Taylor & Gus: the Bothy
Gus held a large, calloused hand to haul Taylor up a particularly sheer wall of mossy rock.
Taylor had thought she was in okay shape. She wasn't exactly dedicated to the gym, but she showed up enough to usually make it through a workout class without embarrassing herself. However, it turned out that no spin session was nearly a match for the steep, craggy insanity of Glencoe.
'I'm good,' she muttered, gritting her teeth to scrabble up herself.
'I told you my Trip Advisor rating goes right down if you die, doll,' he grinned.
He strode off again, leaving Taylor to struggle back to her feet, wondering what possessed her to sign up for something called the West Highland Way. She could have been having tea at the Ritz in London, but no, she had to start her trip in Scotland and spend days trekking across mountains after this jerk.
Then her breath caught, and she forgot to hate Gus for a second as she took in the vast valley that spread before her. Purple mountains rose dramatically on either side, stabbing the hazy sky with snow-capped peaks. A bird of prey circled lazily overhead, and a crystal-blue river rushed loudly over rocks far below.
'And I'm pretty sure I told you I wasn't your doll,' Taylor called after him. 'Repeatedly.'
How had she ever thought this guy was hot? It had only been for a few seconds when he met her at Glasgow Central station, and now she officially blamed the jet lag. Physically, sure. He was inarguably a fine specimen of a man. But broad shoulders did not make up for the fact he was not only the grouchiest jerk to have ever lived, but an arrogant ass.
'I have met a mountain before,' she had informed him, more than once, as he reminded her to watch her step and not eat unknown plants.
Until her mom married her stepdad, Josh, she and Taylor regularly hiked together, spending most of their weekends at Olympic National Park, Mount Rainier and the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. She might be a bit rusty and not quite as sure-footed as part-mountain-goat-Gus, but he didn't need to act like she was a liability.
'Hey, I think I'll wade in this whitewater,' she'd announced as they passed the Falls of Falloch the other day. 'Maybe take a leisurely little swim?'
'Aye, if you want the current to smash you like a boiled egg against they rocks,' he shrugged.
'Oh my god, I was kidding.' She was almost sure she caught him chuckling as he turned away, but she was too busy plotting ways to shove him off a mountain to pay attention.
'This valley we can see. It's where the massacre you told me about took place, right?'
'Aye,' Gus said. 'Government forces murdered thirty MacDonald clansmen in cold blood because they believed their chief had failed to pledge fealty to the monarch William of Orange and his wife, Mary.'
'MacDonald — isn't that your surname? Were they relatives of yours?'
'Who the hell knows,' Gus scoffed. 'It's only Americans that imagine they can trace their lineage back that far. Very few folk outwith royalty can be sure of anything beyond their great-grandparents. I'm about as likely to be descended from the MacDonalds of Glencoe as I am Ronald McDonald.'
'So that's where you got your red hair.'
Gus gave a unexpected shout of laughter. 'I did once win a chicken-nugget-eating contest at school. I ate thirty-seven, and then I puked.'
'Was there a prize?'
'The respect of Primary Six.'
'I guess there's nothing sixth graders respect more than a man who pukes for a good cause,' Taylor said, irritated to realise she was smiling despite herself.
'That is true,' he grinned. 'Here, we need to scrabble up this wee bit.'
They fell into companionable silence, concentrating on their footing as they negotiated the steep path towards the next ridge. Taylor accidentally grabbed a stinging nettle and swallowed her gasp of pain, damned if she'd let him hear. Compared to the burn of her every muscle, the roaring ache of her feet and the sting on her neck where the sun had somehow burned her through the drizzle, the sting was nothing, in any case.
'That rock looks like my friend Dave from the library,' she murmured a little while later as they negotiated a narrow, rocky path.
Gus frowned at the rock in question. It was rounded and lumpy with a protruding bit that could be Dave's oft-broken nose. 'Looks like an attractive guy.mWait — you volunteer at a library? I thought you said you did volunteer archaeology?'
'I just helped out on a couple digs,' Taylor shrugged. 'When all your friends are in couples, you do what you have to do.'
For about five minutes, back when she was Mike's girlfriend, Taylor had been promoted into that hallowed Couple World of dinner parties and cabin weekends. She'd heard from people she had lost touch with years earlier. Heeey, so amazing about you and Mike! We must have you both for drinks soon xxx
It was weird. It was what she had dreamed of. All those years in the wilderness, promising she understood that they just wanted an even number, that she would catch them next time, no worries! Yet now she was a part of it, and it felt hollow. I'm exactly the same person, she wanted to yell. Why didn't you want to hang out with me then?
