From high on the ridge of a Teton Range "middle-mountain," as he called the lesser landscape minions of the Wyoming territory, Lucas Woodcock heard first, and then saw, the west-bound stagecoach at a standstill, as the 4-horse team reared amid shrill cries of desperation and fear.
Somewhere in the cover of the scaly backdrop, a mountain lion roared its threats, shrill screams, deathly intentions. The cat, sounding as large as its roars, dominated the passage of the stagecoach on a regular run through the lower Tetons.
And Lucas saw the lady in a red outfit sprawled on the top of the coach, her legs spread as if ready to leap, reap revenge, a huntress already, in vogue red. Or gone higher to escape trouble.
He hadn't seen a woman in all the summer months and was sure it would be a testy introduction when appropriate.
His single round, aimed into a dark spot of a wall, shook loose a mountain lion, probably at its feed of a slain goat or sheep.
The lion broke free of its meal, roared its defiance once more, and disappeared through darker crags of the late afternoon.
Lucas, offhandedly, said, "See you later, Willie." There was a definite touch of pity in his voice and a somewhat tender understanding of the animal's own natural conduct, and calling the cat by a familiar name said they were at least acquainted. The natural elements abounding about the mountain man had long been expected and respected by the hunter on his own terms of survival: him and those animals shared the world's bounty.
A sudden image tore into Lucas' mind, knowing the coach would stop the night at the Dead Mule Station at the end of the valley. After a few more tough and exaggerated turns, the coach would be in sight of the station.
Lucas hadn't seen Muley Manuel in months, the Mexican transplant telling Lucas once that he loved horses, mountain lions, wolves, bear cats, goats, sheep, even an occasional rattler "as long as they ain't at the same dinner table with me, eh, senor."
And he reminded himself that he hadn't seen a woman in twice that long, and especially one specimen in an all-red outfit "right outta some store winda."
He was due.
He fired his second shot into the cliff-face away from the coach and the driver waved back, partial recognition in action.
With an urgency, Lucas' down-hill trek was twice his normal speed; the woman in red an incomplete target of his thoughts, but she was also a persistent cuss, appearing again and again in the back of his mind, in the middle of it, in the wide spaces he allowed up front for probably a most buxom lady. The mountains have more ways than one to twist a man's mind --- even a solid hunter like Lucas Woodcock.
brought to his gaze the dim light of a window at the station. He
imagined the team of horses stabled for the night, the driver and the
shotgun rider near their needed sleep in a comfortable corner, and
old Muley talking his endless chatter with his
woman in red, as he didn't think of her as Muley's
not by the healthiest of shots.
With dusk getting deeper, thicker, darker, and less than 100 yards from the station, Lucas, in one breath, swore he could smell the woman in red, as if she was nestled in the safety of his arms. Deeply he breathed, almost taking her all the way home. The proof of it was Muley's dog, not having seen Lucas for months, who came near him wagging his tail at Lucas' arrival where the road hits a level approach to the station. Common ground, regardless of time's measure suade each one.
Not 30 yards from the station cabin, as if he was suddenly called to duty, the dog uttered a loud howl of warning, to let all know company was coming.
Lucas patted him on the head and said, "Quiet, Jackson, they'll know company's coming soon enough, and I'm urgent to meet them." He almost said, "That lady in red, star of the show, any show," he'd bet. The new, different, delicate, fine and fragile air settled in his lungs as though it was coiled in a sweet syrup.
Muley met him at the open door, the two coachmen standing behind him with pistols in hand, the lady in red, buxom indeed, said, "Muley here said a mountain man named Lucas had done the trick for us out there, might have kept us from going over the side of the road and down the mountain the quick way. You that Lucas, mountain man?"
"I guess I am, Ma'am," Lucas replied, his eyes in a ready sweep of beauty and appreciation in one glance. "Couldn't help not helping, seeing you up on the rack holding on for a sure dear life. Yes, Ma'am, I'm Lucas Woodcock, at your service."
"I have to admit, Lucas, I must owe you all I own. My name's Marla, short for Marla Carla Columbiana." The slightest stance movement inside that surge of red beauty was clear as if written on the blackboard at a country school. Twice she sent that shivered signal, twice Lucas read it.
