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Canyon of Death
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“Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee”
The faint melodic words floated on the morning breeze as Kate Fleming made her way toward Mather Point. She was about to catch her first glimpse of the Grand Canyon and her heart ticked an upbeat in anticipation. She’d waited a long time for this moment.
“Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,”
The closer Kate got to the south rim of the canyon, the stronger the words grew. Definitely feminine in tone, there was a slight crackle as though she was elderly. It held a quality that indicated the a cappella soloist sang straight from her heart.
People dressed in heavy winter clothing meandered about as they snapped pictures and took selfies with the canyon behind them.
“Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.”
As the Grand Canyon came into view, Kate sucked in the cold morning air in awe, chilling her throat and lungs. Placing her gloved hands over her nose and mouth, she warmed them up again. The Grand Canyon was the most amazing thing she’d ever seen. Gorgeous earth tones blended with blues, pinks and shadowy purples. With the morning sun still in the eastern sky, long shadows were cast on the western side of ridges and peaks. As a strong, cold breeze blew up from the canyon, Kate zipped up her olive-drab uniform parka and jammed her “Smokey-Bear” hat further down on her head.
“Could my tears forever flow….”
“Shut up, old woman! I don’t want to hear you singing.”
The angry voice came from Kate’s left, drawing her attention from the spectacular view. An elderly woman stood by the chain-link fence which protects visitors from going over the edge of the canyon at the overlook. Her rheumy eyes were focused on the horizon between earth and sky, her thin, arthritic hands raised toward heaven as tears streamed down her wrinkled cheeks. Two young men stood beside her, anger marring their faces.
“Shut up, old woman,” one of them yelled. “Stop your screeching!”
Kate quickly approached them to see what the commotion was about. The woman certainly didn’t seem to be bothering anyone.
“Excuse me.” Kate put as much authority in her voice as she could muster. “What are you two doing here? This lady isn’t bothering anyone.”
The guys spotted her uniform, belligerence oozing from their expressions. “Well, she’s bothering us. I don’t want to hear her singing about…God.” The last word was spat out with disgust. “She’s gotta stop.”
Kate laid a kind hand on the woman’s arm. “Ma’am, I hate to interrupt you but can I hear your side of this situation?”
The woman’s faded blue eyes turned to Kate, tears still wet on her cheeks. “Of course, my dear. I’m eighty-six years old. All my life I’ve seen pictures of the Grand Canyon, but I’ve never been here before. Well, now that I’m here, I can’t help but be in awe at the wonder of God’s creation. He did this.” She waved a hand in the direction of the natural wonder spread before them. “It didn’t just happen. All I wanted was to praise Him for how marvelous and mighty He is. One look at that view and anyone with half a brain knows God made it.”
The two young men sputtered in anger at the pointed remark.
Kate held up her hand. “Fellows, this is a really big canyon. I mean, really big. There’s plenty of room for you to see it and for this lady to sing as she desires. Why don’t you just move along to another location and enjoy the view. Leave her in peace to enjoy it in her own way.”
They cast angry glares in the woman’s direction as they shifted their daypacks higher on their backs and left the canyon rim, hopefully to find a spot elsewhere.
“Thank you, miss.” The old woman settled a gnarled, arthritic hand on Kate’s arm. Gloveless, it felt cold even through Kate’s parka sleeve. “I just don’t understand how folks can look at that view and not give credit where credit is due. God made it, and He made it for us to enjoy. I just don’t think some people want to believe He exists. It’s sad really.”
“Yes, I think you’re right, ma’am.” Kate patted the woman’s thin shoulder. “And thank you for the reminder. You might want to go inside and warm up though. It’s pretty chilly out here. Are you here alone?”
The woman smiled. “No, my son and daughter-in-law are here with me. They went to get coffee, so they’ll be back shortly with a cup for me. I just didn’t want to leave this view. I want to drink in as much as I can as long as I can.”
“I understand,” Kate nodded with a smile. “You have a wonderful day, ma’am.”
Before Kate realize what she was doing, the woman reached out thin arms and wrapped them around her. Then she stepped back and smiled, contentment written across her wrinkled face.
“Thank you, my dear. These weary eyes have seen a lot of things during my lifetime, but this was the last thing I truly wanted to see before the Lord calls me home. I don’t know if that’ll be tomorrow or next year or the next, but I’m happy that I got to see this marvel of His handiwork.”
Kate started to walked away, then stripping the gloves from her hands, pressed them into the woman’s hands and hurried away before she could protest.
As Kate strolled along the canyon rim, she could hear the woman’s voice once again lift in praise. She reflected on her words. Kate hadn’t given God much credit lately. She believed in Him, had even put her trust in Him, but He’d let her down. Pain sliced through her heart as memories flooded her mind. Nope. She wasn’t going to think about all that right now. Whether God put this view here for her to enjoy or not, she could still appreciate the beauty before her. And she wanted to forget. Oh, how she wanted to forget.
Pushing the memories from her mind, she glanced at her watch. She needed to get to the visitor center to meet with Tasha Johnson. Kate had arrived yesterday afternoon. Just long enough to be assigned living quarters and to begin to learn her way around Grand Canyon Village and some of the government offices, but she hadn’t yet met Tasha.
With a last long appreciative glance at the canyon, she left it behind and made her way to the visitor center near Mather Point. In spite of the cold wind that swept across the south rim, bundled-up visitors scurried from one overlook to the next, searching for that subtle difference in the scenery. Kate could appreciate that. She was sure she wouldn’t get tired of the view any time soon.
Kate slipped inside the visitor center where it was much warmer. Straight ahead was a long information desk with a few park staff members answering questions and passing out park maps. To the right was the entrance to a theater where a video played every few minutes telling about the Grand Canyon National Park and its natural splendor. Exhibits of small wildlife and historical information were arranged to the left. Park visitors meandered about looking at these exhibits and taking in the video in the theater. So, where would she find Tasha Johnson?
Kate turned at the soft feminine voice that spoke her name. A young African-American woman met her questioning gaze with a smile. Her flawless ebony skin, black eyes surrounded by long lashes and beautiful white teeth between full lips was striking. Her short, curly black hair set off her beautiful features.
“Yes, I’m Kate Fleming.”
The young woman held out her hand. “It’s nice to meet you at last, Kate. I’m Tasha Johnson. We’ve been expecting you.”
Kate shook her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Tasha.”
“Have you been out to see the canyon yet? That’s usually where everyone makes a bee-line to as soon as they arrive.” Tasha chuckled. “And no wonder. I’ve been here three years and still can’t get over the view.”
“Yes. I just came from Mather Point. It’s amazing. I’ll be spending a lot of time soaking in the sights.” Kate had wanted to work at the Grand Canyon for a long time, and she’d finally made it. But she hadn’t planned to come alone. Shoving those painful memories away, she concentrated on Tasha’s words.
“Well, I hate to rush you into your job, but I’m going to take you out to the sight and introduce you to the archeologists.” Tugging on her parka and her uniform ball cap, Tasha eyed Kate’s “Smokey-Bear” hat critically. “If you’ve got your ball cap, I think you’d better wear it. Much better suited to where we’re heading. Good. You’re wearing hiking boots. You’ll need them.”
With a quick trip to Kate’s car to exchange hats, the women climbed into Tasha’s park SUV.
“As my assistant, your help will be invaluable in keeping an eye on the archaeological team,” Tasha explained.
“You’re the park liaison, right?” Kate wanted to make sure she had her supervisor’s title correct.
“That’s right.” Tasha flashed a smile. “I have a few projects I’m overseeing, so I need you to keep me informed. You’ll be my liaison to the archeological team. My eyes and ears, so to speak. If they have questions you can’t answer, bring them to me and we’ll get them answered. There are regulations they must follow. I need you to ensure they follow them. If they don’t, tell me and I’ll deal with it.”
“So, what is the team looking for? Anything in particular or just digging until they find something?”
“Oh, no. It’s something in particular. A couple of hikers stumbled on a lost Anasazi city a month ago. The park invited the archeological team to investigate.”
“What about the hikers? How did they find the site?”
“They were hiking on the Hermit’s Trail and followed a mountain goat. It disappeared behind a rock formation and when they went to investigate, they found the city. They snapped a lot of pictures, too, but we confiscated them. No way could we let that out to the public.”
“Won’t they talk?”
“Probably, although they signed an agreement not to.” Tasha stopped the SUV next to a gate with an electronic keypad. She entered a four-digit code and the gate swung upward, allowing them to proceed. “This is Hermit’s Road and it’s closed to the public except during the winter months. They just closed it last week, so we don’t have to worry about competing with tourists anymore. Only park personnel and shuttle buses as well as the Hermit’s Rest Gift Shop employees drive out here now. And of course, the archeologists. I’ll give you the combination so you’ll have access. You’ll be driving out here all the time.”
They followed the road along the south rim of the canyon to the Hermit’s Rest Gift Shop and overlook. Tasha drove a half mile further down a dirt road behind the gift shop and parked beside a building comprised of two mobile construction trailers placed side by side.
“This is the archeologists’ office.” Tasha climbed out of the SUV. “You might find one or more of the archeologists here but usually they’re on-site so it’s harder to find them.”
