Home on The Range
State of Control Draft, copyright WRBJr Living Trust
DAY TWO Colorado, 130 pm MDT
Questions and emotions chased each other through her brain in a demented stampede. She automatically fastened the seat-belt, then twisted under its restraint to watch him drive with total absorption, both hands on the wheel. He felt the weight of her gaze and flashed that crooked smile again before he refocused on the road.
They rolled west along the old highway at a high rate of speed. The crazy El Dorado ditty skittered into mind. He wasn’t gaily dressed. Was not classically handsome. And knights didn’t drive huge Ford pickups. Did they? “How — “ she cleared her throat. “How did you know where to find me?”
“I waited for you all day yesterday. Then asked Sally to call if you showed up.” His voice roughened by some emotion of his own. “I admit it, I thought at first you got cold feet. Stood me up.”
“Stood you up?” His words triggered more questions than they answered — and a whole new flood of complex feelings. Borderline. She had discounted the roadhouse’s odd familiarity, and her crazy expectation someone should be there waiting for her. But here someone was — who said he’d waited all day.
He glanced at her again. “I’m sorry. You know how I get.” Same husky emotion. Prompting a peculiar guilt. No she did not know how he got, but somehow felt she should. Was anything ever going to make sense again? The landscape went by in a blur, her Vicky voice faint but insistent: You’ve got to assume some sort of control here!
“Where are we going?” she said firmly.
“Home,” he said, smiling at the windshield.
Her heart lurched once more. He freighted the word with such intimacy. Home was a loaded word anyway. She didn’t even know if she had a home. Or where on earth it might be. But this strange large man called Gray was taking her home. And she had abandoned her car, placed her fate completely in his hands….and the truck was slowing suddenly, pulling off the road.
He shifted into neutral, threw on the parking brake, and dismounted almost in the same motion. Dismounted — as a knight from a charger. Her thoughts swerved from firearms to fantasy watching him unlatch a metal gate, swing it back. He climbed in, pulled through, hopped out to close the gate. Not moving like a shambling bear now but like a big cat. Her ears felt warm. She was turning him into her personal menagerie. Behaving like an adolescent! But did she even remember how an adolescent behaved? She must, despite the immediate conviction she never behaved this way even when she was one…
The truck jounced up a winding dirt two-track curling around a low grassy rise into a gentle hollow in the rolling grassland. She saw an old single-wide house trailer tucked below the skyline, windmill high behind it, vanes spinning briskly. She hadn’t noticed a breeze when they left the bar.
She’d seen the trailer before.
Broken wagon wheels and bleached skulls along its front came as no surprise. How could that be? Where did she see it? Maybe a photo? She could not have ever been here! In a fenced enclosure to one side of the trailer, a lone horse raised its dripping muzzle from a metal trough. It looked huge, a blaze-faced chestnut. A horse fit for a knight she thought crazily.
When Gray stepped out of the cab, the big horse nickered loudly. And a black-and-white blur raced around the trailer to swirl around his long legs as he strode to her side of the truck. A dog! She was sure she didn’t like dogs. Pretty sure they didn’t like her. Gray spoke to the dog. The dog sat pertly as he opened her door. Flop ears askew, liquid eyes studying her, stub tail wagging like mad.
“Does he bite?” she asked faintly.
His laughter burst from him like a torrent. First time she’d heard his laugh — had to be. But the eerie sense of deja vu thrilled along her nerves again. They did call it that, didn’t they, deja vu? How could his hearty laugh be so utterly familiar? “Buster?” He was grinning. “Buster’s a lover, not a fighter. Aren’t you, kiddo?” The dog wagged so hard its whole butt squirmed…”Let’s go in,” Gray said. “We have lots to talk about.”
Vanilla was first thing she smelled when Gray ushered her through the trailer’s front door. A rush of associations flashed through her mind. Fleeting images, half-remembered emotions. “Vanilla,” she said.
“Three Yankee candles’ worth. One here in the living room. One in the bathroom, and one…” His voice lapsed.
He placed her backpack on a corduroy-covered couch against the wall. There was a square plain mirror above the couch, probably intended to create an illusion of spaciousness; it didn’t. TV atop a crowded bookcase beneath windows on the far wall. Beyond the couch a narrow hallway-opening.
