They headed north from the ranch, veering off the main county road about half a mile on to follow a trail that traveled up through a grove of leafless quaking aspen and Douglas-fir. The trail barely resembled a drivable path at all, but Travis brought the Dodge Ram through the snow-packed terrain, keeping them upright and moving forward despite the steepness and unevenness of the rise. Ascending higher, the snow on the trail thickened, and Travis kicked it into four-wheel drive. At one point, the tires spun out in a soft spot, the ground angry and determined to stop them in their tracks, but Travis managed to maneuver free.
The chassis bucked to and fro beneath them as they climbed, and Ben tightened his hand around the door grip to keep his head from smacking against the side window. “I take it you come up here a lot?” he asked, his teeth involuntarily grinding together.
“Not so much anymore,” Travis replied. He was dressed in yellow nylon twill snowboarding pants and a gray jacket, a black and yellow beanie hugging his head, a pair of Oakley goggles set around his neck. As much as Ben tried, he just couldn’t picture the man backcountry snowboarding. It went against his bucolic disposition and against Ben’s assumption of who he thought Travis was. Ben wondered how he even found opportunities to snowboard when the ranch clearly demanded all of his time.
Travis glanced over, caught Ben watching him, and grinned. “How about you? Snowboard a lot?”
Shaking his head, Ben replied, “Not nearly enough.” Unfortunately, this rang true of countless other activities he tried to squeeze into his hectic schedule: cycling, surfing, basketball. He loved sports, craved the endorphin rush of exercise, but with his perpetually busy calendar, it seemed impossible to excel in any one area. His physical activities had been reduced to solitary morning jogs, work-outs with his personal trainer, and a few laps across the length of his pool when he felt inclined to dip into it.
They reached their final destination, an off-piste section of ridge that overlooked the western edge of the Arkansas River valley. Travis tucked the Dodge near a cluster of blue spruce trees, as though attempting to camouflage the vehicle among the pines. As Ben hopped out, he noticed that all along the ridge the ground was powdery and fresh, completely virgin. The sun had not yet begun to melt this newest layer of snow, which made it prime condition for the board. “How do you find these places?” he inquired, running a stick of sunscreen down the bridge of his nose.
Travis had pulled a snack cooler from the bed of the truck and proceeded to tuck it into the snow. “I do a lot of exploring,” he responded vaguely.
“Is this all a part of the ranch?”
“Nope.” He opened the tailgate and took a seat on it to change into his snowboard boots. “Neighbor’s land.”
Ben joined him, pulling his own snowboard boots on. “In other words,” Ben said, “we shouldn’t be here.”
“According to my neighbor, no.” His remark was flippant.
“You’ve never been caught?” Ben asked. Wasn’t sure why he was pressing the issue or why he even cared. Curiosity tended to get the better of him; he wasn’t always the most tactful or patient participant in a conversation.
Travis squinted at him, causing the light spray of freckles that crisscrossed his nose to crinkle. “This neighbor and I… Let’s just say we’ve never exactly gotten along.” He pulled his helmet on, positioned his goggles on his face, and clipped his boots into his board before scuffling over to the nearby cornice edge and pushing off. Without a flinch, he bounced the uneven side of the natural chute with a half-cab spin before continuing down the slope. Ben’s mouth fell open the moment he witnessed the guy perform a frontside rail slide down the length of a fallen lodgepole pine devoid of branches. It was as though the prop had been purposely positioned there solely for Travis’ benefit. With a sharp turn, he came to a halt a few yards below it. Powdery snow plumed up behind him.
“Holy shit,” Ben mumbled in disbelief.
“Yeah,” Katy said. “He’s good.”
Ben turned to her with wide eyes. “Good? He should be in the goddamn Olympics!”
She giggled and bumped her hip into his, remaining dangerously close, her vanilla-scented perfume hitting his nostrils. He considered telling her to cease the flirtatious crap before it got started, but Travis was waving to them from below, beckoning for someone to come down. “You go,” Ben suggested, nudging her forward.
