Cal Benton turned his Honda CL350 off Interstate 70 at the exit that said "Sawtooth Mountain, 10 miles," and stopped the bike on the overpass looking back toward Denver. Only 50 miles to the west, he was already well into the front range of the majestic Rocky Mountains. He sat silently staring back toward the plains, reveling in the snow-capped peaks and vast valleys that spread behind him.
The ad in the Denver Post had simply said, "Carpenter laborers, no experience necessary, apply in person – Sawtooth Mountain." The ad had captured his imagination and, after checking several local maps, he had left the city early in the morning to get his application in by mid-morning. He didn't know how many other adventurous young men like him would be drawn by the ad, but he didn't want to be either the first or the last.
Cal enjoyed the ride up the dirt road, interrupted regularly by switchbacks as he crisscrossed the front of the steep mountain which had indeed looked like two teeth from an old bucksaw from below. He wasn't sure just what he was getting into, but as he neared the top he saw several A-frame houses nestled among the pine and aspen trees in well-designed home sites along the road. Whoever had laid out the development had spent some time in giving each homeowner some privacy, while leaving them easily accessible to the main road.
Reaching the top, Cal stopped again, catching his breath at the beauty of the place. The gap between the two "teeth" of Sawtooth Mountain was a wide valley with a large lake in the center and high meadows spotted with cattle on either side. At the mouth to the valley was a neat arrangement of several barns and corrals, a small motel-like bunkhouse, a large house under an outcropping of rocks and, perched on the near shore of the lake, what looked like a large lodge and restaurant.
Pulling up in front of the lodge, Cal dismounted from his bike, hung his helmet on the handlebars and walked into the wing of the lodge which had an "Office" sign beside double French doors. A pleasant young woman handed him an application and indicated a row of six chairs, three of which were already filled with men like himself, chewing on their pencil tops as they filled out their life histories.
Cal ran through the application easily, and then paper-clipped his resume to it before handing it back to the young lady. Only 20, he had already completed two years of college back home, and had experience on two construction job sites which he hoped would get him a position in this paradise. He had graduated three years earlier in 1968 from a small high school in the middle of the Ozark Mountains, and hoped he could return to a life much simpler than the rat race in the too busy city he had just left.
The interview went well with a large, blustery man named Rob Grable, whom he might have liked if the man had been genuine, but it was clear to Cal the man's persona was acquired from years of believing one's own lies.
That afternoon he found a small mobile home for rent in the closest town and was on the job the next morning, one of five men hired to build more A-frames. It looked like the job would last at least through the summer, considering the number of empty home sites he passed on the way to the present project. He noticed two other crews of similar size working on nearby sites.
As the youngest member of the crew, Cal got most of the "gopher" jobs but did not complain, watching how every man worked so as to learn as quickly as possible every aspect of building the unique homes designed to handle the massive snow fall in the winter, when the owners would be there for the ski season on nearby slopes.
One Friday afternoon on the second week of his new job, Cal had stayed late to clean up the site before heading down the mountain for a weekend of rest. About two-thirds of the way down, Cal rounded a switchback to find a Jeep CJ5 sitting in the middle of the road with its hood up and steam coming out from under the hood. An attractive woman and two children, a boy about 12 and a girl about 8, stood looking helplessly at the steaming vehicle.
"Y'all need some help?" Cal asked with a friendly smile, and received a cautious smile in return from the woman. He quickly surveyed the vehicle and saw a small spike of water still escaping a hole from the top heater hose. When he reached over and pulled on the hose it hissed out an even greater stream of water which turned to steam as it settled on the hot motor.
"Just a heater hose," Cal said conversationally. "You going up to the top?" The woman nodded, asking hopefully with her eyes if he could help her get there.
Cal pulled his emergency repair kit from the pack on the back of his bike and took out a roll of heavy tape, which he rolled tightly around the hose until the water stopped escaping. He then released the radiator cap and brought his canteen over to pour its contents in the radiator.
