“You know, there’s a lot of bears up that side of the mountain this time of year,” Casey says. He’s sitting in a plastic chair under the overhang of the main corral watching as Keith and I prepare to ride into the mountains for the night. Casey’s long legs are propped up against the hitching post while the rain comes down in steady sheets, soaking the toes of his boots.
I’m sitting; clad in a yellow rain slicker, on Scotch, the young and inexperienced horse that has fallen under my care in my position as a wrangler. We’re standing just far enough from the cover of the roof that rain is cascading from the corners of my hat in thin rivers and dripping onto Scotch’s mane. I don’t respond to Casey’s comment and neither does Keith. We have been spending more and more time together—taking long rides alone after work and sitting together at most meals. Some people on the ranch might call us a couple, but I don’t know what we are or aren’t. I’ve never been much for labels and to this point in my life I haven’t had much need for them. My experience with men has been limited to a few dates in high school, and evenings at the movies, or riding in the tractor with Seth, the young farmer who lives down the road from my grandparents. He too is sweet and kind, but at this point in my life the idea of settling in my hometown frightens me enough to keep him at arm’s length. And so here I am thousands of miles away, sitting aboard a trembling horse about to ride into the night with a man who makes me feel I am the strong and fearless girl I’ve always longed to be.
Keith is moving around Scotch’s left side speaking in hushed, soothing tones as he tightens the sleeping bag and pack of supplies tethered against the cantle.
He reaches behind Scotch’s foreleg and checks the tightness of the cinch. For the past few weeks I have heard nothing but stories about hunting camp, pack trips, and the beauty of nights spent in the mountains. When I asked more about these things Keith just told me that he couldn’t really explain it, that I need to see the mountains as he sees them, that I won’t understand the beauty, the real power of them until I know what it’s like to set out after dark, to see nothing clearly, to be forced to rely solely on my sense of the woods, the steadiness of my horse, and the tiny stream of light the headlamp casts. And so tonight we are headed out and up into the mountains, and I admit that I’m a little unsure about our night together, about the darkness, about my nervous colt, and about this untamed country.
Keith is passing the time waiting until the rain moves through and trying to ignore Casey as best he can by checking and re-checking our gear. Scotch seems uneasy, and I’m worried about taking him on this night ride. He’s a good horse, so much steadier than Ambrosia. But he’s nervous, always. The constant ding of rain pelting the tin roof is just enough to set him on edge and I can feel the muscles in his back tensing in short bursts with each new wave of rain. Here in Wyoming storms like this don’t last long. They move in and sweep over the mountains and down through the draws and valleys before you even get used to the idea of them.
“I sure wouldn’t be a taking a girl up the ridge this time of year.” Casey says. He’s carving away at a piece of old leather, letting the rotted pieces drop and land in a brown pile beneath him. “Especially not any girl from back East,” he adds.
I see Keith’s neck and shoulders tighten beneath his coat, and I know that Casey is saying these things more to annoy Keith than me. Lisa—the fleshy, redheaded wrangler from Arizona—walks out of the tack room and Casey yells to her. She stops, nods in his direction and walks over.
“Didn’t you hear that the bears are thick up past Lava Creek?” Casey asks.
Lisa seems to know that she should say yes, and so she does. Then adds, “Say, what are you two gonna do up there all night anyway?”
Casey grunts. “I think we know what they’re not gonna do.”
He, along with all of the other wranglers, knows about Keith’s devout Mormonism. Keith makes no secret of the fact that along with not swearing or consuming caffeine, or ever letting a drop of alcohol slide past his lips, he has promised God that he will save himself for his future wife.
Keith has finally had enough and tells Casey not to be jealous just because the only girl he’s spent a night alone in the woods with is Shirley the mule. Casey stands up, tosses the last of the strip of leather at Keith’s feet and tells us he won’t worry about sending out a search party if we don’t come back because he’ll know what happened.
“And what didn’t happen,” Lisa adds. She and Casey straighten their hats, pull their coats close against their necks and walk off together toward the warmth of the lodge.
I didn’t come to the ranch this summer in search of romance, and I don’t think Keith did either. Before Keith, I didn’t know a lot about Mormonism, and I still don’t really understand much, aside from all the things he’s told God he won’t do. But even though I don’t understand the promises he has made with God, they don’t really bother me. Because there is something different about Keith, something I am drawn to in this quiet cowboy who’s too righteous to do more than reach for my hand in a back corral when no one else is around, or tell me I’m beautiful when only the horses and I are listening.
