I have been working hard on my other story because it's almost finished, but this one wouldn't stay out of my head. So here it is and now I shall go quietly back to working on In the Wind.
Had I not seen the picture first, I might not have recognized him.
He was bigger, thirty pounds or more. But not fat. No, this was the kind of weight you got from years of manual labor, heavy lifting, and from living where the winters were long and bitterly cold.
His chiseled, angular face was a little rounder and covered by a full beard that furthered the illusion he was someone else. His hair was still dark and silky but it seemed thicker, and certainly longer.
It was fastened at the nape of his neck in a ponytail that hung almost to the middle of his back.
Grizzly Adams, I thought and then a picture of him wrestling with a giant bear flashed through my mind. It made me smile. In truth, he was a carpenter, and that made me laugh out loud. It was something I would never have imagined him doing.
But there he was, chopping wood. And he was good at it. But then, he's always been good at everything. He was dressed for the part – Thick brown work boots – heavy blue jeans hugged power thighs – black thermal shirt that did nothing to hide the substantial chest underneath – and a bulky red plaid coat that was obviously designed for warmth.
Snow was lightly falling, coating the earth in a soft white powder. It covered the mountain tops and clung to the trees. It didn't seem to bother him; he continued chopping methodically, seemingly oblivious to anything around him. But I knew that wasn't true. He was never oblivious to anything.
I continued to watch him, and even from this distance I could see the roughness of his hands from endless physical labor. The ax he was wielding raised high above his head and slammed down powerfully, splitting a log easily. The sound reverberated off the mountains and rang loudly in my ears.
A sudden gust of wind lifted my hair off my shoulders and sprayed snow in my eyes. I looked up at the dull gray color that tinted the sky and pulled my heavy coat tighter around my body.
I took a step onto the uneven dirt path that led to his house and suddenly wondered if he knew I was there. I use to be able to tell when he was near - a small shift in the air around me, a slight tingle running down my spine – but ten years had gone by since I'd seen him last and there was none of that now.
I wasn't sure he'd even want to see me. But I was here, so I had to try.
He gave no indication that he knew I was approaching – but I had no doubt he was tracking my every step. I picked my way through the snow and came to a stop directly in front of him. He didn't even look up, just picked up another log and dropped in on the block.
Not expecting it, I jumped a little when he spoke.
"You better move. This stuff flies everywhere."
Even his voice had changed. It was rough and raspy and matched his appearance perfectly. But his eyes - they were the same. He finally glanced up at me when I didn't heed his advice; the brown was still piercing in its intensity. Hard, and unreadable.
He shrugged and swung his ax. A piece of wood flew up and hit my shoulder and I could feel little shards settling in my hair with the snow.
"I warned you," he said gruffly, grabbed another log and dropped it onto the chopping block. He swung hard and it split in two, raining more debris on my head.
"Ranger." I said his name for the first time in ten years, it sounded strange-even to me.
"My name's James," he said curtly and reached for another log.
Could it really be that he doesn't recognize me? Had I changed that much? I didn't think so, but I guessed it was possible. I was just about to open my mouth and tell him who I was when he spoke again.
"What are you doing here, Stephanie?" He dropped the ax onto the ground and it thumped dully.
A small smile played on my lips. He knew exactly who I was. And he was being typical Ranger, cutting right to the chase. God, I've missed him.
"My name is Melissa," I retorted. That was the name assigned to me when we had been forced into the witness protection program. Apparently, his had been James. It didn't suit him at all.
He opened his mouth to say something when a noise sounded from the trees behind me. He froze, instantly alert and his gaze focused on the forest surrounding us. I watched as he did a slow scan of the property, moving nothing but his eyes.
"Inside," he said abruptly, and threat assessment complete, he headed for his house.
I followed dutifully and shut the door behind me when I stepped through the threshold.
I shook out my hair as I looked around his house. It was a tiny little log cabin, and I knew instantly that he had built it himself. There was something almost painstaking about the detail and I ran my fingers gently over a section of the wall.
I took in everything while he banged around, doing something in the kitchen. It was a small space, but he'd never needed much. There was an intricate stone fireplace built into one wall and I knew he'd laid each of the stones himself.
There was a comfy looking couch in a soft beige color and it had a matching chair. In between the two was a small coffee table that I thought he'd also constructed himself.
I was having a hard time picturing him building things and not running around in black cargo pants and boots, armed to the teeth.
"How did you find me?" he asked stepping into the room from the kitchen. He held two coffee cups and handed one to me. I took it gratefully and sipped at the hot liquid. It felt like the cold had seeped all the way to my bones.