“Ok. Good to know.” Kate exited the SUV and followed Tasha toward the trailhead. “So, they’re not here now?”
Tasha glanced at the dark windows. “Probably not.”
Kate’s eyes were glued to the view before her. A completely different and amazingly colorful configuration of ridges, peaks and plateaus met her gaze. Tasha’s chuckle beside her drew her attention back to her companion.
“Sorry. I’m just in awe of…well…this.” Her hand moved in an all-encompassing arc. “It’s… gorgeous.”
“Yes, it is,” Tasha sighed. “I just love it here. But,” she pointed at the trailhead, “this is a very treacherous trail to descend. It’s not maintained by the park as much as the other trails. So take your time and watch your step. It’s going to take some getting used to.”
Kate and Craig had hiked a lot of trails in the three years since they’d started dating, and she was confident she was in shape and could tackle it. This did look daunting. What would Craig have said to this bit of adventure? A pang sliced through her heart as it always did when she thought of Craig.
She swallowed hard. Don’t go there. It hurt too much.
Tasha eyed Kate closely and laid a hand on her jacketed arm. “Are you ok, girlfriend? Your face is mighty pale. Want to take a minute before we head down? It’s not that bad, really.”
Kate met Tasha’s concerned dark gaze and was touched. The young woman hardly knew her but had read Kate’s expression like she’d known her a long time.
Kate flashed a smile in spite of the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes. “No, I’m fine. Really, I am. I just…remembered something…someone. It’s okay. I’m ready when you are.” She pulled her sunglasses from her jacket pocket and tugged her ball cap lower over her eyes. It probably wouldn’t help hide the pain at the memories of Craig, but it was worth a try.
Tasha considered her a moment longer before nodding. “Okay. If you say so. But if you have a problem, just tell me.”
Kate understood that she wasn’t just talking about the difficulty of the trail. Did she mean she could talk to her about other things too? Would Tasha be a friend she could trust? Time would tell. But some things were just off limits. Totally.
The path down the Hermit’s Trail was indeed difficult. In some areas they had to crawl over rocks and boulders while in other places the trail smoothed out for a few feet. Kate concentrated on following Tasha and pushed personal thoughts from her mind.
At a particularly steep and precarious spot on the trail, Tasha stopped and pointed at a large formation on the left of the trail.
“That’s the huge boulder the notorious mountain goat disappeared behind. Funny how that goat lost his one claim to fame. We’ll never really know what happened to him. But he led the hikers to one very spectacular archeological find.” She laughed between gasps for breath. “Come on, girl. We’re almost there.”
A wide, wooden board had been placed across the divide from the trail to the entrance to the formation, and Kate followed Tasha across to it, waiting for her to disappear behind it. Taking another look at the colorful scenery as she waited, Kate reached up to grab hold of the rock. Her foot slipped and before she knew what was happening, she slid toward the cliff edge several feet below were the trail turned to the right and the canyon wall remained on the left. Her fingers grasped for anything that would hold her, but she continued to slide.
Tasha’s voice rang out in fear. “Kate! Grab onto something!”
Kate’s heart lodged in her throat even as she slid toward the edge of the cliff. While she scrabbled for a handhold, her mind screamed the words: Lord, help me!
The Peaceful Valley Wounded Soldiers Anthology
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The Soldier’s Heart
“Have you heard who’s back in town, Myra?”
Beth Hayes couldn’t miss Myrtle Brown’s voice from the next isle over as she searched Hoover’s Pharmacy shelf for the supplies she needed.
“Nope,” Myra Washington replied. “Can’t keep up with who comes and goes in this dadblamed town. Seems the young’uns are always leaving and coming back. Never satisfied. Want to leave because the town’s too small. They leave and they don’t like what they find in the big world so they come back.”
“Myra, would you just hush up and listen to me?” Myrtle said.
Beth grinned. The two women had been best of friends for at least fifty years but were always going at it. They were pretty much inseparable, but to hear them talk, you’d think they couldn’t get along.
“What are you going on about, Myrtle? Which young’un has returned this time?”
Beth reached for a bottle of peroxide.
“Why it’s that Alex Hunter, don’t you know. He’s back from the Army. And he’s a looker too,” Myrtle added, “Mmmhmmm. He sure is. They say he’s a major.”
The plastic bottle of peroxide slipped from Beth’s fingers and hit the floor, rolling under the edge of the display unnoticed.
Alex Hunter? Her Alex Hunter? No. Not her Alex Hunter. Her Alex Hunter left for the Army twenty years ago never looking back. Why would he return? He wouldn’t. And he wasn’t her Alex Hunter. Not anymore.
Beth glanced into the shopping basket hanging from her arm. What was she doing? Her brain had gone numb. Myrtle’s words had thrown her for a loop and she needed to focus. Even if Alex Hunter had returned to Grace Ridge, there wasn’t anything she could do about it, and she needed to keep moving on as if he hadn’t.
With a determined nod she peered around. Hadn’t she been looking at a bottle of peroxide? Oh yes, there it is. She grabbed it from beneath the edge of the display, dropped it into her basket, finished her shopping and headed to the cash register. She’d get on with her day as if she hadn’t heard this…extraordinary news. Grandpa was waiting for her.
“Have a good afternoon, Beth,” Mrs. Compton said from behind the register.
“You too, Mrs. Compton,” Beth said, “and stay cool. It promises to get really warm today.”
“Don’t I know it?” The lady fanned herself in spite of the air conditioned pharmacy. “The heat just shoots in that door when someone comes in or out. Well, have a good day.”
Waving her fingers, Beth grabbed her bag of supplies and rushed out the pharmacy door. Turning toward Grandpa Hayes’ office, she ran smack into a hard chest and bounced backward losing her balance.
Hands reached out and grabbed her before she could fall backward and hit the pavement. Stunned and with the air knocked out of her, it took several moments for her to realize what had happened.
“Take slow deep breaths, Beth.” A deep voice said as she was half led, half carried to the bench that sat between Hoover’s Pharmacy and Valley Hardware next door. “Take it easy.”
Beth did as she was told because she needed to breathe again. What was that wall she’d hit? Or rather who had she run into? Then as reason began to return and her breathing settled back to normal, she looked at the man beside her, and her face warmed. She knew it wasn’t the end of the June warm day that caused it. Of all the people in the world she had to physically run into, why did it have to be Alex Hunter?
The last time she’d seen him he was eighteen years old. He was good looking at eighteen, but he was devastating at thirty-eight. Apparently the Army had been good for him. It had been twenty years and he’d never returned. He’d left a skinny kid right out of high school. He was anything but that now. He was taller and muscular, his dark brown hair cut in the high and tight favored by the military guys. But his face…his face looked as if he’d seen things. Hard things. His jaw had become more square and stronger.
Beth’s gaze was drawn to Alex’s and there she saw strength. The same gorgeous gray gaze looked back but there was a maturity that hadn’t been in the young Alex. What could he have seen and done in his years in the military to build this man from that untried and untested teenager?
Right now compassion and concern filled his gaze. “Are you alright, Beth? You ran into me pretty hard. Where were you going in such an all-fired hurry, anyway? You could’ve been seriously hurt.”
Beth’s breathing had returned to normal and her ire rekindled. Standing, she grabbed the bag of pharmacy supplies he’d thoughtfully placed on the bench beside her. “You’ve been gone a long time, Alex. You can’t just come back and pretend twenty years away.”
Without a second glance she hurried toward Grandpa Hayes doctor’s office. She could feel the anger coursing through her veins. Who did he think he was? After leaving her high and dry twenty years ago to show up now out of the blue and act like nothing had changed. They had been inseparable since sixth grade. They did everything together. Then in high school they’d planned to go to the same college, and then the future? Who knew? But it probably would’ve been together. Right?
Then Alex decided he wanted to serve his country. There wasn’t anything wrong with that. Beth’s father was an officer in the US Army and had died serving his country when she was sixteen. She was very proud of him and his service. But Alex had just up and joined without talking to her. They’d made plans and he’d ruined them.
Beth flung open the back door of the doctor’s office and stomped up the hallway, by this time in a fine dander.
She hurried into the supply room where Jeannie Mason stood surveying the shelves with her clipboard.
“Oh good. You’re back. The supply company said they could get the shipment out by early next week so we’ll just have to plug along with pharmacy supplies until then.” She turned as Beth dumped her bag of supplies on the work table. “What goodies were you able to find?”
It was only then she noticed the steam pouring from Beth’s ears. “Uh oh. What happened?”
Jeannie was not only Beth’s co-worker but her best friend. “Ok. I’ll bite. Who’s back?”
“Alex Hunter. That’s who’s back.” Beth paced the small floor of the supply room then stopped in front of Jeannie. “What am I going to do?”
Jeannie chuckled and put her hand over her mouth to cover it up. “Why should you do anything? It’s been twenty years. The man has served his time. He can do whatever he wants. Yes, even come back to his hometown if he wants to. Hello! He did grow up here.”
Beth felt as if a bubble popped inside her. Jeannie was right. This was his hometown. He’d been born and raised here the same as her.
