP quest.

While he talked, Susan studied the man before her. He was definitely physically attractive. Even now, dressed incongruously for the New Hampshire small town countryside in dress slacks, button down white shirt, and loafers, he looked like he could belong out here. There was an excitement in his voice as he described his plans and Susan could see the intense drive and determination below the surface. But there was a tension, a hard edge, about him which would never let him relax. Susan had met men like this before and suddenly she felt a wave of sadness as in her mind she saw the inevitable future for such a man. In ten years he would look twenty years older than his actual age. The lines around his eyes and mouth would be hard and deep and even if he succeeded in becoming VP as he desired, he would almost certainly never be satisfied with his life. Her uncle had been such a man - that is, until he died of a heart attack at fifty-two.

As Bob continued to talk and as Susan listened with rapt attention, he slowly became aware of her attractiveness. He continued to speak but his mind was now noticing not only her lovely shape and beautiful face, but also the warm personality behind the enticing outer facade. Her questions were sincere and she really seemed interested in what he was saying, even though he could see something in her eyes which seemed to trouble her slightly. He began to think that maybe, when he could get some time, maybe in a couple of weeks after this meeting, maybe he could find time to come back here and try to ask her out. She was definitely attracting him more than any woman had in years and he was beginning to feel that almost forgotten longing located somewhere in his stomach, or perhaps a little lower down. But even as he considered how he could approach her when he came back, his rational mind told him that it wouldn't really happen. He'd never find the time, or if he did get a couple of days free, he was sure she wouldn't be willing to settle for a once every other weekend or so date. He had learned to be honest with himself and now the image of this girl held tightly in his arms began to fade.

Susan noticed a little of the animation begin to leave his eyes and quickly tried to bring him back with a bright smile. He still sounded just as excited, but she could see his face harden a little and a fleeting look of having lost something - or, maybe more accurately, having lost the chance to gain something - momentarily cross his handsome face. She was trying desperately to find something to say when the phone suddenly rang.

The phone interrupted Bob's train of thought and both he and Susan gave a little involuntary start at the sudden sound. He trailed off and Susan gave him a smile and went out into the hall to answer it. He heard her speak for a few seconds and then she was coming back into the big room. "That was Frank. He's got your car back and thinks he knows what might be wrong, but he doesn't think he can fix it tonight. He's waiting at the station for us so he can tell you what it is himself."

At the mention of Frank's name, Bob's face had taken on a look of hope, but that quickly disappeared as he took in the news that he wouldn't make it to Montreal before the next day. Susan was already making her way back through the kitchen to the back door before he even began to move. As he quickly followed her, it suddenly hit him that he had no idea what he was going to do about a place to eat of stay until morning. Shaking his head at this new problem, he followed Susan back out to the Jeep and climbed inside.

In a few minutes they pulled up at the service station. Bob could see his car inside in the service bay where Frank had the hood raised and was doing something to the engine. They quickly went inside and Frank stood up, bringing with him some part of the automobile. Susan called out a hello to him and he turned and held up the part, which turned out to be the distributor. "Look's like you were right about the timing. The bushing on the distributor shaft has cracked - scored the shaft pretty badly, too - and it's letting the shaft wobble too much to fire right."

He pointed out an obviously broken section of metal on the part and went on to say, "I'll have to get another one. I can call in tomorrow morning and if we're lucky, they can have one up here by afternoon."

"No chance of getting it any earlier?" Bob asked, without much hope.

Frank looked sympathetic, but shook his head and said, "Afraid not. If they have one in stock they can get it up here tomorrow. Otherwise, it'll be Monday before I can do anything with it. Better get your stuff out of the car." He nodded towards the suitcase on the back seat.

His mind in turmoil, Bob retrieved his suitcase and a smaller gym bag. Frank told him to call after nine the next morning and by then he'd know if the part was coming that afternoon. Bob thanked him, and Frank and Susan said goodby. They walked back out to the Jeep and Bob threw the suitcase into the back. As he climbed inside and Susan started the engine, he said, "I really would like to thank you for all of your help. I know I've been an awful lot of trouble, but if I could trouble you for one more thing, could you tell me where I can find a motel and maybe somewhere to get supper tonight?"

Susan flashed a bright smile at him. "I'm afraid there's no motel closer than forty miles and I don't know of a diner less than twenty-five." She saw the look that crossed the man's features and quickly added. "But if you'd like I've got plenty of room. Why don't you spend the night at my place. I expect I could even find something for you to eat."

Bob immediately started to protest. "I couldn't do that. You've already spent too much of your time on me."

Susan had pulled up to a stop sign and for a second she turned and gave him a steady look. "What are you going to do? Hike forty miles tonight?" She turned back to the road and started driving once again.

