|It made Luke uncomfortable to think that Dennis had a crush on him but that's what it looked like. It would bother him less if the boy weren't so girlishly pretty.
by Erin Halfelven
Luke Matthews counted the kids on horses in front of him on the trail. Sixteen plus the two counselors leading the way on the old logging road between the new growth pine and fir upslope and the mixed old growth downslope toward the Kelly River. He turned to Sarah Meachum on her horse beside him, "Meach, we're short a kid."
She nodded, half-turning to look behind her. Her gray Arabian mare side-stepped nervously and Sarah used her Stetson to give the horse an affectionate swat on the neck. "Behave, Geraldine," she said. "Yeah, it's the Audrey kid. I saw him and his pony, Tubby, down by the water just before we started back. Maybe he didn't hear the recall?"
Luke looked at the sky. The predicted fine weather had not materialized, instead the skies were gray with what looked likely to turn into one of the famous thunderstorms that had given this range its name: the Sudden Mountains.
"I'd better go look for him," said Luke with a sigh. He began turning his horse in the narrow track.
"If the kid had any friends, he wouldn't keep getting left behind," Sarah commented.
"Yeah," agreed Luke. "He's an odd kid." One of the odd things about Dennis Audrey, in fact, was his hero worship of Luke. It made the twenty-six-year-old cowboy counselor uncomfortable to think that a fifteen-year-old boy had a crush on him but that's what it looked like. Fifteen seemed a bit old for innocent crushes and Luke wouldn't even think about what that implied. It would bother him less if the kid weren't girlishly pretty, enough so that the other kids called him "Little Audrey." Even the counselors usually thought of him as Audrey, instead of Dennis. Luke made a distinct effort not to do that.
"I'll go back for him," Sarah offered. "He likes me." She knew the situation and wanted to save Luke the embarrassment, and the Audrey boy did get along well with her and the other female counselors.
Luke wasn't having any of that; Dennis was in his "Trail", his group of kids, and his responsibility.
"No. If we get in trouble, Oscar can carry double easy and if Tubby isn't carrying anyone he can find his own way." The big bay gelding under Luke swiveled an ear on hearing his name. "Ride up to the front and tell Morton and Cagney where I went," he added over his shoulder to Sarah as horse and man completed their turn.
Luke and Oscar started back down the wide trail toward the group's day camp at a moderate canter. Oscar never liked running downhill with a rider and kept trying to slow to a jog-trot. Luke poked the big animal in the ribs with the blunted knob-spurs on his boots and persuaded the horse to keep moving. Oscar snorted his indignation but stepped out at the quicker, and smoother, four-foot gait. Luke had no intention of having his backside bruised with one of Oscar's stiff-legged downhill trots.
The rain started falling as they rounded the shoulder of the mountain and Luke thought he caught a glimpse of Tubby's bright sorrel in among the trees on the river side of the camp before a sheet of water cut off his view. "Dennis!" Luke shouted. A moment later the rain came down hard enough that Luke couldn't even hear himself. Oscar quickly switched, without orders, to a sliding walk, the only safe gait on the slick mud that rain made out of mountain dust. The early summer afternoon had turned darker than twilight just as suddenly as the rain began.
The campground spread out along the trail, about fifty yards long and thirty wide, with a sort of spiraling slope on one side down to what had once been a ford across the Kelly River. That was approximately where Luke thought he'd spotted the bright red coat of the cowpony Dennis had been riding last. Luke hoped the boy had stayed mounted, Tubby had more sense than most horses and would look for high ground when it started raining. He tried another shout. "Dennis! Tubby!"
Even though the rain had slackened from its first burst, Luke doubted anyone more than five yards away could hear or see him. He leaned forward to get his mouth near Oscar's ear. "Find Tubby. Follow Tubby," he told the big animal. Sure-footed Tubby, who wasn't really fat, had frequently been used to lead the bigger horses to and from the upper pastures so Luke knew that the idea of following the red cowpony back to a nice warm barn full of dry hay would appeal to Oscar.
Thinking he'd managed to communicate with the big idiot was a huge assumption, Luke knew, but sure enough, Oscar started out as if he knew exactly what to do. The tall horse did have some of the Morgan breed's famous ability to follow verbal commands, though who knew what had gone into Oscar's ancestry other than his half-draft horse, half-mustang mother. Luke suspected that Tulamae had been covered by a local performance champion stud named DeWilde while the stallion had been supposedly servicing a Standardbred mare on the dude ranch. Hence, the name Oscar for the over-sized six-year-old who had gotten too big to be a good cowpony--and too good-looking to just haul wagons--but he made an excellent saddle horse for someone as large as Luke.
The big cowboy patted the horse's muscular neck in affection. A minute or so later, he struggled to keep his seat as Oscar unexpectedly started down a steep muddy slope. They dodged trees and rocks and Luke knew they were both in big trouble when Oscar began splashing through running water. They must have stumbled into one of the side streams of the Kelly River. "Dennis! Tubby!" Luke called out. Oscar added a high-pitched whinny--and got a similar answer from somewhere up ahead. Luke and Oscar plunged forward, into the torrent.
