~Chapter One~

Welcome to Blue Mountain Riding Camp


The cool morning air graced Marshall's lungs as he sucked in a deep breath of depression.

The Blue Mountain Wilderness was really quite gorgeous to look at. The spines of the Rocky Mountains marched like a jagged wall from the north to the south, rising up out of the grassy blue-green scrub of the Montana countryside. In the distance, the prairie turned to forest as blue pine and other evergreens rose from scattered patches into mossy blankets that reached up the steep mountains.

Despite the beautiful scenery, Marshall was having a hard time getting lost in it all.

"How much farther is this place?" his brother Tad piqued from the back seat of the car.

"We're not even a half hour out of Jakobe, yet," Dad replied without so much as a glance back. "From there it's probably another twenty minutes of winding roads through the mountain pass."

Marshall inhaled and exhaled deeply again. Windy mountain passes. Sounded great. As if this day couldn't get any lamer, he had to throw motion sickness into the mix. Oh, they certainly would have fun arriving at camp. He could hardly wait.

Reclining in his seat, Marshall brushed at his messy dark brown hair, trying to catch a few more winks of sleep. It was nearly a three-hour drive down from Bozeman, so that meant cutting short his summer sleeping time. Whatever. He would probably still get plenty of time to sleep in for the next two or three weeks. How long was his banishment again?

Somewhere along the way, the unchanging hum of the car down the vacant country highway lulled him to sleep. The next thing Marshall knew, sudden car swerves were throwing him across the seat, once again ruining his unfinished sleep. Blinking open his eyes, he could see now that they were up into the foothills. The g-forces were obviously from the windy roads.

For some reason that sparked the memory of an old song his parents used to listen to. Something about everyday being a winding road. The rest of the lyrics didn't make much sense, but Marshall had always found that one point to be philosophical. There was a deeper meaning about the movement of life and the various changes it brought, even on a daily basis.

Well, today was certain a winding road.

"Should we stop for gas?" Mom was asking from up front. They were now passing a few scattered houses; the outskirts of the small mountain town, Jakobe.

Dad waved her off. "We'll be fine about halfway back to Bozeman."

"Should we stop to see the sights?" Tad asked again from the back seat.

Dad chuckled. "There's not much to see in Jakobe. Just another settler's town in the Rockies; some ranchers built up around here. I don't even think they had any gold mines."

Marshall watched dully as the scattered municipality washed by. Part of the foothills opened up into a fairly wide valley about half a mile across. Most of the city proper was squeezed into this little crevice, with a few three- or four-story buildings of sorts. In its own way, it seemed kind of cozy; Marshall could almost see himself living here. With the scattered houses over the town, nestled in the tree blanketed hills and ridges, it might be a nice place to disappear and get on with life.

But Marshall's life wasn't about to continue here. No, all of his projects and industrial tools were locked up safely in his workshop by the garage for the next two to three weeks. There was to be none of that here.

What was he even doing out here?

Jakobe flashed by in less than five minutes, and soon they were on some gravel road winding over and down various ridges. Motion sickness did start to set in, so Marshall focused on the road in front of them, willing his inner ear to anticipate every fresh turn. It worked for the most part.

Then, finally, mercifully, they reached the sign: Welcome to Blue Mountain Riding Camp.

They slipped down into a tight valley, surrounded on both sides by towering ridge lines that made Marshall feel like he was in a box canyon. For a moment, he forgot about the trials soon to beset him and just let the new world around him swallow him whole.

"Well, we're here," Dad said, slowing the car as they crossed a cattle guard into the camp proper.

There were several gravel areas designated for campers, and a few open ground areas with grills for tents. But there were also a few cabins, Marshall noticed. They were small affairs, really; single story, no bigger than his garage back home. And all of it tangled in a mess of scattered pines and other evergreens dotting the camp sight.

They continued down the gravel road, leaving this small area behind—including a shower house—coming to a point where the forest crowded down around both sides of the road like a barrier. On the other side, they came out into the other side of the valley. There was a single story ranch house here, dominated by a long front porch, and overshadowed by a large garage. Further up, tucked away in the steeped hills behind it, several more of the cabins stood, though only partially completed. There was also a horse pen here; no doubt where the Riding part came into the Camp.

A man in a plaid shirt, jeans, and a faded white cowboy hat stood waiting for them down the steps from the porch to the house. He waved enthusiastically, a big grin nestled beneath his well-trimmed salt and pepper beard. Dad pulled the car to a stop, and both Marshall and Tad piled out gratefully. It felt good to get blood flowing in cramped legs once more.

Dad quickly walked over to greet the man, and somewhere in the introductions Marshall caught the name Carl Wilson. He decided he should make himself polite and gave Tad a rough nudge.

"What?"

