The Promise Of A Lifetime

© 2004 All Rights Reserved
by B. S. Raven
Disclaimer see Chapter 1


Chapter 5

Maggie raced around the house putting on the last touches of make up and changing her clothes for the fifth time in the last hour. Preston Hooper would be here momentarily to pick her up for her first date in a really long time. With his two girls and her twin boys off on the Jr. Rangers weekend trip, they were going to dinner and take in a movie.

The restaurant that Preston had chosen for his dinner with Maggie was an exquisitely converted old church called Crusades Tower, in which the servers were dressed in knights and page tunics and spoke in English accents to complement the expensive English cuisine.

Preston seemed to be in better spir­its than he bad after seeing his daughters off earlier this morning. Maggie had grown accustom to her boys being with Fletcher in the woods and wasn’t the least concerned about them on the outing. She did understand her date’s uneasiness about his daughters, and for that dedication she felt herself gravitating toward him each time she saw him. The glimpses she caught of Preston with his parental interest tantalized her. It was so completely like him to be a concerned father. She felt kind of giddy about actually being out with him again after all these years. But tonight she was going to enjoy the company of a very handsome man, she told herself, and let the town gossips go to blazes.

“I’m impressed with the décor and the food they serve here,” Preston was saying. “Do you want a drink before we order?”

“I’m awed myself, but never having been here before, I’ll have to rely on your selection of the food, and I’ll have a glass of wine please,” she said.

“Two glasses of the house white wine,” he said to the page filling their water glasses. “We’ll order later.”

“Very well sir,” the page nodded and left.

“I’m no expert, as I’ve only been here once with the girls for my birthday, but we all had three different entrees and we sampled each others and giggled so loudly I thought they were going to ask us to leave.” He tapped the table with his fingers, and then groped in his pocket for a handkerchief. “I’m happy to be here with you tonight, Maggie. “

She reached over and patted his hand. “Relax, Preston, I’m very happy to be here, and stop looking around the room as if we’ll be spotted by the nosey Haskins sisters or some other busybodies. They’re sitting to our right and have already spotted us. I’m sure we’ll be the latest tittle-tattle in town before we even leave the restaurant.”

“You aren’t con­cerned about your image, and being seen with me?”

“We Buchannan’s are not very fickle people. We don’t run like a rabbit from a greyhound at any hint of a drop in credibility. I’ll be frank with you Preston,” she paused as the page placed the wine on the table, then narrowed her eyes and studied her drink. After a moment she peered at her from under eyebrows so perfectly arched, “I’m more concerned about your being seen with me.”

“Why?” he asked, feeling suddenly as if he had seen right through her and read her thoughts. “The children. Your Reputation!”

“Yes,” Maggie said. “‘I’m concerned that peo­ple will... misinterpret our being out, and think I’m out to get a man...to get you.”

Preston leaned forward to make his points clear. “I’d never try to convince a woman there’s anything wrong with being seen with me, or with having a man in her life. I’d simply try to make her understand that she should be her own person, find her own fulfillment, before she becomes part of a couple. I stress that a woman shouldn’t depend on anyone else for her self-worth. It starts inside her. If she finds it there, she can be successful in any arena even marriage, or being seen with me in a public restaurant having a wonderful time. It isn’t like we’re going to go get a motel room or something, we’re just having a meal in a public place.” He sipped his drink and allowed his speech to soak in. “Maggie, I don’t care what people think, or what they say. I’m very happy you are here with me so let them talk. Who gives a flying fishes…Sorry, I sometimes get a little vulgar. If we see a lot of each other, then we may want to consider your reputation, and not mine.”

Maggie laughed. It was a deep sincere laugh and cleared the air. They were going to have a wonderful dinner, some meaningful adult conversation, and renew a very old friendship. The Haskins sisters stayed well after their meal. Their phones would be busy tonight and tomorrow for sure. The couple however, only had eyes for each other as they sipped their wine and ordered.

Their focus didn’t slid around the room where tailored men and sleek dressed women sat in quiet conversation with other men or women; the atmosphere swept the tables where exquisite dishes lay, their smells wafting on the air, while Margaret and Preston renewed their long friendship, and the time long ago when they grew up together. The memories were sweet and it was almost as if the clock had wound back its hands between the two adults.

They had eaten and talked and talked for the longest, when Preston glanced down at his watch. “Golly, Maggie, the last movie started five minutes ago.”

“Well, we can do a movie another night. What say we have another pot of their wonderful coffee before we call it a night?”

“I’d like that.” He said, motioning to the page.

An hour later, his green van pulled up to the doctor’s residence. Two very content people continued with their conversation for a bit longer before Preston got out and came around to open the door for his date.

“Preston, I had a wonderful time.” Maggie held his hand as they went up steps to her house.

“So did I. After church tomorrow, would you like to have lunch with me?”

“Oh, Preston, I have waited until the boys went on the outing to cut down the dead tree in the back yard, and I’ve set aside tomorrow to get the job done while they aren’t under foot.”

The tall man grinned his most innocent smile, “I’d be happy to come over and help you. Been itching to try out my new chain saw, and you could fix us some sandwiches or something while I work on the tree.” He said hopefully.

Maggie turned the idea over thoughtfully. “That’s not what I had planned, but I like your suggestion much better than mine. You could come over about one, or we could go to church together and you could bring a change of clothes with you?”

“I’ll pick you up at quarter of eleven,” he smiled good naturedly as he leaned in and kissed her forehead, then turned and was down the steps and into his van before Maggie could respond. He did wait, however, until she waved and entered her house.

***


The troop of Jr. Rangers and Rangers sat around the campfire eating. They had spent most of the day on the trail, but had stopped often to watch the various animals and birds. They even spotted the park’s gray wolf and had tracked it for several hours. Even the rangers were excited about the many animals and birds they had spotted, and had been pleased by the several dozen radio-tagged animals that had been located on the trip. Setting up the camp with the many tents had been done is quick time and everyone had taken care of the horses, including watering and feeding before they had been placed on picket lines to one side of the camp. Three rangers had volunteered for cooking detail and the balance went off in groups of Jr. Rangers to gather wood for the night campfire. Before long, the wood pile was taller than most of the youth, and several rangers went about cutting the limbs and logs into proper size for the fire. One group went about placing stones into a ten foot circle for the night fire, as others pulled logs around the prepared area for everyone to sit on for the evening. Even though it had been a long day with them in the saddles most of the time, it had been a good day, and everyone was cooperative and happy to be there.

“Okay Jr. Rangers, I see that all of you have finished eating, so as soon as you clean up your chow gear and brush your teeth, we’ll have the campfire parley. That was an excellent meal rangers.” Fletcher nodded to three of the rangers that sat to one side of the fire. “Jr. Rangers, don’t forget to thank the cooks for the great grub.”

“Thanks,” could be heard from both Jr. Rangers and the other rangers that had stuffed themselves with the food, hot chocolate, and coffee. “You’re welcome,” the three cooks responded together.

Fletcher and Jamison chatted off to one side, deciding which Seneca story they would tell later that even and which one would do the acting out. Jamison whined so much to do the drama, that Fletcher finally agreed to let her be the interpreter and all out performer.

“All right,” Jamison jumped up into the air and extended her hand with victorious v shaped fingers to indicate she was going to do the action segment this time.

Within ten minutes both children and adults surrounded the campfire. When the group finally settled down, Sgt Tom Bridges stood up and stepped to one side of the circle. “Is there anyone that didn’t see at least fifteen different animals today?” Silence filled the area. “Ok, is there anyone that didn’t see at least ten different birds today?” Again, silence. “Good. Now, can anyone tell us, why we didn’t move or touch those baby raccoons we spotted at Rasper’s Dam?” Several dozen little hands went up.

“Stan, you first,” the rangers pointed to a nine year old.

“We’ve been trained that it’s best to leave them alone.” The young ranger beamed at knowing the answer.

“That’s correct, Stan. You’re the man.” Bridges gave the boy thumbs up.

“Why should we leave them alone?” Again, every hand went up. “You’re up, Gracie,” he bowed respectfully to the young girl who stood.

“Well, it is easy to mistake unattended baby wild animals as "abandoned". We’ve been trained to watch from a distance as we did this morning and assess the situation,” the girl stressed her point. “If you are unsure, call a wildlife officer or the ranger headquarters before removing them from the area.”

“That is absolutely correct, Gracie,” who also received a thumbs up from the veteran ranger.

“Did we see anything happen with the young raccoons when we stayed at a distance and didn’t rush in to pick the up and cuddle them?” Every hand went up again.

“Bob,” he acknowledged the youngest of the troop.

“While we were watching, the mother came back.” He smiled and sat down.

“You know your stuff, Bob.” Again, another pleased child received a thumbs up. “In many cases, the mother is nearby, feeding or hunting for her young and will return when she feels it is safe to approach her young. Even if you've mistakenly rescued babies, it is possible to reunite baby wild animals with their parent. In many cases, the mother will accept them back, even if you have touched them. So, all together, what’s the best answer?”

“BEST TO LEAVE THEM ALONE.” They said in accord.

“RIGHT!!!” He started to clap for the group and was joined by all the senior rangers and the little ones too.

Ranger Janrice Clark continued clapping as she took Tom’s place. “Great answers, and she raised her hands still clapping for the group. “What do we do if you see an injured animal or bird or know for a fact that the baby is an orphaned animal?”

“Jodi, what’s the answer?” “If you know of an injured or orphaned animal, please contact the wildlife rangers for their instructions for what to do. You need to be sure that an animal is, indeed, an orphan and not still under the care of its parent.”

“Good.” She clapped her hands for the response. “As we have told you many times before, do not plan on raising baby wild animals on your own. Young wildlife requires special diets and care beyond what the average household is prepared to manage. Besides that, what is another concern with wild animals?”

“RABIES.” They said in unison.

“Right again. You all must really listen to what the rangers are saying,” she grinned.

“Aunt Fletcher gets mad at us if we don’t listen to everything,” Calvin Nichols replied as he leaned back against a tree truck.

Devlin, his twin put in his two cents, “Actually, she gives us homework if we don’t listen.” All the group groaned, including the adults.

“Ohhh, I know what you mean guys, she gave me so much “homework” I ran in the opposite direction every time I saw her coming.” Janice said as the group snickered.

Fletcher cocked her head at the ranger, but her lip turned up in a half grin. She enjoyed the good-natured ribbing that the group had, and she loved her nephews as if they were her own. “Okay, if you want to walk half the way to Grasser Falls, you might need to stay on the subject.”

Everyone groaned again. “Okay Chief, I only have a couple of questions before we have story time.” Clark had to force herself to keep from moaning at the teasing threat from the park director.

“Today we saw the big gray wolf. You all know he is part of our endangered species program, and was actually released here five years ago after being brought to the park as a cub from Montana. We don’t release wild animals until after they have been through extensive medical checkups and in compliance with our state wildlife laws. My question is: Why do we go to all that trouble if we are going to place them someplace in the park?”

“Joanie, you want to start us off?”

Preston’s youngest daughter stood up and tugged at her braid. “Often people want to catch the problem animals and release them someplace else, but moving animals from one area to another may spread diseases to new areas.” She said and sat down.

