River of Dreams
Both men moved with new purpose, and Boone enjoyed Coy’s excited energy as they broke camp. His friend looked even more like his normal self despite Boone’s recurring nightmare waking him in the middle of the night. This dream was bad, worse than all the others, and Boone had found it necessary to walk it off for a spell before he could return to his bedroll.
Coy had stayed by his side until his upset simmered down. He’d asked him questions, but Boone told him he’d forgotten what it was about, and only remembered the feeling of not being able to breathe.
He wasn’t telling the truth, though. He recalled pretty much all of it, especially the fact Coy was in the water with him, and after he’d kissed Boone goodbye—same as what happened in his other dreams—everything changed.
This time it wasn’t Boone who’d been wrapped in vines and struggling to move—it was Coy—and he was the one being dragged away by the current, deeper and deeper until he disappeared from sight. He searched frantically for his friend, his lungs burning like fire until he gave up and breathed in the cold, dark water. Coy was gone, swallowed up by the river, and Boone didn’t want to find the surface without him.
Certain he was dead, he continued to swim downward, reaching out in darkness but unable to find the bottom. Something found him, though, its snake-like body wrapping around his arm before moving up to his throat. A coyote called mournfully through the water as he was pulled further down into the black, endless depths… and then he woke, gasping for air, his chest heaving painfully and his body coated in sweat.
Boone experienced pure dread, like he was still that little boy waking up alone in a frightening world after his ma died... until he felt Coy’s hand on his arm. The warm breath on his face was proof his friend was alive… and he sobbed in relief. It was an embarrassment for sure, but couldn’t be helped.
It took them until the third day to reach the spot where he’d fallen in, and each of those nights, he’d relived the same basic nightmare. He laughed them off to a concerned Coy, insisting they weren’t no big deal, but he was beginning to fear going to sleep.
The warm days were pleasant, and for much of the time they were in shade. Coy kept things light-hearted. He talked about the different plants they were seeing, his reactions almost kid-like at the number and size of the trees they were winding through. Many of them were soaring spruce and pine, and some they figured were balsam because of the smaller needles. Pretty trees, they were. Every so often, they glimpsed far off rolling hills covered in forests, in the direction they were headed. Boone enjoyed listening to his friend’s enthusiastic talk, hoping it was a sign he’d worked through his grief and had come to accept being the only one of his family left.
All in all, the days were perfect. But, when they reached the spot where he’d fallen in, it felt anything but pleasant, and Boone was bound and determined not to stick around. The fallen tree that had trapped his arm and hurt his shoulder was still there, but about half of it overhung the river now.
Seeing the picket line still in place brought back things he didn’t want to think about, and he stayed back, shook up at just how much of the narrow strip had fallen away. Broken trees and large, scattered branches were everywhere, and any one of them could have killed him. He couldn’t stop the remembered fear from crawling up his backbone, and he shuddered.
“That’s a good rope,” Coy said as he dallied Buttercup’s lead rope around his saddle horn and dismounted. “Didn’t think to grab it last time I was here… in too much of a hurry.”
Boone’s panic rose as Coy hit the ground, and exploded at seeing his boots sink into soft earth. “Hey, be careful, dammit!”
Coy spun and looked at him curiously. “Careful of what?”
“The ground… it might not be safe.”
“Sure it is.” He took a few steps towards the bank.
“Boone, don’t fret… it’s safe. The water’s a lot lower and slower than when I was here before, and the bank has a good slope down to the river now. Worst that could happen is I slide down and get wet, and if’n I had to swim, I’d be fine. You all right?”
He blew out a long breath, feeling scared and foolish both. “Too many bad dreams about this place, I guess.”
“Get off and see for yourself. I think we might even be able to ford here. I know Mouse would go willingly.”
“No! I want to start heading north. We’ll find somewhere else to cross.”
Coy’s eyebrows rose as his gaze fixed on Boone. “All right… suit yourself. Bet this place looked a lot different that night,” he said in a different tone.