'So archaeology, library — what other talents have you got?'
'Uhh, I make pottery, I ice skate —'
'At the same time?'
'No, that would be a disaster.'
'Even separately, it's pretty impressive.'
'Oh no, you don't understand,' Taylor sniggered. 'I am terrible at my hobbies. Truly horrible. I think it's sad that adults only keep up interests we're good at, you know? A lot of things are just as much fun when you suck. Although I admit the last time I went skating, I genuinely considered duct-taping a comforter to my ass.'
'You know, like the thick cover you put on your bed. It's stuffed with feathers or whatever.'
'Oh, a duvet,' Gus started to chuckle. 'I thought you meant — my wee cousin carries this minging, ratty stuffed bear everywhere, and my aunt says it's his comforter. I thought —'
Taylor burst out laughing. 'You thought I couldn't face the ice rink without the support of a teddy bear?'
Gus laughed like a little kid, with his whole body, his shoulders shaking as he clutched his sides. 'You said you were going to tape it to yourself,' he wheezed. 'I was picturing you whizzing around the rink with a manky teddy strapped to your back.'
He started doing impressions of the teddy getting dizzy yet valiantly attempting to provide comfort as he flew backwards around the rink, and Taylor was gone. She collapsed onto the rock that looked like Dave, tears streaming down her cheeks. She bent double as Gus leaned on his knees, red-faced with mirth.
'Oh my goodness,' he muttered eventually, wiping tears with his sleeve. 'I must congratulate you for managing this walk so far with no comfort toy.'
'You don't know what's in my backpack,' she giggled.
'Oh, fair enough.'
Gus got to his feet, and Taylor wondered why he couldn't have been this much fun all along. She was pretty sure he'd been a jerk up until now. Hadn't he?
Gus froze, holding out an arm to stop Taylor.
Taylor's breath caught in her throat as she saw it. A stag. Seven feet tall with magnificent antlers and a gleaming russet coat, he stood across the narrow pathway, chewing casually as he eyed the interlopers. He must have approached while they were laughing and was now closer than it was ever ideal to be to a wild animal.
'We're pretty close to rutting season,' Gus said softly. 'Young males can get aggressive.'
Taylor knew she was frightened when her quip about how they were just like human men died on her lips. The stag made a low rumbling noise in his throat and stepped towards them. He bowed his head briefly as though casually reminding them of the damage his antlers could do.
Gus carefully inched backwards, nudging Taylor with him. Fear trickled down her spine as the stag picked up speed, shaking his head to glance at them out of the corner of his eye as he advanced. For once, Taylor was glad of Gus's certainty.
'Climb,' Gus whispered. His eyes never left the stag as he nodded towards a thick, gnarly tree a few feet away.
Taylor nodded and lightly stepped to the tree. The lowest branch was a little higher than comfortable, and she silently thanked every overhead press she'd ever done as she managed to haul herself onto it and then the next.
Gus was seconds behind, effortlessly lifting himself onto the first branch — just in time as the stag suddenly galloped and rammed into the tree. The tree trembled. Taylor clutched her branch with sweating palms.
The stag rammed again. Leaves and bark rained down on them, and Taylor wondered what would happen if he knocked the tree down. Her heart thudded as she realised her arms were starting to give way. She slipped and felt Gus's solid arm around her waist, clamping her to the branch.
Just as the stag geared up for a third go, the heavens opened with a deafening crack of lightning. The stag glanced up, then turned and trotted docilely away, and it was all over. Taylor let go of a shaky breath as she slid onto the ground, stumbling on wobbly legs. Gus righted her and this time she let him.
'I've never known that to happen in all my years doing this.' he muttered in a trembly voice, laughing through evident relief. 'Thank fuck for that tree, eh?' he added, giving the ancient trunk a grateful slap.
Taylor wasn't sure whether she wanted to laugh hysterically or sink to the ground and sob. Probably both. Rain battered through leaves overhead, and an icy trickle snaked under Taylor's collar. The entire valley was shrouded in a dark blue murk as sheets of rain bounced off rocks. It was breathtaking, even if Taylor's heart was hammering a bit much for her to really appreciate it.
'Aye, I think he fancied you,' Gus said. 'You could have got a lumber.'
'I don't want to know what that means, do I?'
She punched his arm. 'How far to where we're staying tonight?'
'We can't carry on in this rain — it's heavy enough for mudslides, and there's not enough visibility. There's a bothy less than a kilometre back this way.'
'Do as you're told and follow me.'