"Do you have anything in the jeep that we could carry water with?" Cal asked. After a brief search, the woman came up with three Burger King cups, offering them to him with a wry smile.
"This is the best we have." Cal nodded and smiled as he took them from her, and turned to the young man.
"I'm Cal Benton," he said, waiting for a reply.
"I'm sorry," the mother interjected. "I am Jan Grable, and these are my children, Bobby and Leah." The name immediately registered with Cal but he gave no indication of that as he responded.
"Well, Bobby, it is quite a climb, but I think we can get down to the creek from here and get enough water to get you guys to the top." He then turned and headed off the road down a steep embankment toward the creek. The boy followed after a brief glance to his mother for her permission.
With the canteen and three cups Cal was sure there was enough water to get them to their destination.
"You don't need to drive fast, just keep it going and I think you can make it to the top, or at least close enough to walk," he told the woman as he replaced the radiator cap. "I am going to leave this loose so the pressure doesn't build up enough to cause the water to puncture the tape. You may see some steam coming out, but just watch your heat gauge and keep the jeep moving until the gauge goes into the red before stopping."
Jan Grable smiled her thanks.
"How much do we owe you?" she asked.
"Nothing," he grinned. "I just got a check from your husband so I'm in good shape!" She smiled back, shepherded the children into the vehicle, waving as they pulled away.
Two weeks later, on a Friday afternoon, Cal's work crew took their usual Friday afternoon break, gathering under a large pine tree to roll a few joints and get ready for the evening ahead. Cal was sitting under a nearby tree deep in his own thoughts when suddenly a bag of weed and pack of papers were tossed into his lap just as Rob Grable's jeep pulled into the job site. Cal stood up with the rest of the crowd, tucking the incriminating evidence into his hip pocket.
Grable walked from the jeep to the men, watching them carefully and testing the air with his nose for the last remnants of their smoky high. He handed each man a paycheck and then stepped back with his hands on his hips, looking as important as he could.
"We won't be needing you guys anymore," he said, watching them closely for any response. "We don't allow pot smoking on the job and made that clear before you were hired." The men just looked back, smirks on their faces as if they were not at all bothered about losing a job that did not pay that much to begin with.
"Which one of you is Benton?" Grable asked.
The leader of the crew nodded toward Cal.
"You still have a job, Benton," the man growled, as if he really didn't want to say the words. "Just go up to the office and they will tell you where to begin Monday."
Cal had not moved or spoken during the interplay. He had not participated in the pot smoking, but had grown to like his fellow workers, and had no desire to stay if they were going to be dumped so unceremoniously.
"Well, I reckon I will just move on with the boys, here," Cal said quietly. Grable had already turned to go, but spun around to look at the young man who was turning down his job offer.
"Have you got a problem with my decision?" he challenged.
Cal casually pulled the bag of weed and papers from his hip pocket and methodically began to roll a joint. Everyone stood watching him as if hypnotized, including Grable. When Cal had licked off the joint, he lit it, took a deep draw and stepped over to hand it to the leader of the crew. Slowly exhaling, he measured the larger man in front of him, seeing anger in his eyes, but a defensive posture that said he was not nearly as sure of himself as he wanted everyone to think.
"You come around here every Monday morning with a hangover that clearly keeps you from working at your best potential," Cal said matter-of-factly. "And whenever we see you in the afternoon – including today, for that matter – you always smell of alcohol. I don't see any difference between your habit and theirs, and yours seems to be all day long, while theirs is just at cleanup time. Who is costing the company the most money?"
The older man looked contemptuously at the youth and then walked toward the jeep.
"Have it your way, kid," he said. "I was just trying to act on information I had that you were not a junkie like these other clowns." He stopped and looked at Cal, as if expecting him to change his mind. Cal had already turned to start gathering up his jacket and tools, when Grable returned to the group.
"Are you telling me you no longer want a job?"
"Not under these conditions," Cal replied, continuing to gather his tools.
Grable shuffled his feet a minute, thinking.