In this room, two occasional chairs didn’t match the sofa, or each other. They bracketed a large old-fashioned blue steamer trunk with brass fittings. Double stack of magazines on the trunk, top two titles side by side: American Hunter, PC World. Worn-thin nondescript carpet. She thought the room too small and shabby for the man.
“Is it cool enough?” he asked anxiously. “I can adjust the thermostat — “
“It’s fine,” she said. To her right a small front kitchen, separated by a breakfast bar with cabinets suspended above. Kitchen-appliance color scheme was 1970s Unfortunate. Then she wondered what she meant, besides ugly. A squat glass candle jar was centered on the breakfast bar, twin points of fire weaving gently in the air-conditioning. She smelled tobacco too. Not the stale cigarette smoke of bars. Something fuller, more pungent, with memory cues of its own. Cigars, she cataloged. Not cheap ones. Maybe Havanas like Granddad…the memory refused to complete itself.
She picked up the warm candle jar, read the label. “Yankee.”
“W’al, ma’am, shucks.” He affected a drawl. “You are a Yankee, after all.”
“Am I?” She moved the candle gently under her nose, twin flames nodding solemnly. He moved into the kitchen.
“If you’re thirsty I’ve got your favorite stocked in. Arizona Iced Tea as specified.” He had tossed his hat upside down on one of the chairs. Leaning into the ugly avocado refrigerator with his back to her, she saw his hair was severely cut. An iron-gray lawn closely following the shape of his large oval skull; generous ears above his thick neck. Her palm fairly itched to determine if the gray lawn was soft or bristly. He turned, twisting the cap off a cold-beaded blue bottle. “You always say you like it right from the bottle.”
When did she say that?
Their hands brushed, the intimacy immediate and highly charged. Her Vicky voice was back in full cry: what have you got yourself into? She pulled back and sank onto one of the tall breakfast stools. He poured himself coffee from an old-fashioned electric percolator on the drain board. Was it her imagination or did the pot tremble ever so slightly?
Her hands were definitely trembling. She put the blue bottle down carefully and folded them on the counter. “You said we have a lot to talk about.”
He pulled out a stool, sat nursing the coffee mug in big hands, dark eyes troubled. “We imagined a hundred different ways we would finally meet,” he said quietly. “This wasn’t one of them.”
“At least a hundred.” One big hand reached with perfect familiarity to brush back a loose strand of her hair. Impulses warred in her. To shrink away, countered by an urge to rub her face into his large palm. Each canceled the other and she sat without moving. “You all right?” Same quiet rumble.
“All right?” she repeated dully.
“Not injured or anything? In the Borderline I thought — “
“Oh,” she said. “My neck — “
“A’huh!” He came off the stool around the counter with the sudden speed she’d noted at the range-gate. Up close, it startled her. And triggered her nightmare shadow to life. Fear blanked all thought. Her left hand snaked to her hip, cleared her blazer, clamped on her gun butt.
A large warm vise closed on her hand, imprisoning it on the grips. How did he move so fast? “You don’t need to shoot me.” His big right hand rested on her shoulder beside her injured neck. She smelled coffee on his breath.
“Let go my hand. Dammit, let go!”
He let go at once, but didn’t pull back. She’d felt safe with him behind her in the roadhouse parking-lot. But the nightmare shadow caused disabling fear. She was afraid to move. His left hand joined his right to ease her T-shirt away from her bruised neck. Sharp intake of breath. “They hurt you!” Cold rage in his voice. “Thought so, at the Borderline.”
They who? Did he know? How could those huge hands be gentle as Betty Clark’s? And why on earth did she sit docilely? Because he was faster than she was? Big enough to snap her neck like a twig if so inclined? And behind her. Danger came from behind. Danger that moved with that gliding efficient speed — his fingertips touched the lump behind her ear. Pain exploded. And she remembered.
Remembered clubbing pain from nowhere that took her to her knees. Remembered turning to push the Glock up over her shoulder at the gliding looming shadow that hurt her so badly…
Brains and blood sprayed out the back of his head. He banged on top of her when he fell, snapping her teeth together inside her cheek, drawing blood. The vision was stark. She squeezed her eyes shut. Tried to force forgetfulness again…An interval passed. A moment? A minute? How is time measured in a waking nightmare?