“You know, Beth, just because he went off and joined the Army and decided to have a different life than you doesn’t mean it was the wrong thing for him to do. Maybe it’s time for you to get over it.”
“Beth, I need you to prep the rooms ASAP.” Grandpa stuck his gray head into the supply room. He peered at her over his wire-framed glasses. “Everything okay? You don’t look so good. We’re running behind this morning, and the first patients are already in the waiting room.”
Beth nodded numbly. Jeannie’s words had stung but she didn’t have time to think about them right now. Getting the supplies at the pharmacy and running into Alex had made her late. She’d have to hurry to get things back on schedule
A grin lifted the corners of Alex’s mouth as Beth marched away. Yep. She still had that same spitfire spunk she had as a kid. Her auburn ponytail swishing back and forth as she walked was just as cute as it had been then too.
Had she changed in twenty years? Oh yeah. A lot. She was always a cute kid but she’d matured into a gorgeous woman. Now to have her come flying out of Hoover’s Pharmacy like a tornado and smash right into him had been a pleasant surprise but it had been nearly disastrous for her. She’d had the wind knocked right out of her.
It was pretty obvious she was none too happy to see him. Her hazel eyes had always changed colors when she was angry and their darker hue now indicated ire. Twenty years ago he’d tried to explain his reasons for wanting to join the Army but she’d refused to listen. It had been important to him to serve his country, but every time he’d tried to tell her, she’d slammed the door in his face. For six weeks before he was due to leave for boot camp, he’d tried to talk to her, but Beth would leave when he came into a room. She’d lock the door when he came over to talk to her. She’d hang up when he called. She wouldn’t let him explain.
Glancing at his watch Alex remembered his appointment with the bank manager, Mr. Edwards, and walked over.
“Alex, please come in and have a seat.” Mr. Edwards waved him to a chair in front of his desk. “I have all your paperwork ready for you to sign. I know you’re excited to get to work on your grandparents’ property. It’s an amazing thing you’re doing out there.”
“Thank you, sir. I’m excited to get going on it. It’s a much needed ministry,” Alex said.
“And you’re just the man to fulfill that ministry, Alex. Here you go. Just sign here, here and here, and we can get this project going.”
Alex leaned forward, signed the papers and stood to shake hands with the bank manager. “Thank you, sir. Have a good day.”
“You, too, son. I look forward to seeing great things from this ministry.”
Jeannie ran out at lunchtime to grab takeout for her and Beth. When she returned, she not only had food but news for Beth.
The office closed for an hour from noon to one and Doctor Hayes always walked home to have lunch with his wife.
“I’ll be back shortly, ladies.” He hung his white lab coat on the peg in his office. “Don’t start without me.”
“We’ll try to keep them at bay till you get back, Grandpa,” Beth said. “You know how they only come to see you.”
“Well, it’s my swashbuckling personality, don’t you know.” He put his finger over his lips. “Shhhh. Don’t tell your grandma.”
Then he patted his paunch belly, adjusted his wireframe glasses, chuckled and headed out the door.
Beth and Jeannie laughed and opened their take out.
“So, what’s the news,” Beth asked.
“You know I’ve been dating Chuck Williams over at Williams Building Supply? Well, guess who’s put in a huge building supply order. And I mean huge.”
Beth shook her head. “I don’t know. Who?”
“Alex Hunter.” Jeannie drawled out the name for emphasis.
Beth stopped chewing and swallowed the bite, almost choking. She quickly took a drink from her water bottle.
“What? Did he say what he’s building?”
Jeannie shook her head. “No, but the supplies are being delivered to his grandparents’ property.”
Alex’s dad had passed away when he was sixteen and his mom had passed while he was away in the Army. Beth didn’t think he had ever come back, but now she remembered he’d returned when his mom died. He must’ve been in his early twenties. His grandparents had died long before his father had passed, and their property would have passed down to him.
What was he doing to the property? Was he fixing it up to sell? Or was he fixing it up to move into?
Whatever it was he had the right to do whatever he wanted to. It had nothing to do with her. It was his hometown, too, just like Jeannie said. She guessed it was big enough for the two of them. If he was staying, it would have to be.
Beth sat at the computer entering patient files the next morning and heard the front door of the office open then close. She continued working as foot falls crossed the floor. Glancing up to see who it was she did a double take. Heart hammering, she quickly slipped on her professionalism.
“Alex? Good morning. Can I help you?” Her voice was brighter and cheerier than she intended. Fake. Oh so fake.
“I certainly hope so,” he grinned. “I’m looking for someone who might help me with some decorating. I was wondering if you might be available.”
Beth blinked then blinked again. Then she said patiently, “Decorating? This is a doctor’s office. We don’t offer decorating here.”
Alex chuckled. “I’m well aware. But I thought perhaps in your spare time you might be willing to work for me. You were always interested in interior design back in the day and had a good eye for color.”
He glanced down at the counter then back at Beth. “I know you’re angry at me for the decision I made. I don’t know what you did with your own life and whether you went on to college or not.”
Beth breathed in a heavy sigh and let it out. “I did get my degree in interior design, but things didn’t go quite the way I’d planned. Grandpa needed me here. I’ve written a couple design books and designed for folks here in town on occasion, but that’s about it. But it’s okay. I’m happy here. It’s where I’m supposed to be.”
Alex nodded. “That’s good. Think you can help me out?”
Beth considered for a moment. Did she want to work closely with this man that had betrayed her so long ago? Had he betrayed her? She thought he had.
“I don’t know. Can you give me some time to think about it?”
“Sure.” He pulled a paper from his pocket. “Here’s my proposal and what I’d pay you. I know you work here days, so you could work evenings and weekends if that’d work for you. Take your time in looking it over and let me know.”
Beth nodded. “If I don’t, what will you do?”
Alex thought for a moment. “I guess I’ll hire one of those big city designers to come in and do the job.”
Beth nodded again. “I’ll let you know. How can I get ahold of you?”
Alex pointed to a cell number typed on the proposal. "Call anytime. I’ll be out at my grandparents’ property.”
With a devastating smile, a wink and a quick rap of knuckles on the counter, Alex turned and was gone.
Beth sat in stunned silence. What just happened? Had she really just been offered a design job by her old boyfriend who’d dumped her years ago and who’d now returned to do who knew what at his grandparents’ property? She’d forgotten what his smile did to her. Made her feel all gooey inside.
With a huge sigh, she straightened her spine and attempted to get back to work. Her eyes kept roaming over to the proposal. Should I take the job, Lord, or no? It didn’t mean she’d have to commit to him again. It didn’t even mean she’d have to have a relationship with him other than professional. Could she keep it that way? Well, of course she could. She couldn’t trust him not to take off. He’d proven that once before.
She dropped the proposal into her purse and went back to work. Too many patient files to work on to sit and worry with this now. She’d decide later.
Alex awaited the building supply trucks out at the property at noon. Excitement coursed through him. This was happening. There was a lot of work to do before the end game, but it was actually happening.
When he’d walked into the doctor’s office that morning to ask if Beth would be willing to do the interior design work for the ranch house and the cabins, he was pleasantly surprised that she didn’t send him packing immediately. Instead she actually said she’d consider it. Thank you, Lord. It’s a start and I’ll gratefully take it.
Alex glanced around at the buildings on the property. The main house was a five bedroom stone rancher with a wide porch and large stone chimney. Inside was a huge fireplace for that chimney. Behind the house a once-red barn could house lots of horses, if he chose. Other out-buildings near the barn were in various stages of decay and would either need to be torn down or rebuilt, depending on the need. There were a hundred and seventy-five acres of property here. Plenty of room for his needs.
He turned at the sound of trucks on the road and spotted three building supply trucks driving through the stone and wrought iron archway at the entrance to the property.
Alex waited for them by the house. When they stopped, the lead driver jumped down from his cab.
“Hello there,” the man greeted. “Expecting some supplies today?”
“A few,” Alex said.
“Well, we’ve got a few,” the man chuckled. “Where you want ‘em?”
“Follow me around to the back and you can put them in the barn. It’s in pretty decent shape. Everything should stay dry there.”
“Lead on my friend.”
A week had passed since Alex had asked Beth to work for him. To his credit he hadn’t said another word to her about it. She’d seen him in church on Sunday and he’d waved to her, but had headed out the door after church. She’d seen him around town a few times, but he hadn’t approached her. Was he giving her space to think? No pressure on his part. She appreciated that.
She was more than impressed with the proposal he’d given her. Not the amount of money he’d pay her, but what he was doing with the property. He wasn’t selling it. He was making it into a rehabilitation home for wounded soldiers and their families. When she’d read that she’d almost started crying. Had he been through a terrible ordeal himself to make him want to do that for others? She’d love to know but she couldn’t ask.
This plan for his grandparents’ property gave her the impression that Alex wasn’t the same Alex he used to be. Perhaps she shouldn’t judge him on his past actions after all. Then her own words rebuked her as a Bible verse she’d learned a long time ago returned to remind her to “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Who was she to judge Alex? It wasn’t her place to judge him or anyone else. Forgive me, Lord. Help me to be understanding of what he’s been through and to forget about the past.