“You’re absolutely right, Joanie. Our state law prohibits moving any live wild animal from one area to another with out specific procedures and strict guidelines in doing this capture and release. This law has been in effect for many years, protecting both people and wildlife. Even though some wild animals sometimes damage homes, gardens and lawns, to protect people and wildlife, do not relocated problem wildlife…Let the Park Service do that.” She zipped her uniform jacket up a little higher to ward off the chill of the evening air. “Are there some other reasons for not relocating wild animals?” Clark looked over at Jane, Joanie’s older sibling.

Janie stood up and placed both hands in her pants pockets. “Capturing a wild animal and releasing it somewhere else may spread disease into populations of animals, including pets, that did not have the disease previously. Diseases such as rabies and canine distemper have been spread by people who captured an animal in one area and released it somewhere else. That’s the reason we don’t want people to mess with the wildlife. I don’t want my dogs to get sick, or Grannie’s cats or even the horses in the park.” The young girl shrugged her shoulders, removed her hands from her pockets and sat down.

“Great answer Janie. We need to let trained personnel capture and release wildlife. Now, I think our Park Director and our trusted Chief Scout, have a story for us.”

Fletcher and Jamison stood up and moved to the open area next to the circle. “You Jr. Rangers are really a big help with the wildlife and keeping track of various species. I want to thank you for being so dedicated to the tasks and for responding to the questions tonight.” Fletcher removed her hat and tossed it behind her. “Story time tonight will be a short one, as we have to be up early and we put in a couple of rough hours tracking the wolf today.”

“Oh come on Aunt Fletcher, we want a really long one.” Devlin pleaded.

“Nope, we need to make it short. Jamison will be doing the interpretation tonight.” She moved to the side to give the young ranger a larger area to act out the story.

“Tonight’s story is called, “Ne' ne Kuwánës.” Fletcher explained.

“That’s Seneca for “The Big Ones.” Jamison tossed her hat next to Fletcher’s.

“Ne' huteskwatka'tö ne ha'ni. Ne' wai nê tyawë'ö huikê ne utíwatyanöhtö's waakaútë' kës. "Ne' nâ nêkê te'kakææ'," thusnye'ö. "Uhiyu'ke nö'ôwë huikê n-aksút huhseatye' íwí ne këötanëhkwi ëkí kaehtakahathwas ki'shë.” Fletcher spoke in a strong, steady voice.

Jamison pounded her chest gently with both fists. “My father was a joker. He was always telling funny stories. "Now this is a fact," he would say. "It happened in Ohio.”

Fletcher spoke in a normal tone. Her native language flowed easily.

“My grandfather was riding along either on a horse or on a mule. I am not sure about that point. It was a mule, I believe. You know I always speak the truth because I am a good, honest person like the white people taught me to be. I am sorry I did not see it myself.” Jamison scratched her head as if in puzzlement.

The park director placed her hands in her jacket pocket as she spoke the next portion and waited for her Chief Scout to interpret.

"He was riding along the river. Suddenly he saw something in the sky” The young ranger jumped back and threw up her hands. Looking through out-stretched hands, Jamison voice rose, as if amazed. “ It looked like two birds. He watched them flying in the sky for a long time. What big birds they were.” Her hands went out to her sides and she waved them up and down as if she were flapping wings.

“Ne' ne këöya'ke unötkahatöö hetkë tëknitëôk. Tsúnyöta nô huikê.” The Mingo rolled from Fletcher’s mouth.

“They kept flying around in circles up there in the sky. Maybe they were eagles.” She placed her hand over her eyes, attempting to see the flying creatures better.

Fletcher let her tone build, then waited for Jamison to continue.

Jamison crouched down, her hands held up defensively. "Suddenly the two of them dropped down towards the earth and picked up a calf and carried it off down to the bank of the river. My grandfather was bowled over with surprise” Hands went to the sides of her face astonished. “They were not birds at all, but mosquitoes.” The interpreter shook her head in disbelief.

Out of the corner of her as she finished the story, Fletcher caught a sneaky grin on Jamison face. Hmm, now the spit part, her mouth turned up slightly.

“One of the mosquitoes spoke to the other mosquito as they carried away the calf.” Jamison looked down at the circle. "'Let's go over to the other side of the river first and eat it there, I am so hungry I could spit,” the young ranger spit on the ground and Fletcher jumped aside. The group laughed. “"'No,' says the other one. 'The big ones might take it away from us.'" The interpreter scanned the darkness above the campfire for the big ones and then sat down.

“Wow! If the mosquitoes weren’t the big ones, then that must have been some big prehistoric creatures you were talking about?” Calvin attempting to get up, slide off the log and hit the ground.

“Well…back in prehistoric times, everything was either really large, or unusual.” Fletcher walked back to the edge of the circle. “Seneca Indian Lore is rich and varied. The stories serve as great historical documents on the tribe's belief systems. Everyone here is part Seneca except for two. Stan, the Man’s African ancestors are just as rich, if not richer in lore and customs as ours. Then Clark there is from Oklahoma originally and you’re part Cherokee, right Janrice?” “

Yes, Ma’am. Only quarter Cherokee, but I’ve tried to learn as much about the Cherokee’s that I can. I even went to North Carolina to attend “The Trail Of Tears” pageantry a couple of years ago. But, you know, I’m married to a Seneca and I’m being adopted into the Running Wolf Clan shortly. Attending some Seneca classes to learn more about the tribal customs and beliefs has really helped me out in embracing the beliefs.”

“We’re proud of you Janrice, and hope that the stories help.” Jamison said.

“They sure do. We’re all different is some ways, guys, but that can be good if we respect each other.”

“Aunt Fletcher why not tell her about “Godasiyo the Woman Chief”.

“I’ve a better idea Devlin, why don’t you tell her the story?”

“I’d like that very much, Devlin. Come stand here so we all can hear you.” Clark squatted down next to the nearest log.

Neither of Maggie’s boys were bashful, but Devlin had to be poked by his brother before he moved off the log to the clearing.

“Well, the story goes way back and tells how ‘Godasiyo, a woman Chief, tried to bring two warring tribes under her leadership for the purpose of peace by migrating westward to form a new unified village, only to fail during the canoe journey as they came upon a fork in the river, causing an argument between the young men who were paddling the two canoes which carried her float. As they each tried to paddle in different directions, her float was detached from their canoes and sank to the bottom of the river. As Godasiyo drowned, the people of the two divided parties shouted at each other, but alas, they couldn't understand each other, their language having suddenly changed. This myth explains why all the different North American Indian tribes speak different languages.’ Like you said Ranger Clark, we are all different, but it didn’t start out that way.” The young Jr. Ranger shrugged his shoulders and walked back to the log and sat down next to his brother.

“Interesting story,” Clark said, “Makes you really think doesn’t it?” She stood up.

Fletcher clapped her hands together, “Well, it’s a good evening, but it’s getting late and we all need to turn in. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day.”

***


Would have been some questions, and I might have been seen. But there was always two or three Indians round and about and I couldn’t get to the hut without being seen, so I just didn’t have the chance then.” He turned the key and reached for the handlebars, then dropped his hand to his leg.

“Maybe a few drops of nitro into a pan under her hot-water heater and bang….no more house and no more Bucannan. She’s isolated out there and nitro would be hard to trace. They’d think it was just a faulty hot-water heater.” This time he started the all terrain-vehicle and quickly moved up the ravine. “Only problem, I need to know when she’s going to be home instead of staying over at the park headquarters.” He took out another cigar, bit off the end and stuffed it into his mouth. “Gotta have a little help with that one…maybe the boss knows someone at the park that wants to see her gone as much as we do.”

He had followed Fletcher off and on for almost two weeks. There just hadn’t been the right opportunity to take her out. But he kept several sticks of dynamite, carefully wrapped under the seat of his truck. He was going to succeed and if someone else happened to be around, that would be his or her misfortune, but he didn’t want any witnesses. “I’ll just bide my time…”

***


They had signed the papers at the realtors, and her attorney had recorded the deed earlier in the day. Jacqueline finally had the prime timberland she had been trying to get for a very long time. If they old woman’s attractive daughter hadn’t arrived back in town to do the family’s negotiating on the property, and if Jacqueline’s seductive persuasion’s and charm hadn’t been used on the woman’s daughter, she doubted she’ be feeling so good about the deal. She had taken the covetous blond out on the town to celebrate, then back to the hotel suite where her quarry had been staying for almost two weeks now. This was a sweet victory for Jacqueline, but little did she know that her willing bedmate was very adept at playing a better game of seduction than she was, and that tonight she’d learn she had been the prey all along.

“Of course I have. I admitted that we’d had delays. Expensive delays. Those damn bird nests have caused some serious down time. Production stopped completely. But now that we’ve moved the operation to the opposite section, I have high hopes that we can recoup most of the losses by the end of the month, with a little cooperation from Mother Nature. We won’t start cutting this latest addition from you until sometime in...” She broke off as a sudden thought stuck her. “Wait a minute! I thought you didn’t have any interest in logging. You have a nerve accusing me of putting work first. You’re the one who’s here under false pretenses.”

“Nothing of the sort, Jacqueline,” but the nude beauty stirred uneasily as if trying to find a more comfort­able position on the mattress. “I can’t help it if you started leaping to all the wrong conclu­sions.”

“You didn’t deny them. If I’d had any sense, I’d have never tumbled to your bed before checking you out.” Her gaze became speculative. “Exactly what do you do for a living?” She pulled the sheet over her damp body, and reached for her glass of champagne.”

“I’m an entrepreneur.” The words came out almost unwillingly.

“That covers a multitude of sins.”

“I don’t deny it. Let’s just say that I look after the family interests all over the world among other things.”

“You mean that your mother has other properties like the one I just purchased from your family?”

“And my grandmother,” she acknowledged. “I’ve been out of the country for a while. That’s why I haven’t kept in touch on the logging here. I can tell you this, though--another year like this last one and the Canadian and Vermont timber parcels will be monumental white ele­phants. Nobody but a fool would keep pouring capital in,” she added severely.

Seeing the stubborn line of her jaw, Jacqueline wondered how she could ever have cast the blonde in the role of an indulged dilettante. The lack of emotion in her voice showed. That any decisions she made for her family would be based solely on sound business principles reinforced with a profit and loss state­ment, and not the long hours of erotic sex they had engaged in for almost two weeks now. It was obvious to Jackie that selling the cutting rights to the northern New York property had been Julia’s only priority. Boudreaux didn’t like the idea that she might have been beaten at her own game by the sensual beauty. Obviously, Julia wasn’t the dumb blonde she had originally thought.

The hard-hearted purchase of the property she’d been attempting to get her hands on for so long, cut into the redhead like an edge of cold steel. Not many men got the best of Jacqueline Boudreaux, and certainly no woman, that is…until now.

Julia’s expression relaxed as she noticed the naked woman’s distress. “I’m sorry if this sounds too cut and dried lover, but that’s why my grandmother left the final disposal of the property up to me. She knew I’d make sure our interests would be protected before anything else. Probably she sus­pected that you’d invest heavily in this tract as it borders yours. And because you have tried for years to beat the price down so low, that my charm and face it, your lust for my body would sway you into the right price.”

Jacqueline threw back the sheet and jumped out of bed. “I don’t lust for your body, Julia. I came to a decision to purchase the property at a fair price because of some sentimental memories my father has of your mother,” she lied, “nothing more.”

