Color drained from the sky, settling into the valley beyond Spanish Peaks in layers of coral, gold, and scarlet. As the lights twinkled to life across the land, darkness hovered close. Night sounds stirred restless from the heat of the day, and Jude War settled into a cover of the green canvas tarp and his sleeping bag, a haven from the night.
Twinkling stars danced high in the night skies, and randomly, as clouds drifted over, raindrops fell to moisten the land. Jude pulled the sleeping bag tight around his shoulders and held it close praying for relief. Relief from the relentless heat of the noon day sun, and of the night chills, and again of the night. Jude prayed he would find a place to settle. He wanted to get off the road and settle down.
He wanted a woman.
In the deep chill of the night, he dreamed of a woman with flaxen hair, warm supple lips, and the light of the Lord in her eyes. He dreamed of a woman who would walk by his side and join him in his walk of life. He considered a moment, the kind of woman who would have him, as he awakened from the night. He longed for a woman to hold onto for all time.
Jude dreamed of a woman.
As the night birds sang their lilting song, Jude dreamt of a woman with warm brown eyes and skin, silky and smooth. Her warmth beside him warmed the night and stilled the fear of dawn. Jude fought to remain in his slumber, even as the light of day brightened his canvas cover, and rain splatted against the ground near him. Another rainy morning. He rolled up his sleeping bag after he’d fastened his clothing. He pulled his feet out one at a time and buckled on his shoes, boots that laced to the top with buckles that surrounded his ankles. Thick rubber soles provided comfort for his feet. He hovered under the tarp remaining dry in the storm until his pack was loaded and secured. He stood and buckled his pack on his shoulders, tightened it at the hip, and wiggled until it was comfortably in place.
With no wind blowing the slow drizzling rain was at least manageable. Jude hovered under the tarp, preparing the moment when he’d lift the poles and fasten them to the front of his pack. The back of the tarp would hang low, shielding his legs as he walked, and he’d remain mostly dry, walking away from the falling rain. Fortunately, what little wind there was blew from the north, and his voluminous cover would shield him from that.
He looked beyond the valley to the mountains and realized the fog hung low above him. He could readily see the foot of the mountains, but the snow covered peaks were out of his view.
He strolled thirty feet back to the east and walked along the railroad, on dry rocky ground, one foot after the other, the miles passed.
He hadn’t taken time for a meal, and hunger pangs met him as the first sign of clearing skies became visible to the south. In a lower pocket of is pack he carried meat sticks and a bottle of clear fresh water. The camel back was dry, and he only had two more bottles in his pack. He’d need to restock when he entered the next town.
A thought crossed his mind, “Is the next town where I’ll stay?”
On the road for nearly seven months, he hadn’t yet found a place where he wanted to remain, and hadn’t thought he might… Until now. As he walked uphill into the edges of a community, he stopped to look around. No signs told him the name of the town. No houses welcomed him. No lights on porches revealed the pleasant warmth of families within. Instead, the town appeared abandoned, forlorn, and lonely. He looked at the few small structures he could see, and wondered if there were people here. He wondered if the town was bigger. Or was it just a wide holler?
Somewhere he heard a dog bark, and a mom telling her child to “get back inside, out of the rain.”
A few yards further, he heard a door creaking in the wind, and realized the house near the edge of the road appeared to be abandoned. He looked around and stood very still, waiting. He heard nothing at all. Silence appeared to mock him. He waited a moment longer before he strode past the open gate and up the steps to the wooden porch and entered the empty house. He ducked under the door with his tent cover, and pushed the door closed behind him. Inside, he carefully untied the cover, and removed his pack. The old house was dusty, but appeared to be safe, not too far gone, although the windows were broken, and glass scattered across the floor. Jude leaned his pack against a dry wall and hung his canvas tarp across two chairs to dry.
He wondered through the rooms and found an old broom leaning against the kitchen sink. He swept dust and broken glass into piles, revealing a sturdy wooden floor.
In the gray of a winter day, the home seemed dark and somewhat dingy, but as the sun sparkled through the boarded up windows late in the afternoon, he realized it wasn’t dark at all. The walls were pale, gray stucco, and the wood still had a light sheen.
In a bedroom up the stairs, he found glass leaning against the back of a closet, and wondered how many windows he could fill. With the dirt and glass swept into piles, the floor looked less dangerous to walk. Jude used the dust from his piles, and threads from a tattered curtain with a little water from his bottle to make a paste to run around the edge of the glass in the three windows he could fill with glass.