Keith receives a lot of this kind of treatment from the other wranglers. But there is more to Keith than just a set of beliefs. He is a good and gentle person. I see this most in the kind way he has with each of the horses and with the guests who are often so afraid of their first time horseback, their first journey into the mountains. And I’m not sure what it is that has made me a safe choice for his brand of summer romance, or why he is willing to test his beliefs by spending a night alone with me. Maybe it is something he mistakes for innocence; maybe it is the fact that I don’t question why he believes or why he has chosen such a difficult path. But he must sense that I’m the type of girl who is okay with lying side by side in separate sleeping bags, watching the stars, and falling a little more in love with this place I so long to understand.
We are far into the darkness now as black turns and tangles into itself in great whorls of night sky and the only sound in this slow, big Wyoming night is the soft suck of mud against our two horses’ hooves as we push deeper into the mountain. I wish that Keith’s back weren’t so broad because maybe then I’d catch a few rays of the soft light I know his headlamp is casting on the trail ahead. But I can’t see anything, not even my own hands clutching reins, fingers twisted in Scotch’s flaxen mane. His breath comes in short, even huffs as we climb, and I know that his nostrils are flaring, ready to snort and blow, because I know that he is as afraid as I am. He wants to spook and bolt, to leave Keith and his idea of a midnight ride alone here on the side of this too dark mountain. But he can’t, I can’t, because Keith has the only headlamp, and we are so far into the blackness now that I don’t know where I am, don’t know how to get home. And I wanted to do this, and I want to be with Keith, and I want to not be afraid. But it is just so black. Keith has promised me a real adventure, so I sink a little deeper into the saddle, twist my hands a little tighter into Scotch’s mane, and hope that the careful rhythm of his strides will be enough.
“I want you to talk to me,” I say. The words don’t sound like mine; they come out careful, timid, drowning in this immense place of aspens, and timber, and quiet as if they were never said.
“You’re not gettin’ scared on me now, are you, beautiful?” I knew he would say that. Keith has made this ride a million times before; once fall comes, he transitions from wrangler to hunting guide and rides into the mountains alone at night, tracking elk for hunters who pay thousands to be led to their kill after a fat lodge breakfast of eggs and sausage and sweet-buttered biscuits. He’s not afraid; besides, he has the headlamp.
“No, but do you know where we are?”
“’Course I do,” he says. “We’re just about to cross over Lava Creek and then we’ll be headed toward bear-bait trail.”
I sigh. I never should have asked him to talk.
“How’s old Scotch doing back there?”
“Fine,” I say. “Just a little nervous.”
“You know, I thought Jesse was crazy giving you that colt,” he says.
I smile to myself, remembering the first time I saw Scotch—a blowing, snorting, quivering mess of nerves and fear huddled in a far corner of the corral. He would sooner have crashed through the rails of the corral than let me get close to him.
“Yep,” he says. “That colt’s come a long way. He was afraid of everything before you got ahold of him.”
We move out of the cover of deep timber and into a shallow canyon cut down the center by Lava Creek. The moon illuminates the sharp cuts of the canyon walls, and light reflects off the water that moves in slick, silvery currents. Back in the light I can see Keith almost clearly now. He nudges Tucker’s side with his heels and they step down into the creek. Tucker dips his muzzle into the cool water and drinks as the water swirls about his legs. Keith pushes him on and I nudge Scotch off the bank. He steps down into the water and his hooves slide across the smooth, round stones. The rush and coolness of the water and the sudden loss of solid ground must surprise him, because his next step is a bounding leap that catches me and pushes my body backward, my legs forward. I grab for rein, push my seat hard into the saddle, trying to stay with him in his panic. With two more quick jumps of splashing water and hoof sliding on rock, we are past Keith and Tucker and scrambling onto the far bank. Scotch’s sides heave and he exhales, looking back as Keith and Tucker carefully make their way across the space of water and stone that he must have believed would swallow him whole.
None of the other wranglers wanted to deal with a spooky colt, at least not one as fear-bound as Scotch. Most of the guys would rather tangle with a rank colt than try to calm and constantly outthink a skittish one, and the girls said they weren’t going to mess with a horse that would jump out from under them just because some leaf happened to be facing the wrong way—which is the way it is with colts like Scotch and Ambrosia. You never know what’s going to set them off, what they might jump out of their skin over.
“Still think he’s come a long way?” I ask as Keith joins us on the bank and moves to his place ahead of us on the trail.
“Heck” he says. “Plenty of colts are afraid of crossing creeks in the dark. You did just fine.”