“I have no intention of allowing you out of the deal, so you can drop the injured air.” Julia smirked and placed her hands behind her head. “You’re actually very good in bed, Jacqueline. I don’t know when I have enjoyed myself as much as I have with you. So, why don’t you come back to bed and…”

“Frankly, I didn’t even want to get mixed up in this. If I had my way, the property would still be sitting there, and you could do what you want with your section, but my father asked me to take it off your mother’s hands.” She finished the champagne and slammed the glass down. “As for enjoying the sex, well lady, I’ve had better. Much better…” her cell phone rang, cutting her sentence short. “Hello,” she barked into the instrument.

“Sorry boss, did I misunderstand about calling you?” Conner stammered on the other end.

The redhead walked into the bathroom and closed the door before she answered. “You heard correctly. Do you have something to report?”

“Afraid not. That damned woman has more lives than a cat. But I have something planned that should come down in the next couple of days. I’ll call you when it’s finished,” she said.

“Make sure it’s finished this time,” she growled and clicked the phone shut. “Another damn disappointment,” she muttered to her reflection in the mirror and tossed the phone on the marble vanity top.

I’ve got to get that timber cut on the other ridge, or I’ll have to move all the equipment again and that not only means money, but Fletcher Bucannan will have been the cause of another delay. First Fletcher, now Julia,” she got into the shower and turned on the spray at full force. No one gets the better of me and you just bought yourself an enemy, my pretty little playmate. You may have thought you pulled a fast one over on me, but she who laughs last, Julia. She who laughs last. A smirk covered her face. She’d have eleven nights of hot, steamy, uncomplicated sex and the property she had been trying to buy for years was now hers. Even if she paid a fair market price, it was still worth every dime it to have the virgin timber tract and fit into her five-year growth and cutting plan just fine.

She finished her shower, dressed and left without saying another word to the young woman still propped up against the headboard drinking champagne.

***


Maggie’s fingers closed slowly on the grilled cheese, squashing it slowly into mush. After a moment, Maggie tried to laugh. “Hey, cheer up, Preston. Maybe we’re not going to called out in front of the entire congregation…. maybe we’ll just be asked not to come back.” She held the plate up in front of the pharmacist. “Do you want the last sandwich? I made enough soup to feed an adult and two growing boys…old habit, if you’d care for another bowl.”

Preston picked it up off the plate carefully. “Thanks, I’d love another bowl.” He took a bite and added distinctly, “Did you catch the Haskins sisters trying to convince your mother we shipped off our kids so we could behave like teenagers all weekend? I could have kissed her right on the church walk when she told them, ‘I say its time to close the chapter on the past and start a new one on the future that could be endless. They are mature adults and deserve a loving future.’ She responded to their whispers as if she was addressing the town meeting.”

“First time I’ve ever seen two women disappear so quickly,” she chuckled.

“Why is it that a careless comment from a friend could cut so much more deeply than the most calculated insult from an enemy? What on earth had led them to speculate from that simple and open dinner that we were involved?”

“Pure devilment,” Maggie told him. “Human nature, I guess. People are always speculating about someone’s love life, with or without evidence. And in this case, I really don’t care. I had a wonderful time last night, Preston. I’m glad you asked me.”

“That makes two of us. I don’t know when I have enjoyed myself so much. I should have asked you out two years ago.”

“Yes, Preston, you should have.” Maggie sat his bowl down in front of him and returned to her own chair.

She was feeling a little guilty, she admitted, because she’d found Preston terrifyingly attractive. She wondered if Preston might find anything attractive about her? From her feelings and the looks she had been receiving now, she knew he did.... Well, she wasn’t quite sure she was ready to think about how difficult it was going to be to ignore those feelings, and how her blood turned to steam whenever he was around. She’d feel better for a little physical activity, she de­cided, especially if she could destroy something. So she stood up and removed her bowl from the table and placed it in the sink.

“Uh…I’m going out and tackle the walnut tree limbs that the storm had brought down. Don’t hurry, finish your soup and join me when you’re through.”

“Be there in a minute. I’ll change clothes, get the saw from the back of the van, and join you out back.”

Maggie opened the large storage shed and propped the doors open. It took a while to find the saw, and more time to check it over and fill the fuel tank.

Just as she reached the tree, Preston sauntered across the yard toward her. “I suppose you’re going to do a little sculpting,” he said cheerfully. “What an amazingly talented woman you are!”

He was wearing faded jeans with a wide scuffed belt and boots that looked as worn as her own. His old padded flannel shirt over a red plaid one added to his laid-back attire. Somehow, now that he’d shed the sophisticated veneer of the businessman, he was even more dis­turbing. And puzzling, Maggie admitted. If he’d turned up wearing crisp jeans and shining boots, she wouldn’t have been surprised. But the idea of Preston being so comfortable in casual garb that he’d practically worn his jeans and boots to a thread warmed her somehow. She was so comfortable around him.

He caught her studying his clothes and confessed, “I dress like this when I’m not at work or on town business, Maggie. I hope my casualness isn’t offensive?

“Why would it be? You look comfortable.” She said and pulled the starting rope on the chain-saw. The engine growled but didn’t catch.

“Give me that,” Preston said, and reached for the saw. “You should be careful of your hands. You’ll hurt yourself.”

Maggie held on to it stubbornly. ‘I won’t. I’m perfectly capable. It’s only a little chain-saw, and I’m just going to take off the small branches.’

“So tell me what you want done and I’ll do it.”

She stood her ground. “No. I don’t have enough in­surance to take a chance on you sawing off your foot or something”

“You want me to sign a waiver? Come on, give it here, and you can pick up the smaller, scattered branches.”

Maggie shook her head and turned toward the tree, pulling the rope again. The saw still didn’t catch. But the growl it made kept her from hearing Preston coming up behind her. His right arm dosed around her waist, lifting her off her feet and holding her tight against his chest. Maggie shrieked and kicked, to no avail.

Preston only laughed and pried the saw out of her hand. Then he let her slide down till her toes barely touched the ground; his arm still held her prisoner, trapped firmly with her back pressed against him.

“Of course if you’d like to keep on fighting,’ he said, ‘I’ll put the saw somewhere safe so we can both enjoy ourselves.”

The intimate throatiness of his voice tickled her ear. Maggie shook her head. “If you’re going to be dictatorial...”

He let her go, though his hand lingered at her waist for a little longer than was necessary to steady her. Maggie stepped away from him just as soon as she could, hoping that he couldn’t tell how her knees were trembling. Maybe it was a good thing she wasn’t going to be handling that saw, after all.

Preston was all business, however, as be studied the tall woman. “Shall I cut it into fireplace lengths?” he asked. “You might as well get some good of it.’ She nodded. “That would be really helpful. Walnut makes a nice fragrant, hot fire.’

Preston’s smile was like a flash of sunlight on a drab day. “You can stack the logs.”

“Gee, thanks.”

The saw started on his first pull, and a couple of minutes later a large branch dropped with a crash. Preston cut it neatly into two-foot chunks and stood back, the chain-saw purring, to watch while Maggie stacked the pieces neatly under the overhang at the corner of the shed. His gaze made her feel warm, far more than the exertion did, and she finally protested. “It’s not gentlemanly of you to watch while I work.”

“I’m just making sure you’re out of range before I cut another branch,” the pharmacist assured her.

Personally, Maggie was convinced his attention had far more to do with the fit of her jeans than a concern for her safety, but that thought felt somewhat pleasant. After all, she may have two boys, but she was still a woman and enjoyed being admired.

She stacked the last logs and sat down atop the pile to wait for more. He had removed the padded flannel shirt. The remaining shirt was clinging to his body from perspiration. She couldn’t help but see the way his muscles rippled as he maneuvered the saw. Small though it was, it took considerable strength to handle it smoothly, and it was almost a relief to go back to stacking the finished logs so she wasn’t tempted to admire the way Preston’s body moved. She was already feeling warmth low in her body, and she didn’t need the temptation…well, not yet anyways.

They quickly fell into a rhythm, accompanied by the rise and fall of the chain-saw’s throaty purr. The tree shrank, the log pile grew, and the sun crept toward the west.

Andrea was almost beside them before Maggie heard her “Haven’t you two heard of tree services?” She scolded in the sudden silence when Preston turned off the chain-saw. She held out a tray with two cups of hot apple cider and smiled at him. “But thank you for helping out. Maggie takes on far too much around here.’

“My pleasure. I needed some exercise.” The tall man set a log upright and dusted off the end to farm a makeshift chair. ‘It’s the best seat in the house, I’m afraid, if we’d known you were coming, we’d have arranged for a cushion. He folded and placed his padded flannel shirt over the upright log. “Or I can get one of the chairs from the back porch for you?”

Andrea laughed and perched on the log.

Preston took a mug and dropped to the dried grass at her feet. “It’s peaceful out here,” he said. “If it weren’t for the house, one could pretend to be a pioneer, chopping wood for the cook stove.”

Maggie shook her head. “Sorry to burst your bubble city boy, but cook stoves were a modern innovation. The real pioneers used fireplaces.”

He grinned lazily. “I’m more of a pioneer than I thought.”

“If you like, I’ll find you an axe and you can split all this,” Maggie said sweetly.

Andrea ignored the banter. “That sense of privacy is the reason my grandfather chose this particular tract of land,” she said. “It was way out past the city limits then, and be sited the house so no matter where other people built he’d never see evidence of their presence. In fact, you can ramble all over the place and not see another house, except in winter when the leaves are gone.” Although Andrea’s home was only a quarter of a mile away, you couldn’t see it from Maggie’s property.

Preston asked, “Will you show me your favorite walk, Andrea?”

She smiled at him. “Oh, I just go down to the lake. That’s not even a hike… no challenge at all. Maggie’s a much better guide, because she knows every inch of this place. In fact when she was a child I used to pack her and Fletcher a lunch every morning in the summertime because no one knew where they’d be come noon.”

“Then I’ll ask Maggie to be my guide.” He cut his eyes towards the seated woman.

The doctor jumped up and wiped her hand, damp from a small spill of the hot apple cider, on the seat other jeans. “Sorry. I haven’t time for that sort of thing any more. I think we’ve done about all we can, don’t you?” She wasn’t sure she could trust herself to be alone with him, even though she really wanted to be alone with him. Yet, she was a little frightened about the possibility of a relationship with the gentle and kind man.

Preston looked at the remainder of the tree. “Quit before we’re finished? My dear Maggie, I’m ashamed of you.” He set his empty mug back on Andrea’s tray and picked up the chain-saw again.

Andrea held the tray on her lap. Hmm. They do compliment each other. She stood up with the biggest smile. “I’ve got to go, I have some baking to do for the bazaar before I return to the park. You two are doing a really good job here. See you later.” Maggie leaned over and kissed her mother on the cheek as she went past.

“Thanks for the hot apple cider, Mom. See you when I pick up the boys.”

“Thanks, Andrea. You’ll be at the park when the Jr. Rangers return?”

“Yes, I’m on duty this afternoon. See you there.” The veterinarian was still smiling as she entered the back door of her daughter’s house.