"My wife thinks you deserve to keep your job because you helped her and the kids the other day on the road," he finally explained. Cal just shrugged and walked to his bike, hanging his nail apron on the sissy bar as he opened his pack.
"All right, what if I keep these guys on if they will agree to not smoke any dope until the afternoon break?" Cal looked at the other men and caught a slight nod from the crew leader. He walked to Grable, then, and reached out his hand. The other man took it as if he hated to even touch his adversary.
"Then we have a deal, Mr. Grable," Cal said with a slight smile. "I'll be by the office Monday morning for my new assignment." He then nodded to the other men, straddled his bike, kicked it to a start and rode off down the road, leaving five men watching him ride away, almost in unbelief.
On Monday morning Cal was sent to the main barn where he found an old Mexican named Jose Vasquez, who put him to shoveling manure. Later that afternoon, the old foreman found Cal still shoveling and took him to a smaller barn where Bobby and Leah, and an older woman Cal did not recognize, were brushing down three beautiful horses.
The old-timer showed Cal how to saddle the horses, and help the three into their seats. They then cantered off for a ride around the lake. Cal watched them ride off and turned to the older man with a question in his eyes.
"Your job is to stay here until they get back, help them unsaddle the horses and rub them down, and then put them in their stalls. Then you are done for the day. Any questions?" Cal shook his head.
"All right, then, I will be at the bunkhouse if you need me." Cal watched the old foreman walk away, knowing the two would get along because Vasquez was genuine from the inside out.
When the riders returned, Cal made small talk with the children while unsaddling the animals, and then sat back to supervise as the children began rubbing their mounts down. He couldn't help but notice the older woman as she gracefully dismounted, unsaddled her own horse and began rubbing it down, all the while paying attention to her two young charges. She must be the grandmother, Cal mused. She did look somewhat like the mother.
As he watched the three Cal's eyes kept returning to the older woman. She was dressed casually in a denim shirt, jeans and boots. The graceful way she moved in the cowgirl gear, though, said that she had a lot of class. When she bent over to pick up one of the horse's hooves to clean it out, he enjoyed the way her jeans stretched tightly across her bottom and thigh, and when she reached to brush the mane the swell of her breast from the side prompted a response from deep within that surprised him. After all, the woman was probably more than twice his age.
It was then that he realized the woman was quietly standing looking at him, and he ducked his head, knowing she had caught his speculative gaze. He turned to talk with the children and help them move their animals into the barn and into their individual stalls.
As the four left the barn, the two children saw their parents on the porch of the "big house" and ran to meet them. The older woman turned to Cal and held out her hand.
"I am Peggy Whistler," she said with a bemused smile. "And I want you to know I appreciate the way you helped my daughter the other day with her car, and the way you interact with my grandchildren. Jose made a good choice in where to put you to work. I would also like to tell you that the attention you were giving me earlier was not an insult, but the contrary – any woman my age would take it as a compliment to catch a young man like yourself checking her body out." Then she laughed, a delightful, open laugh that made him want to laugh with her – but he didn't.
"Why don't you come up and have dinner with us?" she asked pleasantly. "Carmela, Jose's wife, is an excellent cook, and there is always room for another chair at the table." Cal shrugged and shook his head.
"I'm afraid I wouldn't be welcome by everyone there," he said quietly, glancing at the woman with thankful eyes to let her know he appreciated the invitation anyway.
"Oh, you must mean my son-in-law," the woman said with a wink and a smile. "I hear you dressed him down pretty good the other day on the job site."
Cal looked at the woman carefully, enjoying the honest humor in her eyes and wondering if the man had actually told others of their confrontation. She sensed his question.
"Rob doesn't own this place, Cal, I do," she said, turning serious for the moment. "And I don't trust him anymore with it at this time than you would. I keep hoping he will accept the responsibility of being a husband, father and businessman and quit playing with the waitresses, because I see some good in him, but I am not sure I will ever see the day." She paused then for a second before continuing. "He wouldn't ever confess that a kid like you could show him up, but he had direct orders to hire you for 'up top' rather than letting you go with the others. I have my own spies around here and there is not much that goes on I do not know about. By the way, I admire you for standing up for your friends." Then she reached out and took his hand in hers. "Now, come on up for supper so we can get to know you better, I have a feeling you are going to become an important part of my grandkids' lives and I want to make sure I am not making a mistake."