Several things seemed to happen at once; a mud-splashed Tubby and his water-logged rider Dennis appeared in the dimness of the downpour just in time to be illuminated in the harsh brilliance of a lightning strike close enough that Luke felt a current run through his body. Before he recovered from the literal shock, a wall of water came hurtling down the side stream, washing both horses with riders over a ledge and into the wildly foaming Kelly River.
Dennis woke slowly, wondering vaguely if his granny's cat were licking his toes. The thought that it would be one big cat to get his feet wet from toenail to instep brought him fully awake quickly. He pulled his feet away from the lapping dampness, opened his eyes and pushed himself up with one hand. The deep green of a morning in the woods surrounded him, not the warm golden glow of Granny Audrey's spare bedroom. Goosebumps sprang out on his arms and ran down his back as he tried to work out just where he might be.
In the woods, apparently. Which meant that he was still at the dude ranch in the Grand Tetons and not back with his grandmother in Denver. On the dude ranch, rather, certainly not in the ranch house where he bunked with three other boys his own age. He rolled over and sat up to get a better look around.
He noticed several things immediately. One was his red pony, calmly pulling up long grasses from the edge of a stream and eating them with obvious enjoyment. The little horse gave him a snort of greeting, then nickered softly before ambling closer. Another thing he realized, the stream had been what was licking his toes because his bare feet reached right to the water's edge if he extended them. One more thing sank in, he didn't have any shoes or socks on. Or pants, shirt or underwear. He was sitting on the ground next to a stream, completely naked. Furthermore, the pony had nothing on, either--not saddle, blanket or bridle. Dennis looked close, even the horse's metal shoes were missing.
They were both naked.
And somewhere nearby, another horse nickered. "Toby," Dennis whispered when he saw the pony's ears flick in that direction. Having a dislike of even mildly insulting nicknames, Dennis had rechristened his cowpony, Toby instead of Tubby on the first day they had met. Toby turned to look at him, then looked back toward the direction the nickering sound had come from. He whuffled, clearly indicating to Dennis that he thought they both should find the rest of the herd. Dennis would have immediately agreed if he'd had any clothes on but the last thing he wanted to do was meet strangers, or anybody else, while naked. He didn't like being naked and alone but naked with someone seemed likely to be worse--or at least, terminally embarrassing.
He scrambled to his feet, intending to grasp Toby's mane but the pony took his movement to be encouragement to go looking for other horses and moved quickly away, upstream. Dennis looked around but saw nothing encouraging, like a pile of clothes or a telephone, so he followed Toby, unable to think of anything better at the moment. The horse moved along the streambed, sometimes actually stepping into the water to go around a brushy obstacle, tree or rock.
Dennis followed, wondering how he would react if they suddenly emerged in the midst of all the people from the dude ranch, the kids and counselors he'd spent so much time with over the last three weeks. Even the other people, wranglers and cooks, and all the rest of the crew who worked at the place. Maybe he could work himself up to a brain aneurism if he tried.
Ahead of him, Toby broke into a trot and Dennis heard another horse whicker a greeting to the red pony. He stopped, approaching the last screen of bushes carefully. Someone beyond the bushes spoke, "Well, hello, Tubby. Where'd you come from?"
Dennis peered out of the bushes. He gasped.
A young god frolicked with the horses. Tall, lean with muscles carved in flesh instead of stone, Dennis's eyes were drawn to the figure's groin. He'd seen other boys and even pictures but...he glanced up at the face and almost fainted. His counselor at camp, Luke Matthews, was the Adonis of the horses. Dennis crammed the fingers of both hands into his mouth to keep from yelping. How could the man be so beautiful, so comfortable in his nakedness?
The boy began to whimper. He backed away from the bushes, deeper into the thicket of trees along the river. He wanted to run, to hide, to never go back to camp so no one would ever know...know what? Before he could work that out, he heard Luke's voice again.
"Well, if you're here, Tubby, is Dennis somewhere around? Dennis! Dennis Audrey!" Luke called out.
Dennis ran. At first, he ran along the river or stream, whatever it was, back the way he and Toby had come. Then he found a path leading away from the river, right where things narrowed a bit to go through a canyon or a gully or whatever you called it. He took the alternate path which led up a slope and came out...in another glade where a small open buggy sat under the shade of a wide pine and a saddle and tack rested across a fallen tree. "Somebody else is here!" Dennis squeaked aloud as he stumbled to a stop.
"Dennis!" he heard behind him. Luke was following him. Naked, they were both naked. Moaning, Dennis ran across the small clearing, which seemed to adjoin a road, and into a thicket behind the buggy. At that moment, running barefoot through a wilderness caught up with him. He tripped over a tree root, stubbed his toes on a rock and fell head first into a bramble bush--making a squealing noise the whole way.
When Luke heard Dennis squeal, he broke into a run, coming out into the little clearing immediately and calling the boy's name again. "Dennis! Where are you? Are you okay?"
Sighing, sniffling, Dennis began pulling himself out of the bush. "I'm okay, I just fell into some thorns." Then he screeched. "Don't come look, I'm naked, don't look!"