She’d take the job and help him however she could. It was a most worthy cause, and she looked forward to seeing the faces of the families who would benefit from it.
Alex watched as the cement mixer poured the foundation of the first cabin to the south of the main house. There would be a row of ten cabins far enough apart to give privacy to the families staying in them. Another row of ten would be positioned north of the main house. The families would join others in the main house for meals. Part of the rehabilitation would be the families helping one another and spending time together. The wounded encouraging each other. The spouses doing the same.
“Hello?” Alex answered his cell phone. He moved away from the cement mixer in order to be able to hear. He pulled off the hard hat he wore and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
“Alex?” Beth’s timid voice sounded in his ear.
“Beth? Is that you? Sorry. There’s some equipment running here.”
“Yes. I was wondering if I could meet up with you sometime this afternoon or this evening to discuss your proposal.”
She sounded less than confident. Alex’s heart dropped. Did that mean she wasn’t going to work for him? Don’t jump to conclusions till you hear her out.
“Yeah. Sure. Let’s discuss it over dinner?”
“Dinner? Oh, well, okay.” Beth said.
“I’ll pick you up at six.”
“At six? Okay. Sounds good. Thanks. Bye.” Click and Beth was gone.
Alex chuckled. That very confident young woman sounded anything but. Should make for an interesting dinner date. Date? Who knew where things might go from here? Only you, Lord.
Promptly at six o’clock the doorbell rang indicating that Alex had arrived. Beth put the last touches of makeup on while Grandpa answered the door. She didn’t mind letting the older set meet and greet. Mom, Grandma and Grandpa would entertain and delight, or annoy as the case may be.
Beth had decided on a sleeveless jersey mini-print sundress and leather sandals. She quickly ran her brush through her shoulder-length auburn tresses, left them loose, grabbed her shoulder bag and hurried downstairs.
As expected Alex sat on the couch surrounded by the above-mentioned elders being regaled by stories of Beth’s college days. She’d put a stop to that.
“Hi, Alex. Mom, Grandma, Grandpa, I know Alex isn’t interested in those stories. Besides, it’s time to go.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Sounds fascinating to me,” Alex grinned. “I’d love to hear more. Maybe another time?”
“Absolutely,” Mom said. “We’ll have you back for supper one evening. How about that, Alex? There’s a lot of time to catch up on.”
“I’d like that, Mrs. Hayes,” Alex nodded. He turned to Grandpa and shook his hand and placed a kiss on Grandma’s still smooth cheek. “It was a pleasure seeing you both again. I hope to see you again soon.”
Grandma tittered cheerily. “Please do come again soon, Alex.”
Grandpa guffawed. “Yes, yes. And take good care of our Beth, young man.”
Alex grinned, nodding. “I’ll do that. Good night.”
As they settled into Alex’s car, which Beth noticed was a rather sporty model, she said, “I apologize. They can be a little stifling at times, but I know they have my back, and I know they love me.”
Alex turned in his seat and peered closely at her. “Don’t apologize. I know your dad’s gone, but you still have the rest of your family. Enjoy them while you can. You’re right. They love you very much. And as for the stories, they’re very proud of the young woman you’ve become.”
Beth’s cheeks warmed as Alex’s gaze locked with hers. All at once it was hard to breath. His jaw tightened and she spotted a nerve jumping. Abruptly he turned and started the car, slipping it into gear and driving toward the restaurant. She released the pent up breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
Alex talked about mundane topics and Beth was glad it was only a few minutes’ drive to the restaurant. What had happened back in the driveway? Were her feelings for this man changing? Well, she couldn’t let that happen until she knew more about him and what had happened to him in the years he’d been away. Twenty years was a long time, and she didn’t know anything about him anymore.
With a whistle on his lips, Jake Stuart rounded the corner of the ranger station. He pulled his keys from his pants pocket, prepared to flip the Closed sign by the door to Open as he did every morning. As he approached the front stoop, he froze. The whistle hung in his throat. He jerked back, a gasp slipping out. The decapitated head of a black bear perched on the floor of the porch stoop, a pair of severed paws positioned on either side of the head. Blood seeped from beneath the black fur of the head and ran across the cement stoop dripping into the grass. Jake tasted bile as his gut knotted. He clenched his fists and shook his head. Who would do such an awful thing? And why? The glazed eyes of the bear were haunting. This bear had died needlessly.
Avoiding the horrible mess, Jake stepped onto the stoop from the side and unlocked the station office. Grabbing the phone, he called his supervisor, Cal Bishop. He’d come out and assist in the processing of the crime scene. Because that’s exactly what it was. He pulled his digital camera from the desk drawer. Photo-documenting the evidence was an important part of any investigation. After searching carefully, no vehicle tire tracks or footprints could be found. Too much grass and gravel and not enough dirt to hold a print.
By the time Cal arrived, the spring morning had warmed considerably and flies had found the bear head.
“Now that’s not a pretty sight to greet you in the morning.” Cal climbed out of his National Park SUV. “We’re getting more and more reports of poaching lately, and out of season too. They took the carcass and left the head. Pretty disgusting.”
“Yeah, well, this is different.” Jake squatted down, pulled out his pocketknife and probed the fur for possible gunshot wounds. “This is more than just poaching. Someone’s left us a strong message.” But for what? A warning, maybe? Or a threat?
“What’d she say, Burt?” The elderly man turned to his companion where they sat on a bench in front of the old service station.
“I dunno, George. Can’t understand her.” Burt cupped his ear with his hand and leaned forward. “What’d ya say, young woman?”
Molly Walker stepped closer and raised her voice. “Sir, I asked for directions to Deep Creek Ranger Station.” This was the first business she’d found open on this road and somehow she thought she’d gotten turned around. The two elderly gentlemen sitting on the bench in front of the station were why she’d stopped, but she wasn’t getting very far with them.
“Sounds like gibberish to me, George. Can’t make out a word.” He turned his head toward the screen door beside him. “Hey, Bertha!” he called, hand cupped around his mouth like a megaphone. “Come out here a minute, would ya!”
Molly sighed as a large lady in a bright print blouse, orange-red curly hair and large dangly earrings propped open the screen door. “What ya bellowin’ about, Burt? Oh, hello there,” she added with a congenial smile upon spotting Molly.
“This here young woman wants something, and I can’t understand her.” Burt and George both shook their heads.
The woman rolled her eyes, “What can I do for ya, sweetie? You need help with the gas pump? It’s not one of those newfangled ones, but it works. Some of the young folks can’t figure it out.”
Molly smiled wide. “No, thanks. I just need directions out to Deep Creek Ranger Station. I seem to have gotten turned around somehow.”
“Oh, sure. Take this road into town then turn right at the courthouse. It’s the big building with the gold dome.” A touch of pride edged her words. She gave Molly detailed directions all the way to Deep Creek.
“Thanks! You’ve been a big help.” Molly waved at Burt and George. “Thanks, fellows!”
“Who’s Hank Bellows, Bertha?” George raised his bushy eyebrows.
“Never mind, George.” Bertha huffed as the screen door banged shut behind her.
Molly followed Bertha’s directions, liking the laid-back quaintness of the little town. It had that certain “Mayberry” feel to it. She half expected an old black and white to cruise past with Andy or Barney at the wheel. Turning right at the courthouse, she spotted two more elderly men sitting on a park bench, a checkerboard between them. Remembering Burt and George, she grinned. Laid back, indeed!
Small storefronts, a hardware store and an old drugstore lined the street. Taking another right at the old train depot, Molly left the town behind, passing small mountain homes along the green hillsides, a country store and the occasional mobile home. The North Carolina Smoky Mountains rose up from the valley she drove through, their smoky blue color beautiful against the brilliant blue sky. Spring had arrived in the Smokies, and the vibrant pink and white Laurel bushes were in full bloom. Redbuds and dogwoods peeked between the new green leaves sprouting on the poplar, maple and oak trees.
Molly spotted the sign for Deep Creek Campground and a surge of exhilaration knotted her stomach. She’d waited a long time for this. It was her first position with the National Park Service, and she was certain great-grandpa Murphy would’ve been pleased. Having trained for this very day, she was ready to begin her new career. Gratitude for how circumstances had worked out swelled in her heart. Thank you, Lord.
Turning right, she crossed a bridge that spanned a swiftly flowing creek then entered a large clearing in the woods. A small brown building sat near the center with a sign beside it that read Office. The early afternoon breeze stirred an American flag at the top of a flagpole.
Molly parked across from the office and exited her SUV, stretching stiff muscles and glancing around the quiet clearing. Strolling over to the little office, she opened the squeaky screen door, hoping Cal Bishop was in. As head ranger over the campground and this part of the park district, he was meeting her here to explain her duties.
The small front office was split by a wooden counter along the front, a desk holding a base station radio and a file cabinet positioned behind it. Mountain scenes and maps graced the walls while a tattered and torn backpack hung by the front door. An old coffee pot and tin can, both punctured and bent, hung from the backpack. Beneath, a sign read, Campers: Please Store Food Properly. A partition to the left of the counter indicated more office space.