Cal followed the older woman toward the house, but pulled his hand away from hers quickly, not trusting the surge of excitement he had felt at their first touch. He was not sure just what it was about the woman that attracted him, but he knew there was some connection . . . he would have to consider that for a while.
The children carried the conversation at the dinner table, chattering non-stop about their favorite places to ride, and their favorite things to do on the ranch. After dinner the four adults retired to the front porch to watch the brilliant sunset highlighting the rugged peaks to the west.
Rob Grable had little to say to the visitor, but Jan and Peggy asked him numerous questions about himself and his family, which he answered truthfully, though withholding anything that he considered to be too personal. As dark began to settle over the valley Cal excused himself to return to the bunkhouse, and was surprised when both women stood to kiss him on the cheek as he left. The younger woman was friendly and a real beauty, but it was the older woman's kiss and quick, almost shy, glance that again caused a reaction deep within.
As Cal wandered through the barn to check on the horses once more before settling in for the night, he saw Jose standing quietly in the shadow of the barn door, observing his actions. The two men just nodded to each other and Cal went on to the bunkhouse. He didn't suppose there was much that went on around the ranch without Jose's knowledge, and was glad the two had hit it off from the start.
Cal settled into a regular routine of work around the barn and ranch in the morning, followed by a lunch siesta from about one to three. Then it was time for the children and, usually, their grandmother to go for their ride. Sometimes Cal was invited to along with the three, and he always went when it was just the two children. He enjoyed the bright minds and constant chatter of the brother and sister, and was especially pleased when he had a chance to ride alongside Peggy Whistler, sharing her companionship – and the thrill that he always got when he could watch the graceful movements of her mature body unobserved. He had been with much younger women several times in his life already, but none had moved him with their touch like this woman did with just a look. He had given up trying to figure it out and had just decided to enjoy the times together for what they offered.
The summer passed rather swiftly, and Cal learned many things from Jose and the other hands, slowly becoming an expert horseman and fairly good ranch hand. He was invited two to three times a week for dinner at the 'big house' and was the subject of a lot of good-natured teasing by the other ranch hands, who did not seem jealous – possibly because they were treated so well by the staff under Peggy's watchful eye. Another reason the men may have accepted him so graciously was that the account of his confrontation with Rob Grable and his loyalty to fellow employees had made the rounds. No one had spoken to him of the incident, but he knew from things that were said during regular conversation that it was well-known.
He worked Monday through Friday, dawn to dusk, and had grown quite fond of the job and the ranch. He didn't know how many men they would keep around for the winter, but hoped he would be asked to stay.
He had made the acquaintance of one of the pretty college girls working for the summer in the restaurant as a waitress, and had taken her on several weekend trips on his bike to Denver and sightseeing in the mountains. He had spent several nights with her in her room at the lodge, and the two were known to be 'an item' among the other help. The two had made no commitments between them, but simply enjoyed each other's company, and were willing and compatible sexual partners.
One Saturday in late July, Cal was cleaning out the stall of Paint, the spirited appaloosa gelding assigned to him by Jose, when he realized he was not alone. Straightening up, he saw Peggy Whistler leaning on the stall door watching him work. He was only wearing a pair of cutoff jeans, having pulled his sleeveless t-shirt off earlier in the day, and felt a little embarrassed to be so undressed in her presence, especially when he saw her look his body over approvingly before she spoke.
"Rob and Jan just took the kids in to do some 'back-to-school' shopping and I am feeling lonely," she said with a slight smile. "Would you like to go for a ride with me up to a special place I know about?"
"Sure," Cal said without hesitation. "I need to take Paint out today for some exercise anyway." He slipped on his shirt as soon as she turned to her own horse, and the two saddled their mounts without further conversation.