In another half-hour all that remained was a stump scarring the earth, a huge scented pile of logs, and a neat heap of small dried branches waiting to be burned. Plus a whole lot of aching muscles, Maggie realized, though she wasn’t going to admit that to Preston, who was moving as easily as even as he helped stack the final few logs.

He set the last one in place and stood for a moment with his hands on his hips, staring down across the twi­light-shadowed hillside to the little lake. Say something, she ordered herself. You owe him a great deal…You couldn’t have done half the work alone.

“Thanks, Preston,” she said finally. “Look, if you really do want to explore Gramp’s Lake...”

“Yes?” His eyes were brilliant.

She looked away abruptly. The way his gaze seemed to cut straight through her was just short of indecent.

“I’ll draw you a map or something.” The offer was a far cry from what she’d intended to say, but it was a whole lot safer.

“I’d rather have a personal guide.”

“I told you Preston, I’m really busy.”

“I know. I wonder what you’ll find as an excuse next time, since you don’t have the tree to fuss with any more?” He stooped to pick up the chain-saw. “Where does this go?”

“In the shed. I’ll show you.’ She led the way past the bait box Fletcher had made with the boys, to the tool-room, and pointed to an empty spot on the highest shelf. She couldn’t move aside quite fast enough; when he reached to push the saw into place, he blocked her into place in the narrow room.

He hadn’t done it on purpose, she thought, but the effect was the same as if he had. She was so close to him that the sharp scent of fresh sawdust clinging to his shirt tickled her nose. Mingled with the warmth of his body and the freshness of brisk evening air, it produced an aroma more stunningly erotic than any cologne could be.

A deep breath would make her brush against him, so Maggie tried to stop breathing in order to avoid touching off an explosion. But he must have misunderstood and thought her breathlessness indicated anticipation, for once again that strange brilliance sprang to life in his eyes.

His hands came to rest on her shoulders, turning her toward him. “Do you have time for this sort of thing?” he whispered. Ever so gently, he pulled her into his arms.

Maggie shook her bead. She couldn’t have spoken for the world, and she wasn’t surprised when he ignored such a half-hearted protest. Maggie braced herself against the plundering, de­manding embrace she expected. But Preston startled her; he held her as though she were a fragile bit of blown glass and he kissed her almost pleadingly, his mouth moving with exquisite softness against hers.

Her muscles started to melt and her resistance faded. Disarmed by his gentleness, helpless to stop herself, she kissed him back. Preston’s arms tightened, and he grew more insistent, nibbling at her lips, tracing her teeth with the tip of his tongue.

Maggie had no idea how much time had passed when he finally raised his head. She only knew she was weak and wobbly, and she needed to lean against the work­bench to steady herself.

She saw that the brilliance in his eyes was not dim­inished in the least, but it had changed somehow. Desire had been softened just a bit by satisfaction. Knowing she bad reacted precisely as he’d expected annoyed her somewhat. “Well, you got your kiss,” she said. Her voice shook a little. “Are you contented now?” She didn’t expect an answer; it was a throwaway question.

But Preston raised his hand to her face and traced the line of her mouth with the tip of his little finger, and said, very seriously, “Oh, no. I can’t imagine I’ll be sat­isfied till I’ve…until we….”

“Slow down Preston, please.”

“Okay, but this isn’t going to stop and you know it Margaret.”

“We have the children to think about, so we need to go slow.”

“Fine. How about all of us go for a horseback ride next weekend, and spend more time together?”

“That sounds like…I think that would please the kids. I’m sure Fletcher would let us ride some of hers, and we’d have miles of trails out there.”

“I’ll ask her when I pick up the girls tonight.” His smile was captivating; the sound of his voice charming, and the stillness and contentment between them spoke volumes.

***


Earlier that day, Mark Brody, Jacqueline Boudreaux’s logging foreman lowered his scope rifle and spit out juice from the cigar he had chewed from habit. “It’d be so damn easy to take her out with one shot.” He raised the rifle and followed Fletcher as she rode in front of the caravan of campers. “I don’t know why the boss wants it to look like an unfortunate mishap. Guess there would be a stink if I popped her with all those young’uns around.” He again lowered the rifle, and then headed up the ravine to where he had left his four-wheeler.

Reaching the concealed vehicle, he carefully placed the rifle in the scarab and strapped it onto the carrying rack on the back of the four-wheeler. Throwing his leg over the seat and sitting down, he sat momentarily thinking how he was going to carry out his employers wish without getting caught. “I should have dropped a couple sticks of dynamite into that damn sweat lodge. Now, I’ll have to pick my time.”

***


>Chapter 6


The last of the Jr. Rangers were safely returned to their parents as Maggie’s vehicle drove away with the two hands of her nephews waving from the back seat until they faded from view. Fletcher breathed a sigh of relief and turned to the steps. “I’m going to sit down and have several cups of Mother’s coffee before I go home and spend twenty minutes under a steaming hot shower.” The park director removed her hat and ran her long fingers through her hair as she took the steps two at a time. Entering the kitchen area, she saw Finley and her mother at the table peeling apples.

“Hi, Honey. Help yourself to the coffee, just made a fresh pot. Finley and I are peeling apples for cobbler for supper.” Andrea continued to peal the apple in her hand. “Your new cook will be here tomorrow after lunch, won’t he?”

“Thanks Mom, I looked forward to your coffee for two days. Jamison makes it so strong the hairs on the back of your neck stand up straight.” She reached into the cupboard and removed a mug before she looked around the stove and counter for a potholder to wrap around the handle of the coffee pot. “Yes, Ma’am, he’s suppose to be here about two. I’ve warned everyone not to run this one off, but….”

“This what your looking for? Catch.” Finley waited only a second for the tall woman to turn before she tossed the mitten to her.

“Thanks,” she said, catching it with one hand.

“Come sit down and tell me all about the campout, dear.” Her mother continued to peel and dice another apple.

“Not much different from the last two outings, but we did spot the big gray wolf and his mate up near the double falls. Jamison led the tracking for a couple hours on foot, which the troop enjoyed. We spotted them twice so they must be searching for a new den up there.” She blew into the mug to cool the coffee before she took a sip. “Darn, that’s really hot, but oh, sooo good.”

“The wolves look healthy and still have on their tracking collars?” Her mother asked.

“Yes, Mom. They seemed to have hunted well this fall. Both were really filled out and slipped from view without much effort. We took a monitor with us to make sure any animal we came across that had a tracking collar that was working properly. All those that we came upon seem to be doing fine.”

“I’d hate for them to leave the protected area of the park again to have another litter.” Andrea said.

“You and me both. Going down to the Catskills to trap that timber wolf is becoming a habit. That last trip almost cost the wolf his life.”

“I wasn’t aware of this area being inhabited by timber wolves, but Dr. Bucannan explained about the endangered species program you have here and the sizeable contribution by the Stern family to help the project along. I can’t think of a better cause.” Finley placed a peeled apple into the large bowl and picked up another apple.

Fletcher looked over at the dark haired woman, struggling not to spout off some sarcastic or condescending remark towards her. “We’re very proud of the program, and have had tremendous success.”

“Yes, I met your latest saved addition. I help feed the hawk yesterday and again this morning.” Finley attempted a smile, but upon catching the strained look on Fletchers face, the smile disappeared and the smaller woman went back to peeling the apple. So much for trying to break the ice and ease the tension between us. Well, if that’s the way you want it to be Fletcher Bucannan, that’s the way it will be! She gritted her teeth.

Fletcher realized that the situation could get very awkward if she asked any of the questions that com­ment opened up, so she addressed an issue she knew she was going to have to deal with sooner or later. “I feel very badly over our first encounter, Dr. Jorgensen. I, of all people, know Dr. Eckerely would only send a very qualified paleontologist up here. I should have realized that before taking the attitude about your presence here….well, sometimes I simply bulldoze through some things that catch me unprepared, regardless of how others might feel about it.” Grimacing sheepishly, she gave Finley a waned smile. “I can be very…tenacious. . . very formidable, when anyone or anything gets in my way of thinking or upsets my game play. I hadn’t planned for a female’s safety, and you just caught me off guard.”

Finley studied her for a. second, then leaned for­ward and rested her arms on the table as she absently picked at an imperfection on her half-filled mug. A crooked grin appeared, and there was a touch of wry humor in her voice. “I think you’re really mean, ornery and bullheaded-it’s a Bucannan trait, your Mother says. I’m afraid. Dr. Eckersley and I don’t often lock horns, but we sure in hell would have over this.” She hesitated, then met Fletcher’s gaze di­rectly, and she experienced another weird sensation in the pit of her stomach.

The park director’s voice had a peculiar huskiness to it. “I didn’t want you here be­cause I figured you’d expect the dig to be some sort of glitzy setup, and quite frankly, I didn’t think you could handle the job, or even maintain your own safety in the isolated area.”

Suppressing a smile, Finley said quietly, “So you thought I’d be an albatross around your neck. Is that why you bit my head off when you un-mounted and threw out the accusations and insinuations and didn’t wait for an explanation or proper response?”

Fletcher gave her a twisted grin, looked down as she continued to toy with hers cup. “Yeah, something like that.”

Finley leaned forward and folded her arms on the table, her expression suddenly earnest. “I came out here expecting to work, Ms. Bucannan, not to have an ex­tended vacation. Know I’m here as an experienced paleontologist and noth­ing more. I assure you, I am very qualified and I’ll do a superb job. However, I can’t stand sitting around with nothing to do for two days, and I honestly didn’t mind helping out your Mother or taking over some of the feeding work that her assistant needed handled. But I don’t want to face a battle with you every time I do something other than look pretty, wear nice clothes, peel potatoes or apples.”

The Park Director raised her head and stared at her, a flicker of amusement lighting her brown eyes. “Why do I have this feeling if I give you an inch, you’ll take a mile?”

She met Fletcher’s gaze with a hint of defiance. “I won’t.”

The sparkle intensified. “You will, Dr. Jorgensen.”

‘‘I won’t, Ms. Bucannan.”

Fletcher gave a derisive snort as she shot her a disbeliev­ing look, and then holding back a smile, she reached for an apple. “Don’t try that innocent look on me. You know damned well the minute my back’s turned, you’ll be up to your neck in getting your way, not only at the dig, but with some project or an­other, and my staff won’t know what hit them.”

“I won’t do anything without checking with you first.”

“Do you really expect me to believe that?”

Finley stared at the tall woman. Fletcher had a slightly tenacious set to her chin, and raised her eyebrows in a knowing see-what-I-mean expression. Realizing that Fletcher had her cornered, and that she’d get nowhere trying to argue her way out of it, she yielded with a grin and tipped her head in unwilling agreement. “Okay, so maybe I do get a little carried away, and I do want a few comforts with the dig set-up, and I want it set-up my way, but you don’t have to be so sensitive about it, and you are just as hard-headed.”

Fletcher bit into her apple, and reached for the coffee mug, her own jaw taking on a stubborn set. “Probably even more hard-headed, but you’re here to examine the dig as I direct, not to launch a wide scale excavation program or-” she paused for emphasis “to prove a point about your qualifications or your comfort.”

The young paleontologist didn’t say anything as she tried to assess her best line of attack. An idea popped into her head and she finally spoke, a devious gleam in her eye.

