They reached the end of the tunnel and stepped out into the sunlight. Marcus looked around and surveyed the area. They were already at an elevation of fifty-five hundred feet, and the view looking down where the two mountains met looked just as beautiful as the mountains that went up higher. There were rows and rows of pine trees for as far as he can see. Off in the distance, there were rain clouds on the mountains. Tumbleweeds grew everywhere, and there were occasionally some aspen trees that have started to show new light green growth. Bushes of wild spirea plants scattered the landscape as well as thickets.
“Well, are you ready to begin?” Marcus scanned Nicole from head to toe.
“Yes, I’m ready.” Nicole took the lead with Sierra in tow, and Marcus followed behind her, admiring her lovely curves even with a backpack on her that looked like it was too heavy for her. They walked the rough terrain in silence for a while, and then Nicole said, “I think I need to sit for a few minutes and rest.”
“Okay.” They found a long log that was broken off on the ground and rested on another stump. They sat down to rest for a few minutes.
“I’m surprised your wife would let you go camping like this and be gone from the home for the length of time you’ll be gone. Especially with three boys to deal with.”
“What makes you think I’m married?”
She gave him a puzzled look. “Did you forget that you had your wife and three boys here last weekend?”
Now things began to click. “The woman that came here last weekend was not my wife. Two of the boys are her boys, Nathan is my only son.”
A look of shock crossed her face. “I’m still surprised that even your girlfriend would be comfortable with you going hiking with another single woman.”
“I don’t have another girlfriend. Shana is my sister.” Marcus smiled, now he knew why she turned cold. She thought he was married.
Nicole twisted off the cap of her water bottle and drank half the bottle while staring at Marcus. He saw a wave of different expressions cross her face, but couldn’t tell if she was glad, sad, indifferent, excited, or anything.
“So, all this time you thought I was married.” He cocked his head to look at her and hooded his eyes like those of a hawk.
“Well, yeah. I mean, she shows up in a car, you hug her and the boys, and…what other conclusions could I draw?”
“You could have just asked, not draw conclusions.”
“It really was none of my business,” she said defensively.
“That is true, but it would have kept you from drawing the wrong conclusion about me all this time.”
“I’m ready to get back to walking. Let’s go Sierra,” she said abruptly. She got up and started to walk away. He knew she didn’t want to talk about the subject anymore.
Probably going to be a long lonely twenty-five-mile walk. He kept his pace a few feet behind her. He noticed that she was very observant of her surroundings, and used her hiking stick to move things in front of her so she didn’t happen upon a snake or any kind of reptile. There were a lot of birds in the area, and it reminded him of a bird sanctuary. He had to admire her hiking skills. The soil they walked on was soft, and it made hiking more difficult, but she carried on with minimal difficulty and with determination.
After a two hour hike, they came to a wide clearing teeming with flowers in bloom.
“Let’s stop and eat lunch,” Marcus said as he came up behind Nicole.
“Okay. Such beautiful flowers.”
“Yes, they are pretty. Do you know what they are?”
“No. I’m not familiar with spring flowers. I only hike in the summer.”
Marcus reached down and picked a flower and handed it to her. “These are called Sagebrush Buttercup.” He pointed at the other flower nearby and said, “Those are Yellowbells.”
Nicole took the flower from him and sniffed it. “It has a sweet smell.”
They sat down on a fallen log and searched through their backpacks for lunch. He looked around and could see the underbrush, ferns, moss, ivies and berry bushes.
“How are you holding up? We’ve kept a pretty brisk pace, going about three miles an hour. Do you need to slow down?” Marcus asked.
“I’m doing fine. Great, actually. If I were carrying a lighter load, and just on a weekend trip, I’d be walking a lot faster than I am now. Am I moving too fast for you?”
Marcus smiled slightly. “No.”
Nicole pulled out Sierra’s water dish and put the some water in it for her. She lapped it up, then Nicole gave her a couple of bone treats.
“Look like we’ll have a little bit of clearing.”
“Yes, we’ll come across a couple of clearings before we reach the cave. I’ve noticed a definite change in the temperature.”
Marcus looked at his thermometer. “It’s currently forty-three degrees out.” It was starting to get warmer. “The temperature will peak at about two PM.”
Marcus leaned back against a stump and snacked on an energy bar. “So what else does Nicole like to do besides read and hike?”
* * * *
She did not want to talk about herself. She had a hard time with the realization that he was not married and very much single, and he had an adorable little boy. All through the walk thus far, since he told her he was single, she had a hard time staying on track and not letting her mind wander off. She had to stay focused, or they could get lost. It had been a while since she had walked this side of the mountains, and nothing was familiar to her. She had to constantly check her GPS coordinates and her compass to be sure she was leading him on the right path. She glanced at him and realized that he was waiting for her to answer. “Oh, I like to go to the different outfitters stores and shop around. Check out the latest equipment and stuff. I like to sit around a campfire up in the mountains when the moon is out. Sometimes I think I could just reach out and touch it.”