He held out his hand, and this time Taylor took it.
A bothy turned out to be a tiny stone structure that aspired to be rustic. In the almost pitch-darkness, it seemed more like a man-made cave than a cottage, but as soon as Gus ushered her across the threshold, Taylor felt slightly warmed. The floor was soft and smelled richly of peat and pine, and the thatched roof provided shelter from the wind and rain, which at that moment, made it feel like the Ritz.
As Gus rummaged around for matches, Taylor stood by the door, feeling oddly disoriented in the blackness. On their wild walk through the storm, he'd explained that bothies were travellers' rests, kept unlocked and maintained by volunteers to preserve their traditional use. Some were barely more than shacks, others two-storey cottages, and this one was somewhere between the two.
Gus struck a match with a sharp crack and lit the small fire in the grate. Immediately shadows danced on the walls as the fire took, and Taylor could see it was a single room. A hand-built dresser lined the wall opposite the fire, painted a bright periwinkle blue and laden with knickknacks and maps.
'Yes!' Gus shouted triumphantly as he extracted something from a sealed tin on the dresser.
'What is that?'
'Our bread. I've heard about this, but I've never lucked out.' He brought a wooden chopping board and a large knife to the fire and began cutting thick doorstop slices. 'There's a mysterious person who leaves these incredible sourdough loaves in this bothy — they've been doing it for years, and nobody knows who it is.'
'Somebody who lives nearby?'
'Nobody lives nearby here, that's the whole mystery. Stories get passed amongst hikers all over Scotland about how incredible this bread is. Of course, some people insist it's brownies.'
'It doesn't look chocolate.'
'No, brownies that make the bread.'
He took a bite of an end slice and closed his eyes in ecstasy. 'It's even better than I dreamed.'
Taylor couldn't help but grin at his expression of delight.
'Oh, there's butter. Freshly churned butter. Do you think that stag killed us, and we're in heaven?'
The fire crackled merrily, flooding Taylor with heat. She sat cross-legged next to Gus and accepted a thickly sliced piece spread with creamy, salted butter. Ohhhh. She wasn't entirely proud of the groan that escaped her when she bit into bread and butter that was so much more.
'Yeah, we're gone.' She nodded, her mouth full, desperate to savour every last chew. 'I'm fine with it. This is absolutely worth it.'
Gus placed the next slice in a contraption that looked like a steel tennis racket just above the flames. Feeling a little bolder now that the fire provided a bit of light, Taylor got up and searched the dresser until she came across a tin kettle, which she filled with water from the bottle in her backpack. Gus showed her how to secure it above the fire while she found mugs and teabags and a small tin of powdered milk.
'It's not the best milk.' She sniffed it dubiously as the kettle began to whistle urgently. 'But that's an indication that we are, in fact, alive.'
'Forget the milk.' He leaned over to his backpack, exposing a muscled stomach and a deep russet treasure trail. Taylor tore her eyes away just as he triumphantly extracted a bottle of whisky.
'You've heard of Irish coffee,' he grinned, pouring generous slugs into each tin mug. 'Now meet Scottish tea.'
Taylor leaned across Gus to unhook the kettle. She felt his chuckle against the back of her neck. Before she could stop herself, she shivered.
He is an arrogant ass. Remember that.
She cleared her throat and busied herself making tea, suddenly acutely aware of his presence as he tipped the toast onto the wooden board, and loaded up the next slice.
'Butter that quickly before it cools,' he said, his voice a little gruff.
'Yes sir,' Taylor muttered rebelliously, and Gus gave a low laugh.
'You never do as you're told, do you?'
Taylor looked up, ready to argue. As her gaze met his, it was as though all the air had been sucked from the room. The fire spat and crackled, burning Taylor's cheeks. 'Depends on who's telling, I guess.'
What the what? Was she flirting with the arrogant ass?
'Uhh —'A million apologies, jokes, and takebacks crowded through Taylor's brain but bottlenecked at her throat before they could get out.
What was she playing at? He would think she liked him.
Gus grinned, fiery red stubble glinting in the firelight as he turned his attention back to the toast. 'That sounds like a challenge, doll.'
Taylor rolled her eyes. 'You are such an asshole.' The spell was broken, for the moment, though the nerves fizzing in her stomach whispered that something had shifted between them. Someday, she would learn not to set herself up for a fall. She believed Mike when he said he loved her. She should have been smarter. She should have held back, tested him, protected her heart. She would not do that again.
'Penny for your thoughts.'
'You were frowning to yourself,' he shrugged. 'Looked interesting.'