"C'mon," Marshall grunted. "Let's introduce ourselves."

Tad quickly walked ahead of him, shaking Carl's hand.

"This is my younger son, Rob," Dad was saying, "but we all just call him Tad."

"Tad, hmm?" Carl said with a laugh on his voice. "I like that name." He then turned his attention to Marshall.

"And this must be Marshall."

Marshall raised an eyebrow to the effect. "Yes, sir," he replied, minding his manners. "It's good to meet you Mr. Wilson," he said, extending his hand for a firm shake. Just as he was supposed to.

Carl chuckled. "You can call me Carl. We're not overly formal up here." He glanced up at Dad. "You've got some good sons, Mr. Farris."

So much for unnecessary formalities," Marshall didn't say aloud.

"Well we have high expectations for them," Dad replied. "And if they get out of line, don't hesitate to let me know. In fact, don't be afraid to slap them around if you need to."

Dad was of course joking; a subtle reminder that he wouldn't tolerate any unruliness.

Carl chuckled, a strange youthfulness in his voice that Marshall hadn't expected. The older man may have looked to be in his early fifties, but something told Marshall that his heart was easily two or three decades younger.

"I'm sure that won't be a problem," said Carl. "I can already tell you've got some special sons. We're excited to have them working with us for a little while."

As if on cue, the front door opened, and a little gal about Carl's age wandered down. She wore a simple T-shirt and jeans as well, and looked to be covered in sawdust from working on some project. Maybe up in the cabins. Her long, brunette hair was streaked with gray and had a bit of style about it that seemed a generation or two removed to Marshall.

"Oh good! Is this the Farris family?"

Carl ushered her down, and soon a whole new round of handshakes were extended. Marshall soon learned that she was Carl's wife, Mary.

"Thrilled to meet you. Just thrilled. And we're excited to have two extra sets of hands around the Camp for awhile."

"Don't be afraid to put them to work," said Dad. He nodded to the horse enclosure. "If you need them to scoop crap, they can do it."

Carl laughed. "They'll have plenty of time to do a little bit of everything. Right now, we just need to finish these last four cabins before fall sets in. First snow can fall as early as late September at this altitude."

Marshall shivered involuntarily. He remembered now that they were up in the mountains. Things would be a lot cooler at night.

"Where are we staying?" he asked, glancing up to the ranch house hopefully.

"Ah! Glad you asked." Carl led them back up the gravel road towards the barrier of trees. Marshall hadn't noticed it before, but between the two partitioned points, there was a small grassy area down off to the side of the road, hidden among the trees.

And lying in the grass was a tarp and a tent waiting to be set up.

Marshall froze in his tracks. Oh, you have got to be kidding me…

"Sweet," Tad said without missing a beat. "We're going to be camping. I like it."

Marshall looked among his parents, hoping for some sympathy for his cause. Not that he dare voice it aloud. He was supposed to be polite here; mind his manners. It was a generosity that they were even being allowed to stay somewhere on the Campsite.

Mom did look a little concerned, but Dad almost seemed to nod in approval.

"Won't it get cold at night?" Mom asked.

"Not to worry," said Carl. "The tent and sleeping bags are rated for sub-zero temperatures. They'll be perfectly fine. Just like summer camp."

Marshall sighed within himself, trying not to let his emotions show. It was a lot like summer camp. He remembered three years back when his parents still wanted him to participate in Boy Scouts. His Troop had gone up into the mountains outside of Bozeman. Even though it was the middle of summer, the nights there could get quite frigid. They had survived just fine in their tents and sleeping bags.

They would survive just fine here.

It's just like summer camp, Marshall started repeating in his mind. Just think of it like summer camp, and not some lame summer job thrown upon you.

"We'll be fine, Mom," Tad said matter-of-factly. Funny, shouldn't Marshall—the older one—be the one to reassure her? Wasn't he the one supposed to put on the face that this was all just some fun camping adventure and that they would be all right?

They would be all right. Marshall just didn't want to believe it yet.

"C'mon," Carl said, leading them up and out of the line of trees. "Let's have a quick tour of camp."

Marshall trudged along, listening as Carl detailed the various points. Where they could get fresh water; where they would attend to chores. The shower houses turned out to be their bathroom for their stay. It fit well enough with the camping image Marshall was trying to assimilate. It helped that they were about a hundred yards up the hill from their little sleeping alcove.

But he didn't like it.

After glancing at the finished cabins, they made their way back around and past the ranch house yard where various construction tools and lumber lay waiting. Then they trudged up a little trail to the cabins still under construction. Thankfully they had roofs put on and shingles. Marshall didn't want to imagine himself balancing about up there and falling off. But the interior was still largely un-put together. They would have plenty to keep them busy in there.