Katy pulled her goggles down over her helmet and pushed off, her momentum gathering strength the further she descended. Her technique was definitely amateur, but she succeeded in getting most of the way down before losing her balance and falling. The snowboard flipped up into the air, propelling her forward in an awkward somersault that she recovered quickly from before sliding the rest of the way down. At the bottom, Travis lent her a hand, hoisting her up by an elbow, helping to free her boots from the clips.
And then it was Ben’s turn. Travis and Katy waved, signaling him to come down, and he stood still for a moment, contemplating the run, deciding which side to take. Don’t fucking kill yourself, Mansfield, he warned himself. Pulling in a deep breath, he exchanged his sunglasses for goggles, clipped his boots into the board, and pushed himself off of the edge. Although he loved snowboarding, the truth was he had only done it half a dozen times in his life thus far, and that fact was painfully obvious as he almost immediately wiped-out, his body betraying gravity while he briefly yet dramatically plummeted down the ridge. He skidded and rolled several yards but somehow managed to stop himself midway. When he got back up, he steadied himself and pushed off again, this time successfully making it to the bottom of the slope without a face plant. There was no way in hell he was going to attempt to shred the fallen tree.
Travis hopped over, threw an arm around his shoulders, and pulled him close, causing their helmets to thump together. “That was awesome!” he exclaimed.
“Awesome…?” Ben echoed. “I fucking wiped out!”
“Yeah, but you cowboyed-up!”
Ben laughed at his choice of words and repeated, “Cowboyed-up?”
Katy leaned in close to brush a pink fingernail beneath his chin. “Yes, ‘cowboy up’. Means grit your teeth, get back on, keep going, no matter what.” Her eyes expressed everything she was feeling, everything her pretty little body was insinuating, like the opened pages of an erotic novella that no one had asked to read.
Ben brushed her hand away. “I know what ‘cowboy up’ means,” he stated. “I just thought it was a phrase reserved for rodeos and cattle drives and shit like that.”
Travis pulled him closer and swept a hand across the horizon in mock grandeur. “Friend!” he exclaimed. “Today, you are a cowboy of the hills, and that snowboard is your steed!”
Ben choked back laughter and pushed him away. “You’re crazy, you know that?”
Travis gave no retort, simply smiled. Katy began to trek back up to the top of the ridge, her snowboard propped against her shoulders, her boots disappearing in the snow with each step. Travis took advantage of the moment and kissed Ben quickly on the mouth. Their frozen lips were rough and hard together. Ben hoisted his board up to his shoulder and pushed Travis ahead of him. “Come on, Cooper,” he said. “Let me give you some snowboarding lessons. I think you could use a few pointers.”
With a chuckle, Travis responded, “Teach me anything you want, Mansfield. Eyes and ears are on you.”
* * * *
Although Ben’s snowboarding skills gradually improved throughout the morning, his frustrations continued, especially in contrast to Travis’ perplexing expertise. At several points, Ben stood in awe, witnessing Travis glide down that off-piste terrain as if he was slicing a wave on a surfboard – as if it were as fluid and natural to him as breathing. Again, Ben wondered how in the hell the guy found time for recreation.
Out of pure adrenaline and pride, Ben forced himself to disregard the burning in his calves and lower back in order to further stretch his limits, needing to prove something to Travis even though he knew damn well that they weren’t in competition with one another. Travis kindly offered tips to Katy as well, and together she and Ben shared the role of snowboard pupil under his tutelage. Several times throughout the morning, she and Ben held decent conversations, free of innuendos. Her propensity to flirt with him, however subtle, was still evident, but the intensity had waned, and Ben actually found her somewhat bearable to be around.
By early afternoon, hunger became the focus. Sandwiches, apples and bottled waters were handed out from the cooler in the snow. By then, Ben was more than relieved for the reprieve and slumped down onto the open tailgate of the truck, grimacing slightly at the muscle burn throughout his torso. His turkey and avocado sandwich was devoured within a few bites while he gazed off at the giant fourteener mountains in the distance, admiring their grandeur and high peaks swathed in rings of heavy clouds. Snow was forming, destined to descend into the valley at some point that day. Absently, Ben wondered what the real estate market in Chaffee County was like. A winter home wasn’t out of the question; he’d been considering investing in additional property anyway, and the more of Colorado he saw, the more that part of the world appealed to him.