“How about if we make a pact. You take me to the site, we’ll hike up as you see fit, and I’ll check out the area, and give you my opinion as to what equipment, and so forth will be the most beneficial for the project. If you don’t see things my way, we can then discuss it civilly and without all the nasty declarations. This will include the security and safety of the site and me personally. ”

Fletcher looked at Finley, her eyes narrowing. “I think you’ve been around museum politicians way too long.”

“Do we have a deal?”

The tall woman’s mouth twitched. “We’ll see.”

Deciding she’d better quit while she was ahead, the smaller woman placed a piece of apple in her mouth and started chewing. They fell into a comfortable silence and Finley felt strangely content, as though she had just discov­ered something that filled her with a vitalizing energy. And she knew, with wry humor, that this feeling of well-being wasn’t from the apple she was eating. She had charmed the director, and she was confident she’d have her way on the site. There is more than one-way to skin a cat, tall one. Finley chewed the apple slowly then swallowed, pleased with her negotiating ability.

The Park Director interrupted her musings. “Will you be up to a site visit early tomorrow morning?”

“If by early tomorrow morning you mean before daylight, no! But if you’re talking about sunrise, then I’ll be ready.”

The taller woman upped her head back and laughed. Finley experienced a sudden fizzling sensation that made her catch her breath. It was the first time she’d heard her really laugh, and the transformation in her was amazing. There was lighthearted buoyancy that stripped the hardness off her, and Finley was somewhat mesmerized. So, she thought dazedly, beneath the sober de­meanor, beneath the solemn weight of responsibility, there was another Fletcher Bucannan, one who was even more appealing…Well, in an offbeat kind of way. And the fizzle turned into an intoxi­cating rush, but….she’d be damned if she ever allowed some hard-headed, self imposing, dictatorial wildlife officer who wanted to control how she ran a excavation site.

Finley drew in a deep breath, and trying to ignore the excitement shooting through her, she struggled to keep her voice steady. “It isn’t that funny. Fletcher,” she said, her tone chastising as she bit back a smile. Damn, I certainly don’t feel like fighting with her and this feels so…so comfortable.

Leaning back in her chair, Fletcher shook hers head and expelled the last of hers laughter on a deep sigh, hers eyes still dancing as she grinned at her. “When you put it that way, maybe you will work out. ”

Sensing she had an advantage, she pressed Fletcher. “Then it’s a deal?” Come on Bucannan, give in! Give in.

With hers elbow resting on the table, Fletcher raised hers cup, intently watching the dark-headed woman over the rim. I’m sensing she is more than just skin-deep beauty, and so different…so familiar. Almost like I’ve known her forever… almost like the vision of the woman in my office…so familiar, and yet…so darn incorrigible. Finally she spoke. “Okay, it’s a deal. But, you need to wear appropriate clothes. If you don’t have hiking boots, you can pick up a pair down at Scotty’s. All the rangers and firefighters get theirs from him. He stays open until seven tonight. Hate to have you out hiking in a pair of new unbroken in boots, but the terrain out there requires it, ” she added emphati­cally, a tone of warning in her voice,

Finley opened her mouth to argue with her about another of her assumptions, but then thought better of it and decided to quit while she was ahead. In the morning she’d get an apology from the headstrong park director when she showed up for the hike. I can hardly wait to see the smirk expression drop from her face, she thought. “I’ll be ah…I’ll be dressed.”

Fletcher leaned back with hers arms folded across hers chest, her chair balanced on its back legs as she watched the smaller woman through narrowed eyes.

Finley experienced an odd flustered feeling when Fletcher gave her a knowing half smile, as if she knew exactly what had been going on in her head. Fletcher studied her a moment longer, then let the chair rock forward and land with a sharp thud, her mouth twitching. “You really had to bite your tongue on that one, didn’t you?” she said, hers voice tinged with humor.

She lifted her chin and gave her a prim smile. “I’ll be properly dressed and waiting for you.”

“Then why,” Fletcher asked softly, “do you suddenly have that determined set to your chin?”

She cast her a quick glance. “I don’t,” she re­torted.

“Yes, you do.”

“It always sticks out that way.”

The Bucannan dimple appeared. “Then heaven help us,” she said in a reverent tone of voice.

“Oh for heaven sakes spare me!” Andrea had nit picking and volleying for top positioning she could stand. “Both are you are acting like two cats, haggling for the catnip. You have to work together, so stop trying to get the upper hand. Fletcher, I’m sure that Finley will dress appropriately and you need to lighten up. Finley stop taunting Fletcher. She is just as hard headed as you are and it makes the working arrangement almost impossible. Now, stop the quibble and get along. Otherwise, take it someplace else, but not in my presence, or in this kitchen.”

The two younger women looked surprised by Andrea’s firm words. Neither said anything. Andrea finally spoke. “Did you both understand me?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” both women said in unison. Finley went back to peeling apples, and Fletcher fingered the rim of the coffee cup with newfound interest.

After the park director finished her second cup of coffee, she stood up and kissed her mom on the top of her head. “I’m bushed, and hear a hot shower calling me. I’m going home Mom,” she said. “I’ll be here about seven in the morning Finley,” her eyes cut to the dark headed woman.

“I’ll be ready,” the paleontologist said, without looking up.

“Goodnight, honey, dive carefully,” her mother cautioned her.

“I will.” She said. Upon reaching the door, she turned, wished them a pleasant evening then disappeared into the darkness.

***


Voices drifted in from the open door and the screen door slammed as men and women entered the porch. Finley made an impudent face at Fletcher as she pulled her chair back. The park director was still staring at the paleontologist when the group came into the kitchen and began filling their cups then disappeared into the large dinning room. Finley was dressed in old faded dungarees, a dark-blue cotton crew neck pullover, covered by a much worn blue denim hip jacket. On her feet were scuffed, but clean hiking boots that were obviously well used.

Why did she put on airs when it’s obvious her boots are clearly well-worn, meaning she isn’t a tenderfoot at all. I’ve been hoodwinked…at least about her hiking experience. I wonder what other things she’s duped me. Phew…I think I’m about to find myself with a little more than I bargained for. Fletcher thought, not taking her eyes off the still standing intriguing female.

There was something disturbingly intimate about the look in Fletcher’s eyes, and a heady warmth spread through Finley as she stood motionless, transfixed by an indefinable spell.

The magic lasted for an electrifying moment, then Andrea and Herman Strickland, another veterinarian sat down at the table. Finley forced herself to pull the chair out farther and sit down. She tried to draw a breath past the sudden tightness in her chest as she struggled to collect her composure. If she thought she was heading for big trouble before, she thought wryly, it was nothing compared to where she was right now. She had never felt this way about anyone, especially someone she found to be rather domineering,

Taking another deep breath to try to calm herself, she picked up the coffee mug and raised it to her lips very slowly. She deliberately avoided looking at Fletcher as she buttered a piece of toast, then ladled it with orange marmalade, but she was so keenly aware of the park directors nearness that she went through the motions in a kind of daze. Standing up, she went to the stove and brought the coffeepot back to the table to refill her cup and Fletcher’s and abruptly rammed her free hand in the back pocket of her jeans when she caught herself about to let it rest on the tall woman’s shoulder. Her shinning dark brown hair, with its perfect blend­ing of dark brown and almost black, was in disorder in the back from her hat. Finley longed to smooth it down, but she shoved her hand deeper into her pocket instead.

Lester Black, the parks head firefighter came in as Finley was topping Fletcher’s cup, and he shook his head in a gesture of approval as he shoved his mug across the table for her to fill. “Thanks Finley. This grub looks like it oughta plug a few holes. It was beginning to feel like a hell of a long time till breakfast.” He took a bite of muffin then reached for the butter, his eyes sparkling with sheer devilry as he grinned at the temporary cook. “You’re one hell of a cook, Andrea. Why don’t you marry me and put some fat on these scrawny bones?”

She laughed as she placed the jam and marmalade in front of him. “You’d better think that offer through before you make it final. I may fatten you up, but have you any idea how much I’ll thin down your bank account?”

Everyone laughed, even the firefighter. “Would be worth every dollar you squeezed out of me.” Lester said, as he dug into the food hungrily.

The conversations continued in a good-humored and jovial manner and the mugs were refilled several times. Finally, Fletcher looked at her watch, pushed her chair back and picked up her plate, mug and utensils and took them to the dishwashing area and sat them in the proper containers to be run through the commercial dishwasher later that morning. Finley followed suit and stood to the side until the director had cleaned her plate and moved aside for her.

The paleontologists merely said that she’d get her camera and be ready to leave shortly. “I suppose we’ll need some lunch if we’re going to be gone more than an hour or so,” Finley added after a pause.

“Yep, it’s over five miles round trip, so we’d better have some food along,” Fletcher agreed just as casually. She walked over and picked up her knapsack that was beside her chair. “Will a sandwich be all right with you?”

“Whatever you say,” Finley told her as she started for the inner quarters door. “I might need two sandwiches and water by noon…I’m a hefty eater.”

Fletcher took a stubborn delight in following her orders explicitly. She wasn’t anxious to be bur­dened with any extra weight on the steep trail, and she was almost sure that they’d be back before lunch since the steepest part of the track was near the beginning. Earlier she would have bet her next month’s salary that Finley would find an excuse to return to the barracks before climbing the first thou­sand feet, but now that the ranger had seen the worn hiking boots she wasn’t going to bet on anything when it came to the young paleontologist. With that in mind she put together four ham and cheese sandwiches with a careless hand adding two apples, two bottles of water, and two cinnamon rolls in a baggie to the knapsack at the last minute.

Fortunately the sky was cloudless, so they wouldn’t have to worry about the possibility of rain. Finley tossed the rain slicker back on the bed and found a plastic vial of lip-gloss, and pushed it into her jacket pocket. She was almost to the stairs before remembering a cotton brimmed hat and she drew in a deep breath of disgust. Honestly! Anyone would think that I’m a greenhorn. She clutched the hat in her hand as she hurried down the steps and through the kitchen.

“Fletcher is waiting outside. You two have a nice trek.” Andrea turned slightly as the younger woman nodded and dashed for the kitchen door.

“Are you ready to go?” Fletcher asked, hoisting her knapsack with the lunch to her shoulder as she stood propped against the porch rail.

“I’ll carry that,” Fletcher said, reaching over to take the camera from Finley. Looking around as she tried to remember if she’d forgotten anything. She unzipped the knapsack and surveyed its contents. “Lunch, water, camera…you have extra film?” The ranger looked over to see Finley pat her jacket pocket.

Fletcher caught her halfway down the steps with hers gesture toward her own sunglasses. “Did you forget your sun­glasses? It’s pretty bright outside-” she began, only to have Finley cut her off as she removed the glasses from her jacket pocket and shoved them on her nose. “Of course,” she said, showing Finley to the opposite side of the parking area and her SUV. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Finley shot a quick suspicious glance at the taller woman, won­dering if she’d finally tumbled to the fact that the trip to the proposed site wasn’t the quick forenoon outing she’d assumed earlier. “How far from HQ is the site and does the site extend or cross the park boundary?”

“It’s about an hour from here by vehicle, and about a forty-five to a fifty minute hike, and it is in the top quadrant of the park, but a good eighty miles from the park’s northern boundary.” Fletcher was caught up in a lengthy explanation as they made their way past the big paved parking lot and stopped at the back of parks 4x4 that Fletcher was driving.