One room would be warmer, with no wind whistling through between the boards.
Charlotte finished her work and gathered her belongings from the desk as the sun sank low in the western sky. She was leaving work early, but she’d arrived earlier than scheduled in the morning. She was done for the day.
Lingering clouds colored in pinks and orange as the sun lowered in the sky. Charlotte glanced at the massive bank of clouds on the horizon and welcomed the next wave of rain and winter, as the sun sank behind in warning. She drove across the valley and up the side of the mountain to her home, overlooking the lights of town. Before she arrived at her home, she remembered that she needed a few things from the market, and stopped to grab them from the store closest to home.
“Long night coming…” Carl, the clerk at Catty Corner spoke as she rushed inside.
“It looks to be colder,” Charlotte answered, grabbing milk, bread, butter, and eggs from the refrigerated section at the back of the store. She considered a bag of popcorn, but passed it by, since her hands were full. She placed her purchases on the counter and pulled a bill from her wallet. “Are you working all night?”
“I get off at midnight. Sonny is coming in, he’s been on vacation, but I hear he’s back and ready to work.” Carl answered, ringing up her goods and bagging them as he went. “The last issue was a beaut!” He nodded at the community paper.
“Lots happening here this winter,” Charlotte nodded. “I hope to publish a Christmas Edition this year, we have so much going on.”
“You need another writer,” Carl nodded, placing her last item in the bag.
“Maybe? Or a salesman, so I can write and he can sell ads,” she lamented. “I’d rather write.”
“That might happen.” Carl handed her the change from her bill and offered to carry out her groceries.
“I got it,” Charlotte smiled. “Thank you!”
She lifted the second bag off the counter and spun around so fast that she bumped into the stranger standing behind her at the counter.
He caught her, one arm preventing her from falling and the other holding his own groceries from the store shelves. “Careful there!” He smiled.
Charlotte blushed, “I’m so sorry.”
“No worries.” He placed his groceries on the counter without letting go of her, then skillfully took her bags and carried them out to her car. “There you go!” He grinned, noting the continuing blush on her cheeks.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she smiled, looking up into dark eyes.
“No worries,” he smiled. “It was my pleasure.”
“Thank you.” She nodded as she swung her feet into the car and he closed the door.
He nodded, as if he might have tipped his hat… Had he been wearing one?
Charlotte considered the masculine aroma of pine and dust as she drove home. She pulled into the drive and parked under the carport, then carried her groceries in the back door. The cheery little house seemed brighter, a bit cozier when she turned the lights on.
She prepared a light meal of scrambled eggs and cheese, toast slathered with butter, and a tall glass of milk. When she finished, she placed her dishes in the dishwasher and pushed the button to start it. More often than not, she only ran it once a week, but she’d eaten at home every night this week, and it was more than half full.
The gentle slishing sound lulled her back to the moment, when the stranger caught her in the store.
Nights on the mountain could be lonely. She let herself feel the soothing touch of his hand on her waist as he steadied her, and the smell of him. She remembered the smell of pine and dust.
A song came to mind and she began to hum the tune as she gathered a book, and the cozy comforter that she preferred when lounging on her couch. For a moment she considered remaining dressed, but that moment passed and she escaped to her room to find something more comfortable to wear.
A pair of light gray knit pajama bottoms, and a pink knit top that clung to her fully rounded figure, implying she was plump. She smoothed the fabric, and slipped her toes into the fuzzy pink mules she’d received in her Christmas package the last Christmas, before settling into the couch with her blanket and book.
Sleep might have found her for a bit, between pages of her book, before the knock came at the door. Charlotte pushed the book and blanket aside to walk across the room to the door.
Outside, rain pelted the ground, and the sound of rushing water splattering on her porch greeted her as she opened the door.
“I just noticed as I was walking past that there’s a light on in your…”
The voice was familiar.
“Come in!” She urged, realizing he was nearly standing under the fountain of water pouring from her drain spout.
“Oh, I?” He looked back, then stepped inside the door, pulling the storm door shut behind him. “I just stopped by to let you know there’s a light on in your car.”
“Oh?” Charlotte looked guiltily across the room. “I must not have gotten the door closed, when I came in earlier.”
He nodded, “I can close it for you, if you’d like?” He offered.