A young auburn-haired man dressed in a National Park Service uniform leaned on the counter, grinning as Molly glanced around. His hair was short and freckles spattered across his nose. His name badge read “Craig Wilson.”
“Can I help you?” A bright smile crossed his lips.
“I hope so.” Molly returned his smile. “I’m looking for Cal Bishop. Is he in?”
“No, he’s out in the campground somewhere. I can call him if you’d like.”
“I’d appreciate that. My name’s Molly Walker. I believe he’s expecting me.”
“Molly Walker!” He extended his hand to Molly. “You bet he is. He’ll be glad to know you’re here. I’m Craig Wilson. It’s nice to meet you.”
“I’m happy to meet you, Craig.” Molly shook his outstretched hand.
“Hang on a minute. I’ll call Cal.” Craig reached for the base radio microphone on the desk, depressed the button and called out some numbers followed by Cal’s name. “Guess who’s here? Yeah, she made it. Come back?”
A deep male voice responded he was on his way.
“He’ll be here shortly. I just made some coffee a little while ago. Would you like a cup?”
“I’d love some.” Molly glanced around the office. The coffee maker sat on a small table near the desk. “May I help myself?”
“Sure. May as well. You’ll be working here so make yourself at home.”
“Thanks.” Molly chuckled, filling an insulated cup. “Where are you from, Craig?”
“Wow! You’re a long way from home. Been in the park service long?”
“This is my first season.” He perched on the barstool behind the counter. “You’re coming in a little late, I suppose.”
Molly settled onto the rolling chair at the desk, sipping the hot brew. “I understand I’m replacing someone that didn’t work out.”
“Yeah, that was Howard, Cal’s assistant ranger for the past two seasons. He took seriously ill. Don’t know the whole story, but I don’t think he’s returning to the park service. Early retirement, I think.” He shrugged his shoulders.
“So what do you do?”
“I’m a summer seasonal park aide. I’m still in college and working my way through, but I’ll graduate next spring. The experience here will be good.”
The screen door opened and a man of stocky build strolled in. He wore the gray shirt and dark green pants of the National Park Service uniform, and when he removed a dark green NPS ball cap and sunglasses, Molly noticed his sandy colored crew cut and bright blue eyes surrounded by laugh lines. Determining he was in his mid-forties, she stood as he approached with outstretched hand.
“I’m Cal Bishop,” his voice deep and gravely. “Welcome to Deep Creek, Miss Walker.”
“Please, call me Molly.”
“Certainly, but you have to call me Cal. We don’t stand on formalities around here. Come on back and have a seat. I have some things to go over with you.” He led Molly behind the partition where another desk and file cabinet made up Cal’s office. Through an open door to the left, Molly spotted what passed for a bathroom. It would be a tight fit, but certainly better than nothing.
“Did you have a good trip?” Cal motioned her to sit in a chair beside the desk while he took the rolling chair behind it. “Where’d you drive from?”
“From Charlottesville, Virginia. Except for a couple really bad storms that kept me alert, it was uneventful.”
“They’re predicting storms this evening. We need it. It’s been a dry spring so far.” As he chatted he drew a file folder from the desk drawer, removing several pages. “Here’s a list of required uniform items and you’ll get a uniform allowance, so that’ll help you out.”
He removed a small plastic bag stapled to the list then handed the list to her. “You can order by mail or online, but it takes a week or so to get your items. However, if you don’t mind taking a drive, there’s a store in Maryville, Tennessee that carries the NPS uniform shirts, pants and leather belt. You can also pick up the ball cap.”
Cal pointed to his on the side of the desk.
Molly glanced at it. “What about the “Smoky-Bear” hat?”
He tapped the list in her hand. “It has to be ordered. Pick up some good hiking boots too. You’ll need ‘em.”
Dumping the contents of the little plastic bag onto the desk, he picked up a little brass bar. “I took the liberty of ordering your name tag so you’d have it when you arrived.” He handed her the name tag and a metal, shield-shaped badge. “This gives you your authority.”
“When do I start?” Eagerness threatened to overwhelm Molly. Had he noticed her wiping her palms on her pant legs? It was hard to tone down her beaming smile.
Cal glanced at his wristwatch, a broad grin on his lips. Yeah, he’d noticed. “If you want to drive over to Maryville for your uniforms, go today. Then you can start in the morning. On your way, if you don’t mind, you can deliver something to the remote Twentymile Ranger Station for me. I have some paperwork for Ranger Jake Stuart.”
“I don’t mind. Is it on the way?”
“Yep. You drive right past it to get to Maryville. Before you go, I’ll take you up to the duplex where you’ll lodge temporarily until you find a place.” Grabbing a notepad, Cal drew a rudimentary map and handed it to Molly along with a manila envelope. “Here are directions to Maryville with Twentymile marked on it. This is the packet for Jake.” Unlocking a drawer in his desk, he opened it and pulled out a Glock 19 9mm and a brown leather holster.
“This is your sidearm.” He peered closely at Molly. “From your weapon scores, I see you know how to handle one of these.”
“I didn’t do too badly.” Pleasure warmed Molly at his compliment. “Besides, my father made sure my brothers and I knew how to protect ourselves.”
Cal nodded and handed her another form. “That’s what I like to hear. Sign on the dotted line. This says you were issued the weapon. Just make sure the serial number matches the paper before you sign.”
Comparing the numbers, Molly signed the form and returned it to Cal.
“Follow me and I’ll show you to your quarters.” Clapping his cap on his head, he led the way out the door.
After Molly and Cal dropped off her suitcases, bags and boxes at the little duplex up the hill from the office, Molly grabbed lunch at the drugstore in town then headed west toward Twentymile Ranger Station. The drive was pleasant with the road winding past the edge of a huge lake and around hairpin curves. According to Cal’s map, the lake was Fontana Lake. The scenery was gorgeous. Molly’s family had visited the Great Smoky Mountains in her childhood, and she’d always loved the gentle yet mysterious smoky-blue mountains. Not nearly as tall as the Rockies or some of the other western mountain ranges, the Smokies had a quiet, peaceful beauty all their own.
Molly spotted a sign for Fontana Dam and another for Fontana Village. Having read up on the area before coming, she knew the dam, one of many in the area, was built by the Tennessee Valley Authority during WWII. The village was a summer resort with a lodge, swimming pools and hiking. It was located south of Fontana Lake, while the boundary to Great Smoky Mountains National Park lay along the northern shore.
With no time to explore the area today, Molly vowed to return on a day off to investigate further. Passing the entrance to the village, she descended a winding, wooded mountain road to the bottom where a bridge crossed a wide river. To her right, the sheer wall of Fontana Dam rose far above. A power generating station sat to one side. On the left of the bridge, the river flowed into another lake. Here in the valley below the dam, the road wound along the lake’s edge on the left while on the right the wooded foot of the mountains rose up into the park.
Turning into a gravel driveway by a sign for Twentymile Ranger Station, she parked in the small lot in front of the building. Climbing out, she stretched, listening to the peace and quiet that enveloped her. A creek flowing merrily alongside the station, a gentle breeze rustling the trees and birds singing were the only sounds. Bright sunshine belied any sign of a predicted storm.
Molly stepped onto the small front porch and found a large wooden clock face with movable hands indicating the ranger would return in an hour. She glanced at her wristwatch. She couldn’t wait that long. Not with an hour drive to Maryville.
Exploring the grounds, she hoped to find Jake Stuart. A long, dark green garage stood fifty feet behind the station. A light green NPS Jeep was parked in front beside a blue Ford Ranger. The gravel and dirt driveway wound past the station, the garage and on up the hill. It curved past a little brown shanty before disappearing around the bend.
Well, now what should she do? A faint sound came from up the hill. Was that a metallic ringing noise? Following it, she stopped at the little shanty only to find it locked. Twenty-five feet further an iron gate blocked the road that meandered into the woods. Ducking beneath the gate, Molly followed the road toward the sound of a faint voice, an occasional metallic ring and a horse nickering. Ahead she spotted a barn surrounded by corrals.
Shoving open one of the barn doors, she glanced around for the owner of the voice. Two horses and a mule stood in their stalls, softly nickering at her appearance. As they stirred, motes of dust danced in the sunbeams that slipped through the cracks above the rafters. The scent of hay and horses filled her nose.
“Hello?” she called in a soft voice. Frightening the horses would be a bad idea. “Anyone here?”
Molly approached one of the horses and stroked its head, crooning softly to it. “Easy, fellow. Where’s the ranger, huh?”
The voice spoke again, louder this time. The owner switched back and forth between talking and humming in a deep baritone. Striding to the double doors leading to a corral, Molly found a man working beside a horse. Bent from the waist, he held the horse’s back hoof between his knees, a hoof pick in his hand. With his back to her, he hadn’t heard her approach. The horse noticed her and nickered, shifting his weight.
“Whoa, Billy!” A deep voice soothed. “Stand still, boy. We’ll be done shortly.”
“Excuse me,” Molly said quietly. “Sorry to interrupt your work, but I’m looking for Jake Stuart.”
Glancing over his shoulder in surprise, the man accidently allowed the weight of the horse’s leg to slip from his grasp. Suddenly off balance, he fell forward, landing on his shoulder and knees.