It was a beautiful morning, and the colorful al­pine field around them was a fitting accompaniment to the cloudless sky. The snow-covered sides of the huge mountain dominated the panorama to their left while the lower peaks of the Adirondacks range showed evergreen-forested slopes to the south.

“Takes your breath away, doesn’t it?” Fletcher said, stopping for a minute to enjoy the scenery before she tossed the knapsack into the rear of the SUV.

“No wonder the Park is bursting at the seams this late in the fall. Do you know the names of those?” she asked, gesturing toward the fading flowers at the edge of the broad parking lot.

“A few,” Fletcher said as they walked on. Those blue plants are lupines, the pink ones are heather, and those tall white clumps are called Indian Bas­ket grass among other things. As you can see, Lira, our botanist-horticulturalist, and some of the rangers have them in pots ready to go to the greenhouse. We have a nature lecture at HQ main auditorium this evening if you would like to attend.”

“I’ve met Lira. “She’s really sweet and is showing me the marketplace this evening, and I’m afraid I won’t be available for the lecture,” Finley said, sounding regretful.

“Oh, I see.” Although she didn’t see at all, especially if Finley was going to be out with very luscious Lira, Fletcher decided with a sudden spurt of anger. When the silence be­tween them lengthened, she continued in a stiff, formal tone. “You’ll notice that we’ve posted signs to keep hikers off the fields around here. The topsoil has been eroded by the bad weather over the years, and to counteract it, we replace the soil around the buildings and spread sod seeds earlier this spring over it to hold it in place. By the time that the grass comes out next year, hope the new vegetation has taken hold thick enough to prevent the erosion. Another method is to plant rye or Bermuda grass or turf, but that becomes very expensive.”

When she paused to take a breath, Finley cut in, ‘I thought you wanted to get an early start to the excavation site.”

Fletcher’s eyes widened in surprise, “I’m rambling, huh. Sorry. Please, get in and we’ll be off.

“Then there’s no reason to act like a tour guide to impress me Fletcher. As a matter of fact, I read about this meadow conversion project on the bulletin board at the barracks last night.” Finley reached in a back pocket of hers pants for a pack of gum. “The sun feels as if it might get hot around midday,” she said mildly.

Fletcher didn’t respond. She was still smarting over the smaller woman’s earlier comment, knowing that she saw it for what it was-a glib recital of statistics to parade her knowledge. With that sobering thought going ‘round in her head, it dawned on her that Finley didn’t sound boastful, but somewhat regretful that she had accepted the invitation to visit their local marketplace. She also noted the smaller woman frowned thoughtfully as she fished a bandana from her other denim jacket pocket and started to polish her sunglasses with it.

The vehicle was silent for about half and hour, when Finely started asking exacting questions about the supposed find and the area surrounding the site. The paleontologist asked particulars about the drawings, specifically the head and wings of the bird. Fletcher responded with as many details as she could remember, including the different poses of the bird. The young scientist was amazed when the ranger depicted the petrified skeleton remains of what Fletcher called, “the dinosaur bird,” and twisted the bandana in her hands as she listened to the driver describe the bones, and beak of the bird set in stone.

“You sure the natives didn’t combine two creatures together and use a weird sense of humor, or vivid imagination to sketch the flying dinosaur creature?”

“Look Finley, I know what I saw. It was not just the bones of the creature or the drawings; it was the sanctity and preservation of the place. It has been sealed and protected as a sacred burial mound and has been for hundreds of years. Those spears and other items in the chamber are some of the same ones found in an ice cave high up in the mountains and ancient weapons and artifacts that now rest in the Seneca Museum in Marlboro.” Her voice stated the obvious agitation she felt at the insulations that the site might be a hoax.

“Hey! Hey, calm down Fletcher. I was only posing concern and not presenting a scenario of a prank or any deception.” The antsy woman rammed the bandana back into her jacket pocket. “Trust me, nothing would please me more than to validate the find of the century.” Finley continued gazing at the side face features of the woman sitting next to her. She could see the muscles of Fletcher’s jaw tighten and was sure she was grinding her teeth. “I visited the fossil in China of the weirdest prehistoric species ever seen. It was a four-winged dinosaur that apparently glided from tree to tree. The 128-million-year-old animal called Microraptor gui, had two sets of feathered wings, with one set on its forelimbs and the other on its hind legs. That description matches the one you gave Dr. Eckersley exactly. Do you know the significance of this find if it is authentic?”

“I looked up that four winged dinosaur bird on the Internet, and by all I consider sacred, they look very similar. But if it isn’t, then I want to know what it is and that’s the reason the Museum was called and you’re here.”

Fletcher tightened her grip on the steering wheel. “I’ll not have a fraud or scandal involving the Park or the Seneca’s, their beliefs or sacred places. You do understand the reasons for the preliminary requirements that I sat up with Dr. Eckersley and what is at stake here, don’t you?”

The two women just seemed to get on each other’s nerves, but neither had any real explanation. Yet, there was a definite comfortableness with the bantering, but they couldn’t explain that either.

Finley sat motionless for the longest time, not even her eyes blinked. Finally, she sighed, “This must be very important to you and I’ll not bring any shame or dishonor to your heritage, Fletcher. I would never discredit any customs or bring any embarrassment because of those beliefs, as I have some of my own that I don’t fully understand, but nevertheless respect and honor. I’ll do no less with yours.” The dark haired woman turned and faced forward. After a few minutes she spoke again. “Besides, if it turns out to be nothing of significant importance, I’ll just use the time spent as my vacation time and I might even spend the rest of year just roaming the park with you as my personal guide. How does that sound?”

Oh, merciful Sky Mother, roaming the park for several months. What did I do to deserve this…please, Sky Mother, what have I done? Besides that, can I really trust her? Fletcher turned on her signal to turn on the gravel road that lead to old Wesham’s cabin. “Why don’t we just wait and see what happens at the site.”

Fifteen minutes later, Fletcher parked the SUV beside the old cabin and got out. She waited until Finley exited the vehicle before she pressed the lock button on the door and closed it. Using her key for the back, she unlocked the door and removed the backpack before she shut the door and relocked it.

Fletcher desperately tried once more to be civil as she proceeded down the slight gully and stopped. “That path there hits several thousand feet in places, and unless you’re in shape, the altitude can be very exhaust­ing.” The ranger nodded to the trail to the west about fifty feet below the cabin. We’ll take that on the return trip back down, but I thought we’d go the long way around to get to the overhang. That way, you’ll see the surrounding terrain and know something about the area.”

“You are taking me on the scenic trail?” “There isn’t much more than a overgrown footpath down the ravine and around the east side of the mountain. There is a definite trail down the mountain on the return trip. But you might consider some of the landscape as scenic.” Fletcher placed the knapsack on her back and zipped up her jacket.

“Do you recommend that all that visitors start hiking at the lower elevations and work up to trails with a greater degree of difficulty, then take a sloping trail back down? Especially since I’m with the Park Director and she probably knows every nock, crevice and tree in this park.”

“Nope. Just making sure you have enough steam to make it back on your own. Besides, I haven’t been in many sections of the park, and I’ve only been in this sector twice all season myself.”

“Good thing there is no reason for you to start now,” Finley announced. “Rest assured if you take an easier route, there’ll be no complaints here.”

Fletcher’s lips tightened ominously. Hedrick Eckersley wouldn’t understand letting his trusted Deputy go wandering off by herself, and no one knew it better than she did. Frightful visions of the Moun­tain Rescue Squad being mobilized to find Finley’s missing body swept before her, along with a se­quence of Air-Save helicopters carrying back her bro­ken form filled her wishful thoughts.

She took a deep breath and forced herself to say dimly, “It’s out of the question for you to be at the site alone. I’ll have to have someone accompany you, or I’ll have to each time you go. Actually I should check on some suitable place close by for you to stay at night. Most of this,” she waved her hand around to indicate the forest, “is Park Department property, but some of the land belongs to the individuals, like the cabin where we parked.” Her glance flickered over the smaller woman thoughtfully as she spoke.

***


A burley woman lowered the binoculars as the two women she was stalking hiked down the ravine from view. “Damn, I hate this nature crap.” She rammed the binoculars into the case and snapped the cover closed. Once more she scanned the area to make certain that there were no other hikers on the trail or near the Park Director’s SUV.

“Wonder if Jacqueline would consider a vehicle accident sufficient. No brakes going down that twisting, turning trail and they be off the road and into trees before they could blink.” A lopsided grin became a haughty chuckle as she made her way back to her old beat-up truck.

Connor returned to the concealed vehicle behind a clump of full-branched cedar trees. She had watched the tall ranger and the shorter woman get out of the SUV parked beside an old cabin and head off down the side of the ravine instead of taking the trail up the mountain. She had followed them for a couple hundred yards to make sure they were on a hike and not just a walk in the forest. Connor already had a thousand dollars in her pocket, and when this job was finished, there’d be nineteen more big ones waiting for her. Easiest twenty grand she’d ever made, and it wasn’t her fault some sexy twit had decided to join Bucannan on a hike.

She silently opened the door, and flipped the seat forward to located her tool box. “Just what I needed “ she said, laying a pair of pliers and a screwdriver on the front seat and closing the tool box. “Now back to Bucannan’s SUV and a little tinkering,” she lowered her voice as she removed the strap from around her neck and threw the binoculars on the seat. She picked up her gloves from the dash and slid her large hands into the gloves. She placed the pliers and screwdriver in her back pocket and eased the door to the truck shut. As she approached the old fire-road that led to the cabin, she once again stood and checked out both ends of the road for activity. Although Bucannan had placed an “off limits and no hiking sign” at the beginning of the road and just down from the cabin, she still looked around again. Seeing no one she quickly huffed back to the SUV and again looked around the area before she slid under the vehicle. Within a minute she was dusting off her clothes and again checked out the area to make sure she had not been seen and quickly returned to her truck and left the area.

***


Finley was following the tall woman’s movements so closely that she would have wandered off the edge of the overgrown path if Fletcher’s hand hadn’t shot out suddenly and pulled her back. “Watch it! You’d have been in that thorn bush in another minute,” she warned. Then as she dropped her grip, she flexed her hand significantly.

The paleontologist’s eyes were narrowed and taunt. Her mouth turned down, indicating her displeasure at being treated as a tenderfoot.

“You’ve already picked up your quota of prickles, haven’t you, Finley? Don’t tell me you’re going to sulk for the rest of the day. Why not try for a happy medium? Something between a visiting dignitary and the great stone face. There’s no reason to act like the world’s coming to an end be­cause you had to have a guide and someone to….”

Finley almost blurted out that Fletcher had nothing to do with her behavior and then realized that it was far safer to remain silent on that score. If Fletcher didn’t realize that her presence was the reason for her turbulent feelings, then Fletcher Bucannan could Dra t helvete! Realizing the ranger wouldn’t understand her, she repeated in English, “Go to Hell!”

Fletcher just shook her head at the suggestion and continued down the overgrown path.

By that time, they’d reached the end of the ravine and, and the end of the overgrown path as well. The latter changed to a dense trace barely wide enough for one person as it wound its way upward around the hillside. They paused for a moment to admire the clear water of Marble Falls falling away to the right of them, and then Fletcher gestured across to a sharp ridge directly ahead, where a couple of wolves could be seen nearing the top.

