Sweat dripped down my back. I earned every drop of it running on the golf path along the riverbank. My dogs panted as they tried to keep up with me. Big Al, my huge and hairy Newfoundland, looked longingly to our left where the Whistling River ran relentlessly from mountain glacier to its appointment with other small rivers and on downhill toward the mighty Columbia River and thence to the Pacific Ocean. A wild river from source to sea, increasingly rare, but also enticingly cold on this hot morning in June.
Six in the morning and it already pushed toward eighty degrees. Unusual for the foothills of Mt. Hood in Oregon.
Pepper, a black miniature poodle, hung back on her leash and angled to the left as well. Her partner in crime, Salt, a white miniature poodle, looked to me for permission to stray off the golf path.
“Oh, okay.” I unclipped leashes from collars and retracted them into the reel.
Al woofed once in a polite thank you. Pepper didn’t bother with manners. As a superior being, she didn’t think she had to. All she wanted was to revert to her water dog ancestral genes and swim. Salt hung back long enough to lick my hand before plunging after his companions.
I marked their progress through the underbrush on an old game trail that hadn’t bothered to grow over. Rain had been scarce this past spring, so the grasses were dry, the sword ferns limp, and the foxgloves stunted. I followed the dogs, looking forward to splashing cold water on my face and neck. Maybe this once I’d cut my run from five miles to three. I could see my condo on the hill overlooking the river on the north end of this golf fairway. A cold shower, granola, and coffee, lots and lots of coffee, should set me up nicely for my day managing the Whistling River Lodge.
I found the dogs splashing in a sheltered pool where lodge guests, or possibly locals, had dropped rounded rocks in a half circle. Water built up behind the makeshift dam. It spilled out through a narrow opening between bigger rocks that stood above the water level most of the year. Al put one paw on the higher rocks and wiggled his hindquarters as if to shift his energy into his powerful rear legs.
“Don’t even think about it!” I called to him.
He looked back at me, tongue lolling, tail swishing in the water, and a sheepish look in his eye.
“Yeah, you. I know you can swim. But not here and not today.” Last autumn he’d plunged into a much higher and more rapid river to save me from drowning. “There’s a better place to swim at Auntie Joy’s house,” I reminded all three of them.
At Joy’s name they all waded back to me and shook.
“You just had to share half the river, didn’t you?” I looked down at my red running shorts and shoes. Not as drenched as they could be—Al had been too far back for his shaggy fur to shed all its dampness on me. My white tank top, on the other hand, looked as if I’d showered while wearing it.
“Nice view, Glenna,” Craig Knudsen said, emerging from the game trail. He wore chocolate brown casual slacks with a green and white plaid shirt. He looked as fresh as if he’d been sitting under air conditioning. I’d known him most of a year, been dating him for three months (in secret), and I’d never seen him in shorts or swim trunks. He always wore long pants to hide the bullet wound scars on his left leg.
He wasn’t looking at the river or the dogs. His gaze fixed on my soaked top, where my jogging bra barely hid my puckering nipples.
I stood my ground, challenging him to take our relationship one more step, rather than waltzing around our attraction. We’d been standing still, indulging only in a few soul-shattering kisses, and holding hands. For three months.
We continued the frank assessment of each other until the dogs got restless and Al tried to climb the rock dam once more.
“Time to get ready for work,” I said blandly, then whistled for Al to follow me. The poodles knew I was the source of their morning kibble and jumped out of the water eagerly.
“Want to delay work an hour or so?” Craig arched his eyebrows in his hopeful look.
We were both always too late, or too early, or… too scared.
“I wish.” I sighed. “Not today. We’ve got one hundred bagpipers, drummers, and dancers descending shortly after noon. I have to check with Hector to make sure his crew has mowed and hacked the field. He also needs to send me a map with the placement of the vendor tents and power hookups. And there’s an anxious bride with a wedding scheduled for the rose garden. Not to mention catering for two banquets and an awards ceremony. I thought golfers were high maintenance.” Part of me went limp at the thought of arranging it all. The other part of me thrived on the adrenaline rush.
“Don’t forget Joy and Pete’s wedding next weekend.”
“Yeah, that. You’re best man; isn’t there something you are supposed to be doing to help the maid of honor and wedding planner?” That would be me. My dress needed a hem (everything I bought needed to be shortened three inches). Joy was still waffling on the vegetarian options on the menu. And the cake. Oh, gosh, I needed to ride herd on Andre to make sure he didn’t go overboard with his fondant flowers. Joy wanted simple and she wanted buttercream.
But buttercream frosting would melt in the heat and Andre was… Andre. Best chef I could hire with Cordon Bleu credentials, but he had a mind of his own.
“Okay, kids, time to share half the river with Craig. We need to get to work.” I stepped further up the embankment behind Craig. He tried ducking away from the spray that immediately followed, but even he couldn’t move as fast as Pepper on a mission. Her duty to the lodge was to make certain she anointed everyone with her specially blessed river water.
He threw up his arms to cover his face, without much luck. Salt and Al had to add their contribution to his baptism.
“I’ll get you for this, Glenna McClain!” he yelled as he ran after me. The dogs galloped in his wake.
I paused on the golf track to restrain the dogs. Craig tackled me and we rolled on the freshly cut and watered grass, laughing.
Just as we calmed and stared longingly at each other, leaning in for a kiss, Al added his substantial weight to the pig pile. I let out an “Ooof” of an exhale. Pepper raced around us, yipping excitedly. Salt gave me many kisses, instead of Craig.
A screech akin that of an injured cat wailed across the protected glen of the fourth fairway.
“What was that?” Craig jumped to his feet, knees bent, right hand reaching for the police weapon he no longer carried.
Al stood at alert, ears twitching.
Salt cowered behind me as I rolled to my knees and then upright.
Pepper, queen of the lodge, stood beside Al, barking her displeasure.
“I guess the bagpipers have arrived a little early,” I said, the calmest one of the bunch. My dad had taken me to a Highland Games when I was about ten, hoping I’d get interested in dancing or piping. It hadn’t worked, but I kind of knew what to expect from the crowd.
Across the fourth fairway, a beautiful young man stepped out of a copse, marching back and forth along the tree line—one long stride away from the forbidden green grass required by golfers—piping a brisk tune that matched his strides. He caught sight of us, disheveled as we were, and broke off his music abruptly. The sound trailed away in a mournful bawl. He gave us a cheeky grin and saluted, as if he knew what we were really up to. Then he made a rapid retreat into the woods.
When he resumed playing, it sounded like a light ballad or a love song. Full of laughing trills.
Give me a break!
Off to my right, dry leaves in the underbrush rustled. I wanted to dismiss it as just a stray breeze following the river down the mountain.
But I knew it was really George, the former owner of my lodge. Except he’d been dead for over nine months. If he showed up during the day, trouble followed. Goose bumps ran up my arms and down my spine, chilling me to the bone.