“Oh, no!” Molly gasped, covering her mouth with her hands. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Picking himself up, he dusted off his pants and grinned. Molly wasn’t sure if the red in his cheeks was from embarrassment or from leaning over too long. She had a pretty good idea which it was. Her hands still covering her mouth, she tried not to laugh, but found one working its way out.
Jake Stuart noted the woman was trying unsuccessfully not to laugh at him. “You know, seeing as how we’ve never met, I don’t think it’s very polite to laugh at me.” His voice and face were stern, but his dark sapphire eyes shone with laughter. “Especially since you’re the one who startled me.”
“I truly am sorry, but if I’d shouted, would I have startled you any less?” The pretty woman chuckled again.
He shook his head. “I suppose you have a point. Did you say you’re looking for Jake Stuart?”
“Yes, I am.”
He surveyed her thoroughly, taking in the long brown braid hanging carelessly over her shoulder. The soft curve of her cheeks, and the dark chocolate eyes. Her lips were a delicate shade of pink, slightly compressed at the moment and compressing more and more as he observed her appearance. She wore a pair of blue jeans and a white button-down shirt with flowers embroidered on the collar.
“Do you know where he is or don’t you?”
Uh-oh. A frown was forming between her delicate eyebrows.
Jake couldn’t take his eyes from her. She blushed, and the pink color delighted him. Was that a Virginian accent he detected? Whatever it was, it sounded great coming from her.
“What do you need him for?”
Eyes narrowing, she lifted her chin defiantly. “That’s none of your concern. I have something for him, and I need to give it directly to him.”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Well now, he never mentioned expecting you. I’m sure if he knew you were coming, he would’ve made sure he was here to meet you.”
Boy, this was fun. He checked his grin as she crossed her arms as well and tilted her chin upward.
“Be that as it may, I’m still looking for him.”
Molly jumped as the walkie-talkie propped on a nearby stump crackled to life. After the usual call numbers, a deep voice said, “Come in, Jake, this is Cal.”
Whoever this man was, he glanced at the walkie-talkie then back at her. Was the call for him? “Come in, Jake. This is Cal. Do you read me?”
Molly watched with dismay as the man hesitated momentarily before reaching for the instrument and pressing the button, responding. “Cal, this is Jake. What’s up?”
“Just wanted to let you know that Molly Walker will be by sometime this afternoon to drop off those papers you wanted. She’s the new ranger over here. Should be getting there soon, I expect. Was going to call sooner, but got caught up in a situation here.”
Jake’s gaze flicked back to hers. “Thanks Cal but she beat you to it. She’s already here.” He shrugged, never removing his eyes from her face.
“Roger that, Jake. Talk with you later. Cal out.”
Molly spun on her heels and headed back through the barn. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Jake yank off the leather apron covering his uniform and nametag. He tossed it on the stump, slipped the walkie-talkie into its belt holster, and hurried after her.
“Hey, wait up,” he called.
She sped toward the station, wanting to put some distance between them.
Jake caught up with her just before the gate. Catching hold of her arm, he gently tugged her around. “You’re quick, you know that?”
Molly turned her best blank expression on him and pulled her arm away.
“Look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have led you on like that, but I guess I was little sore at being caught off guard and having fallen flat on my face. I think they call it male ego or something like that. Anyway, I know you didn’t surprise me on purpose.” One side of his mouth lifted in a crooked grin as his eyebrows rose. “Am I forgiven?”
Molly grinned at the “male ego” comment and knew she couldn’t stay mad. She’d have to work with him some time or other. Best to get things squared and make life a little easier. Besides, she had laughed at him. She held out her hand. “You’re forgiven, if you’ll forgive me for laughing at you.”
His large calloused hand engulfed hers then released it. “Done. Now let’s start over. Hi, I’m Jake Stuart.”
“Molly Walker. I have an envelope for you in my car. The one Cal referred to when he gave you away.”
As Jake strode on long legs back toward the station, Molly tried to keep up.
He shortened his stride. To match hers?
“Right. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting you. I knew someone was replacing Howard, but I didn’t know who. It’s been awhile since I’ve been over to Deep Creek.” As they stopped by her car, Molly retrieved the envelope.
“When did you get to town?”
“Today. I checked in with Cal, dropped my things at my temporary quarters then headed here. He suggested purchasing my uniforms in Maryville so that’s where I’m heading. He asked me to drop this off to save him a trip.”
“You’re heading to Maryville, huh?” Jake’s eyes gleamed with interest. “Could I impose on you to pick up something for me?”
“Sure. What do you need?” Another errand for another ranger? Was she going to be a ranger or a courier?
Jake pulled out his wallet and handed her a few bills then removed a notepad from his shirt pocket. “I’ll jot down what I need.”
As he wrote, Molly took the opportunity to observe him unnoticed. His thick black hair was cut short and neat. A very handsome man in spite of the faint scar marring the right side of his chin. When she’d first seen him at the barn she’d noticed his broad shoulders and his dark sapphire eyes beneath black brows.
She suddenly realized those same eyes were gazing at her now. Uh oh. She’d been caught staring. Looking down at the paper he was holding out, she willed herself not to blush.
“R…right,” she stammered. “I’ll pick these up for you and drop them off on my way past. Will you be here?”
Jake’s smile was bright against his tanned face. “I’ll be here. When you live in the backcountry, there aren’t too many places to go. If I’m not here at the station, I’ll be up at the barn. I still have two more horses to shoe.”
As Molly drove away, she was still embarrassed that she’d stared, much less been caught at it. What had come over her? Staring at a man wasn’t her style. She shook her head and concentrated on the winding road.
Glacier of Secrets, Faith in the Parks Book 4
Get your copy today!
June 12, 1987
State Department, Washington, D.C.
"There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable," President Ronald Reagan spoke into the podium microphone as he stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany near the Berlin Wall, "that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
Edgar Norton reached over and turned down the volume on the TV. “Those are powerful words, sir. Do you think Mr. Gorbachev will take up that challenge?”
State Department Under Secretary Bradford Scott leaned back in his leather desk chair and ran a hand through his dark hair. He eyed his young assistant for a moment then shrugged. “We can only hope, Edgar. Our president has called Mr. Gorbachev out in no uncertain terms, and if he doesn’t follow through, the general secretary will look like a fool.”
Just then the phone on Secretary Scott’s desk rang and his assistant reached for it. “This is State Department Under Secretary Bradford Scott’s office. This is his assistant, Edgar Norton, speaking. How can I help you?”
“Hey, Edgar. Is that no-account boss of yours in the office?” a booming voice came across the telephone wire followed by a chuckle. “If he is, I need to speak to him.”
“Oh, good morning, Assistant Secretary Holloway, sir.” Edgar stood a little straighter as he spoke. “Yes, sir. He’s here, sir.”
“You know, Edgar, you could drop half the sirs you use, and you’d still be using too many. You need to loosen up some, son.”
“Yes, sir,” Edgar nodded, his body still straight and stiff. “I’ll try, sir.”
A heavy sigh heaved across the wire. “You do that, son. In the meantime….”
“Oh, yes, sir. Here’s Under Secretary Scott, sir.” Edgar passed the handset to his boss and busied himself straightening up the office.
“What’s up, Gabe? Did you call to harass my assistant or are you calling to critique the president’s speech? I think he did a pretty good job….what’s that?” Bradford Scott leaned forward resting his elbows on his desk. “Wait a second, Gabe.”
“Edgar, hold up on what you’re doing and head back to your desk. I need a few minutes here, please.”
Edgar looked up and realized from the undersecretary’s expression that something important was going on. He headed for the door even as he answered, “Yes, sir.”
Secretary Scott leaned back in his leather desk chair. “Okay, Gabe. Go ahead.”
“Brad, you know I can’t tell you anything on these unsecured phone lines. Do I have to remind you there’s a cold war going on? Meet me outside in five minutes at the park bench.”
The phone line clicked in Scott’s ear and the phone buzzed, indicating Gabe had hung up.
Secretary Scott grabbed his fedora from the coat rack and stepped out his door, stopping at his assistant’s desk. “Edgar, I’m stepping out for a few minutes. I won’t be long.”
“Yes, sir.” The young man nodded, returning to his computer and the work at hand.
Secretary Scott hurried down the marble corridor of the Harry S. Truman building and out the main entrance. He paused for a moment, his gaze on the park bench in the grassy area in front of the building which housed the State Department. A single man sat on the bench, facing the other direction, a plume of cigarette smoke drifting away on the afternoon breeze. Gabe Holloway. He’d know him anywhere. Even from the back.
Secretary Scott left the sidewalk, strolled across the paved driveway in front of the building then crossed the grass to the park bench. He stopped and faced the other man, grinning at him.
“Hi, Gabe. What’s so all fired important that you dragged me out of my air-conditioned office to sit out here and talk to you? It may be mid-June, but it’s already getting warm.”
Gabe Holloway crushed his cigarette on the sole of his shoe and laid the butt on the seat beside him. “Well, at least it’s not August, Brad. Besides, there’s a nice breeze, and we’re sitting under the shade trees. So quit your griping and have a seat. I have something to tell you. Something that we need to act on. Now.”