Katy dropped her half-eaten sandwich into the open cooler and jumped down from the back of the truck where she’d perched herself on the wheel mound. “Gotta pee,” she announced, straightening out her purple ski jacket and trudging off to climb a slight incline where the aspen and evergreen trees grew denser and the shadows heavier. Before disappearing altogether, she playfully called over her shoulder, “Try not to miss me too much, boys…”
“We’ll certainly do our best,” Travis replied unconvincingly. When she was gone from view, he looked at Ben and said, “She seems to be behaving herself today.”
Ben nodded. Took a swig from his water bottle. “She’s been pretty good,” he concurred.
After taking a bite of apple, Travis nudged Ben’s arm and pointed a finger to the sky. Ben lifted his gaze to catch sight of two large red-tailed hawks floating in circles about 50 feet above them. Their massive speckled wings glided effortlessly on the afternoon breeze. Ben laid back on the rippled bed, draped an arm across his eyes to shield them from direct sunlight, and watched the majestic birds of prey continue to dip and rise in perfect formation through the sky until his reverie was disrupted by a hand on his thigh. He shifted his gaze back to Travis.
“I have a surprise for you after this,” Travis announced, running his palm across the nylon fabric.
“Yeah. A little something to take the edge of the day off.”
Ben envisioned beer, weed, close physical contact. “I look forward to it,” he whispered, covering Travis’ hand with his own, giving it a tight squeeze.
Katy descended from the line of trees, and Travis slid his hand away. A trace of anger clouded her face as she approached the truck, but she kept quiet, grabbing up her snowboard and marching away, her boots crunching in the snow. Her ability to control her emotions and keep her mouth shut impressed Ben; perhaps she’d managed to mature a small fraction since last night. No one, especially Ben, desired a repeat session of her sophomoric behavior. Although curiosity pricked at him because he wanted to understand their sibling rift – what had caused it, what continued to fuel it – until Travis chose to divulge the story to him, it would remain a mystery.
After clearing up the remnants of lunch and putting the cooler away, Travis and Ben joined Katy on the ridge. Their snowboarding continued, but they no longer bothered themselves with proper techniques, just had a good time with it. Although Ben stumbled and plummeted several more times, it didn’t disappoint him nearly as much as it had earlier in the day. Perhaps he, too, had matured a fraction. Eventually, he excused himself to wander off into the forest in search of his own tree. Snow from the higher elevation finally descended, and large, fluffy flakes swirled silently through the air, playfully surrounding him as he climbed up through a large grove of Englemann spruce.
From within his pant pocket, his mobile phone buzzed. Fishing it out, he saw that it was Audra. “Hey there,” she said when he answered, her voice decidedly more chipper than it had been in the morning. “We’re taking a tour around Salida with Travis’ mom. Cute town. She’s showing us the gallery where she sells her pottery. I’m thinking of getting something for Mom and Dad. Souvenir-type thing.”
“I take it you’re feeling better?” Ben asked, carefully stepping over fallen branches and tree stumps in his path. The pungent aroma of pine resin ignited his senses.
“Much better,” she replied. “How’s snowboarding?”
“I suck at it.”
She chuckled, cupped her hand over the receiver to say something to Bryan, and then returned. “Bryan wants to know if you’ve broken any bones.”
Ben groaned. “No. Tell him he’s the only gimp in the family.”
He could hear Bryan mumbling something to her, shuffling to take the phone away from her hand. “I’ll see you later,” she crooned before disconnecting. “Don’t break a leg.”