“Is that the wolves you were talking about with your Mother?”

“Yes, but they are thirty miles from where we saw them on Saturday.”

“Then they weren’t avoiding the finding of their den or new pups, as you thought?”

“Apparently not. Must still be looking for a place before we have a hard snow.” Fletcher hadn’t taken her eyes off the wolves, which finally turned and disappeared.

Finley’s eyes were thoughtful slits as she looked across the valley into the sun. “I imagine this field and that stand of timber down below the falls might be pretty valuable.”

“I suppose so.” She tried to hide her annoyance at Finley’s commercial outlook. “We’ve never considered any logging around the falls. Wouldn’t be environmentally sound. People have come to see the wild flowers in these meadows and forest tracks ever since I can remember. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to preserve them.”

“I thought there was some discussion about put­ting in air lifts and developing the property for a winter sports hub. Or maybe I have it wrong.” She turned to look up at Fletcher.

“No,” she acknowledged reluctantly, “a develop­ment company did make an offer some years ago. My grandfather was against selling any of the property as a matter of principle. He donated almost a million acres to the park for it to stay natural. This is part of his donation. It can’t ever be developed, or according to the agreement, it is returned to the family. That means my sister and I, and neither of us will ever agree for it to be commercialized.”

Finley shrugged. “I had no idea. Your mother doesn’t have a say?”

“There never have been any lengthy discussions about it that I can remember, but she would agree with Maggie and me.”

“Probably because she had other interests.”

“She still does, but Grandfather’s will left everything, including this tract if the Park ever wants to renege on the original agreement, to Maggie and me, not to Pop or Mother.”

Finley’s glance slid over the tall woman again as if she’d caught sarcasm in her tone and was merely amused by it, but Fletcher wasn’t sure which. She was certain that there was something more to Finley’s glance than she could put a finger on.

“Well, let’s keep going, shall we? Rather we get over the steepest part of the trail before the sun gets any hotter.”

Fletcher held back for an instant. “Finley, I thought you didn’t know anything about hiking.”

“That’s merely common sense. Besides, I don’t need to worry about such details today Fletcher. I’m sure you can take care of anything.” She started off, saying over her shoulder, “I’ll go ahead for now. When we come to the steep part of the path, I’ll let you take over and pull me along.”

Fletcher would have argued or at least uttered a scathing comment, but by that time she had to hurry to keep up with the paleontologist’s quick stride. A few minutes later, she was still hurrying…strictly from choice. It didn’t take long to discover that the past week of October weather had made the dirt of the trail powder-dry and the brush very brittle. Even the lightest footstep brought it up in a choking cloud, so that Fletcher, relegated to squaw’s position behind Finley, found herself in a constant screen of fine coat of grime.

The only way to avoid it was to follow closely on her heels before the silt had a chance to rise. As simple as the solution seemed, Fletcher found it almost im­possible to keep from stepping on Finley’s heels with hers long-legged pace. She was breathing rapidly and starting to perspire al­though they were on the level part of the path and still within sight of the steep slope of the waterfalls.

Suddenly Finley pulled up in the shade of a sub alpine fir and cocked her head to listen. Fletcher came up beside her, wanting to rest on a boulder but liking a nearby log even more. The smaller woman managed to lean against the trunk as she reached for the bandana to mop her face.

“There he is,” Finley said, pointing at the steep hillside above the trail. “Right at the base of that hemlock.”

Fletcher looked up, startled. “There’s who?”

“A marmot. Didn’t you hear him whistle?” Finley’s attention was on the big rodent who was staring just as intently down at them.

The park director quickly spied the marmot, then glanced back at the smaller woman, who hadn’t taken her eyes off the rodent. “You’ve surprised me once again, Finley. How did you recognize him from a screech?”

“I’m not a novice, Fletcher. You can be sure that I’ve trained myself to know every sound that any rodent, or vermin makes, especially if it’s feeding time and I’m going to be in the same general area.”

“There must be plenty of food around this season and he certainly hasn’t missed any meals in the last month.”

Finley managed a noncommittal murmur, bring­ing Fletcher’s glance up again. “You look a little uneasy,”she said in a surprised tone of discovery. “He won’t attack us…if that’s your fear.”

“I’m not afraid of him, I just don’t want him eying any part of my body,” she retorted crossly. “I’ll tell you why sometime when we have time.” There was no need to volunteer any additional information. She looked over again and encountered Fletcher’s quizzical gaze. “What are we waiting for?” she asked.

Fletcher ran her thumb along her jawbone as she stared back at Finley. Then she sighed. “Damned if I know. Maybe you’d rather I take the lead this time.”

There was nothing in her tone to indicate that she was aware of her difficulties before, Finley de­cided, and smiled in some relief. “All right. The path doesn’t look all that steep for another half mile, so I might as well take it easy and conserve my energy while you break the trail for me.”

“That sounds sensible.”

She did risk a suspicious glance at her after that remark, but the ranger was surveying the hillside below, her expression impassive as usual. The next half-mile was not going to be that rugged. The overgrowth was no problem for Fletcher and Finley kept so closely on her heels that she apparently wasn’t bothered either. The smaller woman would liked to have wet her face in an icy stream which they crossed, but two good size brown bears were taking up the convenient bank just then. Since Fletcher showed no disposition to linger, she took a deep breath and set out to keep up with the seasoned ranger, on the narrow dirt track, which wound steeply upward from that point.

Once away from the mountain stream, an almost primeval silence settled about them. There was a hot baked smell from the rust-colored earth beneath their feet as the sun blazed down on the zigzag trail. Dust rose almost apathetically behind them, settling again to coat the leaves of the huckleberry and holly, which clung precari­ously to the rocky hillside. As they neared the first switchback, a hawk uttered a throaty protest as it soared from a branch in a clump of trees up into the cloudless sky.

Fletcher stopped for a break and sat down on a rock at the side of the hillside. Finley lingered in the shade of the curved tree hunks, enjoying even a brief respite from the tedious hike. She had turned her ankle a few yards back but didn’t think she had done any damage and didn’t want the seated ranger to know.

Fletcher removed her canteen from her hip and extended it to Finley, who took it and drank deeply. Fletcher drank a few swallows and recapped the canteen.

Finley tried to think of a reason to prolong the stop and fell back on her tourist status. “Did you notice how most of the trees on the hillside follow this same angle,” she asked the park director as she moved over beside her.

Fletcher’s eyebrows rose quizzically trying to sound offhand about it. “Yeah, the growth pattern occurs when the trees are young and vulnerable to the winter snow cover as it creeps down the slopes. When the warm weather comes around in the summer, they start growing upright again. In the meantime…”

“In the meantime, I think you’d do better to save your breath,” Finley cut in, she didn’t want to prolong the stop any longer if she was going to get a park lecture. “There’s still a ways to go, isn’t there?” she added, jerking her head toward the next steep switchback. “Or hadn’t you noticed? You may have to pull me up that incline.”

The temperature had already given her a heightened color, so that she wasn’t able to gauge the effect of her words. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to bore you,” she said, tying to hide her annoyance. She definitely didn’t understand the young woman. First she wanted to extend the rest period, but when Fletcher started talking, she changed her mind. “I’m ready whenever you are.”

Something about Fletcher’s expression as she gestured her forward showed that she found her for­bearance even more irritating than her nature talk. For an instant Finley wondered at her reaction, and then she was too busy trying to conserve her energy for the steep climb to think of anything else

It took them a half hour more of steady climbing to get to the end of the switchbacks and finally reach the ridge. This time, even Fletcher didn’t object as Finley collapsed on a flat rock at the trail’s edge to wait for her heart to stop pounding. The tall ranger simply sat down on another rock and reached for her canteen. Finley got up, and asked for her camera, then returned to the rock. After pushing the shutter twice, to photograph the awe-Inspiring peaks of the mountain range, she capped the lens and seemed content to rest while admiring the scenery. Five minutes went by in a relaxed silence before she turned to Fletcher. “Why haven’t you anything to say about the granodi or­ite being scratched by the flow of the glacier or the orange soil caused by the ash eruption from Mount Arondar?”

Fletcher looked steadily back at her. “I suppose you found out that I wrote the booklet we give our visitors. Have you finished playing games with all of us, Dr. Jorgensen, or is there more in store-and don’t pretend that you don’t know what I’m talking about. This isn’t the hardest trail you’ve been on.” Her voice rose heatedly. “You aren’t even breathing hard.”

“SO! Is that bad? After all, you brought the whole thing about. You decided that the only thing I’d ever climbed was a ladder on the side of a swim­ming pool or yacht, and I didn’t want to argue with you. It’s too bad you aren’t in better shape yourself.”

Finley’s taunt brought Fletcher to her feet as if she’d been stung. “I’ll show you who’s in shape. There’s still a long way to go, so if you’re ready.”

For a minute, it looked as if the paleontologist was going to pro­test. Then she shrugged and got to her feet. “I’m ready. Let me know when you want to stop for another breather,” was the sum total of her reply.

After that, there was no more conversation. The narrow trail leveled off as it followed the ridge for a distance. Unfortunately, the loose dirt surface worked its way into Finley’s boots along with enough small pebbles to make her feel that she was walking barefoot through a gravel pit after a while. She stopped and emptied them when she couldn’t bear it any longer and in the process became aware that a blister was forming on her left heel. Damn! That’s all I need. She thought to herself.

Fletcher leaned against a tree with her hands in her pockets as she waited, but she kept discreetly silent. Finley’s expression became more determined than ever as she retied her shoes and they started off again.

At the end of another lengthy interval, they reached the edge of a moraine, a vast rough country of rocks dumped by years of snow-slides. Finley forgot her physical discomfort as she considered announcing that the rocks were approximately eleven thousand years old, just to see if Fletcher could be tempted into another scathing reply. By then, she would have done almost anything to shake her out of her polite silence.

Fortunately the decision was taken from her. Fletcher moved over to the edge of the trail before it widened onto the rock-studded plateau and jerked her thumb toward a clump of cedar trees some fifteen feet ahead of them. “If we want to take a short break, the site is about a thousand yards over this ridge, down the ravine and half way up the other side. If that is alright with you?”

Finley grasped the olive branch eagerly. “Sounds fine. My heel could stand the rest,” she agreed, and wasted no time in getting to the cedars and sank to her knees, then flopped over to sit cross legged on the ground.. “I wish now that I’d tossed in a first-aid kit. My blister could stand a band-aid.” She said as she untied her boot and slid it off again.

The park director removed the backpack and unfastened a side compartment and removed a small first aid kit and handed it to the seated woman.

Finley looked up appreciatively at Fletcher, “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. You’ll find a tube of ointment that you should put on before the band-aid.” She said as she sank to the ground and leaned back against a trunk of a tree a few yards from Finley.

Half an hour later they crossed the top and started downward on the densely covered slope. Fletcher stopped in a partially clear patch of ground and removed her binoculars from it case in the backpack. She focused on the opposite side of the gulch and handed the instrument to Finley. “See that dark patch half way the slope,” she pointed across the gully, “That rocky overhang is the opening to the cavern.”