I speak to Scotch in little more than a whisper; tell him not to be scared, that it’s going to be okay. And Keith must have heard me because he turns in his saddle and the small light of the headlamp shines down on the trail in front of me. Scotch tilts his head and snorts at the beam of light moving steadily on the ground ahead of us.
“That’s what I mean, you—you’re real quiet with him.”
“Just patient,” I say.
“Well whatever it is, I think he trusts you.”
“I hope so,” I say. But I’m glad that Keith is talking a little more now, filling the silence, the openness that seems so much bigger in the wide space of this western night. I wish that I believed him, that I knew Scotch trusted me. Silence settles back over us as I try to focus on keeping Scotch beneath me and Keith in front.
It’s hard to tell how much time passes with this silence we’ve fallen into again and I know that Keith is used to it, that to him the talking is more abnormal than the quiet. So I ask how much longer until we get to where we’re going to camp. He says it will be another hour or so, and that so far we’ve been on the easy part. It’s going to get a little rough when we cut off bear-bait and lose the trail.
“Alright” I say. “Just don’t get too far ahead. I can’t see anything.”
His laugh shatters the quiet, and Scotch starts beneath me as the echo shakes through the trees. I reach down to feel for Scotch’s neck and stroke it; they say it soothes a young horse, mirrors the way a mare would lick and stroke the neck of her foal. I can feel the tight skin quivering and the sweat starting to seep down between the ridges of his muscles. I knew this would be too much for him, and though Keith seems to think I’ve made a great change in him I don’t know that I feel it just now.
“So what’s so special about this ridge?” I ask. I think that maybe the sound of my voice, something more constant than this looming quiet, will bring Scotch back to me; will somehow loosen the tightening ball of horseflesh and nerves and flaring nostrils that could kill me if it came unwound. But really, I just want to hear Keith’s voice, to know that he is still ahead of me.
“It’s really somethin’,” he says.
“Tell me about it.”
“I’ll promise you this,” he says. “You haven’t seen anything like it since you’ve been here. Where we’re going is part of this country hardly anyone has the privilege of seeing. These clouds’ll be gone; we’ll be too high for em,’ and there’s more stars than you’ve ever seen down at the ranch.”
Keith was right. Up here in the openness of the meadow tucked along the top of a distant ridge the clouds are gone and the air is sharp and thin. The blackness is not so heavy and you can just make out the roll of ridges beyond as they sweep and dive down into the valley. Keith has gone to work gathering dry logs and sticks for the fire, leaving me in proud possession of the headlamp so I can roll out the sleeping bags and arrange the saddles and saddle pads for pillows. Kneeling down next to the pile of gear Keith has made on one of the grassy knolls of the meadow, I barely need the headlamp. The night’s all lit up by a million little dots of light, telling me I’m not stupid for doing this, for coming out in into the wild all night with a scared, panicky colt and my quiet, virtuous cowboy.
The sleeping bags are tied so tight to the backs of our saddles that I’m afraid I might not get them undone before Keith comes back with the firewood. It’s a simple task he’s left me with, but my fingers are numb from being wound up so tight in Scotch’s mane, and I can’t seem to tell where the knots in the leather begin and end. I can hear the horses milling around in the trees at the edge of the meadow where we left them tied for the night. Tucker seemed content as we left them, accustomed as he is to nights in the mountains, so I know it is Scotch offering up the soft calls of protest and bewilderment.
I am on my knees working at the knots by the light of the headlamp when a pile of wood drops behind me.
“How’s it going up here?” I haven’t heard Keith coming, not even a crunch of grass, or a quiver of branches.
I let out an annoyed but relieved sigh. “You’re lucky I don’t scare easily,” I say.
“You, scared?” he says. “Nah girl, I don’t know many girls who’d come out here in the middle of the night like this—‘specially girls from back east.”
I stand up, give him a push on the shoulder as he reaches for the logs strewn about our feet and notices that the sleeping bags are still tethered to the cantles of our saddles. He looks at me. I don’t say anything. He drops the log he’s just picked up and kneels down, undoing the knotted leather in a few swift, easy moves.
The fire at our feet cracks and pops, illuminating our campsite and curling its bright fingers toward the stars, beckoning them closer. We’re snuggled deep into our sleeping bags now. I’d arranged the saddles so the fleecy undersides, which still smell of horse sweat and dirt, are facing upwards and pulled close to our heads. Keith still seems wide awake, and he smiles at me as he pulls the sleeping bag close about his chin and ears. “Don’t want to get chilled tonight,” he says.
I smile back at him; I’m not ready to sleep either. So for now we just lie here on our backs, watching the stars, intent on nothing but the vast black and light-littered sky. Back east the sky seems so closed in, the stars so far away. But here, above the clouds and the haze, the night sky stretches out for miles and hangs so close I feel like it might just swallow me up.
Keith sighs. “You ever seen a sky like this?” Our sleeping bags are so close now that the cool synthetic rubs against my arm with the rise and fall of his breath.
“No,” I say, “big sky country takes on a whole new meaning up here.”
“Sure does,” he says. “Sure does.”
We fall back into silence, and I listen for the horses, sure that I will hear a snort or disgruntled nicker, but there is nothing. They have resigned themselves to sleep or at least a peaceful silence of their own.
“Say there, beautiful.” Keith shuffles in the bag and turns up on his side to face me. “Why don’t you tell me more about what you’re studyin’ at that college back east?”
I sigh. “You don’t want to hear about that.”
“Course I do.” He props himself up on an elbow and cups his head in his hand. “I’m always telling you stories about hunting camp, and pack trips, and scouting elk.”
“I know” I say. I turn up on my side to face him. “But it’s not that interesting, nothing like your stories, it’s all just poetry and—”
“Poetry, there you go, tell me somethin’ about that.” His eyes fix on mine in a way they’ve never done before. Before this he’s never held my gaze for longer than a few seconds, much like the moment when you come across an elk in the trail and for that split second eyes lock, their wild eyes boring into yours before they vanish back into the brush.
“Well,” I look down, breaking his stare. “I don’t know a lot of poetry; I’m just—just studying it.”
Our faces are so close now that the tips of our noses practically brush and he doesn’t move away or pull back, and neither do I. We just lie here, stealing each other’s breath, waiting for the other to speak or move.
“But, I do know one poem,” I say. I’m surprised at the strength, the authority of my words.
He nods and our noses brush again. He asks me to tell it to him.
I inhale, hoping I remember, hoping I don’t sound stupid, and whisper the words,
“She walks in beauty like the night / of cloudless climes and starry skies / and all
that’s best of dark and bright / meets in aspect and her eyes.”
The side of his mouth turns up a little and he pulls an arm out from the tight confines of the bag, reaching to brush a few hairs back behind my ear. “That’s a real nice poem, real nice.” He lets his hand rest on my neck, thumb brushing my ear. My eyes scan for his in the fading firelight that hisses and hums as it dies at our feet. We don’t say anything for a few minutes and he doesn’t take his hand away, and I don’t want him to.
But I know this is all he will try to do, that he and his beliefs are content with fingers gripping the groove beneath long blond hair, his thumb still brushing my ear. I smile, knowing he can’t see it in the dark that has overtaken us again. I brush his nose with mine and he sighs, brushing my cheek with his thumb.
“Keith,” I whisper.
He replies with a low, contented sigh.
“You, ah, you can kiss me if you want to.”
He doesn’t say anything but I feel his response as his lips brush mine, timid and slow once, then again, before he pulls away and I know, for sure now, that he has never done this before. Though he’s broken unruly colts, spent days and nights alone packing mules into the backcountry, and spilled the blood of many strong, wild animals, he has never felt his lips press soft and firm against the lips of a girl. I want to tell him not to be scared, that it is okay to try again, that I have been scared before, that I am still scared now. I am scared of this wild place, this darkness, and this quiet, of everything that lies beyond our close and tiny campsite.
His fingers are shaking when he reaches for the back of my neck again and pulls my face close to his. His lips press against my cheek, my forehead, my other cheek and the tip of my nose. I wonder if what I’m doing is wrong, if I am asking too much of him.
I pull away. “Keith?”
He doesn’t answer, just pulls me back to him and lets his forehead rest on mine.
I pull my hands from the warmth of the sleeping bag; wrap my fingers around his neck and whisper, “Do you trust me?”
He pulls me closer and his lips find mine, his fingers still quivering against the back of my neck.
In the morning Keith wakes long before I do; I never feel him leave. He saddles the horses and scatters the charred logs of our fire. He’s sitting at the end of my sleeping bag when I wake up, watching the distant ridge. It’s early still, the sun a distant promise. I don’t know what will happen when Keith and I return to the ranch. I don’t know if he will be ashamed of our kiss, such a small thing that means so very much to him, or if because of it, he is beginning to fall in love with me. I only know that when I look at Keith and the ridge he sits watching in this faint and forming light, I feel no fear.
Elizabeth Arnold is a graduate of the MFA program at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her work has previously appeared in such places as The Gettysburg Review, River Teeth, The Whitefish Review, The Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and been listed as notable in The Best American Essays. She lives on a working farm in Central Pennsylvania with her husband, horses, chickens and dogs.