Ben tucked the phone into his pocket and opened his fly. While humming the tune of a nondescript song, he happily sprayed yellow patterns of urine into the untouched snow until the loud crack of a tree branch disrupted him. Turning his head, he feared for a moment that he’d come face-to-face with a mountain lion or a bear scrounging for its afternoon snack, but what he discovered was Katy, now almost directly behind him. Her purple ski jacket was unzipped to reveal that she was wearing only a black satin push-up bra underneath.
Before Ben had a chance to react to her presence, she slid her arms around his waist and wrapped the palm of her right hand around his exposed member. “Let me get you off…” she whispered, already stroking him into partial hardness. Quickly, he came to his senses and disentangled from her, stuffing himself back into his pants and turning to face her in a defensive stance.
“Ben,” she breathed, coming at him again. “I’ll do anything you want.”
He slapped her hands away. “Stop it.”
“Oh, come on!” she pleaded. “Travis doesn’t have to know! I can be quick.” She dropped to her knees in the snow, pawing at the front of his pants, trying to undo the Velcro strap of his fly. He grabbed her wrists, much tighter than he’d intended to, and she let out a yelp. Hoisting her back up to her feet, he said, “Quit it, before he comes up here.”
“He won’t,” she insisted, trying to pull free from his grip. “Just give me a couple of minutes! I’ll give you the best blow job you’ve ever had!”
Ben stared hard at her, his jaw clenched, the struggle to remain civil with her vanished. Why is this girl so goddamned determined?!
“You know you’re just another one of his conquests anyway,” she jeered. Her emerald eyes were wide, pupils enlarged with excitement and fear and the titillation of being handled roughly by him.
He dug his fingertips into the supple flesh of her slender wrists. “Why can’t you get it through your head that I don’t fucking want this?” he insisted.
The look on her face expressed pure insolence. Her eyes were defiant, her pink, glossy lips a thin line. “He’ll turn you, Ben,” she said through strained voice. “Just like he’s turned others. He’ll turn you and dump you. He doesn’t care about anybody but himself. Don’t be fooled. You’re just a prize.”
Realizing that he still held her wrists in a vise-hold, Ben released her. She lost balance for a fraction of a second but soon found her feet and stood up straight, her chin raised as she stared at him. Ben hooked his hands on his hips and stared back her, inhaling and exhaling, his breath coming out in clouds. “Please stop all of this shit, already,” he commanded. “None of it matters. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“It’ll matter when I can’t keep a secret,” she retorted. “It’ll matter when the whole wide world finds out you’ve been fucking my brother.”
A spasm, an instantaneous moment of fury, and Ben had her neck in his hands. His fingers squeezed against her windpipe, wanting to crack it, wanting to fracture it. But just as quickly as it had surfaced, the desperate, red-hot moment ceased, and Ben dropped her into the snow. His heart was pounding straight out of his head, his ribcage ready to explode, his muscles twitching anxiously. He peered down at her retching, sobbing body and thought, You deserved it, cunt.
Slowly, she rose to her feet and backed away from him, zipping up her jacket with trembling fingers. Fear surrounded her. “Your secret will come out,” she whispered through tears, turning and stumbling away, struggling to navigate over jagged tree stumps and fallen branches along the way. Ben watched her disappear but remained planted where he stood, trying to regain his senses. He hadn’t meant to hurt her – not entirely. But her words lingered in the air around him, taunting his resolve: “He’ll turn you, just like he’s turned others…”
What the hell was her point? To convince him that Travis enjoyed the challenge of seducing guys? That he’d fucked plenty of others before him? If she thought he hadn’t guessed that already, she was ignorant. Travis’ past sexual encounters didn’t have a negative impact on Ben. If anything, they fueled his desire for the cowboy even more.
Because Ben wanted to be used. Needed to be handled and humiliated and tossed aside like the rotten, despicable person that he thought he was. It had to happen that way, or it would never be over.
And tomorrow, it would be over. He’d return to Aspen without a single glance behind – no repetition of the offense, no second-guessing himself in the future. Cooper Ranch, Travis, and all of these tangled events would become fragments of a forgotten dream, a fictional tale buried deep in the ground, never to be exhumed.
His own hands of shame would dig the soil to cover it.