“Helvete! Damn! You’re right Fletcher, there isn’t any place for a campsite,” she lowered the glasses. “Even getting up there daily will be tough.” Sighing, she handed the binoculars back to the park director.

“Gee whiz, you think,” was the tall woman’s terse comment as she replaced the glasses in the backpack and started down the slope as an anxious paleontologist followed closely behind.

A short time later they reached the opening and Fletcher set the knapsack down and sat beside it. “Here, you need to drink some water before you….”

“Don’t want… Ach du lieber Gott! (Oh, dear God!) Would you look at these drawings…” Finley touched the first drawing gently as tears streamed down her face. “Magnificent! Fantastic! Ach du lieber Gott! So unbelievable!” She continued to examine each drawing with an intensity that Fletcher recognized as her own when she stumbled on the overhang and its mysterious contents.

The director placed her hat on the backpack and leaned back against the cavern wall as she watched Finley go slowly from one drawing to another. Later, Finley eagerly took several rolls of film of the drawings and artifacts around the cavern. Fletcher took out her canteen and drank deeply then stood up and walked over to the kneeling paleontologist. “Drink some water, Finley. You need it.” She ordered.

The smaller woman took the canteen and drank heavily without taking her eyes off the drawings. “These are definitely drawings of the Microraptor gui.” She handed the water back to Fletcher who was squatting beside her.

“You think you could hold back the tears if you saw the bones?” The ranger reached over and wiped several tears from Finley’s face with her finger.

The smaller woman jumped up and looked around the floor of the cavern. “I was so excited over the drawings….Fletcher, where are they, I don’t see….”

“Easy…Easy.” She walked over the to slate mound and motioned for Finley to join her. “You need to help me remove the top. I’ll lift it with this tree branch I drug up here a couple weeks ago. You just make sure that it slides off to the right or we’ll never get it back over the mound.”

“Before you touch the mound let me photograph it, please.” Finley barely able to control her anxiousness as the tears began again.

Fletcher stepped aside. “Be my guest.”

Click, click, click went the shutter, with the young paleontologist circling the stone mound area. After a dozen or more shots, she placed the camera on a nearby rock ledge. “What do you want me to do?”

“First, put on your gloves, then I’ll use the rocks I’ve piled up here to place the branch on and I’ll lift the top up as you direct it slowly off the mound to the right.” Fletcher placed the sapling under the edge of the slate cover and over the rocks uses as a levy. “You ready?”

Finley held out her hands that were shaking like leaves. “Wait a minute, please. I’m so nervous I might push to hard…. Ach du lieber Gott! So unbelievable!”

“Yeah, you’ve said that.”

The younger woman shook her hands quickly and bent down on her knees next to the top. “Ready when you are,” she said, barely audible.

“Here goes, but watch your fingers in case it falls.”

“Never mind about me, you be careful, that branch doesn’t look all that stout.”

“Its still green, it’ll bend before it breaks. Okay, here goes.” She pried down on the levy and slowly the slate moved upwards. Finley pushed the covering to the right. In less than two seconds the top slide quickly to the side. Finley sank to the ground, as the bones were uncovered.

“Ach du lieber Himmel!” (oh, dear Heaven!) The paleontologist sat there staring at the exposed bones. The tears started down her face once again.

Fletcher took the tears as a sign that the bones were authentic, but she wasn’t sure as the smaller woman hadn’t said anything for several minutes. She walked over to the ledge and retrieved the camera and focused on Finley leaning over the bones. Might as well see that she gets credit. Fletcher thought and clicked off several shots as she moved around the seated woman and the mound. Finally she handed the camera to Finley, who didn’t even acknowledge that it was being tapped gently against her shoulder.

“FINLEY.” Fletcher said loudly.

The seated woman looked up but her eyes were glossed over with tears. Fletcher held the camera up again and took another photograph of the tear-eyed woman then handed her the camera. Finley shook her head coming out of the trance and took the camera and held it up to her eyes. She lowered the camera and reached into her pocket for the bandana that was quickly used to remove the tears from her eyes and her face. She stuffed the bandana back into the pocket and raised the camera again. She scooted around the mound taking various shots and finally stopped as she reached the slate resting on the side of the mound.

“Luis Chiappe, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, who did not participate in the China dig said, ‘It would be a total oddity - the weirdest creature in the world of dinosaurs and birds,’ and he was so right. Scientists said the fossils discovered in the Chinese province of Liaoning, revive a debate between two theories of how dinosaurs might have evolved into birds.” Finley wiped her nose on the sleeve of her denim jacket as she stared at the fossilized bones. The two sets of wings were quite visible and even some feathers were outlined and could seen in the stone.

“So this is a Microraptor gui?” The director sat down on the ledge.

“I’ll have to run some carbon tests on the bones to authenticate their age, but man couldn’t have falsified this creature, especially in the stone in this way.” She sat down on her bottom and looked up at Fletcher. “I’d bet my profession on this being a Microraptor gui.”

Fletcher hung her head. In the name of all that is holy and sacred, what have I done!

A sense of alarm filled the seated blue-eyed woman as she continued watching the ranger. She was up off her seat and next to the taller woman before she realized what she was doing. “Fletcher, we won’t desecrate this sacred place. I promise you every care will be taken to keep this intact, and protected.”

“We’ve already violated this sacred site.” She got up and went and stood at the opening of the overhang. Her eyes fixed, a deep sorrow filled her as she realized she couldn’t undo the intrusion on the burial place of this animal that her ancestors considered sacred. “It seemed right when I went to the sweat lodge to seek guidance. The decision to let this site be known seemed appropriate, but now, I’m not so sure.”

Finley joined her at the opening. “You couldn’t keep this secret, Fletcher, it is too significant a find.”

“What useful purpose will this find serve?” Fletcher turned to face the shorter woman.

"We don't have anything on the North American continent that resembles this in the whole dinosaur and bird spectrum." Finley said, “It’s a splendid example of convergent evolution, and this find is better preserved than the China site," Finley said. "One day, we should not be surprised to unearth gliding dinosaurs as we have numerous living-day examples of gliders in nearly all the vertebrate groups…reptiles, mammals, birds and even parachuting amphibians, not only in China, but to show that these creatures lived all over the known world."

Before she realized what she was doing, her arms were around the ranger’s waist and her head buried in her chest. “Don’t worry, Fletcher, we will treat this sacred place with all the reverence that it obviously deserves.” She tightened her hold on the taller woman and squeezed as she closed her eyes and allowed the closeness to intoxicate her very being.

Fletcher was taken back by the young woman’s actions. She felt at ease and even content with Finley’s arms around her, but she couldn’t allow herself to respond with similar action. Instead, she gently pried the arms from around her and attempted a half smile. “You’d better get more photographs and examine the fossils before we cover it back up.” She turned and walked back to the ledge and sat down.

Finley felt strange when the contact was broken, but the tall woman’s words brought her feelings back to the mound.

“You have any theory how a species like that could have four sets of wings and if it could really fly?”

“No theory of my own, but the consensus of those that have examined the China fossils have come up with a premise, hypothesis, or guess of sorts.” The young paleontologist removed a brush from her inside jacket pocket and was gently brushing particles of dirt and debris from on side of the bones as she continued. “One theory holds that some of these apparent bird ancestors learned to flap their wings to power flight while they were gliding from tree to tree. The other theory suggests they learned to fly by increasing their running speed with their wings and taking off from the ground.”

“That skeleton has some long, and some have irregular vanes like flight feathers, that you might seen on a large eagle, but I can’t imagine a bird with two sets of wings that this thing has, much less it gliding from tree to tree." She got up and went back to the drawings on the cavern wall and taped beside the second set of wings. “Exactly where the creature fits into the evolution of birds and dinosaurs is not clear, Fletcher. But researchers speculated that it developed around the same time as or even later than the first two-wing, birdlike dinosaur, Archaeopteryx, which is believed to have flown by actually flapping its wings.”

“Finley, I looked up the Archaeopteryx and they aren’t similar, except large, and both prehistoric dinosaurs or birds or what ever you want to call them.”

“You’re right about that. Look at these back wings,” her finger traced the drawing but didn’t actually touch the wall. “They are actually legs.” She turned to find Fletcher beside her. “See here,” both hands outlined the hind legs of the bird. “The feathered legs amount to rear wings. Xu speculated they could have represented an intermediate stage of development before the emergence of true flight powered by flapping the wings. Or, the feathered legs could have been an evolutionary dead end, other researchers speculated.”

She went back to the mound and sat down. “Look at this area,” Finley’s brush lightly touched the rear legs of the fossil as Fletcher sat down beside her. “Paleontologists were intrigued by the China discovery. They have seen gliding dinosaurs before, but never one with feathers. And they have never seen a four-winged dinosaur before.” She brushed the dirt further up the bones and fossilized leathers could be seen.

“Those are feathers Finley, even if they are petrified. I’ve seen stone feathers before. There is quite a collection of them at the museum. I looked at them closely when I found this place, but I’ll admit they are the weirdest feathers and wings I’ve ever seen.”

“Scientists believe Microraptor gui probably did not fly by flapping its wings, because of the way the rear legs are set in the hip sockets,” she traced the socket bone and pointed to the drawings again, “And because the rear legs probably would have encountered turbulence from flapping front wings. That suggests instead that both sets of wings were used just for gliding. Other scientists said the fossils add diversity to the story of flight, even if they do not immediately provide answers.”

“Finley, those drawings show feathers arranged similar to modern birds.” The ranger nodded to the drawings.

“They probably are similarly arranged, Fletcher. Paleontologist Xing Xu of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences described the six Chinese fossils with leg feathers arranged in a pattern similar to wing feathers in modern birds.”

“Finley, I read an article on the Internet by a fellow named Ken Dial, head of a biological flight laboratory at the University of Montana, that said there is room for both gliding and flapping dinosaurs in evolutionary history.”

“Of course there is Fletcher. You have seen that many times before with the way young birds such as turkeys and quail use their wings suggests ancient birds eventually learned to fly by running and flapping.”

“Hmm,” Fletcher scratched her head. “Seems to be a big gap between flying dinosaurs and bird evolution doesn’t there?”

“You mean because we don’t have any fossils or specimens of birds between the prehistoric dinosaur stage and the modern flying birds?”

“Yeah…guess that’s what I mean. They jump from being dinosaurs to birds like we have now and there doesn’t seem to be any evolutionary sage for us to follow.”

“You’re right about that. Guess the best way to determine whether Microraptor gui was an intermediate stage in bird evolution or a dead end is to find other dinosaur fossils with feathered legs.” Dark locks were pushed back out of her eyes as she brushed away more debris. “As far as I know, there are no other samples or fossils of anything between what we have here,” she touched the bones with her brush, “and your modern birds, like the eagles or the hawks you have at the sanctuary.”

They both fell silent as Fletcher retreated to the ledge and Finley continued to carefully brush away small particles from the bones. Finley couldn’t contain her feelings over the find. Several times during the next hour, the small woman removed her bandana and wiped tears from her eyes and face. This sensitivity didn’t go unnoticed by the tall woman and numerous times she felt a big lump in her throat as she watched the small figure work.



***



Chapters 1 & 2
Chapters 3 & 4
Chapters 5 & 6
Chapters 7 & 8
Chapters 9 & 10
Chapters 11 & 12




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