Muley interjected the introduction. "I knew you didn't come with dinner on your shoulder, Lucas, cuz Carlo would've said so." He patted the hound on the head. "He always like you, Lucas, from first meeting, now smell you a mile off." He added, "Like now," an open observation of his own, saying he was aware of body language, the pros and cons of it for men living alone in the mostly wild part of the world where women in red outfits didn't climb hills or rocky knobs or play tag on quiet days.
Marla said, openly, fully inquisitive, interested, "Do you live in a place like this, out here in this country?" She held out one hand as if measuring Muley's log cabin, 20 feet by 20 feet, 3 bunks on one wall practically on top of each other, one wall a solid stone fireplace with extended stone floor burnt black forever, A separate bunk bed hung on another wall. A table of rough hewn boards sat in the middle of the cabin with two pairs of chairs made from similar hewn material. One shuttered window faced easterly, from where the coach had come.
She kept looking around as she talked, as she obviously measured, as does a woman looking for a work counter, storage space, privacy, other facilities obviously outside between the cabin and the small three-sided barn where the horses were tethered. The odors of a fast meal were fading fast, and her secret application of a bit of perfume staking its own claim.
"Oh, no, Marla," Lucas said, inhaling, as if her name made his mouth delicious, his eyes lighting up, circled by a growth of hair mostly blond, mostly long, on his head and chin. "I live in a cave, in the side of a mountain with lots of cover above me, protective cover." He pointed to the cabin roof, at a one-way steep slant. "I have plenty of comfort, feel secure from scouring animals or those on the hunt. I never get rain or snow in there. Easy to keep warm in cold weather. No leaks, not a one. Two ways in and out. Really a home away from home, that being long gone now, way back east in Tennessee, last seen more'n a dozen years now."
His face showed a solid content for his chosen life, his natural home, his apparent solitude handled with ease.
She was making moves that said things. Lucas was sure of that, not taking his eyes off her, him doing his own measuring, meditating, pleasuring.
"How far is your new home from here?"
Lucas noted she had not called it a cave."About 3 hours from here to the foot of the cliff, then a half hour's climb, all of it good exercise for the body."
"Would you like some company going back there this time? I'm serious." That was jammed into the issue to dissuade any negative response. "I look at it this way; I'm on my way from a town I've already forgotten to another one I'll forget just as fast once I leave it, which I most surely will. It comes as a great adventure for me with a real man." Her pursed lips threw him a kiss.
She directed her hand to the two coachmen now fast asleep on the two lowest bunks on the far wall, snores in the air, this day already old and in the folds of memory.
The new couple, for he quickly said yes to the proposal, sat side by side in the rough chairs at the table, Muley and Carlo on their evening check.
Lucas's hand found her hand, lavished it with sweet energy, caught his breath at the touch coming back to him. His eyes closed, and opened suddenly as Marla Columbiana's lips kissed his lips and she nestled against him.
The snoring continued from the bottom bunk on the far wall, a yap was heard from Carlo, Muley coughed before he came back into the cabin to see the couple close as possible.
"Excuse me, senora, senor, but my rounds are finish. I will take the top bunk, the empty one there with the coachmen. He was about to snuff out the lone candle on the table, when it's glow spread across his face with the expression of an idea already there, the same way other messages might be delivered, had been delivered this very day.
"It comes to me, Muley Manuel, from the heart of hearts in Mexico, that I am now the one and only station master here at the Dead Mule Station on the Reagan Stagecoach Line and that my word is the law of the land and all the mountains of the Tetons near here and this cabin in this wilderness. Do you two agree with me?"
In unison Marla Columbiana and Lucas Woodcock both nodded at the same time and said, "Yes, we do."
All the words thus spoken took on a ceremonial flavor, and Muley Manuel said, in a very serious tone, "Then I announce that you are a man and a wife, and have el derecho legítimo to sleep in my bed while I sleep on the top bunk over there."
His smile lit the room up just as he snuffed out the candle.
On the top bunk but mere minutes later, he heard the far cry of a mountain lion followed by the sound of the red dress sliding down past a pair of knees in the darkness.
He was still smiling as he rolled toward sleep, knowing something of what was going on in the small cabin. And even the big man himself, Tim Reagan, owner of the stage line, had no better say in this matter.