Scott’s brow furrowed at his superior’s words, and he took a seat on the wooden bench. “What’s up, Gabe?”
The older man crossed one leg over his knee, his foot bouncing in…what? Agitation? Frustration? Excitement? Brad couldn’t decide, but lifted his gaze to the older man’s face as he began to speak.
“A few hours ago, a Russian pilot attempted to defect to the US.” Gabe’s voice was low, and Scott strained to hear his words. “The difficulty is we can’t find him.”
“What do you mean, ‘we can’t find him’?” Scott’s voice matched Gabe’s in a low whisper. “Where did he enter the US? Or did he?”
Gabe wiped a heavy hand across his forehead, puffed out his cheeks, and blew out a stream of air. He turned his gaze to meet Scott’s. “Apparently, our defecting pilot was picked up by a couple of fishermen on a small fishing trawler off the northwest coast of Alaska. It’s unclear how he escaped from Russia or how he made it to the point where he was picked up. They found him floating in an emergency raft. He told them he was from one of the crabbing boats and had fallen overboard.”
“Did he speak English that well?”
“Would you hang on, Brad.” Gabe held up his hand as a policeman would to hold back traffic.
“How do we know he’s a pilot?” Scott crossed his arms over his chest and eyed Gabe.
“Don’t get ahead of me, Brad. Let me finish.” Gabe glared. “Our pilot in question was taken on board the fishing trawler and talked his way to shore. The fishermen let him go when they docked in Nome. They never asked anymore questions. He made his way to the airport and stowed on board a flying ambulance. Only the pilot was onboard at the time but was preparing for a flight and had the engines running. The Soviet pilot caught him unaware. The ambulance pilot threatened to turn our defecting pilot over to the local authorities, but apparently the defecting pilot has some sensitive Soviet information he’s more than willing to hand over to the US government. He explained in broken English that he’s a pilot and flew out of the Soviet Union during the night with top secret information. His plane was shot down over the Bering Sea. He talked the ambulance pilot into taking him to one of the military bases in northeast Alaska, using the sensitive information as a bargaining tool. That’s where they were headed when we lost them. When I say we don’t know where they are, we have a general idea but that’s all.”
Secretary Scott shifted on the park bench. “That’s quite a story, Gabe. What I’d like to know is how he survived the plane going down in the frigid waters of the Bering Sea. You know how cold that water is. And where did he get the emergency raft?”
“Brad, if I knew all the answers to this account, I’d tell you.” Gabe scratched his head. “At this point we don’t know everything. Maybe he had an emergency raft beneath his ejection seat. Who knows what the Soviets do in their planes? Give me a break, man. Besides, there are more important issues at stake here.”
“Fine.” Scott waved a hand. “I understand. Where do you think the general area is where they may have gone down?”
“Now that’s a more sensible question.” Gabe glanced around then turned to look over his shoulder before returning his gaze to Scott. “Mt. McKinley National Park. The pilot of the ambulance called the Ft. Wainwright Army Base in northern Alaska telling them he was bringing the defecting pilot in. Because it was an unsecured radio transmission, he attempted to tell them as much as he could without endangering him and his passenger.
“He indicated he needed a security officer to meet the plane ASAP. His passenger had a ‘package’,” Gabe held up fingers indicating air quotes, “they would be interested in. We translated that to mean sensitive information. He also told them his passenger was from a nearby country and needed to speak with the officer. Well, that could mean several different countries, but the nearest is Russia, so that’s the most likely choice.”
“You’re reading an awful lot into a few words in a vague transmission, Gabe.” Scott swept his hand through his hair. “And if you don’t find the plane, it isn’t really going to matter much.”
Gabe harrumphed. “That’s the problem, isn’t it? The transmission ended near Mt. McKinley. Do you have any idea how big Mt. McKinley National Park is, Brad?”
“Yeah, actually, I have a general idea. I am from Alaska, remember?”
“Yes, I do remember, and the park is nine thousand four hundred and forty-six square miles. We looked it up. And we have to find a tiny plane in all of that. All because we want whatever it is that Russian pilot has in his hands that the Soviet Union doesn’t want us to have.” Gabe pulled a pack of cigarettes from inside his suit jacket and tapped it against his finger. Nothing came out. He mumbled, “Empty. Wouldn’t you know it.”
With a heavy sigh, he jammed it back into his jacket pocket. Reaching into an inside pocket on the other side of his jacket, he retrieved a stick of gum, offering one to Scott.
Secretary Scott waved a hand indicating he didn’t want any. Gabe unwrapped a stick and popped it into his mouth. “We begin a search of that park, Brad. I’ll call the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, and he can do whatever has to be done to get the park service moving on their end. I want that plane found. I’m sending you out there to oversee things and make sure the search is thorough.”
Scott sat up straight. “Me? Search and rescue isn’t really my area of expertise, Gabe.”
“Maybe not, but it is your home state, and it’ll look good on your record if you find them.”
“And if I don’t?” Secretary Scott quirked an eyebrow. He certainly had his doubts. McKinley is a huge park.
“Don’t defeat yourself before you’ve even started, Brad. We’ll cross that bridge if and when we get there. Find that plane and hopefully you’ll find those pilots still alive. Then find whatever sensitive information that Russian pilot has. Understood?” Gabe looked him in the eye.
“Understood.” Scott understood all too well that this mission was nearly impossible. The proverbial needle in the haystack had nothing on him. He’d much rather look for the needle than attempt to find that plane in Mt. McKinley National Park.
Pavel eyed his phone as it rang. It was that number. Grabbing it, he clicked on the answer call button and held it to his ear.
“You must remain vigilant.” A deep Russian voice came across cyberspace as if the man were in the next room rather than the next continent. “He will be arriving soon. We will tell you more when our intelligence has that information.”
“Da. I understand.” Pavel answered in Russian. “How soon, do you think?”
“That is not your concern. You worry about finding it and getting it out when the time comes.” He heard the Russian’s voice harden. “You will use whatever means are at your disposal.”
Only the Russian man’s breathing filled the pause that spanned a full thirty seconds causing Pavel to grow uncomfortable. What was he doing? Was this a mind tactic reminiscent of the cold war? Weren’t those days over? There were rumors….
“Evgene was a fool.” The Russian’s words were adamant. “He could have had everything. He was to be given a promotion that would have placed him high in the ranks of the KGB. President Gorbachev himself would have….”
He waited for the Russian to continue.
“What’s the use of looking to the past?” The Russian’s words were more resigned now. “Just be prepared. You will move when we tell you to.”
“I understand, and I’ll be ready.”
“How shall I address you?”
“I am General Kozlov. That’s all you need to know.” The phone clicked and the line went dead.
Maggie Lawrence parked her little green rented SUV in front of the small, brown wooden building at the far end of the runway and turned off the engine. The lake behind her was home to numerous seaplanes. They were tied up along the lake shoreline while a long runway lay between the lake and a long row of buildings surrounded by small land planes. Maggie glanced at the sign over the front door of this building. It read Svenson’s Bush Plane Service. Yep. This is the place. Before she’d left New York, she’d done thorough research of all the bush plane services that flew out of Fairbanks, Alaska. Svenson’s had the best reviews and the best prices to boot.
Maggie couldn’t wait to get a bird’s-eye view of the park she’d been hired to photograph, and she wanted to get a jump on it. She would drive down to Healy near Denali National Park later today and find her new home away from home. First things first. She needed to find the pilot who would take her on a flight-seeing tour.
Opening the car door, she stepped out into frigid cold air. The car rental attendant had told her the temperature was -20˚. Maggie shivered in her tan parka and pulled the hood up. Having been born and raised in North Carolina, she doubted she’d get used to these temps. Ever. Even living in New York City as she did now, didn’t compare to Fairbanks, Alaska, the coldest city in the US.
Locking her car, she tucked her gloved hands into her parka pockets and headed for the front door. With reluctance she pulled one hand back out and attempted to turn the door knob. Locked. Shading her eyes, she leaned close and gazed through the window in the door. There was no one in the room. Just a cluttered desk, a filing cabinet, a bookshelf and a couple of chairs.
Maggie knocked hoping whoever ran this place was just in another room. However, no one came hurrying to let her in. She knocked louder.
“Hello. Anyone here?”
Maggie heaved a heavy sigh. Still nothing. Not good. She had a reservation after all. She glanced around, then heard a faint sound. A gravel road led from the parking lot in front of the building around back. Drawing her parka hood closer, she walked around the side of the building, the sounds growing louder.
Maggie found a larger building located further back. It looked like a plane hangar and the sounds emanating from it were mechanical.
Maggie tried the door on the side of the building, and it opened. She stepped inside to find it was a lot warmer than outside. The smell of petroleum filled the air. Gasoline and oil, she guessed. A plane stood ten feet in front of her, its engine cowling removed. A man stood beside it, his arms buried inside the engine. His loud hum was off key as he worked.
Maggie took a couple steps closer. “Excuse me. I’m looking for Jud Svenson. Is he around?”