She was floating. Like childhood dreams of floating above the broad Susquehanna and the oddly alien cooling towers of Three Mile Island…She wasn’t floating. Not really. She was being carried. Safe in big strong arms. Engulfed in Old Spice and Havana tobacco scents. She went very far inside, trying to remember what a three-mile island was. Granddad would know. “Granddad — ?”
“Sh-hhh. You’re safe now, love. Safe…”
Not Granddad. Gray cooling towers blurred into looming gray Kanorado grain silos. Gray towers. Gray silos. Gray man. Gray was carrying her. No more three-mile islands, whatever they were. No more horror. Only Gray. Warm and thrilling.
So many times, half-awake before sleep, she had fantasized about burrowing into him this way. But this was real: cologne, pungent tobacco, sexy male sweat. She didn’t smell those in fantasies. Nor dream her boot-encased feet — at the far-distant end of her body — thunking against a wall. Eliciting a muttered male oath. “Gray?”
“Sorry, love. Hall’s not really wide enough for me. Let alone us both. Relax now.” He placed her on a soft surface: a bed. “You’re safe, Tory. Safe.”
Tory? He didn’t even know who she was! A small hot blaze of jealousy fizzled. She didn’t know who she was either. But she knew in her core she was, at long last, right where she wanted to be. In Gray’s arms. Gray’s bed. Still — Tory? Why did Gray use that name? She couldn’t hold the thought, and let it go.
Graham Dorn’s queen-size bed occupied nearly every square foot of his rear bedroom. He eased Tory onto the old chenille bedspread, and tried to slip his arms from under. She grabbed his right arm with convulsive strength. Her eyelids fluttered. “Noooo!” A childish wail, low and intense. Her nails dug in. If he extricated his arm, he would wake her. And the way she fainted when he probed the purpling bruise worried him. He tried to remember paramedic shop-talk at highway crash scenes he’d photographed. Maybe she should be awake after a blow like that. Or maybe sleep would do her a world of good. He didn’t like not knowing.
His lower back ached with his awkward posture. He lowered himself behind her and she wriggled back into him, rump pressed firmly into his groin. His physical reaction was instant and unambiguous. He was pretty sure she didn’t notice. Her breathing slowed. Her grip relaxed.
He had placed her on her right side without thought. Now he worried the spongy lump behind her ear should be uppermost. He simply wasn’t tracking. Hadn’t slept much two nights before, anticipating her arrival. Let alone last night, worrying because she didn’t show up. He had been wide-awake when Sherman County SO called him out to a crash scene.
Resenting interruption of his vigil, he had methodically photographed an old Chevy pickup twisted in a fatal embrace with a black Jetta. Two dead in the Jetta, students from Denver, blanketed bodies awaiting the coroner’s wagon. Tough old Kansas rancher from the pickup airlifted by chopper but not expected to live. Though his emotions about Tory were all over the map he maintained his customary stoicism.
Deputies admired his stoicism as they affected their own. With the scene secured, their gossip turned to the Denver shooting. Multi-state alert for a missing Eastern law-enforcement officer. It required all his acquired impassivity to conceal astonishment hearing Tory’s name. He would not think now about the eternity between clearing the accident scene and Sally’s call from the Borderline announcing Tory’s belated arrival. His sweet Tory. All his, no matter who was married to whom. Finally here. But not in any way they could have imagined all the nights they sat at computer screens thousands of miles apart. Keyboarding erotic fantasies until they got brave enough to talk about meeting in person.
He could never tell his friends how he found her. On-line romance had been a sleazy joke ever since America Online swept onto the scene. On a par with 900-Sex lines and private lap-dances in topless taverns. Profane cops would wink and offer a closed-fist jack-off salute. The men whose livestock he managed would see perversion. Denver people whose studios showed his creative photography would smirk at him with new hot eyes. Every one of those prospects made him cringe.
He had compartmentalized his life. A multi-layered public life as ranch manager, unmoved recorder of highway carnage, and surprisingly gifted amateur photographer. A private life, held rigorously private: often-angry exile from a Wyoming ranch patriarch, his hidebound father. Which left his deeply secret personal life, centered on a computer screen, and this woman. Graham McCallister Dorn, III had painted himself into a corner with his secret sensuality. Knew he had. Didn’t care, as his emotions became more in thrall to the woman now sleeping trustingly in his bed. Fully clothed, of course. Armed on top of that. The gods of cyberspace must be laughing out loud.