Colton Bishop woke up in a bedroom with a half-smoked cigar, a near-empty whiskey bottle, and a naked female. This wouldn’t have been so bad, except for the fact that none of them belonged to him.
The slant of morning sunlight filtering through the sheers of the bedroom window pooled on the curves of her body and highlighted the tones of her pale skin. Her red hair spilled across the pillow beneath her head. Her bare breast rose and fell gently with the slow rhythm of her breathing. She looked like a Vargus Girl. He felt the urge to wake her. A rustling on the other side of the room snagged his attention. Startled, Colton bolted upright.
An older man was sitting in a rocker. His head was back like he was waiting for a shave and he had one foot cocked over the other knee. He held a bone-handled knife in his right hand.
With his gaze fixed on the blade, Colton readied for a brawl.
The old man raised his head.
Colton recognized the face.
“You’re awfully dumb to be lying in bed next to another man’s wife, especially in his own house,” he coldly criticized as he studied the crumpled sheets twisted by a turbulent night of sex. He lifted his knife and pointed the tip at the younger man. “You’re lucky I’m not her husband.” The man lowered the knife and rhythmically tapped the blade against his shin.
Colton sat up and his long, black hair spilled over his shoulders and onto his chest. He swung his legs out of bed and deposited his feet on the floor. “How’d you find me, Spangler?”
The man tucked the knife into the sheath hanging from his belt. With a sly grin he replied, “I’m a tracker. Remember?”
Colton bent down and picked up a pair of rumpled jeans from the floor. “Yeah, of wild game.”
“It doesn’t matter what it is,” said Spangler. “Once I know something’s habits I can find it.”
Colton hitched his jeans up around his waist and cinched the brass button with a snap before zipping them. John slipped a T-shirt over his head, slipped his arms through the sleeves and over a physique, despite his flawed lifestyle, that remained chiseled as though he stuck with a steady regime of lifting weights and core exercises.
Colton pulled the waist of his jeans open and simultaneously shoved his feet through the pant’s legs and out through the cuffs. He stood. “So, why did you come looking for me?”
Spangler unfolded all six foot four of his frame out of the chair, dug a plain, white envelope from his coat pocket, and held it out. “Charley asked me to give this to you.”
Colton shoved his hands into his hip pockets and took a step back. “I don’t want anything from him.”
“He paid me good money to deliver this message, so it’s no skin off my nose, but why don’t you see what your old man has to say.”
“Whatever it is, it won’t change anything.”
“Look, nobody blames you for what happened. Me least of all.”
He looked up and defiantly locked eyes with Spangler. “Get out of here.” He scooped up his shirt from the floor, slipped it over his shoulders leaving the front unbuttoned.
“All right.” Spangler pointed at the bottle “I’ll let you get back to your slow suicide.” He tossed the envelope to the floor, turned, and left.
A few minutes passed before Colton heard an engine fire up. It wasn’t until the growl of the engine had faded before he picked it up and ripped it open. He removed the single slip of paper. The words, Remember our secret? were handwritten in pencil.
The words hit him like a punch to the gut. Instantly, his memory catapulted twenty-five years back in time.
Instead of fishing trips or playing catch, his old man’s idea of father son time was a bi-monthly celebration of a paycheck. While Charlie and his rowdy buddies drank beer from the can, smoked cigarettes, and talked stories at the White Cottage Cafe, Colton would get supper from the steam table. This night the conversation had turned from hunting and fishing tales to something shadowy. Even though the place had emptied out their voices lowered. Charlie looked around the diner. The waitress and the cook had retired to the kitchen.
“What about him?” One of the cronies nodded at Colton. “Little pitchers have big ears.”
Charlie pointed a finger at the door. “Go out to the truck, boy, and stay there.”
Colton knew better than to argue. That would only earn him a slap upside the head. An old Hank Williams’ tune, from the corner jukebox, floated on a cloud of secondhand smoke as he walked out the door. With a full belly, he curled up on the bench seat of the truck. A cool breeze poured through the open window and he didn’t have any trouble falling asleep.
A bump in the road jarred Colton awake. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and squinted at the hands on the dashboard clock. Midnight. He didn’t know the reason why they had left the cafe early. Usually, the stories would last as long as the cigarette and beer money held out, or the tiny cafe closed its doors at one in the morning. It was almost always the latter. But he wasn’t in any hurry to get back home. Earlier in the evening his parents had been arguing about something, and now that the old man was liquored up, Colton was afraid the brawl would pick up where they had left off.
He sat up and peered through the windshield. Colton recognized the place. They were on Blood Road. He wondered why they were out here?
“Go back to sleep, boy.”
Colton ignored the command and strained to see through the dust-coated windshield. The primitive path was no more than a narrow vein of hard-packed sand cutting through the center of a twenty-five thousand acres forest coddling an urban legend. But, in his ten years he’d never seen or heard anything that would support the ghostly tales and schoolyard stories of the older kids.
“Did you hear me?” his father slurred out his words.
Still groggy, Colton didn’t answer.
His father removed a hand from the steering wheel and cuffed him upside the head.
His ear rang. Instantly, tears welled up in his eyes. One escaped and ran down his cheek. He sniffled and wiped it away, laid down and stared up at the passing treetops under the cap of a star-splattered sky and full moon.
Charley Bishop stopped the truck and issued a warning for Colton to stay put if he knew was good for him. He left the truck running, got out, and slammed the door behind him. Colton heard voices. One belonged to his father and the other to another man. It was hard to distinguish the gist of the conversation above the rumble of the engine.
Suddenly, the truck shook. Empty beer cans rattled around as something was dumped into the bed of the pickup.
A second later the door opened. Charley jumped back into the driver’s seat.
Colton sat up and opened his eyes.
Looking nervous, his old man dripped sweat that reeked of stale beer and cigarettes. He held a pistol.