She reached out and petted Sierra. She didn’t know what else to tell him, she lived a sheltered life and never really ventured out and experienced the world. She was nervous when she went to Butte or Helena because big cities scared her. She loved open spaces and minimal populations. She was afraid he’d think she was naïve or antisocial, or something.
“What’s the one place in the world you’d like to visit?” He seemed really interested in learning more about her. But she was nervous about revealing too much about herself. “I think I’d like to scale the Rocky Mountains sometime.”
“As much as you like to hike, that is one trip you would never regret. I can attest to the beauty of the Rockies, and I find great joy when I’m there.”
“Do you like mountain climbing or hiking?” Nicole asked.
“I like the hiking. I have not gotten into mountain climbing. That is more of a sport.”
“Do you hike the trails or do you venture out on your own?”
“I venture out on my own. There is so much backcountry beauty to see off the beaten path.”
“I heard that the Rockies has some pretty spectacular waterfalls.”
“They do. Maybe the next time I go on a hiking expedition, I’ll let you know, and you can join me.” He smiled at her and she felt like she’d just melt. Oh, she’d love to go on a hiking trip in the Rockies with him.
“Do you take Nathan with you?”
“I’ve taken him on short hiking trails, and I do stay on the trails that the National Park has created for hikers. He’s still a little young to travel the backcountry off the main path.”
“I bet he loved it.”
“Yes, he does. He gets really excited about going and hates it when we have to head home.”
“Do you have joint custody or have him on weekends?”
“I have full custody. His mother has gone off with her boyfriend to travel the world and left him with me.”
“I don’t know how anyone could take off and leave a sweet little boy like him behind.”
“Do you want to settle down and have a family?”
She looked at him. With you, it would be heavens. She didn’t really know how to answer that question. At one time she had envisioned herself with a couple of kids and a loving husband, but as she got older, that vision became faint.
“I used to think I’d like to settle down and raise a family. Now, not so much.”
“I’m getting older, and meeting someone is less lightly. Do you want to meet someone and settle down again?”
Marcus ate the last of his energy bar and watched Nicole before answering her. “Sometimes I think I would. But, between my work and raising my son, I don’t have the time it takes to invest in a relationship that could lead to marriage and additional children.”
Nicole didn’t know why she felt down by his statement. It kind of hurt. Why did it hurt? Did she really fancy herself falling in love with him, marrying him and helping him to raise his son and having children of their own? She found him so sexy. She loved the idea of waking up next to him every morning. Suddenly, she felt incredibly lonely. No one in her life, no prospects of having someone in her life. That part of her life just seemed to be passing her by.
“Are you ready to start walking again?” Marcus seemed to be studying her face.
“Yes, let’s go.”
They put their things away in their backpacks and started their hike.
Nicole thought about the Cheyenne tribe and tried to remember what she had learned about them in school without much success.
“Can you tell me a little bit about your tribe?” She turned and looked back at him a second.
“Cheyenne are a Native American tribe that lives in two places. Montana and Oklahoma. We use to live in Minnesota, but we migrated to the Great Plains. Settlers started to take over our land and even though we signed treaties, the settlers and the government repeatedly broke the treaties and forced us onto the reservations.”
“Do you live on the reservation now?”
“No. I live outside the reservation, but I’m still very active in the tribe.”
They walked for a distance before Nicole asked. “What language did your people speak?”
“We had our own language and spoke in part, the Algonquian language. The Sioux called us Cheyenne because it meant we spoke a different language.”
Sierra brought a stick to Nicole that she found, and Nicole threw it in front of her so that Sierra could play her fetch game she always loved to play.
“I seem to remember reading in my history book that your tribe fought in the battle at Little Big Horn.”
“We did. We had a group called the Dog Soldiers, that fought with the Arapaho and Lakota against George Custer and the U.S. Army. We led the attack on Custer’s army and killed Custer and then joined the two other tribes and wiped out the U.S. 7th Calvary.”
“Dog Soldiers, I’ve heard of them.”
“The Dog Soldiers were a fighting group of men not to be reckoned with. They are revered by our people and our young men are still recruited into this clan.”
“There are Dog Soldiers even today?”
“Yes. We have served in both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf war and the Iraq war.”
“Are you a member of the Dog Soldiers?”
“Yes, I am. My group, myself included, served in the Iraq war.”
“How long did you serve?”
“Almost four years. My platoon got ambush, and I sustained shrapnel injury to my shoulder and back.”
Nicole wondered if Marcus was to marry a white woman, and they had children, would the children be able to participate in things such as becoming a Dog Soldier.
“What would happen, Marcus, if you married a non-Native American.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you married a non-Native American woman, and had children, would the children still be considered a part of the tribe and be able to participate in all the activities and be a part of the group?”
“Of course. We would never keep our children out of being a member of the tribe.”
“Even though they would be considered only half Native American?”
“Yes, even if they are half Native American.”
“I find your history interesting. Your people seem more accepting of people in different races than white people do.”
Marcus didn’t respond. One of the birds were tweeting quite loudly as if there was some sort of danger. “Nicole, stop for a few minutes,” he said, slightly above a whisper. \
Nicole stopped and turned to face him. He was looking around. She immediately became alarmed, and Sierra started to yip. “What is it?”