“Oh, I can step out the side door…” She smiled back at him. “Come inside, you’re practically drenched! Are you walking in this rain?”
“Just a bit further.” He admitted, “I needed a few things from the store. I didn’t realize when I knocked that it was your car…”
“Oh, I brought in the groceries, intending to go back and get my bag from work. But I got cozy instead.” She nodded at the blanket and book, “Come in. I’ll run close that door.”
Before he could argue, she rushed off through the side door, and he heard the car door open and close. She returned momentarily with a shoulder sized tote filled with files, and paperwork, a computer, and several copies of the local newspaper.
“You should get out of those wet clothes. I can throw them in the drier for you? I have a…” She glanced at the closet behind the door. “I have some sweats you could put on, while they dry?” She pulled a bag of new dark blue sweat pants and a sweatshirt from the shelf.
“Oh, you don’t need to bother… I’m okay. I’ll have to go back out in a bit to get home…” he pointed out.
“The rain may stop?” She encouraged.
He took the sweats and walked down the hall to the bathroom where she pointed to a hot shower. He considered for only a moment, before he took advantage of the hot shower, to wash off the dust of his trail. Out of the shower, he dressed in the sweats, and carried the jeans, shirt, and heavy jacket to the laundry across the hall.
She dropped them in the washer, and grinned. “They’ll be nice and clean as well as warm?”
Jude raised an eyebrow, watched the warm water hit the clothes in the washer, and realized he was going to be there for a while.
“Have you eaten dinner?” She asked, already working her way past him into the kitchen. “You must be starving, and cold. I put on a pot for tea, or I can make coffee?”
“Coffee? Oh, that does sound good…”
Jude tilted his head and watched her fill the pot with water, change the filter, add coffee, and set out two large cups. She filled one with cream, and offered him the carton of cream. He took the container and poured a few spoonfuls of cream into the cup.
“Jude War,” he stuck out his hand, when she’d turned around from preparing the coffee.
“Oh, Charlotte.” She grinned, “Charlotte Harris. My friends all call me Char.”
Jude felt the silky warmth of her hand in his, and held on a bit longer than intended. “Char? What a beautiful name,” he covered for the moment as he let go of her hand.
“Jude War?” She said his name, as if it were a question. “Are you from around here?”
“Not recently,” he admitted. “I’ve been away for a while.”
“Military?” She asked.
The tilt of her head indicated she’d recognized something.
“Bet you could tell by the high and tight?” He grinned. “Guilty as charged. Former. I just retired, 20 years in the Army. My last tour in Iraq.”
“Retired, 44?” She guessed.
“45, but who’s counting?” he asked, sipping the coffee she’d just poured.
“Age is irrelevant.” She agreed, carrying her coffee and a plate of goodies she’d set out while they waited on the coffee to the dining room table.
Jude glanced around the room, noticing the wall of photos, including one in the center of her family. Charlotte was seated in a comfortable chair near the fire and there were three young girls around her chair, a baby boy in her lap, and three young couples surrounding her. Kneeling to one side was a young man.
“My daughters and their husbands, my son, and grandchildren.” She smiled, “They are scattered everywhere.”
“They scatter fast, don’t they?” He responded.
“Do you have a family, Jude?” She sipped her coffee and took a sliver of cheese, layered with a cracker and bit off a chunk.
“No. Military. I married early, but…” His voice trailed off, “She wasn’t up to military life, and she left before we’d been married two years. Deployment costs a lot in the relationship realm.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.” She paused, “My husband died when Lex was two. I raised them, and all but three are married. Lex lives in the city. He’s going to college.”
“Oh, still one at home?” He noted, realizing that’s probably whose sweats he was wearing.
“In the summers. He works at the paper with me for a season, sometimes.” She nodded, “He’s won awards for his advertising work. He loves marketing.”
“And you love to write?” Jude asked.
“Local stories. And books,” she admitted.
He watched as she glanced across to the bookshelf and noted the matching covers stacked on one shelf. “Yours?”
“My latest, and the one above is Lex’s book.” She blushed, “His is better.” She grinned proudly. “Mine is mostly fluff and purple prose.”
“Nothing wrong with some fluff now and then…” He stood up and reached for one of each book. The cover of hers was a handful of purple flowers in a vase, with a clear bold title. Lex’s book was dark, with a blue scaled dragon showing up in the darkness. Silver lettering made out the title and the authors name on the front cover. “Beautiful work.”
to be continued…