Bob realized she was right. He seemed to have no options. He still had no idea what he could do about the meeting, but the immediate need was food and a place to stay. After a minute he said, "All right, but you've got to let me pay you something for it. I really can't just take advantage of you any more."

"We'll talk about it," Susan replied. Then she added with a laugh, "Maybe I want to be taken advantage of." She turned back to the road and Bob let the remark pass as he sank into a worrisome mood, obviously lost in trying to salvage something of the disaster his plans had become.

He said no more until Susan again pulled up at the back of her house. "Bring your stuff in," she called as she headed towards the back door. She disappeared inside and Bob noticed that she hadn't even locked the door when they had left. He smiled to himself. Definitely not the city. In Boston he would never leave his door unlocked for even a ten minute trip down the street. Still ruefully smiling, he shook his head, picked up his bags, and headed inside.

When he entered the kitchen, Susan called from somewhere farther on, "Come on upstairs and I'll show you your room." He followed her voice and at the top of the stairs saw her duck into a room on the right side of the hallway. He went into it and saw she was placing a stack of sheets and blankets on a single bed. He looked around the room and saw plain wood furniture: the bed, a dresser and night table, and a fair sized desk. "Used to be my brother's room," Susan enlightened him. "Before he grew up and moved to California."

Bob smiled at her. "Let me guess. He became a full time surfer, has a little place on the beach, and plans to get into movies someday."

Susan laughed. "Not exactly. He's got a masters in aeronautical engineering and works for Hughes. I don't think he's ever been on a surfboard in his life."

Bob laughed back at her. "I was just kidding. I know a lot of you guys just take time to 'find yourself' when you get out of school. What do you plan to do?"

"You mean 'when I grow up?'" Susan said with just the slightest edge to her voice. "I'm probably almost as old as you are. Just because you went right to work out of school doesn't really mean anything."

"I'm sorry," Bob immediately said. "I didn't mean to imply anything. I just meant when you finish grad school. You did say you were a grad student, didn't you?"

Susan's face relaxed. "Yes, I'm a computer science major. And as to what I'm going to do, I'm already doing it. I'm a free-lance COBAL programmer, and I'm actually pretty good at it. I probably make as much working about half time as most grads do full time."

"Really? I'm actually quite impressed. I was an engineering major and FORTRAN was the hardest class I had. Programming was always a real challenge for me. And I expect COBAL would be even harder."

"Well, I do seem to have a talent for it. Now I suppose we should see if we can find something for supper."

It had grown dark and now as Bob looked out of the window he finally thought to say,

"Look, isn't there somewhere I could buy you dinner? What were you planning to do about food tonight, anyway?"

"I told you there's nowhere closer than twenty-five miles. And I'm afraid there isn't a lot in the refrigerator either." She stopped for a couple of seconds and then added. "I was planning on meeting a few of the guys from my high school and we were going to have a wiener roast and then maybe hit up a couple of the taverns."

A sudden contrite look came to Bob's face. "I'm really sorry, I didn't know. Look, I'm sure I can find something to eat here. Why don't you go on and join your friends?"

Susan shook her head. "They've gone by now. It wasn't anything definite. I just said if I got back in time, I'd go with them." She stopped and seemed to consider something for a few seconds. "Say, do you have any jeans in that case?"

Bob nodded his head. "Yeah. Why?"

"I'll bet you haven't been to a wiener roast in a year. Why don't you change and we can go over to the county park and have our own picnic. Sam's store will still be open for another half hour or so and we can pick up some stuff there."

"I really don't want to put you to so much trouble," Bob replied.

"It isn't any trouble," Susan said in a slightly exasperated voice. "I'll bet it's been about a year since you've been on a wiener roast, hasn't it?"

"No, not really," Bob replied. Susan looked skeptical. "Actually, it's been over five years," he said.

"Five years! No one should go that long between hot dog roasts. It's settled then. Get changed and come on down." She started out of the door.

Bob started to protest again, but Susan cut him off. "Look, there's nothing you can do about your car tonight. You can't change anything about your meeting. Why don't you just forget about everything for a little while. It'll do you good." She turned and disappeared into the hall.

For several more seconds, Bob just stood there, the thoughts of his meeting plans tossing around inside his head. Then he shook himself. "She's right," he said to himself. "I can't do a thing about it, so I might as well just take tonight off. I could use a night off, after all." Then he turned and began to open his suitcase.

Five minutes later he appeared downstairs wearing jeans, sneakers, and a heavy cotton sport shirt. He had a sweatshirt over his arm. Susan turned and looked at him. "Much better," she said. "Come on. Let's go before Sam closes."