“I hear the birds squawking loudly which indicates that there is something around them. Even Sierra senses something. Let me walk ahead of you so I can see where the threat is.” He walked passed her and went forward about fifty feet then stopped. “Here it is,” he whispered to her.
Nicole walked up to where he was standing, and off another seventy-five feet was a herd of elk grazing in the tall grass.
“Wow, you could find something like that by listening to the birds?”
“Yes. Always listen to the birds. There are tweets, and then there are warning tweets, indicating something is amiss. They use their tweets to warn other birds, but we can also learn and use their language to recognize danger.”
“We will be going this way, so we’ll be moving away from them. Will that remove us from the danger? I’ve never been this close to elk before.” She didn’t want him to think she didn’t know anything about danger.
“Yes, going a different direction will keep us out of danger. The usual thing to do is not to make sudden movements, or run away. Respect them and give them their space. Do not, and I emphasize this, do not come near a female and her calves. They will threaten and charge you. It’s not a good idea to have Sierra here. Hopefully, she will not charge them.”
“Sierra won’t charge anything unless I give her a command. The most she would do is bark, growl or, as in this case, she also sensed something and yipped.”
“That’s good. You don’t want her to chase after wild animals. It could get her killed. Let’s go.”
“I bring her along, because, like you, she has the ability to hear and sense something is wrong or dangerous. Plus, she keeps me from getting scared out here at night. Sometimes the night can be — disconcerting.”
They continued on their trek until it was 2:00 PM. Occasionally, they came upon patches of melting snow, ravines, a couple of creeks with wild mushrooms nearby. “Might as well stop and take a break. It’s getting warm out here,” Nicole said as she stopped next to a creek that had fast, running cold water.
Marcus came and stood next to her. Her senses went on overdrive, having him near her. He unsnapped the front of his backpack and slid it off his back.
They sat down on another tree log, and Nicole ate a snack bar and gave Sierra a bone to chew on. Marcus sat down next to her and stretched his legs out in front of him.
“So, now it’s your turn. Apart from hiking the Rockies and your son, Nathan. What else do you like to do?”
Marcus reached down and brushed the weeds and dust particles off his pants. “I’m very passionate about law. It’s my life’s work.”
“Nathan said you like to put bad people in jail.”
He smiled. “Most of my clients are people who have been caught in a criminal situation. Some people think I get criminals off easy, but it’s not that. I represent them so they get only what they deserve and nothing more.”
“What if the person is accused of doing something that he or she did not do? Do you represent them too?”
“Yes. I do represent them, that is if they can afford my fees.”
“You charge a high rate?”
“Most people think I do. But I am totally vested in their defense, and I spare no money or resources to prove they are innocent. All that costs money, and someone has to pay for it. I’m also one of three lawyers that represent the Cheyenne Nation.”
Maybe he didn’t have much of a life outside of work and his son, just as she didn’t have much of a life outside her work at the motel and the restaurant. Maybe they have more in common than she initially thought. She would love to wrap up in his arms around the campfire at night and gaze up at the moon and stars. The more she got to know him, the more she really liked him and wanted to be with him. She would love just to walk side by side with him, holding his hand. Do I even stand a chance to win the heart of a lawyer, one who is worldly and sophisticated?
“What are you thinking about?” he asked.
Inside her own thoughts, she barely heard. She realized again, for the umpteenth time, that she was staring at him. She quickly turned her head and stared out in front of her, at the small pine trees that were blowing gently in the wind. “Nothing important. Just — enjoying the afternoon sun and the company.” Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. At first, she was nervous to be around him, but as she got to know him, she felt more and more at eased.
He brought his left hand up and kneaded his shoulder on his right side, touching her in the process. He then leaned forward and scratched his lower leg. The movement and feeling of his arm against hers spread warmth and sizzling sensations throughout her body. God, just to be touched by him, just to feel the warmth of a hand or a stroke on her arm, or even his hand going through her hair. Just sensual touches, to make her feel like a woman and to come alive, to feel what so many women experienced when with a man, that she had never felt before. She hated that she was virgin, and didn’t know how to reach out to any man, much less the one that sat next to her. She couldn’t expect that an experienced man such as Marcus would be willing to teach her, or experiment with her, or even be willing to take her virginity. She didn’t think he’d be interested in any of that. He’d want a woman that knew how to handle herself and knew what she wanted, and knew the feelings and emotions of being with a man. Something she had none of except, she did know what she wanted. She just didn’t know how to articulate it.
Here she was, thirty-four years old, inexperienced, a virgin, a plain looking woman, with no experience of worldly things. Just a local.
A soft breeze whispered through her hair and lifted the ends up, and they landed on Marcus’s jacket sleeve. She lifted her chin up so she could breathe in the fresh, piney smell that had been carried through the air by the breeze.
Before they got back to the hike, Nicole grabbed her portable pump-style water filter and filled it with the water from the creek. She pumped the water from the creek through the filter and it came out the other hose and into her bottle.