“It was a nightmare,” Boone said softly as he turned Daisy and Blue into the tree line. It wasn’t long before he found a game trail that wound alongside the river… but not too close. He didn’t look behind for a while, but could hear Buttercup and Mouse following some distance back.
Slowly, he began to relax, feeling a mite shamed at the fear he’d showed Coy back there. He was spending way too much time reliving that stormy night and his perilous plunge, but he hoped now they were past that part of the journey, his dreams would end.
Coy, as if he was in his head, called out to him. “Rivers can have a lot of power beneath the surface, so you were probably wise to keep us moving. Sorry I took that kind of chance. I got the rope, though.”
“A good rope is a good rope,” was Boone’s only response, but he appreciated his friend’s attempt to make him feel better.
The game trail was some tough going as they entered thick woods, and Boone, lost in thought, suddenly found himself facing a wall of trees and brush that seemed almost impenetrable. Angry at himself for being stubborn back at the clearing, he forced Daisy forward. It wasn’t long before he had to dismount in order to continue, and as they got farther in, he truly regretted his earlier decision. “You want to turn around?”
“Why would we do that?” Coy asked, now only a few feet away. “We’ve been climbing the whole time and it sounds like the river hasn’t.”
“I meant back to where you said Mouse would cross.”
“That far? No, I trust your instincts. Besides, the day’s winding down.”
“That weren’t instinct. It was fear, plain and simple.”
“Maybe so, but let’s keep going. Near as I can tell, we’re on a ridge, and there’s a good chance we’ll start going down afore too long.”
“Or meet a cliff or a canyon and we’ll have to go back anyway.”
“If that’s the way of it, I think we’ll know soon enough. If’n you want to turn around, we can… we ain’t in no rush, and I’m liking this kind of travel for a change.”
“Sure am.” Coy took a drink from his canteen. “It’s cool enough in here, out of the sun, and I’ve seen a couple of deer, and I even think I saw me a bear on that rise we passed a ways back. Never saw a bear before.”
“Heard they like the woods and higher elevation. You sure it was a bear?”
“Nope, didn’t see its head, but I saw the big black back end of something running away from us. Wasn’t that big so maybe it was one of those badgers or something. Don’t know nothing about what lives around here.”
Boone was facing Coy, and he could see eagerness and excitement… joy he’d not seen in a long time. It did the heart good to see, and made him realize that while he might have changed since that punch, so had Coy. He knew who his brother had been, and he carried that weight as much as Boone had… likely even more, and Boone had shut down on him. His face broke out into a genuine smile, and he pushed away thoughts of the river. “I’m game if you’re game… just hope one of my eyes don’t get poked out by one of these branches.”
“You’d still have another. Want me to take the lead?” Coy asked with a grin and that same eagerness.
“Sure… if you can get by.”
They managed to dance around enough that Coy took the lead, but not before Blue made it known he didn’t like what was happening and had to be persuaded he wasn’t going to be separated from Buttercup. Not for the first time, Boone entertained the idea of shooting him dead. Course he wouldn’t—the beast had saved his life by finding Coy’s camp—but it did his mind good to think on it some.
They fought their way on foot for about another mile before the trees got farther apart. Shortly after, they were looking down into a narrow but open valley. To the right was a broad expanse of Snake River, and from their vantage point, it looked slow moving and calm.
“See that trail coming out of the woods over there to the left?” Coy asked.
“Yep. I’m thinking we were making our own trail when we could have been on that one.”
“Looks like,” Coy said with a chuckle. “It leads right down to the water. Ain’t this a pretty sight?”
“Sure is. And it looks like a good place to cross over. Can see how the land gets higher in the distance.”
“I could see someone farming this valley one day. It’s big enough.”
“Yep. It’s big enough, but look at the steep slope on the other side. I suspect this place floods a time or two when it rains a bunch. Only place for the water to go is to the bottom, and that would likely kill any crops on the flats.”
“See… that’s why you’re smarter than me at farming. Never would have figured that out on my own.”
“Maybe not, but I bet you’d have found that trail over there if’n you was leading.” Boone said.