Twenty minutes later they climbed back into the jeep. Susan had quickly picked up, and Bob had insisted on paying for, hot dogs, buns, marshmallows, chips, and soda. Bob set the bag on the seat beside the picnic basket she had brought with the paper plates and cups. Susan pulled out of the store parking lot just as Sam turned off the lights inside the store. She headed out of town on the main highway in the direction Bob had wanted to travel hours before, but in just a couple of minutes she turned onto a small road leading along the side of a wooded hill.

For perhaps two miles the small road twisted and turned along the base of the hill until Bob suddenly saw a sign: "Rolling Creek County Park." Susan slowed and when a gravel road appeared on their left, she turned into it. This road wound its way up the side of the hill, passing several small picnic areas and twice crossing what must have been Rolling Creek, until it finally ended at a parking lot next to a cleared area. Susan pulled to a stop and shut off the engine.

Bob looked around surveying the area. They were the only car in the parking lot. Open grassy areas shaded by a number of widely spread trees covered the nearby land. Mixed in among them were a half dozen tables, each with a small grill. At one side there was a set of children's swings and a slide. In the fading twilight Bob could see a couple of trails leaving the cleared area and entering the woods which surrounded them.

Picking up the food sack and the basket, Bob asked, "OK, which table do you want?"

Susan seemed to think about this as she looked around. Then she replied, "If you don't mind, let's just skip the table. There's a fire ring in a clearing just inside the woods. They use it for groups or for nature talks, but there won't be anyone else there tonight." Reaching into the back of the jeep she pulled out a folded cotton blanket and a long metal fork for toasting the hot dogs. "We'll just spread the blanket on the ground and have a real picnic. She retrieved one more item Bob didn't see and set off across the open ground with Bob following close behind.

They started along one of the trails, but when they had walked about sixty feet or so, the trail entered a clearing forty feet across. In the center was an iron ring, three feet across and maybe eight inches high, which obviously had been used for bonfires. Three large logs were laid around the fire ring to form seating and a stack of dead branches and some larger firewood was piled about ten feet away, but otherwise the clearing contained only soft grass

Susan moved directly over to one edge where an ancient white oak towered above them and quickly spread the blanket out below its sheltering branches. Bob followed and set the food and the basket on the ground, turning around to see Susan already kneeling next to the ring, arranging small sticks into a teepee. She struck a match and by the time Bob had blinked his eyes against the sudden brilliant flare, a tiny flame was growing among the small bits of dry wood. He watched the girl feed slightly larger pieces on the growing flames until she had a healthy conflagration, a circle of flame a foot and a half across, raising flickering light to throw shimmering shadows and golden highlights throughout the growing darkness.

At last she stood and turned away from the fire, towards him. She looked at him and smiled. "Our kitchen will be ready shortly, Sir." Then she laughed and added, "Much better than some greasy diner, isn't it?"

Bob smiled back and turned to survey their surroundings. The sun had set, but the sky was still light enough to backlight the stark forms of the autumn trees, some branches bare, some still festooned with what he knew to be brightly colored leaves. The slight breeze rattled these early harbingers of winter as it gently stirred the rapidly cooling air. The smell of the wood smoke drifted towards him and all at once he felt a sudden lessening of tension, a relaxing feeling of mellow warmth, spread throughout him. He inhaled deeply, tasting the slightly damp smell of the fallen leaves, the nearly forgotten smoky scent of the small bonfire, the fresh, somehow both new and old, scent of the autumn earth itself, and, mixed with all of these, just a hint of a ghostly presence, a slight, intoxicating fragrance, perhaps perfume, perhaps only the natural fresh washed smell, of the woman standing close and looking at him.

At last he looked from the sky down to her waiting face. "Yes. It is much better. Thank you for bringing me out here."

Susan's smile widened. She could see the change in the man, the relaxing of taut muscles, the lifting of an almost actual weight from his shoulders. Perhaps there was hope for him after all. If he could sometimes put the demands of his driving ambition aside and let his mind open as it so obviously was now, perhaps he could avoid the trap that ensnared so many such men, straining them, eating away at them, until there was nothing left of life in them, only existence until that, too, was taken.

For long seconds they stood staring at each other until the sudden crack of a burning stick pulled their attention back to the fire. Susan knelt and added a couple of more small pieces of wood. Then she stood again and, reaching out for Bob's hand, said, "Come on. Let's get supper ready." Still holding his hand, she lead him over to the spread blanket.

They quickly set out the food, skewering two hot dogs on the end of the metal cooker and placing them on one of the paper plates, the four foot handle extending across the blanket. When they had finished arranging things, Susan again stood. "I think the coals should be about ready. Think you remember how to toast a wiener?"