Carl threw his thumb over his shoulder, in the direction of the trail as it wound further up past the cabins along the ridge.

"Up that way is our lumber pile. Whenever the campers want fresh firewood, we take it from there. It's a bit of a haul, but you'll get used to it."

Marshall figured he would. But the thought of carrying stacks of logs down from the ridge all the way across the valley and to the campers on the other side didn't sound like anything he was excited about getting used to in the first place.

Get a grip, he scolded himself. You've gone camping dozens of times! You've done more than your fair share of community service projects like this. None of this is new.

Marshall exhaled aloud, falling behind the group as they made their way out from the shade of the trees along the ridge surrounding the cabin.

You'll survive. This isn't the end of the world.

And yet that's exactly how it felt.

As they made their way back to the car, Carl was saying something about unloading their luggage and getting it to the tent. He wanted to get them to work that afternoon if he could. It was still early enough, even. All Marshall could think about was the possibility that maybe it wasn't too late to back out.

Still, as they carried his duffle bag out from the trunk and marched the short distance back to the hollow, it became all very real to him.

I'm going to be stuck out in the woods for the next two to three weeks. All because Mom and Dad thought it was a good idea I get out of the city and my workshop and get some fresh air.

A character building experience.

The dark mood loomed over Marshall to the point that he lost track of them setting up the tent—a beastly creature much bigger than he expected. There were even two unzippable wings where he and Tad could change with privacy flaps when they wanted. That was convenient. And he wouldn't have to hunch over inside; it was tall enough to accept his five foot nine stature, with room for his messy hair if it stood up.

Soon—much sooner than Marshall wanted—luggage was unpacked, their new living arrangements set in place, and Mom and Dad were ready to head out.

"Don't look so glum, Marshall," Dad said sarcastically, giving him one last hug. "This isn't concentration camp."

"No," Marshall replied resignedly. "But it's not home."

Dad rolled his eyes, chuckling to himself. "All of your projects and work will be waiting for you back home. And some time off will be great for your brain. Too much focus saps your inspiration."

Dad was right. But there were easier ways of taking a break from his mechanical projects. Ones that didn't involve bringing life to a halt and going out to live in the middle of the woods for nearly a month.

Eventually Mom and Dad pulled away back up the gravel road, Marshall watching as the car disappeared around a bend.

"How about some lunch?" said Carl.

0.0.0

Carl made good on his word to put them to work.

After some cold cut sandwiches and a quick change into some work clothes, Marshall found himself on a ladder against one of the walls of the cabin, running brush strokes up and down with deep mahogany colored paint. Glancing up, his brother was easily five meet higher than him on another ladder, catching the trim up along the edge of the roof. He seemed quite pleased to be on the taller ladder.

Tad noticed that Marshall had paused. "Eh, did I drop paint on you?"

Marshall smirked, shaking his head no. He glanced down, eying his pants, shirt, and arms. Tad didn't need to drip on him when he was already doing a fine enough job himself.

"Y'know," Tad began, lost in the strokes of his paintbrush, "this isn't that bad. It's not muggy out here like it is back in the city. And yeah, I guess the brushing is kinda boring, but I expected something a lot worse."

Marshall barked a short laugh. "Tad, you've been nothing but smiles since we got here. When did you think this was going to be bad?"

Tad shrugged, this time sloshing a little bit of paint that flecked on Marshall's face. He blinked, grateful none of it had gotten in his eyes.

"I dunno, you seemed pretty upset about it. I just thought maybe you knew something I didn't."

Marshall sighed, dipping his brush and returning to the work.

So Tad had seemed to notice. Maybe Carl and Mary had as well? He hoped not. He didn't really want to seem ungrateful. They really were nice people, and Tad was right about the climate being nice out here. He did like the atmosphere of the forest.

He just didn't want to live out here.

A long time ago, Marshall had willing accompanied his family on fun camping adventures; even endured the Boy Scouts for the sake of having fun with kids his age out in the woods.

But that was a long time ago. Marshall was on to more important things. Yes, his projects would be waiting for him when he got home, but he wanted to work on them now. While he still had a summer before starting his junior year of high school. True, what else would he do all school year, trying to gear up for finding some college to ship off to? Then it would be nothing but mechanical projects, working with engineering, electronics, and who knew what other fun technology.

Marshall would rather much be doing all of that than standing out here in the mid afternoon sun painting a cabin.

It was all one big waste of time.

"Don't worry," Tad pressed. "I'm sure we'll get used to it. Carl and Mary seem nice. And maybe we'll meet some fun campers."

Marshall rolled his eyes at that one.

He was fine with painting cabins and even taking care of the horses. But he sincerely hoped he wouldn't have to toady about helping some camper or their family around the Camp.

That seemed like an even bigger waste of time.