“Might a done, if I wasn’t watching for bears and such. Fact is, we made it, and now I’m taking that way down… looks easy enough. You coming?” Coy’s voice still held that same enthusiasm, and he didn’t sound at all like he was tired from their journey.
“You keep leading,” Boone answered as Coy gently spurred a dozing Mouse forward. He fell in line, pleased Coy wanted to go first. In the past, Coy would often stand back until Boone took the lead. Something was different.
The going was much easier than earlier. Even Blue seemed happier, making his excited half bray, half whinny sound a couple of times. Maybe it was because he had a better view of Buttercup, or maybe it was because he could smell the water and wanted a drink… or maybe he forgot he was a damn mule.
It took them a good hour to reach level ground… and the river. Coy had been right. It was the perfect place to cross over—lazy water that was only belly deep in the middle, and with no high bank to climb. The man didn’t even stop to talk with Boone… just rode halfway across and stopped, letting the horses have a drink.
He was grinning ear to ear as Boone approached him, sloshing through sparkling water that was catching the early evening sun. “Knew this would be a good place to cross.”
“Couldn’t ask for better,” Boone agreed, matching Coy’s grin as his charges dropped their heads and quenched their thirst. “Looks like a good place to camp too.”
“I’m all for that. Been a long day, and I plan on soaking in this river for a spell. Maybe wash my clothes at the same time.”
“You do that, and I’ll get supper on. Lots of good grass for the horses.”
“I’ll set a couple of snares in those willows near the bank. Can bet there’s rabbit trails in there.”
Boone narrowed his eyes, reacting quickly after glancing where Coy was pointing. He slid his rifle from its scabbard and shot one round off. Of course Blue had to cause his little ruckus, but Boone didn’t mind at all. Daisy did though, pinning her ears and swinging her hind end in warning, like a mother scolding her kid. “No need for snares tonight. Got us a fat grouse from the looks of it.”
“Good shot. I’d rather have grouse than rabbit any day.”
“Me too.” Riding out of the water, he dropped his reins on the ground and walked over to retrieve their supper, seeing sign that game was plentiful around these parts. “Fried or boiled?”
“I reckon rolled in flour and fried would hit the spot.” Coy was now out of the river and off his horse. “Don’t think we need the canvas strung up. Sky’s clear.”
They both went about settling and hobbling the horses and Blue, and setting up camp. Once the animals were happily off munching grass, Boone built the cook fire and began plucking their meal, his mind on how much he was enjoying this time with Coy. It felt like old times, before the kiss and the following punch, but it was different too. Coy was different. He hadn’t seen him this happy in a long time… like there was a burden off his shoulders… and yet there were moments he saw something behind the man’s eyes he couldn’t get a fix on.
He turned his gaze to the river, and in the fading light, he watched a naked Coy washing his clothes. That familiar ache grew in the pit of his stomach, one he tried to ignore, but never could. Coy was beautiful, and Boone could watch the play of his muscles all day. He’d never seen a better formed man, and for sure lusted after him… every part of him. Some of his blood headed south as he thought about how his skin felt, and how much he wanted to feel all of it against him. He wanted to taste it, and he wanted to feel Coy’s lips on his.
“You coming in?”
The question startled Boone from his thoughts, and he knew he’d been caught staring, something he tried not to do while the man was awake. “I… ah… not yet,” he stammered. “Going to start the cooking now. After I eat some grub… don’t know why I’m so hungry, but I could eat the ass end out of a skunk. Ah, how’s the water?”
“About perfect once you’re in. Nice sand on the bottom too.” He swung his arm, trying to splash Boone, but it fell far short. He grinned and disappeared beneath the water long enough Boone began to stand up in worry. When Coy broke the surface, he came up gasping and laughing, pushing his shaggy mane back from his face with both arms. The sight was too much for Boone, and he forced himself to look away. Would the time ever come when he wouldn’t have these damn feelings? Coy deserved better from him… and Boone, feeling shame, set about cooking them their meal.