The humming stopped, and the man tilted his head slightly to the side as he ceased working. He shook his head and started working again, resuming his loud humming.
Maggie shoved her parka hood back and stepped nearer to the man, raising her voice as she spoke. “Excuse me, sir. I’m looking for Jud Svenson.”
The man jumped and yanked his arms from the engine. “Ouch!” he yelled.
Blood dripped from a cut on the back of his greasy hand as he spun around to see who had interrupted his work.
“I’m so sorry.” Maggie’s gloved hands flew up to cover her mouth. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I called out a few seconds ago, but you didn’t hear me.”
The tall blond man’s eyebrows lifted in surprise as his blue gaze landed on Maggie. “No, no, please don’t apologize. You did startle me, but it’s alright. I had no idea someone had come in.”
He strolled over to the wall where a first aid kit was attached, and pulled it down, carrying it to the utility sink near the back of the hanger.
Maggie followed him.
“What’s your name?” The man turned on the warm water and pumped soap into his hand from a dispenser on the wall.
“I’m Maggie Lawrence. I called a couple of weeks ago to make a reservation. I tried the front door, but no one answered. I heard a noise back here and decided to come see if I could find someone.”
The man scrubbed his hands, removing the grease and washing the cut on the back of his hand. “Lawrence, huh? I don’t remember the name, but then my secretary usually handles reservations. Sue Ellen had an emergency this morning. Her daughter went into labor. Wasn’t due for another two weeks. Anyway, let me get this cleaned up, and I’ll help you out.”
“And you are?”
“Jud Svenson. I’d normally shake your hand, but that’ll have to wait, I’m afraid.” He dried his hands with paper towels he retrieved from the holder on the wall.
“Open that for me, will you?” He pointed to the first aid kit.
Maggie opened the kit and took a look at the cut on his hand. “I don’t think it’s too deep, and you certainly don’t need stitches. One of these should do it.”
She pulled out a bandage that would be sufficient and, after applying an antibiotic ointment, applied the bandage. “There you go.”
“Thanks, Flo.” He grinned at her.
Maggie wrinkled her brows at him. “Flo? I told you my name is Maggie.”
“Flo. You know. Short for Florence Nightingale.”
Maggie chuckled. “Well, it’s the least I could do after causing your injury.”
Jud waved her words away. “Nah. I’ve always got my hands inside the engines of my planes, and I’m always getting them cut up. It’s no big deal, believe me.”
Maggie returned his smile. “Very well. Now how about we check on my reservation. I’d like to get up in the air and get a look at Denali. I have some photos to take. I hope it’s a clear day down there.”
Jud snapped his fingers. “You’re in luck. I check the report every morning and it said clear skies for Denali today.”
“You’re not just saying that? It’s really going to be clear?” Maggie lifted crossed fingers on both hands and squinted at him.
“I’m not just saying that. It really was the report this morning. I can’t say that every day, you know. The majority of the time Mt. Denali is shrouded in clouds.”
“Then let’s go.” Maggie started to walk toward the front of the hanger then stopped. “Oh, but what about your plane?”
Jud stopped next to her and placed his hands on his hips, a question in his gaze. “What about it?”
“You’re working on it.”
Jud smiled and crooked a finger at her, beckoning her to follow him as he walked around the grounded plane and pointed. “Ta da.”
Maggie stepped around the first plane to see a second one, it’s engine cowling in place. Red and blue stripes decorated the white Cessna 185.
“Patriotic. Nice. She’s ready to fly?” Maggie turned to Jud.
“As soon as we do your paperwork, I’ll get her out of the hanger. I’ll do my pre-flight check and we’ll be on our way.”
Maggie had flown many times before, mostly commercial airlines. She’d flown a few “puddle jumpers” with six to twenty passengers, but this was her first flight in a four-seater. From her seat inside the plane she watched as Jud followed his checklist, ensuring that everything outside the plane worked as it should. Then he climbed inside and continued to follow his checklist.
When Jud finished, he stowed the clipboard with the list and handed her a set of headphones. “It’s going to get loud so put these on. We’ll also be able to talk to one another through the mics.”
Maggie placed the headset over her ears and Jud plugged the cable into the audio panel. Then he did the same with his own headset.
She watched in fascination as he began flipping switches and pushing buttons. A few seconds later, she felt a vibration throughout the plane as the engine roared to life. Its muted sound stayed a mere hum thanks to the headset.
Excitement stirred within Maggie. She’d been looking forward to this trip since National Scenic Wildlife Magazine called three weeks earlier. They’d hired her to do their photo shoot for an article they planned to release in six months covering the scenery around Denali National Park. This gig should put her in the big time for sure.
Maggie glanced out the window as she felt the plane begin to roll down the tarmac. Jud spoke to the air traffic control tower putting in his request for takeoff.
The tower at the Fairbanks airport responded with the need for them to wait while they set up a plan for them. Jud moved the plane to the flight area where they would wait until the tower told them to move to the runway.
He turned off the mic to the tower and turned toward Maggie, speaking only to her.
“How you doing? You okay?”
Maggie nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine, thanks.”
“Ever flown in a small plane before?”
“Nope. Not this small.”
Jud’s eyebrows rose. “Okay. Have you ever had air sickness when flying?”
“No, no. Never.” Maggie shook her head.
Concern filled Jud’s eyes. He reached under his seat and pulled out a paper bag, handing it to Maggie. “Just in case.”
Maggie eyed the paper bag. “I won’t need it.”
“Just in case. I just cleaned the inside of my cabin. I don’t want to have to do it again.” Jud’s face twisted distastefully.
Maggie snatched the paper bag from his hand. “Oh, for goodness sake.”
Jud chuckled as the tower came back directing him to take off.
He turned the Cessna 185 and throttled it up as they taxied toward the runway. Once there, Jud moved the plane into position and throttled the engine. As he pushed the throttle forward, the little plane rolled down the runway faster and faster. Jud pulled the yoke back and the plane lifted off the ground.
The slight sensation of weightlessness overcame Maggie for a few seconds as the plane lifted higher and higher. The plane skipped sideways a few times with wind gusts, causing Maggie to grab hold of her seat.
Jud spoke to the tower again then signed off.
Maggie looked out her window and watched as Fairbanks grew smaller and smaller, drifting away behind them. Soon trees and lakes with the occasional small house, smoke wafting from its chimney, became part of the snowy scenery. A winding frozen river and a road twined through the mountainous terrain. A distant railroad track serpentined through the landscape like a snail’s trail. Snow covered the landscape and the midday sunshine reflected off frozen ponds and lakes. Maggie grabbed her sunglasses from her purse.
Jud noticed her actions. “You’re coming at a good time. Our days are getting longer now, you know. Here in early March, we have about 10 hours of sunshine per day. Earlier in the winter it was far less with only a couple hours of sunshine. As we move further into spring the days will continue to grow longer until summer when the sun is up all but a couple of hours at night.”
“So I’ve heard. The land of the midnight sun, right?”
“You’ve got it.”
“Isn’t that hard to get used to?”
“What? Walking around at ten o’clock at night and it looks more like three in the afternoon?” Jud chuckled. “It’s all I’ve ever known, so I’m used to it. To a newcomer, I suppose it would take some getting used to.”
Maggie shook her head and gazed out at the scenery below them. “This is gorgeous. My first real view of Alaska. I sat on the aisle on my flight to Fairbanks and the man by the window kept his shade down so I couldn’t see our approach.”
“This is a far better view anyway. You’re closer and we’re going slower.” Jud pointed to the southwest. “Take a look at that. Denali is clear today. Not even the usual cloud ring around the summit. What do you think?”
Maggie followed his pointing finger to catch her first glimpse of Mt. Denali, once called Mt. McKinley, and gasped. “Oh, my goodness. It’s…it’s spectacular.”
She reached into her camera bag, that she’d stuffed between her feet, for her camera.
“Hey, don’t worry. We’re going in a lot closer. I’ll angle the plane so you can get some great shots, but you can snap away whenever you want.”
Maggie did just that. Jud set up the plane for some terrific shots from great angles. Then he took the plane in low and she was able to get some more great shots of the park landscapes and some of the glaciers.
They flew over a dog sled team whisking across the snowy terrain.
“Oh my goodness!” Maggie snapped more pictures. “Did you see that? It was a dog sled team.”
“Yep, they use them here in the park.” Jud pulled back on the Cessna’s yoke and lifted the plane into the sky. He turned the yoke to the right then pushed it forward, diving back toward the ground, leveling off as they approached the dog sled team once again. Jud waggled the plane’s wings slightly on approach.
The musher lifted a hand and waved.
“Do you know him?”
Jud pulled back on the stick, lifting the plane back into the sky. “I know several of the rangers in the park, but I don’t know which one that was. He’s too bundled up.”
“Dog sled teams in the park service. Who knew?” Maggie mumbled as she glanced over her shoulder trying to catch a final glimpse of the musher and his team whisking over the snow.
What an interesting story that would make for a magazine article. Would the editor of National Scenic Wildlife Magazine be interested in something like that? Maggie only did the photography. Mr. Charles Radford would have to find a reporter to come up and do the article. Could she sell that idea to the great New York editor?