"By sheer accident," I replied.
An eyebrow arched and he took a drink from his own cup. "Care to elaborate?"
I smiled knowing he would never be satisfied with that answer. "Do you mind if I sit?" I asked while already sinking down into the couch.
"Sure. Can I take your coat?" he offered as he set his coffee mug down on the table. I shrugged out of it and handed it to him. He removed his own and turned to hang them on a coat rack by the front door. I saw the slight bulge at the small of his back and smiled. Some things never change.
I took another sip of coffee as he settled into the chair across from me. He picked up his cup and waited for my explanation.
"I was in that little bar in town - Moose's I think it's called?" He nodded in affirmation. "Yeah, well Moose has your picture up on the wall behind the counter. It was quite the shock, but I did manage to ask about you and he directed me here."
Ranger shook his head in obvious exasperation. "I've told him a hundred times to take down that goddamned photo."
I hid a smile behind my coffee cup. "How did that happen anyway? You've never been one to allow your picture to be taken," I said, knowing in our previous lives, he'd gone to great lengths to make sure there were no photographs – or information of any importance – of him anywhere.
He sighed and drank the rest of his coffee. "I built that place for Moose, and at the time, the local newspaper had hired a new photographer who went around town taking picture of just about anything. Unfortunately, she got one of me. It was plastered on the front page of the paper and Moose got such a kick out it, he hung it up on the wall, knowing it would piss me off."
I couldn't help it, I laughed out loud. Of course it would. Ranger hated any and all kinds of attention.
I think he might have rolled his eyes before saying, "What story did you tell him to get him to disclose where I was?"
I shrugged. "I didn't. I just said I was an old friend of yours who hadn't seen you in a while. He laughed and said I was lying because he knew you didn't have any friends."
"Moose is a regular riot," Ranger said dryly, but I'm pretty sure I saw a hint of a smile under all that hair.
"I like him," I said. "He seems like the kind of guy who doesn't take shit from anyone."
"Mmmm," Ranger agreed and rested his arms on the arms of the chair. He quietly assessed me from across the table. "Why did you come here?" he finally asked.
"Did you really think I wouldn't, after seeing your face on the wall of that bar?" My coffee was gone and I shivered a little when I set my mug next to his on the table.
"I meant this town," he said as he rose and grabbed the blanket that was hanging over the back of his chair. "Why did you come to this town?" He crossed to me, wrapped it around my shoulders and then returned to the chair.
I tugged the blanket around me, grateful for the warmth and for Ranger's kindness.
"I was just passing through. Got thirsty and stopped for a drink. I must have stared at that photograph of you for a half an hour before Moose asked me if I was okay." I snuggled further into the blanket and began to wonder if I'd ever feel warm again. "I never thought I'd see you again," I added on a whisper.
Ranger nodded but offered no comment. He never was a great conversationalist.
I shivered again and couldn't decide if I was actually cold or if it was Ranger giving me the chills. It was probably best not to think about it.
"I can't get over how cold it is here," I said, just for something to say. "You wouldn't happen to have another one of these blankets, would you?"
Ranger stared at me. Maybe he was getting the chills too.
"I'll start a fire," he said pushing up out of the chair. "It's supposed to get down below zero tonight."
There was a pile of wood stacked up next to the fireplace and he began gathering logs in his arms.
I watched him for a minute, hardly believing I was actually in the same room with him after so long.
There were so many things I wanted to say, but I didn't know where to begin. I finally decided to start with the bad stuff.
"Do you know about Tank," I asked as he threw some logs into the stone cavern. I didn't know if he'd kept in contact with anyone back in Trenton so I wanted to know if he knew his best friend was dead.
He kept his back to me and kneeled to arrange the logs. He stuffed some kindling underneath the grate and lit the whole pile with a match.
"I heard," he said softly, standing up. He didn't turn around, just rested his hand on the mantle, watching the logs catch and burn.
When my time was finished in the witness protection program, I had gone back home to the Burg. I ran into Tank at a bar one night, shortly after my return. We had a couple of drinks and talked for a while. There was some creep there, doing his best to get me to leave with him, and when he went too far, Tank intervened. It happened so fast, no one in the bar saw it coming. Not even Tank. The guy stabbed him in the gut with a ten inch hunting knife. He bled out before the ambulance could get there.
He turned around slowly and I half expected him to tell me again that his name was James, but he just looked at me.
"Why didn't you come back – after it was over? Why didn't you come home?"