“When are you going?”
He looks at me for my reaction. “October.”
I suppose October is no different than any other month. At least he won’t be gone for the holidays, unless there’s another secret trip after that.
“And then that’s it?”
“Hopefully.” That does not sound convincing. “I almost thought that Newbold would be able to handle everything abroad. I mean, he’s annoying as fuck, but he knows his stuff. That’s why I hoped I wouldn’t need to be there this fall.”
“Any chance it could still change?”
“I wish, but I doubt it. He’s freakishly good at the architecture aspect, but he lacks organizational experience.”
“Experience that you have?”
“And that’s why you have to go?”
“Because you have military experience?”
“Who said anything about the military?”
Is he kidding me? I wasn’t born yesterday. Daniel should know I connect dots well enough. I tip my head as if to say as much.
“Well, you did not hear that from me.” No, I certainly did not. “And that’s a secret you are absolutely not allowed to repeat.”
“No worries. I am amazing at keeping information in the vault.”
“Oh really?” His tone perks up, hoping to change the subject from his news.
“Not from you. I’m just not one to gossip, so I always know more than people think I know.”
He nods as if I’m conning him and he knows the gig is up.
“Don’t give me that look. You’re the one who kept a secret from me.” I’m glad he told me four months out, not that I look forward to the new round of nightmares I can expect as the date gets closer.
“It wasn’t a secret so much as I was hoping I would not have to go back.”
“Newbold’s going again this summer, but I don’t have to go then. They’re breaking ground on our project. I’d like to see it, but it’s not necessary that I go. But I do need to check in at some point, and the October date worked best on the project schedule.”
“So, I’m not allowed to know what kind of project this is.”
His expression tells me that is a hard no. As for October, I guess we’ll cross that bridge after I get through my first summer.
“So, you’ll have Wednesday and Thursday off next week?”
“Anything special you want to do?” I expect given our conversation, I can ask for almost anything from him.
“Want to drive across the Sweet Sixteen to Ten Sleep? Maybe stop in at the brewery?”
“Done.” He stands up, kisses my forehead, and returns towards his office.
I want to return to my book, but now October fills my mind and I find myself distracted the rest of the day.
I still think about my exchange with Daniel as the momma moose and her calf complete their morning bath and meander back into the woods. I still consider the prospect of being alone in our home to be more difficult than being alone in the woods. I can protect the wildlife and the fish and the trees and the plants, and the camp sights and the cabins, and still I cannot accept my being alone for two weeks, even if it remains months down the road.
I hop back in the truck in time to catch a transmission from the LE who is still up at the Junction. I think everyone in the Bighorns works hard, but no one works harder than Jensen. As the only law enforcement official, the entire forest is his terrain, and there’s no way one man can cover more than a million acres, so we all back him up. Even he will tell you, despite all his hands-on responsibilities, paperwork chews up too much of his day. Of course, he’ll tell you that. He told me that. He tells everyone that.
“Do we have anyone out near Prune Creek? We received a report of fireworks being set off in the area.”
I passed Prune Creek on my way to the Shutts Flat Trailhead this morning, so I offer to double back.
“This is McClure. I’m enroute from northbound on 193. I can check it out.”
“Copy that, McClure. Thanks. Jensen out.”
I attempt a three-point turn, which at that particular spot becomes more like a five-point turn, and even my moose companions get a move on to avoid my less-than-ideal maneuver, but within minutes, I am back on pavement and traverse a short drive eastward toward the campground.
With morning breakfast prep and cleanup complete, most campers in the area are not immediately visible. I park my truck near the road and walk into the line of fifth wheels and makeshift tents strung from them.
Little movement implies most visitors have voyaged out in search of today’s adventure, but I do hear a few voices from the far side of the creek, and I weave my way through the children’s bicycles and the well-worn coolers towards the voices shushing each other over the sound of the trickling creek.
When I reach the water, I see movement upstream, and I follow the wet path along its edge, weaving between the trees closest to the bank, versus those set back a few feet. I loop far enough out that I can assess the scope of the scene into which I am wandering, but I make a point to not be silent as stealth is not my friend when approaching an unknown situation. Much like alerting a black bear, I produce enough noise to announce my presence. As Archie once alluded, you never know what scene you’re going to encounter.
I glimpse a small gathering as I circle their vicinity, with them eventually between me and the majority of the campground. I stop opposite the water from three men, two leaning against trees and one situated on a dead log on the opposite side of the water. A fourth on my side of the creek stands on my far, left flank.
“Good morning, gents,” I begin, assessing all the images and visible indicators of the scene. I use conversation merely to pace the view I am taking of the surroundings.
“Morning,” one of them replies after checking with his friends to be sure such a greeting is acceptable.
Each look like neither showers nor sponge baths are part of their camping routine, which is not out of the ordinary given that all but one campground in this forest even has electricity. Their faces display a look of hidden mischief, but in fairness, I approach the scene expecting nothing less.
“Are you all camping here at Prune Creek this week?”
“Yep,” the same voice replies.
“First time in the Bighorns, or is this a favorite spot?” This is one of those moments where I envy Archie’s experience. He would recognize if these were regulars or not. Part of the weekly routine of a forest technician is to make the rounds of all the campgrounds, checking in with hosts, making notes of the home states on the camper tags, and checking for prohibited items. So, far, the only item I notice here is a hacksaw propped up against the downed tree, which makes me think they might have been pulling branches for firewood.
NEXT: On My Own – Part 23