Luke had started toward the boy's voice but stopped. "I'm naked too, someone stole our clothes, I guess." He laughed, though he knew he shouldn't. Teenagers could be very uptight about their modesty. He looked around at the pony trap sitting with its trees propped against a stump, for all the world as if someone had just unhooked it from its horse a moment ago. Then he noticed the fancy saddle lying across the log and just beyond it, a blanket draped across an irregular pile of items. "Huh?" he said. He reached to pull the blanket off the pile.
"I know you're naked, I saw you," said Dennis, blushing, though no one could see him. "Ouch." He had small scratches almost everywhere; his arms and legs, though not so much his torso, but to judge by the taste of blood in his mouth he'd scratched his face, too.
"I'll be damned," said Luke. "Oh, sorry, Dennis." The boy had squeaked when he heard Luke's exclaim after pulling the covering off the oddly shaped pile of what turned out to be boots, saddle bags, a bed roll, a rifle and some clothes all atop a sizable rucksack of the sort someone who had a lot of traveling to do might tie behind their saddle. A frying pan and coffeepot even decorated the outside of the rucksack.
"Somebody was going somewhere...," he looked around, "...and they got up and went looks like?"
Dennis tried to see what Luke had found without exposing himself. He tiptoed up to the buggy and looked between its seat and dash, keeping the bulk of the small vehicle between him and Luke. He really couldn't see much from that position--except that there seemed to be clothes lying on the seat of the buggy. Strange clothes. He pulled them out of the buggy for a closer look. When he saw exactly what they looked like, he turned bright pink all over.
The lavender item proved to be a dress, extravagantly trimmed with lace, bows and ruffles in an antique style. The other items seemed to be the sort of underwear a young woman would wear under such a dress, including a stiff pink corset, pretty garters, silky hose and a bag-like object with strings that might be a bustle. A pair of ladies' button-up boots sat on the floor of the buggy and a fanciful lavender bonnet matching the dress lay on the far end of the seat. Dennis reached the obvious conclusion immediately.
Somewhere nearby, a woman cavorted in the woods naked. Probably with the man who had left his clothes for Luke to find. Dennis's mouth fell open and he made a noise like a small cat that thinks it may be lost.
"You okay over there, kid?" Luke called out.
"Yeah," Dennis managed to gasp. He clutched the dress close to him, just to cover his nakedness in case Luke tried to look.
"I'm going to put these clothes on," said the counselor. "Fellow who left them...well, who knows? If he comes back, maybe we can make a deal." The long-handled underwear seemed clean so Luke tried that on first. The underpants were bright blue and the undershirt blue with a white stripe and both fit well enough for such nearly shapeless garments.
Dennis licked his lips. "I found some clothes, too."
"Well good," said Luke. "Do they fit you? None of these here are likely to." The tough looking jeans had leather patches where a rider would get the most wear, crotch and thighs and a gore up the outer side of the lower leg like chaps. Stylish and practical and they fit like they'd been tailored to him.
"Um," said Dennis. "They're women's clothes, the ones I found in the buggy." The frilly chemise and lace-trimmed knickers actually looked as if they might fit him, and if they did, why wouldn't the rest of the stuff fit? He trembled just thinking about it.
"Oh. Women's stuff." Luke considered, knowing Dennis's problems with the teasing of the other boys. "Well, maybe you can wear some of them, just so you won't be naked in the woods. I won't tell anyone. I'll get dressed and take Oscar to go back to the ranch and bring you some of your own stuff so you can change." He remembered now that Dennis's cabinmates had claimed never to have seen the smaller boy naked. He must be really shy, thought Luke. He pulled on the bright red, silky shirt that also had leather parts, at collar and cuffs. It fit, and he tucked it into his new jeans.
"I should put these on?" Dennis turned squeaky-voiced.
Luke suppressed a grin. It probably wasn't funny to the boy. "Sure, no one will see but you don't want to get bug-bit and thorn-scratched. Are there any shoes?"
"Boots," said Dennis.
"Oh, definitely wear those if they fit," said Luke. He found socks in the cowboy boots by the fallen tree and put those on. The boots fit, too. In fact, it made an eerie coincidence that everything fit perfectly. Luke's mind veered away from trying to think of an explanation. "I'll saddle up Oscar then tie Tubby to a tree so he won't follow. He can keep you company while I'm gone."
"What if the people who own these clothes come back?" Dennis asked from behind the buggy.
But while reaching for the saddle, Luke had noticed something else, a pile of four large horseshoes. He looked quickly over at Oscar and Tubby nibbling grass at the edge of the meadow. Neither had shoes on. He looked toward the buggy where harness and tack lay draped over the dashboard and singletree. Under the dash, on the ground right between the trees, lay four bright new horseshoes of a smaller size.
Luke felt the world lurch around him and he sat suddenly on the end of the fallen log, the saddle in his lap.
"I asked what if the people come back? This is their stuff," Dennis called again from his concealment.
Luke shook his head. "I don't think they're coming back," he said. "Go ahead and put on any of the clothes that fit."
"Yes, sir," said Dennis quietly.
If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks.