Chapter 1 – The Mud Puddle
Her hand slammed against the steering wheel, announcing her frustration not only to herself but also to the small rental car and anything that happened to be within a fifty-yard radius. Claire immediately soothingly and lovingly stroked the car’s dashboard in apology. She didn’t want to jinx anything, she was having bad enough luck as it was.
“I’m sorry, baby,” she cooed. “It would just be nice, you know, if I knew where the hell I was.”
She had been driving for two hours, but she had been covering the same stretch of road for the last thirty or forty minutes. Back and forth, back and forth over the packed dirt that Claire hardly considered an actual road. The spify smart car she had rented was covered in a thick layer of fine Montana road dust and more than a few dead bugs decorated the windshield.
“Drive out to the ranch they said,” Claire muttered to her car in a disgruntled voice. “It will be fun they said. You’ll get lots of work done on a writing holiday they said.” Her voice trailed off but the muttering continued in an inaudible, nonsensical kind of way.
The directions to the ‘paradise’ she booked for her ‘writing holiday’ were balled up on the passenger floorboard of the car. They had been smoothed and re-crumpled more than once since she had set out driving in this godforsaken place. The man had said they were precise instructions. Precise her ass. She had read them over dozens of times now, and she was no closer to the ranch than when she had left the Missoula Airport.
Claire reached down and tried to grab at them, again. They were just out of her reach. She took her eyes off the road, only for a second, stretching her arm out like Gumby. Her fingertips brushed the paper and somehow she was able to grasp it. “Ha!” her triumphant hoot filled the tiny car. Claire looked back up to the road, directions in hand. As she did, she caught a flash of fur skittering across the road right in front of her. She slammed down on the brake pedal automatically and her scream echoed in the car as she came to a screeching halt, seatbelt locking and holding her in place.
Claire sat for a moment, dragging in deep breaths, trying to recover. There was no sign of the whatever animal the fur had belonged to on the road.
“Go into the wilderness they said…”
She hadn’t even seen what kind of animal it was, not that she would recognize any if she had. Unless it was a rat. Cities had rats. She definitely knew what rats looked like. But for all she knew, she could have just seen an evil buffalo or a moose that had clearly been trying to murder her. Which did seem a little rude, since it was her first visit to the treasure state.
Her hands were only shaking a little as they smoothed out the hopelessly crinkled paper that contained the useless directions. Claire read the instructions over again, twice, out loud.
“Do they make sense to you?” she asked the car, only half joking. Of course, it didn’t answer. She sighed, resigned to her hopeless fate and said, “I guess we will just go back to the main highway and start over.”
Claire turned the car around carefully and then laid her foot down on the gas pedal. She knew where the main highway was, she had been back to it once before. The little car flew down the road, kicking up the dust that seemed to have settled over the road from decades of neglect.
“It’s probably not even a real place,” Claire continued to talk to the car, hoping it would ease her mounting frustrations. “They took my deposit and are having a cold, cheap beer, PBR no doubt, at my expense at some no name, hole in the wall bar. Getting a good laugh about how they pulled another one over on the city folk.”
She swerved to miss a carter of a pothole. The little car wobbled in protest, but she didn’t let her foot off the gas pedal.
“Or they lured me out here to kill me and leave my body in small bits all down the countryside. Wasn’t the Unabomber from Montana?”
Her cell phone chimed. “Great, we are back in cell phone range,” Claire grumbled to the car. It didn’t respond but kept pushing down the road. She had heard that phone coverage was sketchy at best in the wilderness, but she was going to a ranch. Surely a wide-open ranch range would have cell phone coverage. Too bad that wasn’t the first thing, nor the last thing, she was sure to be dead wrong about on this trip. And she had only been out of the city for a grand total of eight hours.
Claire practically jumped out of her skin when Ed Sheeran’s “Galway Girl” filled the rental car with a crescendo. “For heaven’s sake!” she exclaimed as she reached for the phone that sitting in one of the car’s cup holders. She punched the phone icon and then put the call on speaker.
“Darling!” the melodious voice of her best friend filled the car. “Are you there? Is it as beautiful as everyone says it is? Are there lots of shirtless cowboys banging down your door looking to bang you?”
Claire burst out into laughter, despite herself. Grace had always been able to get her to laugh, no matter the circumstances. She was the ying to Claire’s yang. Which is why they made such a kick-ass writer/editor team.
“No. No men. Sorry to disappoint you,” Claire apologized in a very over the top kind of voice.
“What? That can’t be true,” Grace countered. “Have you at least seen some yummy ones?”
“Actually, I haven’t seen a soul in more than an hour. Save for that furry thing I almost hit.”
“You fly out to Montana and suddenly you are an animal killer? For shame Claire.”
Claire laughed, despite the chastisement. “It ran out in front of the car. I think it was trying to kill me, whatever it was.”
She had reached the main highway and swung the car around, determined to follow the directions to the letter.
“If you say so,” Grace admonished. “But seriously, how is the cabin? Do you think you’ll survive your writing holiday?” The way that she said the words ‘writing holiday,’ Claire knew Grace was making air quotes with her hands on the other end of the line.
“I haven’t seen it yet. I don’t even know where I am at this point. The directions I was given are completely useless. I’ve been driving the same stretch of road I’ve been on for an hour. Everything looks the same. I’m supposed to be looking for some sort of turn off… but I haven’t seen anything but grass. Grace? Grace? Are you there?” Claire glanced down at the cell phone when she didn’t get an answer.
“Of course the call dropped. Why wouldn’t the call drop? I’m in the middle of nowhere!” She slammed down on the brake pedal, just to emphasize her frustration to the poor rental car. It lurched to a stop immediately and then waited silently for its driver’s next move.
Claire looked around, her head swiveling this way and that. All she saw was grass, blowing in the wind, for miles and miles and miles all around. The words empty prairie come to mind, she thought. But then she caught a glimpse of what could have been considered a dirt road a few yards behind her. She threw the car in reverse and slowly backed up to it as if it might disappear if she approached it to fast. She eyed the road with all the suspicion of a distrustful detective and snatched the directions from the passenger seat. Her eyes quickly scanned the document.
Suddenly she thrust the paper in the air and cried, “Victory!”
A flock of birds choose that exact moment to take flight from the bush, scaring the hell out of her. Claire screamed and then narrowed her eyes as she watched them grow small in the distance. But she was not to be deterred. Her small victory tasted too sweet. She quickly threw the car in drive and whipped onto the dirt road. Maybe this adventure wouldn’t turn out so bad after all. One can only hope, she told herself.
Patrick Cole had watched the tiny car come up and down the main road a few times, now. It was one of those ‘smart cars.’ He never did understand what was so smart about it. Around these parts, they joked that if you hit a squirrel, let alone a deer or even a raccoon, you would probably die. Everyone always got a good laugh out of that joke and he figured it was just about true. Smart car indeed. Smart not to drive one in this country, more like.
Cole suspected the car’s driver was his new ‘guest’. The only place he knew to rent such a car was the Missoula airport, he didn’t think they had them up in Kalispell, yet. Yes siry. That little annoying thing, zipping around like a lunatic had to be searching for his ranch. He was already beginning to regret the decision to rent out the small cabin, and it hadn’t even started yet.
It had all been Julie’s idea. But to no one’s surprise, she was nowhere to be found now and all the responsibility fell on his shoulders. Par for the course, really.
Foolish, that was what he had been. But the ranch needed the income. And now that his guest was here, he supposed he couldn’t turn them away. But then again, if the little smart car and its driver never found the driveway, he couldn’t exactly be held responsible for that, could he?
The smart car went cruising past his drive, again. Cole couldn’t help but let loose a small chuckle. He thought he had given pretty clear directions to Paradise Valley Ranch. Turn off the main highway 3/4 a mile past mile marker 136, ten miles after the turnoff and past the boulder that looked like a buffalo, turn on the dirt road, and follow that up to the main house. It was all pretty straightforward as far as he was concerned.
Just then, the car braked hard and skidded to a stop. Buck raised his head quickly from the gopher hole he had been vigorously investigating. The blue heeler cocked his head at Cole. “I have no idea, buddy,” Cole answered the silent question, shaking his head in wonder. “I have no idea.”
The dog stuck his nose back to the ground, clearly deciding the smart car excitement did not take precedence over gopher holes. Cole figured the dog had the right idea and went back to tightening the fence line he had been working on. Though, he couldn’t help but notice when the car shifted into reverse and jolted back to the front of his drive.
He grunted in amusement as the tiny car whipped itself onto the driveway and began to barrel its way toward the main house. This was surely going to be some kind of adventure. Or some giant pain in the ass. Probably the later, Cole decided. Buck yipped his agreement as he furiously dug into the rain-soaked soil.
Just then, a tiny, whining sound filled the open air. Buck and Cole both jerked their heads up at the same time. Cole didn’t realize what it was until he saw the tiny car jerking toward a puddle. It was a mud puddle that stretched almost across the entirety of his driveway. He barked out a harsh laugh before he could stop himself.
“Most people have sense enough to drive around a puddle that size,” he told the dog, who was also watching the car’s progress with rabid attention.
Sure enough, the car made it almost exactly halfway through the puddle, then slowed, and then it sunk to a stop. It sat, quiet, for a moment and then the driver must have pushed the gas pedal down hard because the little tires started spinning as if their lives depended on. Then the brake lights lit up and the tiny car jerked, but it definitely hadn’t made any progress toward dry land.
Buck snorted. The cycle repeated itself two or three times, while Cole and his dog stood watching the spectacle. You’d have to pay good money in the city to see a routine like this, Cole thought, more amused than he probably should have been – given that he was about to be hosting this mess.
Finally, Cole sighed and started gathering up his tools. “Best go pull that car out,” he told the dog. “It’s only gonna sink deeper doing that. Foolhardy city folk…don’t know nothing about nothing.”
He finished loading the tools onto the 4-wheeler and then climbed on. He started the old purring beast in one kick. Maybe it was going to be a lucky day after all because that certainly never happened. Cole was always telling the old piece of machinery that he was going to replace it, which only seemed to make it refuse to turn over with more and more frequency.
Buck was studiously ignoring Cole and frantically digging at a hole, desperate to get at something buried deep inside. Cole waited for half a second, and when the dog didn’t budge he whistled, sharp and short. The blue-heeler took off at a dead run and then launched himself onto the back of the 4-wheeler. He looked up at Cole with a load of false innocence in his eyes, his tongue was hanging out of his happy, grinning face.
Cole rolled his eyes but couldn’t keep himself from rubbing the dog’s head and scratching behind its ears. Damn dog had him wrapped around his paw, that was for certain sure. Cole huffed a laugh at the pup and then shifted the 4-wheeler out of neutral and into first gear.
“Best go recuse the damsel in distress,” he told the dog and hit the gas. After a moment of consideration, he added, “And her tiny, useless car.”
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