"It may have been five years, but I think I can still manage," Bob replied with a small laugh. He picked up the long fork and started back towards the fire. Susan grabbed a paper plate with the buns and then quickly caught up with him, tucking her arm through his. They moved to the fire ring and stood for a couple of more minutes, watching the dancing flames, until at last Susan put down her plate and used a piece of firewood to push some of the burning sticks aside, leaving a small bed of glowing coals. Then she backed slightly, and bowing with a sweeping arm in an overly theatrical gesture, said, "Your range awaits, Sir Master Chef."

Laughing, Bob knelt beside the fire and, balancing the fork across the iron ring, maneuvered the two hot dogs to a place three inches directly over the hot coals. Susan moved to stand beside him as she watched him slowly rotate the fork, evenly heating the meat. As the links began to sizzle and brown, without thinking about it, she let her hands come to rest on Bob's shoulders. Her touch slightly surprised him, but certainly didn't offend, and he remained still, welcoming the warm presence of the girl.

At last he held up the fork and displayed the two browned and blistered cylinders for her approval. "Perfect!" she pronounced and held the two buns out to receive them. They stood and started back towards the blanket and Bob let his arm drape across her shoulders, in more of a companionable fashion than in any proprietary way.

They sat on the soft cotton, side by side, their legs crossed Indian fashion, as they added the chips to their plates and opened the cans of soda. They began to eat in silence, comfortable with each other, and both aware of the fantastic smells and sounds of the autumn evening. The sky was dark by now, the only real light coming from the dancing flames of the fire. Overhead, bright stars were beginning to fill the clear sky - brilliant points of bright light, making the ancient patterns emerge across the heavens.

When they had eaten the sandwiches, Susan asked, "Another one? I think I could go for a second before the marshmallows." Bob, still chewing a bite, nodded his head and Susan said, "OK, I'll cook these." She stood and quickly placed two more on the fork and moved back over to the fire.

For several seconds Bob remained where he sat, watching her slim form swaying before the light of the moving flames. Then he picked up two more buns and a plate and moved over to where she was squatting beside the iron fire ring, concentrating on the toasting wieners. Stopping behind her, he stared at her back, taking in the long hair flowing across her shoulders, the firm back narrowing to a small waist, and the rounded smoothness of her hips as they merged into the long, tapered slimness of her legs. At last he squatted beside her, again draping his arm over her shoulder. This time the touch was a little less brotherly, but Susan didn't seem to mind, and leaned slightly more against him.

When the hot dogs were done, he took the buns and removed them from the cooking fork and started back towards their blanket. Susan stepped beside him and as they reached the blanket and he sat, she suddenly asked, "Would you like a little music?" She picked up something and Bob saw that the other item she had brought from the jeep was a small transistor radio.

"OK, just nothing too hard. Maybe some easy listening."

"Coming right up," she responded. "There's an easy listening station we can get pretty well even up here." She adjusted the small set and suddenly the sounds solidified. She turned the volume low and set the small receiver beside them.

"Moon River, off to see the world

There's such a lot of world to see..."

She moved back to her spot on the blanket and sat close to him, leaning against his side and resting her head on his shoulder for a second. "I like that song. Even if the movie didn't grab me that much."

"I like it, too, but I never saw the movie. It's one of those songs that seems to just wash relaxation all over you."

"Emm," she replied around a mouthful of hotdog, and again laid her head on his shoulder for a second.

They finished their sandwiches and chips and Susan reached over and picked up the bag of marshmallows. "Now for the real test. Can you toast these to a golden brown without catching them on fire?"

"So that's the real test, huh? My whole future depends on it, I suppose."

As he said this Susan saw a slight tightening of his face as he thought once more of the problems with his car and his meeting. She bit her lip, regretting having brought his thoughts in this direction once again. In an attempt to bring him back she said, "Not your whole future but maybe tonight's. You will be under the watchful eye of the stars and the ancient trees. You would not want to disappoint them, would you?"

"The stars and the trees, you say?" She saw the tightening disappear and silently gave thanks that he had seemed to relax again. "The opinion of the stars and trees will not weigh too heavily on my mind, but I would certainly hate to disappoint a lovely lady." He gave a bow in her direction and quickly placed four of the white puffs on the fork tines. As he walked towards the fire, Bob wondered what had come over him. He hadn't acted like this in years, the small silliness, the theatrical remarks. And strangest of all, it felt good. Shaking his head slightly he moved to the fire once more and began to concentrate on the task at hand.

A short time later he turned to Susan, who was standing beside him holding a plate. He held out the fork, four marshmallows, each tinted golden brown without the slightest trace of black. Again he bowed slightly and looked at her face, the question on his own.

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